E is for the Chevalier d’Eon

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for
my contributions to round 18 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme.

Chevalier d'EonIn 2011, a portrait of an unknown woman appeared at a provincial sale in New York mistakenly attributed to Gilbert Stuart, famous for painting George Washington on the dollar bill.

Even in its dirty state, it was clear that the rather butch woman in the feathered hat was sporting five o’clock shadow and was bought by an intrigued London art dealer who took it home for restoration.

The painting now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, its first portrait of a man dressed as a woman – the diplomat, soldier, spy and transvestite, Chevalier d’Éon.

Chevalier d’Éon, or Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont to give him his full title, was born to an impoverished noble family in Burgundy in 1728. He excelled at school and moved to Paris in 1743, graduating in civil and canon law in 1749 at the age of age 21.

Chevalier d'Eon SketchIn 1756, d’Éon joined the Secret du Roi, a network of spies working directly for Louis XV, independent from the government and often promoting policies contrary to official treaties. According to d’Éon’s memoirs, he was dispatched on a secret mission to Russia to meet the Empress Elizabeth and to conspire with the pro-French faction against the Hapsburg monarchy.

To hide his identity, d’Éon entered Russia disguised as his own sister, the lady Lea de Beaumont, and served as a maid of honour to the Empress. He  eventually became secretary to the embassy in Saint Petersburg and his career in Russia is the subject of one of Valentin Pikul’s novels, ‘Le chevalier d’Éon et la guerre de Sept ans’.

D'Eon dressed half woman and half manReturning to France in 1760, d’Éon became a captain in the dragoons and fought in the later stages of the Seven Years War and was then sent to London to help draft the peace treaty which was signed in 1763. He was awarded a pension for his services and the Order of Saint-Louis and the title Chevalier, or knight.

Despite the peace treaty, Louis XV secretly conspired against the English and used d’Éon’s presence in London to plot an invasion. This brought him into direct conflict with the power-brokers of France and he became a political exile, if a wealthy one thanks to the pay-off from the king to ensure his silence.

When Louis XV died in 1774, the Secret du Roi was abolished and d’Éon began negotiations for his return to France. He then claimed that he had been born female, but had been raised as a boy as his father could only inherit from his in-laws if he had a son. King Louis XVI and the court supported d’Éon’s claim, but only on condition that he continue to wear women’s clothing. D’Éon readily agreed and was to do so for the rest of his life.

d'Eon fencingD’Éon particpated in fencing tournaments, despite the handicap of wearing women’s clothes, and the illustration shows him in action against Monsieur Saint-George in 1787. He continued this martial interest until he was seriously wounded at a tournament in Southampton in 1796.

The French Revolution brought an end to the pension granted by Louis XV and his property was also confiscated by the revolutionary government. This left D’Éon in dire finacial straits and he was forced sell most of his possessions. He was sent to debtors prison for five months in 1804 and spent his final years bedridden, dying in poverty in London in 1810 aged 81.

Doctors who examined d’Éon’s body declared he had ‘male organs in every respect perfectly formed’, but that he also displayed  feminine characteristics such as rounded limbs and ‘breast remarkably full’. D’Éon was buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church.

D’Éon gave his family name to the Beaumont Society, a self-help group for the transgender community and the Japanese anime tv series, Le Chevalier D’Eon, is very loosely based on him. You can read more about D’Éon on Wikipedia and this Guardian article on the finding of his portrait.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

7 comments… Add yours
  • Leslie 10th February 2016

    My goodness! Interesting life he/she had!

    Leslie
    abcw team

    Reply
  • Hildred 10th February 2016

    A verrry interesting tale – wonderful mixture of genders.

    Reply
  • Melody 10th February 2016

    Your story tells that things are never new but that history repeats itself. Intriging person you’ve choosen this week… read it with pleasure!

    have a nice abc-day / – week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (abc-w-team)

    Reply
  • Reader Wil 10th February 2016

    I always like your historic posts. Thanks for sharing these facts of the 18 th century.
    Have a great week.
    Wil, ABCW Team

    Reply
  • Roger Green 10th February 2016

    This was a gem. They’re all good, but this one struck a chord.

    ROG, ABCW

    Reply
  • Trevor Rowley 11th February 2016

    The “unknown lady in the feathered hat” does look strangely like Tim Brooke-Taylor of The Goodies. Takes all kinds, I suppose.

    Reply
    • Mr Parrot 12th February 2016

      That hadn’t occured to me Trevor, but you are absolutely right. The likeness is uncanny.

      Reply

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