Today I am very pleased to host a guest post by the bestselling author of Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, White Gold and now Wolfram: The Boy Who Went To War – Giles Milton. I was also very pleased to learn that like me Giles studied Anglo-Saxon literature at university and from his books I know he loves a good story from centuries ago. So apart from the bestselling bit, we are exactly the same. Giles is all over the interwebs: he lives at www.gilesmilton.com, blogs at http://surviving-history.blogspot.com every Tuesday and is on the Twitter engine @SurviveHistory. He also does a bit of Facebookery, search and ye shalle find. Read! Follow! Hurrah!
It made for a peculiar scene. Six or seven men – the precise number is unknown – were standing around a fully clothed corpse. The same question was on everyone mind: was the dead body lying on the table a man or a woman. The sex of the illustrious cadaver was one of the great riddles of the 18th century. The corpse was that of a French aristocrat known as Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Thimothée d’Eon de Beaumont – a flamboyant spy, dragoon guard and member of the French nobility. But was d’Eon a man or a woman? Half of his/her life had been spent as a man and half as a women. The rumours surrounding the chevalier’s sex had begun in the early 1770’s when young men of quality began speculating about whether this seeming woman was actually a cross-dressing man. D’Eon, who was living in London, encouraged the rumours from the start: indeed, he/she seemed to relish the attention. He/she refused to comment and consistently refused to allow a physician to examine him/her.
Horace Walpole met d’Eon in 1786 and found him/her loud, noisy, and vulgar – ‘her hands and arms seem not to have participated of the change of sexes, but are fitter to carry a chair than a fan.’ According to James Boswell, ‘she appeared to me a man in woman’s clothes.’ Comments like these only serve to fuel the speculation: it was not long before London gamblers had bet more than £200,000 on the issue.
A spy was sent to the French king in order to discover the truth about the chevalier’s sex. He returned from Versailles with news that d’Eon was definitely a woman. When English gamblers sued each other in court over the issue, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield declared that English law believed d’Eon to be a woman. The chevalier him/herself now decided to reveal titbits about his/her private parts: ‘I was born with a caul,’ he/she wrote, ‘and my sex was hidden in nubibus.’ What this meant was that the testicles – if there were any – had not descended.
But d’Eon was being deliberately mysterious. Later in the book, his/her father is quoted as saying to his wife: ‘The doctor hopes that nature [the baby’s sex] will soon be developed and that it will be a good boy by the grace of God, or a good girl by the virtue of the Blessed Virgin.’ This, claimed d’Eon, was why he/she had been christened with both male and female names: Charles and Geneviève. The known facts only served to confuse matters further. The chevalier (in the guise of a man) had worked for a secret network of male spies called the Le Secret du Roi. He/she had been sent to Russia and – after slipping into women’s clothing – had negotiated with the Empress Elizabeth. He/she had even become maid of honour to the empress. After returning to France, the chevalier had changed back into man’s clothing and served as a dragoon guard, fighting in the latter stages of the Seven Years War.
D’Eon claimed that he had been a man all along, ‘and later became a girl against my wishes.’ If so, he showed himself remarkably comfortable in women’s clothes and was so convincing as a female that the most women who met him/her in London were convinced. Indeed D’Eon now claimed to be a woman and demanded to be recognized as such by the French government. King Louis XVI agreed, so long as d’Eon wore women’s clothes from this point on. He/she happily agreed. In the latter stages of d’Eon life, he/she lived in London as an old spinster, living with a widow, Mrs Cole. When d’Eon finally died, Mrs Cole was convinced that her lodger was a woman.
And then came the autopsy undertaken by surgeon Thomas Copeland. Slowly – carefully – he stripped the chevalier’s body, removing the dress, the stockings and the woman’s underwear. And as the pantyhose was finally removed, there was a gasp from the crowd around the table. ‘I hereby certify that I have inspected and dissected the body of the Chevalier d’Eon,’ wrote Surgeon Copeland with a flourish, ‘and have found the male organs in every respect perfectly formed.’
Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Thimothée d’Eon de Beaumont had been a fully fledged man all along – although perhaps a little confused.
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