Dress for Success

P.N. Furbank

  • Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade by Gary Kates
    Basic Books, 368 pp, $25.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 465 04761 0

In his famous paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950), Alan Turing described something he called the ‘Imitation Game’. In this game, a man and a woman are shut up in a room, and an interrogator, communicating with them from outside by means of written messages, attempts, by questioning, to discover which is the man and which the woman – it being the object of the man to pretend to be a woman and of the woman to expose him as a man. Now, argues Turing, imagine the part of the man being taken over by a machine, and, this machine putting up a good performance, would we not be inclined to say that the machine was ‘thinking’? Let us observe the logical intricacy, and beauty, of this mind-experiment. The machine is attempting to simulate not simply a man (in the sense of a member of the human species) but a man (in the sense of a member of the male sex) who is simulating a woman. Life compelled the hero of the present book to take part in a game somewhat of this kind, and he made an impressive showing, but every now and then the logic of the thing would be too much for him.

The Chevalier d’Eon was born in Burgundy in 1728, of a family of the minor nobility. After studying at the Collège Mazarin, he obtained a government post in Paris, published a well-received book on government finance and was appointed one of the royal censors of books. Then in 1756, at the age of 28, he received his great chance. For some ten years France had not been in diplomatic relations with Russia, but now, on the eve of the Seven Years’ War, it was decided to send a certain Chevalier Douglas to St Petersburg as chargé d’ affaires, and to appoint d’Eon as his secretary. Officially, as representatives of the French Foreign Ministry, their aim was to try to detach Russia from her alliance with Great Britain: but unofficially they were spies for what is known as the‘King’s Secret’, a separate system of foreign relations, quite unknown to the Foreign Ministry and pursuing different aims.

With the coming of war, it became one of d’Eon’s duties, as agent for the King’s Secret, to act as a courier for a secret correspondence between the Empress Elizabeth of Russia and Louis XV. He proved a great success as a spy, and equally as a diplomat, winning golden opinions all round – so much so that the Empress wanted him to take a post at her court. By this time, however, he was pining to see action as a soldier. His spymaster, the Comte de Broglie, had been given command of the German front, and d’Eon, receiving a commission as a captain in the Dragoons, was appointed as de Broglie’s aide, distinguishing himself by great gallantry on the battlefield and being decorated with the Croix de Saint Louis.

The next step in his career was to accompany to England France’s ambassador, the Duc de Nivernais, in order to assist him in the drafting of the peace treaty. As before, d’Eon proved immensely industrious, and exceedingly skilful socially. (‘I love his personality, and I am impressed by his zeal,’ de Nivernais wrote to d’Eon’s mother.) Nor had it escaped his master de Broglie that here was the ideal opportunity for d’Eon to continue his services to the King’s Secret – in particular, by using an assistant to reconnoitre the west coast of England, with a view to a future French invasion. In 1763 King Louis XV supplied him with a letter in his own hand authorising these exceedingly hush-hush activities.

Soon after the signing of the peace treaty, the French Government appointed a new ambassador, the Comte de Guerchy, to replace de Nivernais, and in the months preceding his arrival d’Eon acted as minister plenipotentiary. Thus, for the moment, he ranked with the highest statesmen of Europe. His career up to this point had been altogether brilliant: withina matter of months it was in ruins.

Initially, the trouble was that the honour of France had required the Chevalier d’Eon, as he supposed, to entertain very lavishly – but being himself a poor man, he assumed that the new ambassador would wish to pay his bills. This proved to be far from the case; moreover there was a dislike between d’Eon and de Guerchy going back to their army days. The consequence was a most appalling and protracted quarrel about money and status, which eventually involved not only de Guerchy, but the French Government, the King of France and the British judiciary. D’Eon published the ambassadorial correspondence concerning himself and de Guerchy, an unheard of step and very shame-making for de Guerchy; the French Ministry dismissed d’Eon and issued orders for him to return to France; the Ambassador tried to have him poisoned; d’Eon turned his lodgings into a fortress and took to threatening to show his secret papers to the British Government or its opponents, at the risk of precipitating a new war. Many thought that the charming Chevalier had gone mad. He received some sympathy, however, from the British royal family.

Then in 1770 or thereabouts rumours began to fly that d’Eon was a woman, and bets on the subject were laid in the City. D’Eon seems to have resented the betting more than the rumours and, reaching the end of his patience, he paid a visit to certain City cafés, dressed in military uniform and carrying a stout cane, threatening instant reprisals. The French King and Government were at their wits’ end to know what to do about their errant ex-envoy. D’Eon demanded to be invited back to France and to be allowed to continue his diplomatic career, and he began to hint that, in return, he was willing to be officially declared a woman. The dramatist Beaumarchais was sent to England to negotiate with him, and eventually a ‘Transaction’ was signed by which d‘Eon could return to France and would be granted a life-annuity, on the strict condition that he adopted women’s clothes and that ‘the ghost of the Chevalier d’Eon should vanish entirely.’

Accordingly, for the remaining 32 years of his life, d’Eon – with occasional lapses, for he was greatly attached to his Dragoon’s uniform – dressed and lived as a woman. Moreover, in his voluminous unpublished writings, he can be seen constructing an ideology which valued femininity, and especially the role of the Joan of Arc-like ‘Amazon’, over masculinity. He returned to England before the Revolution, and when his money ran out, helped support himself by exhibiting his remarkable fencing skills. In 1792, inflamed by the Revolution, he wrote to the Legislative Assembly offering to raise a regiment of ‘Amazons’ – a proposal received with great acclamation, though he was too old and too penniless to put it into practice. He was by then sharing lodgings in London, in the greatest amity, with a Mrs Cole, the widow of a naval officer; and it would come to Mrs Cole as a supreme astonishment when, at his death in 1810, he was discovered to be, unmistakably, a man.

In all the books about d’Eon, until the present one, it has been assumed, rather naturally, that his was a case of transvestism in the psychoanalytical sense. (Havelock Ellis defined a syndrome that he entitled ‘Eonism’.) But Gary Kates, apparently the first thoroughly to have explored the d’Eon papers in the Brotherton Library, remarkably argues against this. He thinks that d’Eon deliberately encouraged the rumours about his gender for his own political ends, having the vision (or fantasy) that becoming a woman was his best hope of continuing, and perhaps even enhancing, his diplomatic career. His willing acceptance of the female role is, according to Kates, firmly to be distinguished from his adoption of female dress, which he only did under compulsion and which in fact went against his psychological grain.

With some minor reservations I am convinced by this, especially because of one particular piece of evidence. In all previous histories of d’Eon it has been asserted that he first went to Russia dressed as a woman, gaining special access to the Empress Elizabeth as (ostensibly anyway) her lectrice or female tutor. But there is almost no hard evidence for this, and in the Brotherton Library papers there is a document in d’Eon’s hand, written after the time of the ‘Transaction’, in which he gives a very vivid, but plainly quite fictitious, account of this supposed transvestite episode.

The Brotherton document describes how the King’s cousin, the Prince de Conti, knowing the secret of d’Eon’s gender (that she was born a girl but was brought up a boy, for reasons connected with an inheritance), urges her to assume women’s clothes and go to Russia aslectrice to the Empress. She takes much persuading – glory and fulfilment in life, she protests, are bound up with the masculine role – but the Prince tells her it is her duty to her king and country. Indeed he advises her to give up male clothes permanently, for otherwise she runs so much risk of exposure. D’Eon is at last persuaded and duly makes her way to St Petersburg, taking with her two separate wardrobes, one female, one male. In female garb she is tutor to the Empress, in male clothes secretary to the Chevalier Douglas.

It will be seen what an immensely teasing and Turingesque problem d’Eon had set himself in composing this engaging fiction. It had to be constructed on a hypothesis that was the precise opposite of the truth – i.e. that he was a woman, a Joan of Arc, who felt the need of men’s clothes to fulfil herself. Accordingly it is riddled with non-sequiturs. For instance, he describes a conversation in which Douglas asks d’Eon which of her wardrobes she prefers, and she answers that she likes the male one best, since ‘dresses only give me room to cry about the misery and servitude of women’, yet she is beginning to wonder whether going against nature in this way is wise. She longs for glory, for the sake of her family, and this entails men’s clothes, but she finds women’s clothes better for the quiet pursuit of study. ‘Here are the two passions of my heart. The one moves me to the right, the other to the left. I do not know how to escape from this Cretan labyrinth.’ Now, as an account of d’Eon’s feelings in youth, this makes no sense, for study and writing had been his path to fame – he was, in fact, a classic case of self-advancement through authorship.

As against Kates, I would imagine that d’Eon must have had at least a mild sexual interest in cross-dressing. How else explain a very charming portrait of him in female dress done when he was 25? One takes to d’Eon. Kates calls him ‘perhaps the most pronounced feminist in early modern history’, and one can see what he means. Also I found myself taking d’ on’s side very strongly against Beaumarchais, who appears to have acted odiously. No doubt the joke that d’Eon was madly in love with him was one that d’Eon may have played up to at first, but Beaumarchais was malicious enough to report it to the Government as literal fact. When d’Eon discovered, to his fury, that Beaumarchais’s real interest in the question of his gender was to win a fortune by insider dealing, Beaumarchais actually had the gall to offer to cut him in on the deal. Beaumarchais was definitely not a gentleman, which d’Eon, one cannot help saying, was.