Great Gender-Benders from History, Volume One: Le Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont

There are those who will tell you that The Beaumont Society is a UK charity and support group for transgender people that aims “to promote and assist the study of gender differences”.  There are others who will attempt to explain that it was founded in 1966 with the aim of establishing “an association for the transgender community to facilitate mutual support and communication in order to improve the health, emotional well-being and confidence of transgender people”.  A third group will even maintain that the Society contributes to a “better understanding of the conditions of transgender, transvestism and gender dysphoria in society”, and that, for a mere £35 a year, you, too, could be a part of the work it does to “educate lay and professional groups about transgenderism” and “its associated issues”.  But don’t believe a word of it.  The Beaumont Society is a social club for middle-aged, heterosexual transvestites, that is, criminally, “not [even] available for sexual liaisons”.  It is named after the French eighteenth-century soldier, diplomat and spy, Le Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, and, this month, I kick of my occasional series of posts exploring the lives and careers of great gender-benders from history with a look at the legacy of this relatively insignificant monarchist and eccentric, who gave his name not only to a little-used euphemism for transvestites (‘eonists’, in case you were wondering), but also to a clandestine, London-based knitting-circle for nocturnal crossdressers.

 

Charles d’Eon de Beaumont was born in 1728.  Throughout his infancy and early childhood, his mother – as was the custom – dressed him as a girl.  He adopted male attire in his youth and early twenties, but his formative sartorial experiences must have left their mark on his psyche, because, when he was sent to the Court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg as a spy in 1755, he chose to present himself dressed as a woman, and adopt the pseudonym Madame Lia de Beaumont.  His mission to Russia on behalf of the French government was a diplomatic success, but the experience of public crossdressing evidently deepened the Chevalier’s taste for drag.

Upon his return from Russia, Beaumont began a promising military career.  He commanded a company of dragoons, but his flair for disguise and dissimilation soon resulted in his recall to the French secret service, and, in 1762, he was dispatched to London.  Once there, however, his impetuous and extravagant behaviour resulted in the French ambassador petitioning Louis XV to summon d’Eon back to France.  The UK capital must have won a place in d’Eon’s heart, however, because he refused to obey his king’s behest: he broke off relations with the French diplomatic corps, and remained defiantly where he was.

frame-beaumont
Easily Fooled – Thomas Stewart’s 1792 portrait of Charles de Beaumont was airily dismissed as the anonymous ‘Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in her Hat’, until the slightly butch appearance and tell-tale five o’clock shadow promoted a reassessment of the painting in 2012

The new king, Louis XVI, sent his envoy, Beaumarchais, to London to make peace with Beaumont, but the Chevalier succeeded in convincing Beaumarchais (who was by no means a stupid man) that he was actually a woman trapped in male clothes, and the victim of a devious plot to indenture him to French service, under threat of arrest and execution.  Beaumarchais was undeterred by d’Eon’s protestations, though, and remained insistent that the Chevalier return to Paris with him.  Beaumont finally caved in 1777, but it was as a woman that he returned to his native country.

Contemporary accounts suggest that the Chevalier’s permanent state of transvestism did not go unnoticed – and unremarked.  When he was presented at Court, his awkwardness and inelegance made people less than comfortable:

“The long tail of her dress and the three types of ruffles contrast so ill with the attitudes and quips of a grenadier that the effect is one of low company.”

Beaumont was not happy with the scrutiny and disapproval he encountered in France, and he returned to England in 1785 – still dressed as a woman.  For a while, he was accepted as an eccentric figure in London society, but recurring financial problems prompted him to take up a new career as a female fencer.  Like most sporting lives, of course, Beaumont’s life as a duellist could not continue indefinitely, and his later life was lived in relative poverty, melancholy and loneliness.  In his private diary for the period, he chooses to refer to himself throughout using the first-person feminine pronoun.  So thorough was his assumption of female role that most people began to assume he was a woman, and rumours circulated that the tales of his early career as a man were a fabrication.  It appears as if d’Eon even convinced himself that that was the case, and yet, when his corpse was finally laid out following his death in 1810, the body was undoubtedly that of an octogenarian male.

The Chevalier d’Eon inspires me to a mixture of admiration and pity.  It is tempting to envy him the freedom he was granted by his birth, position and ability to pass as a woman – living full-time in female role in the suspicious and uncertain climate of revolutionary France would have been all but impossible if it weren’t for his noble birth.  His tragic and erratic personality, however – his apparent oscillation between the paranoiac and the threatening; the vindictive and the placatory – makes him a strange role-model for the Beaumont Society to choose.  At times, D’Eon could be a sullen and petulant male who was quick to take offence; whilst, at others, he behaved like an aggressive, wisecracking female.  His transvestism – and the contradictory attitudes held about it by the society in which he moved – drove him a little potty, no two ways about it.  Is this the sort of mental quagmire the Beaumont Society seeks to cultivate amongst its members?  The Chevalier d’Eon was rendered so unsure of his gender identity that he retreated into a duplicitous, neurotic secrecy that ultimately forced him to reject the attention and approval his diary testifies he so desperately craved:

“Man or woman?  I am none the better nor the worse…  I have been the plaything of Nature…  I have gone through all the strange vicissitudes of the human condition.”

Who in their right mind would want to be like him?

frame-dressing-up
It’s been out of print since 1979, but, if you can find a copy, Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Dressing Up’ provides as comprehensive a low-down on the Chevalier de Beaumont as you could hope for

The website of The Beaumont Society can be visited here… http://www.beaumontsociety.org.uk/

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