Monday, 16 November 2015

Coded Lives : The Chevalier's Secret - Part 2

We return to one of the people I featured in one of this year’s “Coded Lives” series. In February I wrote about the secret life of Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée Eon de Beaumont (1728-1810), thankfully better known by the shorter title of the Chevalier d’Eon.

That earlier article covered the Chevalier’s career as a spy and diplomat. Today we’ll look at his life after 1770 when another side of his life became more apparent, leading to a shift in the public perception of his personality. The seeds of this second life were set in the late 1750s. An apocryphal story of his time as a spy at the imperial Russian court, as mentioned in February’s article, tells how he disguised himself as a woman in order to get close to the empress. Whether this story is true or not, created in the 1770s when his actual gender was being questioned, it only enhances the enigmatic personality of this transgender pioneer.

The Chevalier was as much responsible for the enigma as anyone else. At various times during his life he claimed to have been born female. He claimed he was raised as a boy in order for his impoverished parents to receive an inheritance. This may be regarded as a coded reference to his sexuality rather than his gender, as dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex was illegal.

A dispute with the French government and the Chevalier’s publication of secret documents made him a well-known sensational figure in London where he was living at the time. The French, in return, started spreading the rumours about his gender and sexuality which he played on. London society was fascinated rather than shocked, and soon people were betting on the Stock Exchange on whether the Chevalier d’Eon was male or female. The Chevalier was undoubtedly of a less masculine character, as contemporary references to his appearance and body language attest. The Chevalier, in his typical enigmatic style, stormed into the Stock Exchange and challenged everyone to a duel before storming off again. Before leaving London for the countryside he declared he would never be party to any financial speculation on his gender – without ever confirming or denying what that gender was.

When King Louis XVI succeeded to the French throne in 1774 the actions and secret diplomatic knowledge the Chevalier possessed in his London lodgings became a security risk. It was decided to open negotiations with the Chevalier that would ensure his silence and return to France and the safeguard of state secrets.

The negotiated contract, which ran to 20 pages, included a clause which stated that the Chevalière (the feminine form he would use for the rest of her life) must never wear male attire again. There’s no evidence that she (as we’ll refer to her from this point) objected to this, though the king’s offer to fund a whole new wardrobe for him, and the use of Queen Marie Anoinette’s dress-makers, may have been a deciding factor. At least she could now say she was dressed like a queen.

The official sent to lead negotiations on behalf of the French government was to become captivated by this enigmatic ex-spy. He and the Chevalière created a mist of confusion by starting another rumour that they were to marry.

In 1777 the Chevalière returned to France. For a while she was feted in the fashionable and aristocratic drawing rooms of France. She acquired a celebrity status which suited her for a while. Eager to return to some semblance of her former espionage days she offered to fight in support of the American War of Independence. The offer was turned down.

By 1785 the Chevalière was running up debts on his London lodgings which he had been unable to visit since 1777. She was given leave to return, mainly because the lodgings contained the remaining secret documents of the French spy service and were on the verge of being sold off to pay the Chevalière’s debts.

The Chevalière was there for several years, sorting out her financial affairs. But the French Revolution robbed her of her royal pension and her family estates were seized. Living in London was very expensive, even in the 18th century, and she had to earn an income. She turned to her celebrity status and skills with a sword and organised a hugely successful fending match against the champion swordsman of Europe. With the Prince of Wales and many of London’s high society in attendance the Chevalière beat the European champion in an event that would rival any world boxing title fight, or even the Battle of the Sexes, today.

The Chevalière’s famous duel in the presence of the Prince of Wales (the man in the big hat), a contemporary print of the event.
From then on the Chevalière toured the UK with a small band of swordsmen in a travelling show with herself as top billing. But it led to her swift decline.
In 1796, during a fencing match in which her opponent’s sword broke, the Chevalière was pierced badly in her side. She was virtually confined to her bed for two years and never recovered. With no more income her debts returned and she spent a few months in a debtor’s jail. Her few friends supported her, but it was a sad end to a spectacular life.

The swash-buckling former spy ended her days in the company of a widow called Mrs. Cole, whom she had met in 1795. Mrs. Cole was oblivious to the Chevalière’s enigmatic gender, even until the Chevalière’s death at the great age of 81.

Throughout her life the Chevalière d’Eon encouraged mystery. From her espionage days, through the years of the furore at the Stock Exchange, and though her last active life as a travelling entertainer, the Chevalière kept people guessing what secrets she was hiding. Secrets surrounded her right up to her death. It was only after a physical examination of her body to ascertain the cause of death was it finally revealed that the Chevalière d’Eon was indeed biologically male.

No comments:

Post a Comment