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The Life of The Chevalier d’Éon by Rachel Campbell


Charles* Geneviève Louis August André Tomotheé d’Èon de Beaumont was born in France in 1728. By the age of 21 d’Èon they had become a barrister and went on to be appointed as a spy for the Secret du Roi under Louis XV in 1756. In 1761 d’Èon was made Captain of Dragoons, and fought in the later years of the Seven Years War against the British. In recognition of their bravery during the War, the crown honoured d’Èon with a Knighthood, giving them the title of Chevalier.


As a Chevalier, they joined a group of diplomats to London to write up the Treaty of Paris, which would bring peace between the two countries (again). It was during this trip that Charles became acquainted with some of the most influential members of the British aristocracy, including the Prince of Wales, and members of Parliament. All of these pursuits appear very noble for a French gentleman. But in the 1770s the Chavelier had become something of a celebrity in London. In 1770 a rumour was started that Charles was not a man at all, but a woman.


The act of cross-dressing was not unusual in 18th Century society. Male to female cross-dressing was known to happen in Molly Houses. These were places in which gay men could meet in secret and engage in sexual relations. Masquerades were immensely popular with high society, during which people were free to disguise themselves as opposite sex. MP and writer Horace Walpole (son of Britain’s first Prime Minister) was known to have masked as an old woman at one of these balls.


Women were also known to do so to overcome patriarchal oppression, which denied women equal opportunities in education, work, politics and commerce. There were known instances of women cross-dressing as men to join the forces, such as Hannah Snell, who joined the navy as a man and managed to pull it off successfully for 4 years. In fact, even Charles had presented as a woman during an espionage mission to Russia between 1756 and 1760.



Once the rumour about d’Éon’s gender began to circulate London society, the public became obsessed. People started to place bets on the Chevalier’s ‘true sex’. Wagers as high as £1,000 were being placed amongst those of the elite London society, and one newspaper even reported that an offer of over £5,000 had been made to make her ‘reveal the truth.’ It created such a storm that in 1772 a French secretary was said to have arrived in London to investigate the claims and settle the rumours once and for all.


Satirical prints depicted the Chevalier as half-man-half-woman as seen in the print Mademoiselle D’Eon, or the Chevalier D’Eon published anonymously in 1777. Eventually a trial of the King’s Bench took place during which Lord Mansfield ‘settled’ the question once and for all in order to resolve the bets that had been placed. Mansfield ruled that d’Éon was a woman. In 1777 the Chevalier d’Éon dressed publically as a woman for the first time. The Scot’s Magazine reported, “The Mademoiselle D’Eon appeared for the first time in her real character as a woman, dressed in an elegant black sack, her headdress adorned with diamonds, and bedecked in all the other elegant paraphernalia of her sex.”


In 18th century London, Charles was believed to be a living example of what women could achieve when they were given the same educational opportunities as men. MP Edmund Burke said that despite being a woman, Charles ‘united so many military, political, and literary talents’ to become ‘the most extraordinary person of the age.’ She even made it into proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s list of notable women in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Her story was compared to that of Joan of Arc, who famously cross-dressed as a man to enlist in the French army.


But some were sceptical. To put the case to rest, the biography La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d'Eon was published in 1779, in which d’Éon wrote that she had been assigned female at birth, but had been brought up as a boy by her father who wanted a male heir to keep the family inheritance. Historians now believe that much of the narrative was exaggerated or embellished by d’Éon.


In July 1777, d’Éon was finally allowed to return to France. Upon arrival she was wearing her Dragoons uniform, but before being permitted to visiting King Louis XVI, d’Éon was forced to go through a 4-hour makeover at Versailles to be changed into a powdered wig, dress, and make up. Louis decreed that if she wanted to stay in France she would no longer be allowed to perform in the ‘masculine’ sphere. But life as a woman in 18th Century France was limiting for d’Eon.


Despite being allowed to keep and wear her war medals, the Chevalier was rejected by the Crown to enlist in the army to fight in the American War of Independence. Her attempts to enlist even got her thrown into a dungeon in Dijon for 2 weeks. Her political influence was gone, and to get it back she would have to be married. The French government even tried to persuade her to join a convent. Eventually she was forced to retire to her family estate in Tonnerre. Disillusioned with life in France, d’Éon returned to London in 1785.



Back in London, d’Éon had retained her reputation amongst circles of high society, but her debts were piling up. To stay within the public eye, she turned to fencing competitively. Famously, in 1787 she competed in a fencing match against composer and musician, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, at Carlton House, the London residence of Prince George. This painting done by Abbé Alexandre-Auguste Robineau shows Charles competing in her dress is kept by the Royal Collections Trust.


When revolution broke out in France in 1789, d’Éon’s economic position worsened. She was forced to give up her pension, her assets and her titles. – She spent 5 years in a debtors prison – By the end of her life, d’Éon was living in poverty. She died in London in 1810. After their death, the press revealed the autopsy report, which stated that the doctors had found “male organs in every respect, perfectly formed.”


Over the years, the story of the Chevalier d’Éon has been excluded, marginalised, and as a result fallen into obscurity. Her story is now recognised in the LGBTQ+ society as an example of Trans women in history.


(*note: Throughout I will be referring to Charles d’Éon as d’Éon and using she/her pronouns. I am not aware of any other name being used by the Chevalier except for Charles. Gender constructs and terms are very different in the 21st Century to the 18th Century and we can never be sure about how she felt about her own identity. That being said, as she lived the last 30 years of her life as a woman, I believe it to be appropriate to use these pronouns).


Images:


Mademoiselle D’Eon, or the Chevalier D’Eon The British Museum

Portrait, Chevalier d’Eon Thomas Stewart, 1792, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 6937

The Fencing-Match between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d'Eon c. 1787-9, Alexandre-Auguste Robineau, Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 400636