D'Eon De Beaumont, New Facts, Or Fiction

Peter Farrer

Writer and Publisher. Karn Publications, Garston
Gendys Conference, 2002

More about Peter
Farrer's Books
in the
Gendys Network

When I wrote my life of Maurice Pollack I had photographs and press cuttings to work from but not a single letter or piece of writing. A few weeks ago I was perusing the numerous manuscripts of a French gentleman, who, as he wrote, was wearing the chemise, corset, gown and petticoats of a rococo lady. I refer of course to the Chevalier d'Eon and I am pleased to say that I was not doing this in some distant American University or even in Paris, but in the Brotherton Library at Leeds University. In fact d'Eon has been the subject of three books recently, one in French by Michel de Decker and two by Americans, Gary Kates and two others. My purpose in this talk is to say something about the new information these books contain.

First, let me remind you of the main events in d'Eon's life before he returned to France in 1777. He was born in Tonnerre in Burgundy about 70 miles south east of Paris on October 5th, 1728. He qualified in law. He was well connected and came to the notice of the French court, serving his country as a diplomat and soldier and also as a member of Louis XV's secret service, "Le Secret du Roi." The Seven Years' War began in Europe when Frederick II invaded Saxony on August 29th, 1756. From 1756 to 1760 d'Eon played an important part in renewing the alliance between France and Russia. He then fought with distinction in the 1761 campaign as a captain of dragoons. In 1762 he went to England to assist the Duc de Nivernais in negotiating the Treaty of Paris which was signed on February 10th, 1763. D'Eon was awarded the Cross of St. Louis.

He then returned to London as Minister plenipotentiary, but also with secret orders from the King to spy out possible landing places in England for a future invasion. Almost immediately d'Eon quarrelled bitterly with the new French ambassador, the Comte de Guerchy and with the French government. What followed is too complicated to summarise. Briefly he was dismissed from his official position, but stayed on as a secret agent.

Now follows the most extraordinary chain of events. From 1771 rumours began to spread that d'Eon was really a woman and bets were placed on his true sex, man or woman. When Drouet, secretary of the Comte de Broglie, was sent to England in May 1772 on diplomatic business he was also instructed to investigate these rumours and d'Eon actually admitted to him that he was a woman, a fact which was reported to Louis XV.

When the latter died on May 10th, 1774, Louis XVI disbanded the King's Secret and arrangements were made to bring d'Eon back to France. A document called the "Transaction" was signed by d'Eon and Beaumarchais, who acted for the French government, on November 4th, 1775, the chief terms of which were that d'Eon was given a safe-conduct and a pension while he handed over his secret papers and agreed to resume the clothing of his sex. D'Eon eventually left England in August 1777.

I will now say something about previous biographies of d'Eon. The first was published in 1779: [de La Fortelle, La Vie militaire, politique et privée de Mademoiselle D'Eon (Paris: 1779)]. La Fortelle is stated to be the author, but d'Eon must have had a hand in it. It describes d'Eon's career as a writer, diplomat and soldier, but begins with the words, "La chevalière was born etc.," and goes on to say that she was dressed in boys' clothes from childhood. It thus confirmed to the general public that d'Eon was female.

The truth was revealed when d'Eon died in 1810, and in 1836 Frédéric Gaillardet published the next biography, [Gaillardet, Frédéric, Mémoires du chevalier d'Eon, publiés pour la première fois sur les papiers fournis par sa famille . . . 2 vol. (Paris, 1836)] in two volumes amounting to seven hundred pages. Although Gaillardet had in fact reproduced a number of authentic documents from the archives at Tonnerre and the French Foreign ministry, he embellished his narrative with incidents and characters of his own invention; in particular he gave d'Eon a sex life which he had never had. Among his lady friends is Sophia-Charlotte, future wife of George III and George IV is d'Eon's son. The famous ball at Versailles for which he put on the clothes of the Comtesse of Rochefort was also fiction;

"The mere idea of wearing one of the Comtesse's dresses," he says, "filled me in advance with an indescribable thrill of pleasure. I burned to feel the silk that had sheathed her adorable body caressing my skin. This dress must still be impregnated with her personal fragrance: the mere thought of inhaling it intoxicated me."

Gaillardet has the impudence to put this passage and many others in inverted commas, as though he was transcribing the actual words of d'Eon. This passage is in fact the first fictional description of a man taking pleasure in putting on women's clothes: there is nothing like it in Louvet de Couvray's Les Amours du chevalier de Faublas of 1786 and 1789, but the pleasure is derived from the fact it is the dress of a particular woman, not just a silk dress for its own sake.

In 1861 a book entitled Un hermaphodite by Louis Jourdan [Jourdan, Louis, Un hermaphrodite Paris, 1861] was published. This was a pirated version of the foregoing, abridged to about half the size, but including all the fictional elements added to the story by Gaillardet. It is thus another piece of cross dressing fiction. The copy in the Cambridge University Library was originally shelved in the Anatomy Department, later transferred to Rare Books, but not before the front cover had become unstuck

When Gaillardet discovered this book, he was partly annoyed, but more amused by the fact that the idiot Jourdan had not appreciated what was fiction and what not. This did inspire him, however, to write a proper biography which he published in 1866 under the title Mémoires sur la Chevalière d'Eon [Gaillardet, Frédéric, Mémoires sur la Chevalière d'Eon, avec son portrait d'après Latour. La vérité sur les mystères de sa vie d'après des documents authentiques (Paris, 1866)]. Oddly enough, Antonia White's translation of Gaillardet is of the first book, not the second. Like Jourdan's, White's version is considerably abridged.

When the Gaillardet family reprinted the text in 1935, they too reprinted the edition of 1836, adding a new preface, Gaillardet's preface to the 1866 edition, and a few footnotes [Frédéric Gaillardet en collaboration avec H. Gaillardet, Mémoires du chevalier d'Eon publiés pour la première fois etc (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1935)]. The edition of 1866 was the first genuine biography of d'Eon.

The next biographies I wish to mention are the short piece on the years 1777 to 1779 by Paul Fromageot [Fromageot, Paul, La Chevalière d'Eon a Versailles de 1777 a 1779 (Paris: Emile Paul, 1901, first published in Le Carnet historique et litéraire, 1900)] and that of Homberg and Jousselin [Homberg, Octave, and Jousselin, Fernand, Un Aventurier au XVIIIe siècle. Le Chevalièr d'Eon (1728-1810). D'après des documents inédits, etc. (Paris, 1904); Homberg, Octave and Jousselin, Fernand, D'Eon de Beaumont His Life and Times, compiled chiefly from unpublished papers and letters and now translated into English by Alfred Rieu (London: Martin Secker, 1911)]

The two latter authors write in their preface:

"After the death of the Chevalier d'Eon in London in extreme poverty in the year 1810, a mass of his unpublished papers and letters, which he had carefully preserved all his life, fell into the hands of one of his creditors, and lay neglected for nearly a hundred years in an English bookseller's shop. There it was that the authors of this book were fortunate enough to discover them by chance at a sale."

Paul Fromageot also bought some of this material and used it in his history of the years 1777 to 1779. He uses the papers of d'Eon's dressmaker, Antoinette Maillot. This is the first biography to give some account of the clothes that d'Eon actually wore. I have no idea who now possesses the papers bought by Homberg and Fromageot.

Further papers of d'Eon came into the possession of the British Library from the Collection of the Comte de Bastard, notably the volume of papers numbered 11,339. I am not sure yet when this was acquired but it must have been before the war, as it is mentioned by Pierre Pinsseau in his L'Etrange destinée du chevalier d'Eon (Paris, 1945, p.8). I am most grateful to Kimberly Chrisman Campbell for drawing my attention to this. (Mrs. Campbell is working on a thesis on Mlle. Bertin with a chapter on d'Eon.) Although this volume has been known to scholars for some time, no one, not even Kates, seems to have made use of some of the information it contains, namely the accounts of d'Eon's landlord in London, Mr. Lautem. More of this later.

In his list of sources (p.12), Pinsseau adds this comment: "A certain number of manuscripts of the chevalier d'Eon were dispersed in the course of a public sale, about fifteen years ago. Unfortunately we have been unable to consult these documents, of which this a short list." Eleven items are included in their list, one of which is "Correspondence between the chevalier d'Eon and Mlle Bertin, bundle of 161 pages." That takes us back to about 1930. I have no idea where that precious bundle is: in fact I have not come across any later reference to it.

The latest French biography of d'Eon is by Michel de Decker [Madame le chevalier d'Eon (Paris: Librairie Academique Perrin, 1987)] He cites some of the garments mentioned by Fromageot (p. 215), but he has also found in the Tonnerre Municipal Library a list of clothes which he seems to think represent an order for clothes from d'Eon to Mlle Bertin and he reproduces half of one page (pp. 231 and 250) With the help of my stepson's French wife I was able to get photocopies of the three pages involved. Again this is something entirely new, which I do not think Decker has fully explained or understood.

I now come to Kates's work. In 1893 J. Eliot Hodgkin purchased a large collection of d'Eon books and manuscripts, mainly from a Mr. Richardson who was the grandson of the publisher, a relative of the author, who had been the intended publisher of d'Eon's autobiography. The family had kept those papers until that time. They remained in Hodgkin's possession until the nineteen thirties, when they were bought by Brotherton, a northern industrialist and benefactor of Leeds University. This seems to be a different collection from the one mentioned by Pinsseau. Brotherton also bought another d'Eon item: seven folio volumes containing the text of Vizetelly's 1895 biography [Ernest A. Vizetelly, The True Story of the Chevalier d'Eon (London, 1895)] and numerous letters, prints, documents relating to d'Eon (called the "extra-illustrated" edition of Vizetelly These joined other manuscripts and formed the Brotherton Collection housed in the Brotherton Library, Leeds University.

Kates's first work on the Brotherton Collection was his chapter "D'Eon returns to France: Gender and Power in 1777." in Body Guards, The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub (London and New York: Routledge, 1991, pp.167-194). This was then incorporated into Monsieur d'Eon is a Woman (New York: Basic Books, 1995). Kates rightly says that although the d'Eon papers have been in the Brotherton Collection in Leeds since the thirties, no one seems to have done any work on them before him. Even he, however, has overlooked some crucial evidence about d'Eon's purchase of feminine clothes before 1777.

What we have in Leeds is on the one hand d'Eon's personal records of his life in the form of a series of account books recording his daily expenditure, together with a collection of shop-keeper's bills and accounts. On the other hand is a collection of personal writings, some autobiographical, others on religion, women's subjects and other topics. Apparently d'Eon was in the process of getting his main autobiography translated into English and published by the Richardson already mentioned. But he never brought this to a conclusion, and no translations survive.

In a second book, Kates and two French scholars have got into print a translation of some of his autobiographical and other writings [Charles D'Eon De Beaumont, The Maiden of Tonnerre, The Vicissitudes of the Chevalier and the Chevalière d'Eon translated and edited by Roland A.Champagne, Nina Ekstein and Gary Kates (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001)]

One of the most interesting documents in the collection is a volume (file 65) entitled: "Journal of the chevalier d'Eon in England for current expenses from 1766 to 13th August 1777." The first page of the journal is numbered 32 and is for January 1766. It looks, therefore, as if the previous pages, possibly containing entries for the earlier years of d'Eon's stay back to 1762 or 1763, have been torn out. The numbered pages continue until 361, after which unnumbered pages have been inserted to bring the record up to 19 March 1793.

There is, however, a later entry which does have reference to the years 1764 and 1765. In August 1777 he writes: "Given to the widow Madame Turner with whom I lived in 1764 and 1765 under the name of Madame Duval in Lambeth, Westminster and who is badly off since the death of her husband, £5-5-0." This is entirely new information which Kates seems to have missed. It seems to imply that d'Eon wore women's clothes for various periods in 1764 and 1765 to conceal himself from his enemies. This sufficiently disproves Kates's assertion that d'Eon did not dress as a woman until after his return to France. Furthermore, when we look through the entries for 1773 to 1777, we find purchases of feminine items which have been made on his behalf by Mrs Lautem and reimbursed to her and are corroborated in her accounts (British Library: d'Eon papers 11339). I list them briefly:

12 December 177320 yards of silk. [Sufficient for a dress and petticoat] £13. 0. 0
3 November 17742 pairs of habit stays, etc. £1.14.0
24 December 1774new stay £1. 5.0
28 November 1775new pair of tabby jumps and mending a pair £2.12.0
11 May 1775new pair tabby stays £2. 2.0
a pair delivered £2. 5 .0

It looks as if up to this time d'Eon has been trying to accustom himself to wearing women's stays. He has worn them sufficiently often for them to need repair. On November 4th, 1775 d'Eon signed the famous "Transaction" with Beaumarchais, and as if to prepare for his change of attire the following were ordered or delivered on October 28th, 1775: a black silk cloak trimmed with broad lace, a black silk apron trimmed with lace, a black silk teresa (scarf) trimmed with lace, a large cap, a morning cap, a gauze handkerchief, two velvet neck-laces, 3 bows of black and white ribbon, a tucker. The total cost came to £9.16.11 and was paid on November 14th. A new stay was acquired and another mended on June 5th, 1776 and another new stay on May 30th, 1777. Meanwhile something very special was recorded in d'Eon's own journal. On November 4th, 1776 d'Eon paid to la Chèvre on account of the effects "which he has brought me from Paris in [can't read] 1776, consisting of black taffetas d'Italie and striped taffetas de Florence for dresses, petticoats, mantlets, aprons, black lace for decoration." These are light weight silks of high quality. The cost is first expressed in pounds of Tours, but d'Eon finally pays French pounds £1009.2.9. [which I estimate at about £50, from Cynthia Cox, The Enigma of the Age (London: Longmans, 1966, p.141)].

It is interesting to compare this last purchase with the list of clothes left behind at Brewer Street, which is with the Lautem papers at 11339 (p.57). These include 32½ yards of black silk, 42 yards of black lace, 12 yards common dimity, 1 black silk cloak, 1 pair lace ruffles, 1 lace cap, 1 gauze cap, 1 old black silk apron. He seems to have taken some things with him such as the striped taffeta, but left others behind. The silk does not seem to have been made up into garments, unless they have been and are taken along.

To go back to the Leeds journal, d'Eon records that he left for Paris on Wednesday, August 13th, 1777 with M. de la Chèvre, and they dine at Canterbury for £1.2.6 (p.189). At the top of pages 197 (each page of the open book has the same number) he writes "a cette feuille commence le journal de Mademoiselle D'Eon." [At this leaf begins the journal of Mlle d'Eon.] Then lower down that page on October 20th he writes: "After having been (gronder) [scolded perhaps] this morning by Mlle. Bertin, in consequence of the orders of the King, Maurepas, Vergennes, Bertier, Sauvigny (ministers and officials), j'ai répris mes habits de femme [I have resumed my women's clothes]. Inserted in different ink are the words, "under the constraint of the threatening orders of the court." These are extraordinary words. In saying that he is resuming "my" women's clothes, he is speaking as the woman he has now become. With the heading already mentioned he has started the masquerade in earnest from day one.

I don't have time to quote more than a few extracts. On October 30th, he pays Mlle. Antoinette Maillot for lace, patterns of dresses, frames for bonnets and silk stockings. On the 31st, he pays a hairdresser of Mlle. Bertin, who cuts his hair, pierces his ears, does his hair and fixes him up with powder, pomade and a chignon. On November 3rd he pays for a dozen "chemises de femme," which Madame de Chaumont has had made for him. There is much more of the same, including more entries about Antoinette Maillot. I will turn now to the Maillot papers cited by Fromageot.

He gives details of the fabric used for five dresses made by Mlle. Maillot: light grey taffeta, sky-blue taffeta with narrow puce stripes, sky-blue taffeta with buff stripes, reddish- brown figured silk twill, and the fifth, a black silk twill called "Raz de Saint-Maur." In addition there were wrappers, corsets, camisoles, petticoats, pockets and stomachers, the total coming to 1330 Livres (Fromageot, op.cit., pp.13-4).

Beyond that there are now the lists of costume discovered by de Decker at Tonnerre. I have not yet fully transcribed or translated them. There are no values, dates or names on the pages nor any indication of by whom or for whom the lists were made, just brief descriptions. The clothes are divided into seven categories, winter, spring, summer, autumn, mourning, "corbeille," and "linge." They seem to represent an inventory of the feminine garments and accessories in the possession of d'Eon in his home at Tonnerre from 1779 to 1785. From the descriptions the various garments seem to be fully made up and ornamented, with appropriate accessories. So we have in winter "a puce velvet dress and petticoat trimmed with marten fur, a bonnet and fichu of point d'argenton;" for spring "a gros de naples from Spain trimmed with Brussels lace, sleeves, fichu and cloak of the same," for summer "a brocaded taffeta ornamented with gauze of a floral pattern, fichu, sleeves and cloak of silk lace. And so on: there are several dozen items in the complete list.

Finally in Volume seven of the Extra illustrated Vizetelly in Leeds there are ten pages with dozens of receipted bills of clothing and accessories for Mlle d'Eon fastened in, some of which relate to the entries in the journal. They are all in French and cover the period before 1785.

I will finish by saying something about the autobiographical writings. Homberg and Jousselin had already written: "Conceiving the idea of handing down to posterity the record of his exploits, he set about composing a series of fantastic accounts of his resumption of feminine dress, and also some important notes relating to the negotiations in which he had taken part. These various projects were not published, and are contained in the voluminous collection of his papers" (op. cit. pp.215-6). It not entirely clear whether they are referring to their own collection of papers, which they mention in the Preface, or had they seen the papers which had just come into the possession of Hodgkin? Be that as it may, Leeds certainly have the bulk of the autobiographical notes and writings and some of them have now been translated and published as already mentioned.

In writing his autobiography d'Eon developed four major fictions: first the idea that his father had wanted a male heir. Then since he was supposed to be a woman, he couldn't masquerade as one, but in one of his narratives about his exploits in Russia in 1756, he tells us that the Prince de Conti knew of his true sex and asked him to be a girl again, so that he might make contact with the Empress Elizabeth. So for that year, he had two wardrobes: as a man, he is Douglas's secretary, as a woman, he is Elizabeth's reader. [This story is given in chapter 13 of Kates's first book (pp.65-71)]. In order to explain how the truth about his sex came out, he recounts how he fell off a horse sometime in 1774, shed blood and when taken to bed, the servant girl discovered that he was a woman. This leads to him resuming women's clothes and staying with Mrs Turner. This is interesting because it was actually with Mrs Turner that he stayed in 1764 and 1765 in disguise (this has not been translated, but the fact of the alleged fall is mentioned several times in his writings.) Finally, in describing his actual visit to Tonnerre in September 1777, he depicts his mother as obviously knowing him to be a woman. (The Maiden of Tonnerre, pp.38-45)

Another piece that may be fictitious is his conversation with Marie Antoinette. According to Homberg and Jousselin this did not take place (p.198). Kates gives most of the episode on pages 29 to 31 of Monsieur d'Eon is a Woman. "The Queen enjoyed my embarrassment! To reassure me, she said to me: 'How does Mademoiselle d'Eon (literally) find herself in her new uniform''" Later she says: "You are under the authority of the law; be an adult woman using and enjoying your rights. Use them soberly, but the more you get used to your dress, the more you will find what a pleasure it is [as Kates. The French is: mais plus vous userer votre robe, plus vous trouverez quelle devient belle a l'user. I prefer: "but the more you wear your dress, the more you will find it is good (or pleasant) to wear.] and the more you will be integrated into the company of the white skirts (the French is cornette, cap) of my regiment." In other words she is saying, "the more you wear dresses the more you will like them." I think this is fiction.

The dressing by Mlle. Bertin is told in different ways. This is from File 18, p.226: "The greatest trouble Mlle. Bertin had was to get me to learn the march and countermarch of a lady of the court, to make me advance and retire gracefully in a long dress spread over a vast pannier which alone filled half my room. But the amiable and gentle Bertin after having insinuated herself deeply into my friendship,, made me advance and retire as she wished, she made me do everything she judged suitable to the habits, usages and the decency that was demanded of me."

Another intriguing passage is this conversation with the Duchesse de Montmorenci-Bouteville, set in 1785 (File 21, p.673). The duchess asks if d'Eon is ready for the dinner party. She replies that she is fully dressed and her hair done. The duchess says: "What, do you call that fully dressed and your hair properly done? Do you think that I am going to take you to dine with a duchess and a Marshall of France in a black dress and a soiled head-dress? Put on your best dress of white silk and your finest lace bonnet. I insist that you put on some rouge and wear your beautiful diamond cross and your sparkling drop-earrings such as girls of honour must wear at court and in the cathedral. If you go in a black dress, the duchess, who is old and infirm and the Marshall who is half paralysed, will think you are wearing mourning prematurely."

It looks as if he is intrigued by the situation of a tomboy being converted into a fashionable lady by strong-minded women, and he has fitted into his own life several little scenes in which this happens. This is very nearly cross dressing fiction, a century in advance. To conclude, I think that all the Leeds autobiographical writings of Mademoiselle d'Eon are fiction of the deepest kind even more so than Gaillardet's first book.

Citation: Farrer, P., (2002), D'Eon De Beaumont, New Facts, Or Fiction, GENDYS 2002, The Seventh International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 25.06.06