Monday, 2 March 2015

Gender Transgressor

From the National Portrait Gallery's description of the above painting by by Thomas Stewart (previously mistakenly held to be a portrait of an unknown woman, before being cleaned and revealing the unmistakable five o'clock shadow):
A soldier, diplomat and transvestite, the Chevalier d'Éon was one of the most colourful and celebrated characters in eighteenth-century Britain. Although born in France, he lived in London from 1762-1777 as a man, and from 1786-1810 as a woman. During both these periods he was a noted figure in international politics, high society and popular culture.

d'Éon first came to London in 1762 as part of the French Embassy and helped negotiate the Peace of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War. Despite being awarded the Croix de St Louis, he refused to return to France when recalled. Instead, d'Éon published secret correspondence that revealed French ministerial corruption and blackmailed the French King by threatening to disclose secret information about French invasion plans. To silence him, Louis XVI offered him an official pension in 1775 but made the unprecedented condition that d'Éon should henceforth dress as a woman. This command was probably due to rumours, encouraged by d'Éon himself, that he was a woman. He reputedly attended cross-dressing balls during a previous diplomatic mission to Russia and bought corsets for himself while living as a man in London.

d'Éon’s new identity as a woman brought him even greater fame. He returned to Britain in 1785 and forged a new career performing fencing demonstrations. Popular prints show him fencing in a black dress like the one in this portrait, and, as here, he wore his Croix de St Louis during these fights. In England there was constant speculation and wagering about his sex. It was even the subject of a court trial that declared d'Éon to be a woman. Because the stereotype of a woman dressing as a man to join the army, often in pursuit of her sweetheart was widely recognised, the idea of d'Éon as a woman was accepted. Despite his lack of feminine ‘delicacy’, he was upheld by pioneering feminists such as Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft as a shining example of ‘female fortitude’ to which British women might aspire.

The Stewart portrait is a copy of one painted by Jean-Laurent Mosnier in 1791. It shows d'Éon at the height of his fame, wearing the full cockade of a supporter of the French Revolution. In 1792, the year of this copy, d'Éon wrote to the new French National Assembly, offering to lead an army of ‘Amazon’ women against France’s enemies. This letter was widely reported in the British press and d'Éon was praised for his courage and patriotism. His sympathy for the new regime in France ended, however, with the execution of the French royal family.

d'Éon’s celebrity status was in itself a considerable achievement. He was the first openly-transvestite man in British history and no transvestite or transsexual, until the late twentieth century, has enjoyed such public recognition. The Annual Register wrote of him, "It must indeed be acknowledged that she is the most extraordinary person of the age ... we have seen no one who has united so many military, political, and literary talents."

And so it was that I attended last Friday - as another part of the fantabulosa Camden & Islington LGBT History Month series of events - a special evening dedicated to this extraordinary creature (at St Pancras Hospital, itself host to the annual LGBT art show "Loudest Whispers", and immediately adjacent to the churchyard where the Chevalier was eventually interred). One of the speakers at the event - Chevalier d'Éon: Gender Transgressor - was artist and transman Simon Croft, whose own artwork The d'Éon Gambit is a centrepiece of the exhibition.

From Diva magazine:
Croft has carefully crafted a chess board - 'The d'Éon Gambit' (named after the sacrifice of a piece or pieces in order to gain advantage in the game overall - particularly relevant to the Chevalier's life, one might say) - where each playing piece represents a different aspect of the Chevalier's life: d'Éon is both the King and Queen symbolising his/her dual gender presentation and close relationship with the French King; the Knight is represented by the Croix de St Louis; the Rook by a sword hilt; the Bishop by St Pelagius, symbolising d'Éon's strong religious beliefs and the many references in his/her autobiography to such gender transgressing religious figures as precedents for his/her own situation; and the Pawns are represented by the Burdett-Coutts memorial in St. Pancras Old Church churchyard, where the Chevalier's name can be seen second from the top on one of the sides.

Despite using 3D printing techniques, Croft's playing pieces have remained, almost contradictorily, relatively 2D. They look both fragile and delicate hanging above a shattered board. Croft often works with this distinction between 2D and 3D, between concrete identity and variable viewpoints. A 3D object, squashed flat and restricted to one angle, may then, when hung, as these pieces are, cast literal shadows of doubt over their superficial appearance.

d'Éon left behind an autobiography, which remained unpublished until 2001. Written in French, and very much for a contemporary public, d'Éon self-refers with a mixture of masculine and feminine terms. Much of the content can be independently verified, but it is clear that some stories were invented or altered to suit the self-presentation s/he sought at different times.

In the book, d'Éon presents the life of a female-to-male transvestite (claiming to have been born a girl and raised a boy), whereas the truth seems instead to be that s/he was born and raised a boy, later choosing to live as a woman (thus, a male-to-female transgendered life). What is apparent is that d'Éon's life blurred gender binaries and we can only guess at his/her true sense of gender identity and what that might have meant at the time.
The discussion itself - chaired by art critic and writer Anna McNay, and featuring Simon Croft in conversation with LGBT sociologist Natacha Kennedy - was utterly compelling.

Mr Croft talked at length about how perceptions of gender identity shape his work and that of many other artists, ancient and modern. In particular he is keen to direct artists' attention away from the traditional "gender-bending" or "androgynous" attitudes to portraying the transgendered body, and instead to encourage more examples of abstract or unconventional representation of trans experiences and attitudes in their art.

Ms Kennedy took the discussion into another direction altogether, drawing upon the eternal paradigms of "nature vs nurture", societal attitudes, psychosexual theories (the term "Eonism" was used by Havelock Ellis to describe trans people in the nineteenth century), contrasts between cultures, and the perception of "self" in the West since the Enlightenment to draw a parallel between the conundrums in the story of the Chevalier and the difficulties faced by trans people even in today's supposedly "tolerant" times.

The audience discussion (it was very well attended for an event of its type, especially on a Friday evening) was particularly stimulating and, I felt, contributed a lot to what might otherwise have been perceived as a very "niche" topic of interest.

Having been fascinated by the fabled Chevalier d'Éon for many, many years, I was pleased to have been a participant in such an important event.

Further reading:
  • The Beaumont Society, a long standing organisation for transgender people, is named after the Chevalier d'Éon.
  • Remarkably, some of the best-kept papers left by the Chevalier are held at the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.


  1. REALLY interesting--I knew nothing about d'Eon, and thanks to you have learned a lot!

    1. Glad to be of assistance, mon cher! Jx

  2. Wow, thanks Jon -- I learn so much here at DDT!


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