The Chevalier(e) d'Eon's story makes the big time--anime.
"I almost forgot to tell you that Monsieur d'Eon is a woman."
--The Marquise due Deffand to Horace Walpole.
In 1775, the Chevalier d'Eon, admitted what had been rumored over the last five years--that the former French soldier and longtime diplomat was a woman who had lived her life as a man. The newly so-called Chevaliere d'Eon signed an agreement negotiated with France's new king, Louis XVI that allowed her to return to France from London, where she had been living for years, with a guaranteed pension that would help her start her life over, at age forty-nine, as a woman. D'Eon fought to be allowed to retain her male clothes and soldier's uniform; after all, she had worn male clothes her entire life and was justly proud of her military record. However, Louis insisted that she put on women's clothes, and threatened to put her in prison if she didn't. D'Eon reluctantly agreed to learn to wear dresses and to adopt the manners of a noble woman. She lived in France until 1785, when she moved back to London. The Chevaliere died in 1810. As her body was being prepared for burial, it turned out that d'Eon had one last secret to reveal--that she was, indeed, actually a man after all.
In "Monsieur d'Eon is a Woman," Gary Kates tries to unravel the mystery of why a highly placed noble man in 18th century Europe would choose to live the second half of his life as a woman. It's a puzzle indeed--at any given time in history, men have had more power than women, so by becoming a woman, d'Eon gave up his career and place in society. In fact, he died in London in poverty, his pension swept away in the French Revolution, and his ability to earn a living severely limited because he was seen as a woman. The reasons did not appear to be sexual--d'Eon did not become a woman in order to pursue homosexual relationships, or any kind of relationships. As far as anyone can tell, d'Eon died a virgin. He did not feel like a man trapped in a woman's body and was certainly not a transvestite, as shown by his desperate fight to avoid women's clothes. He hated dressing like a woman, yet put himself through the ordeal of dressing in the huge, heavy dresses with stays of an 18th century woman. So why?
D'Eon often put on fencing exhibitions after his transformation. Boswell commented with disgust on d'Eon's masculine mannerisms and "man hands," yet these didn't seem to raise any questions...
Kates concentrates on two potential reasons. One is political. D'Eon had been working as a diplomat in Russia and France since the 1750s, but he also was a member of the Secret du Roi, the King's Secret, a top secret spy agency whose existence was only known to a very few people; in fact, Louis XVI only learned of it after the death of Louis XV, and was left to untangle the delicate web of lies that the Secret had created. D'Eon's job in London was to look for information that would help France invade England. However, eventually a political shift at Louis XV's court resulted in what would look to the world like a demotion for d'Eon, and he refused to accept it. D'Eon was in the power position here--he could easily switch sides and work for England or Russia, another court where he was well known. He also had in his possession papers that if he published them, would reveal the existence of the King's Secret, causing Louis unknown troubles all over Europe. D'Eon refused to leave London without a settlement that would be to his benefit, enduring kidnapping attempts and even a failed effort to poison him. D'Eon responded by publishing a book of letters that included diplomatic correspondence with the king, a scandalous action. He didn't include any information about the Secret, but the publication was no doubt a veiled threat to Louis--d'Eon had more to come and the will to publish it if necessary. Eventually he came to a resolution with the King that allowed him to step down from the title he thought had been unfairly taken from him while giving him a large pension. The problem, though, is that d'Eon's diplomatic career was essentially over--he was still serving in England as the king's spy, but had no real job title, and no chance of ever ascending to a high position, such as Foreign Minister, the job he had once been on track to win. He also couldn't return to France.
Turning himself into a woman, though, would allow d'Eon to bow gracefully out of his dead-end political career and unrewarding position as a spy, as well as let him return to France. Kates speculates that d'Eon, a master of the diplomatic game and counterintelligence, planted the rumors that got the story started. His artful denials and seemingly extravagant horror about them turned suspicion away from himself. It is notable that London society was not scandalized or angry about this dissembler in their midst--rather, the rumors, as Kates shows, were treated as bits of gossip to be thrown around as light conversation. There is no reason to believe that d'Eon was ostracized or considered an oddity to be scorned. D'Eon's biggest problem was that the subject of his sex became a huge item for gamblers to bet on, with vast sums of money wagered over whethe he was a man or not; in fact, he began to fear for his life, unsure if gamblers who had wagered heavily on one way or the other might kidnap him, examine him, and if disappointed by the truth, kill him in order to avoid having to pay up.
When d'Eon did finally agree to "come out" as a woman, he was actually honored as a heroic figure, a new Joan of Arc who had fought nobly for her country. Countless prints and paintings showed her as a battle ready Minerva, or a mix of gender symbols--a woman in woman's dress, with a sword in hand and the Cross of Saint-Louis medal on her breast. The Dragoons, her former regiment, lobbied for her to be allowed to retain her uniform, arguing that the identity of a Dragoon superseded that of gender. Noble women all over France volunteered to help teach d'Eon how to be a woman and wear women's clothes, as if she were a full-grown dress up doll, or a "raised by wolves" type who they could mold to their beliefs; everyone wanted to be the one to create a paragon of French womanhood out of this rough soldier. Her story, that her parents had raised her from birth as a boy because her father desperately wanted and needed a male heir (supposedly the family could only receive a certain inheritance if they produced a son) won her sympathy; it was not her fault that she had caused all this confusion, she was just an innocent victim who had served her king and country as best as she could.
But publicly changing genders in order to get out of a career jam is a pretty drastic move, and certainly not a comfortable one. Eventually exiled from the French court, he grew bored and returned to London. Certainly d'Eon couldn't change back and it's not as if he would have made the move to life as a woman unaware of the consequences. So there had to be another reason.
Kates points out that the eighteenth century was a period when the roles and attributes of men and women were in flux. Men were becoming more like women, with fashions that had similar qualities to women's wear. Women, meanwhile, were influencing the intellectual life of Europe, especially France, both through their own studies and the salons that supported Enlightenment philosophes. Women such as Madame de Pompadour, and in Russia, the Empresses Elizabeth and later Catherine, comfortably wielded political power. There was a certain school of thought that the two sexes were evolving to a point where there would eventually be little but physical differences between them. Men and women would have equal powers of intellect and accomplishment. Fighting and aggression, male strengths would become less important, and men would take on more womanly qualities such as those associated with the mind and heart. Women would become strong, Amazons who could fight and compete on equal ground if given the right training. In fact, a study of d'Eon's library showed that he owned an extensive collection of feminist literature which carried out the era's debate known as the "Querelle des Femmes" or argument about women. After transforming himself into a woman, d'Eon appeared to be the beau ideal of this movement--an intellectual woman who had held her ground with men both on the field of battle and in the world of politics (he only became an object of scorn after his role as a secret agent was revealed; people are more forgiving of a person pretending to be another sex than a spy pretending to be honest). D'Eon may have just felt that becoming a woman was indeed a way of becoming a better person.
This is more easily supported by d'Eon's increasing interest in religion in his later years. His religious writings, which he never published, showed a deep interest in what you might call a cult of the virgin. In France, this was an ideal that was embodied in Joan of Arc, the girl warrior who served God and her country, and held onto her virginity. D'Eon's writings showed that he subscribed to a belief that women were governed by their hearts and minds, not their bodies, and therefore were closer to God. A virgin, who rose above any kind of sexual desire of her own or any male demands, was then the closest to God of all (by this logic you could also say that an anorexic, who also denies a physical need, is close to God). By becoming a woman and remaining a virgin--something which Kates speculates might also have been his only option anyway because of a childhood illness that is alluded to vaguely in letters and d'Eon's own account of his childhood, which of course itself is rather unreliable--d'Eon was making himself as close to God as possible.
These reasons for d'Eon's decision to live as a woman are Kates's informed guesses. Unfortunately we'll never know as d'Eon didn't do anything helpful like leave a secret note saying, "This is what I did and why." But even though we can never know the truth, Kates's book is still generally a satisfying read. He writes not only about d'Eon's life and its mysteries but also a great deal about European politics and views of gender during that era. He also includes many letters from d'Eon, as well as excerpts from the Chevalalier(e)'s unpublished, and extremely fictionalized autobiography, all of which show that the one truth we can firmly agree on is that d'Eon was an elegant, brilliant writer. Kates writing is also easy to read. My only objection is that during the last section of the book, when he discusses d'Eon's deepening faith, he keeps speaking of him as "a Christian" and how in his later years he "becomes a Christian." I found this odd because today, when you hear someone refer to themselves as Christian or talk about becoming a Christian they are usually talking about being a Protestant, and d'Eon, as any upper-class Frenchman...woman would have been at that time, was decidedly Catholic; the Virgin Mary worship and veneration of a Saint, Joan of Arc, is a pretty big tip-off. You never hear Catholics refer themselves as being Christian, although they undoubtedly are. At one point Kates mentions something about d'Eon becoming a fundamentalist Catholic, and this felt especially awkward to me, considering all the modern connotations of the word "fundamentalist" in regards to religion. It's hard to say why this bothered me so much other than perhaps it read as anachronistic in some way, or that it showed a too casual neglect of the differences between Catholics and Protestants (btw, full disclosure--I am of the went to Catholic school and haven't been to church much since variety, but still identify with Catholics in some weird way, despite being the resident "asks too many questions during religion class" pest of my school. It's difficult to explain why I am sensitive to this kind of stuff while at the same time I would never describe myself as Catholic. I think I'm just an idiot.).
Whatever the exact reasons, they must have been good ones, because d'Eon certainly did not choose the easy road. His transformation obviously had a deeper meaning for him than perhaps we can understand, and I don't know if we can ever feel we really know him. On one hand, he made just about the most extreme identity change a person can make, from man to woman, but at the same time, barely adopted the characteristics of a female. He seemed to want to be some perfect blend of male and female, a masculine woman. For most of us, it's hard enough just to know how to be a man or a woman in this crazy modern world, let alone attempt to be both. For my part, I have often been cast as a little boy or young man, and appear to be quite good at playing those roles, something which makes me increasingly uneasy. It's fun to be a tomboy, but I have long been ready to be a leading lady. I have no desire to pull a reverse d'Eon.
I wondered sometimes, as I read, whether d'Eon was making a choice or trying to justify something beyond his control--that he felt like he didn't make a good enough man, and therefore turned that around defiantly by opting not to be one at all. Am I making sense? Probably not. But then again, much of d'Eon's story doesn't. History is indeed full of strange people and stories of wonder.