The Chevalier d’Eon

Chevalier d'Eon
by Thomas Stewart, after Jean Laurent Mosnier
NPG 6937

A soldier, diplomat and transvestite, the Chevalier d’Eon 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’Eon 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’Eon 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’Eon should henceforth dress as a woman. This command was probably due to rumours, encouraged by d’Eon 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’Eon’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’Eon 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’Eon 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.

This portrait is a copy of one painted by Jean-Laurent Mosnier in 1791. It shows d’Eon 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’Eon 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’Eon 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’Eon’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.’

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