Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Chevalier d'Eon

The mystery of the Chevalier d'Éon (1728-1810), the question of his sex, on which so many thousand pounds were betted, is no mystery at all. The Chevalier was a man, and a man of extraordinary courage, audacity, resource, physical activity, industry, and wit. The real mystery is the problem why, at a mature age (forty-two) did d'Éon take upon him, and endure for forty years, the travesty of feminine array, which could only serve him as a source of notoriety--in short, as an advertisement? The answer probably is that, having early seized opportunity by the forelock, and having been obliged, after an extraordinary struggle, to leave his hold, he was obliged to clutch at some mode of keeping himself perpetually in the public eye. Hence, probably, his persistent assumption of feminine costume. If he could be distinguished in no other way, he could shine as a mystery; there was even lucre in the pose.[41]

[Footnote 41: The most recent work on d'Éon, Le Chevalier d'Éon, par Octave Homberg and Fernand Jousselin (Plon-Nourrit, Paris, 1904), is rather disappointing. The authors aver that at a recent sale they picked up many MSS. of d'Éon 'which had lain for more than a century in the back shop of an English bookseller.' No other reference as to authenticity is given, and some letters to d'Éon of supreme importance are casually cited, but are not printed. On the other hand, we have many new letters for the later period of the life of the hero. The best modern accounts are that by the Duc de Broglie, who used the French State archives and his own family papers in Le Secret du Roi (Paris, 1888), and The Strange Career of the Chevalier d'Éon (1885), by Captain J. Buchan Telfer, R.N. (Longmans, 1885), a book now out of print. The author was industrious, but not invariably happy in his translations of French originals. D'Éon himself drew up various accounts of his adventures, some of which he published. They are oddly careless in the essential matter of dates, but contain many astounding genuine documents, which lend a sort of 'doubtsome trust' to others, hardly more incredible, which cannot be verified, and are supposed by the Duc de Broglie to be 'interpolations.' Captain Buchan Telfer is less sceptical. The doubtfulness, to put it mildly, of some papers, and the pretty obvious interpolations in others, deepen the obscurity.]

Charles d'Éon was born on October 7, 1728, near Tonnerre. His family was of chétive noblesse, but well protected, and provided for by 'patent places.' He was highly educated, took the degree of doctor of law, and wrote with acceptance on finance and literature. His was a studious youth, for he was as indifferent to female beauty as was Frederick the Great, and his chief amusements were fencing, of which art he was a perfect master, and society, in which his wit and gaiety made the girlish-looking lad equally welcome to men and women. All were fond of 'le petit d'Éon,' so audacious, so ambitious, and so amusing.

The Prince de Conti was his chief early patron, and it was originally in support of Conti's ambition to be King of Poland that Louis XV. began his incredibly foolish 'secret'--a system of foreign policy conducted by hidden agents behind the backs of his responsible ministers at Versailles and in the Courts of Europe. The results naturally tend to recall a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera of diplomacy. We find magnificent ambassadors gravely trying to carry out the royal orders, and thwarted by the King's secret agents. The King seems to have been too lazy to face his ministers, and compel them to take his own line, while he was energetic enough to work like Tiberius or Philip II. of Spain at his secret Penelope's task of undoing by night the warp and woof which his ministers wove by day. In these mysterious labours of his the Comte de Broglie, later a firm friend of d'Éon, was, with Tercier, one of his main assistants.

The King thus enjoyed all the pleasures and excitements of a conspirator in his own kingdom, dealing in ciphered despatches, with the usual cant names, carried in the false bottoms of snuff-boxes, precisely as if he had been a Jacobite plotter. It was entertaining, but it was not diplomacy, and, sooner or later, Louis was certain to be 'blackmailed' by some underling in his service. That underling was to be d'Éon.

In 1755 Louis wished to renew relations, long interrupted, with Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, the lady whom Prince Charlie wanted to marry, and from whose offered hand the brave James Keith fled as fast as horses could carry him. Elizabeth, in 1755, was an ally of England, but was known to be French in her personal sympathies, though she was difficult of access. As a messenger, Louis chose a Scot, described by Captain Buchan Telfer as a Mackenzie, a Jesuit, calling himself the Chevalier Douglas, and a Jacobite exile. He is not to be found in the Dictionary of National Biography. A Sir James and a Sir John Douglas--if both were not the same man--were employed as political agents between the English and Scottish Jacobites in 1746, and, in 1749, between the Prince and the Landgrave of Hesse. Whatever the true name of the Douglas of Louis XV., I suspect that he was one or the other of these dim Jacobites of the Douglas clan. In June 1755 this Chevalier Douglas was sent by Louis to deal with Elizabeth. He was certainly understood by Louis to be a real Douglas, a fugitive Jacobite, and he was to use in ciphered despatches precisely the same silly sort of veiled language about the fur trade as Prince Charles's envoys had just been using about 'the timber trade' with Sweden.

Douglas set forth, disguised as an intellectual British tourist, in the summer of 1755, and it is Captain Buchan Telfer's view that d'Éon joined him, also as a political agent, in female apparel, on the road, and that, while Douglas failed and left Russia by October 1755, d'Éon remained at St. Petersburg, attired as a girl, Douglas's niece, and acting as the lectrice of the Empress, whom he converted to the French alliance! This is the traditional theory, but is almost certainly erroneous. Sometimes, in his vast MSS., d'Éon declares that he went to Russia disguised in 1755. But he represents himself as then aged twenty, whereas he was really twenty-seven, and this he does in 1773, before he made up his mind to pose for life as a woman. He had a running claim against the French government for the expenses of his first journey to Russia. This voyage, in 1776, he dates in 1755, but in 1763, in an official letter, he dates his journey to Russia, of which the expenses were not repaid, in 1756. That is the true chronology. Nobody denies that he did visit Russia in 1756 attired as a male diplomatist, but few now believe that in 1755 he accompanied Douglas as that gentleman's pleasing young niece.

MM. Homberg and Jousselin, in their recent work,[42] declare that among d'Éon's papers, which lay for a century in the back shop of a London bookseller, they find letters to him, from June 1756, written by Tercier, who managed the secret of Louis XV. There are no known proofs of d'Éon's earlier presence in Russia, and in petticoats, in 1755.

[Footnote 42: Le Chevalier d'Éon, p. 18.]

He did talk later of a private letter of Louis XV., of October 4, 1763, in which the King wrote that he 'had served him usefully in the guise of a female, and must now resume it,' and that letter is published, but all the evidence, to which we shall return, tends to prove that this paper is an ingenious deceptive 'interpolation.' If the King did write it, then he was deceiving the manager of his secret policy--Tercier--for, in the note, he bids d'Éon remain in England, while he was at the same time telling Tercier that he was uneasy as to what d'Éon might do in France, when he obeyed his public orders to return.[43] If, then, the royal letter of October 4, 1763, testifying to d'Éon's feminine disguise in Russia, be genuine, Louis XV. had three strings to his bow. He had his public orders to ministers, he had his private conspiracy worked through Tercier, and he had his secret intrigue with d'Éon, of which Tercier was allowed to know nothing. This hypothesis is difficult, if not impossible, and the result is that d'Éon was not current in Russia as Douglas's pretty French niece and as reader to the Empress Elizabeth in 1755.

[Footnote 43: Broglie, Secret du Roi, ii. 51, note.]

In 1756, in his own character as a man and a secretary, he did work under Douglas, then on his second visit, public and successful, to gain Russia to the French alliance; for, dismissed in October 1755, Douglas came back and publicly represented France at the Russian Court in July 1756. This was, to the highest degree of probability, d'Éon's first entrance into diplomacy, and he triumphed in his mission. He certainly made the acquaintance of the Princess Dashkoff, and she, as certainly, in 1769-1771, when on a visit to England, gave out that d'Éon was received by Elizabeth in a manner more appropriate to a woman than a man. It is not easy to ascertain precisely what the tattle of the Princess really amounted to, but d'Éon represents it so as to corroborate his tale about his residence at Elizabeth's Court, as lectrice, in 1755. The evidence is of no value, being a biassed third-hand report of the Russian lady's gossip. There is a mezzotint, published in 1788, from what professes to be a copy, by Angelica Kauffmann, of a portrait of d'Éon in female costume, at the age of twenty-five. If these attributions are correct, d'Éon was masquerading as a girl three years before he went to Russia, and, if the portrait is exact, was wearing the order of St. Louis ten years before it was conferred on him. The evidence as to this copy of an alleged portrait of d'Éon is full of confusions and anachronisms, and does not even prove that he thus travestied his sex in early life.

In Russia, when he joined Douglas there in the summer of 1756, d'Éon was a busy secretary of legation. In April 1757, he went back to Versailles bearing rich diplomatic sheaves with him, and one of those huge presents of money in gold, to Voltaire, which no longer come in the way of men of letters. While he was at Vienna, on his way back to St. Petersburg, tidings came of the battle of Prague; d'Éon hurried to Versailles with the news, and, though he broke his leg in a carriage accident, he beat the messenger whom Count Kaunitz officially despatched, by thirty-six hours. This unladylike proof of energy and endurance procured for d'Éon a gold snuff-box (Elizabeth only gave him a trumpery snuff-box in tortoiseshell), with the King's miniature, a good deal of money, and a commission in the dragoons, for the little man's heart was really set on a military rather than a diplomatic career. However, as diplomat he ferreted out an important secret of Russian internal treachery, and rejected a bribe of a diamond of great value. The money's worth of the diamond was to be paid to him by his own Government, but he no more got that than he got the 10,000 livres for his travelling expenses.

Thus early was he accommodated with a grievance, and because d'Éon had not the wisdom to see that a man with grievances is a ruined man, he overthrew, later, a promising career, in the violence of his attempts to obtain redress. This was d'Éon's bane, and the cause of the ruinous eccentricities for which he is remembered. In 1759 he ably seconded the egregious Louis XV. in upsetting the policy which de Choiseul was carrying on by the King's orders. De Choiseul's duty was to make the Empress mediate for peace in the Seven Years' War. The duty of d'Éon was to secure the failure of de Choiseul, without the knowledge of the French ambassador, the Marquis de l'Hospital, of whom he was the secretary. Possessed of this pretty secret, d'Éon was a man whom Louis could not safely offend and snub, and d'Éon must therefore have thought that there could scarcely be a limit to his success in life. But he disliked Russia, and left it for good in August 1760.

He received a life pension of 2,000 livres, and was appointed aide-de-camp to the Maréchal de Broglie, commanding on the Upper Rhine. He distinguished himself, in August 1761, by a very gallant piece of service in which, he says, truly or not, he incurred the ill-will of the Comte de Guerchy. The pair were destined to ruin each other a few years later. D'Éon also declares that he led a force which 'dislodged the Highland mountaineers in a gorge of the mountain at Einbeck.' I know not what Highland regiment is intended, but D'Éon's orders bear that he was to withdraw troops opposed to the Highlanders, and a certificate in his favour from the Duc and the Comte de Broglie does not allude to the circumstance that, instead of retreating before the plaids, he drove them back to the English camp. It may therefore be surmised that, though D'Éon often distinguished himself, and was wounded in the thigh at Ultrop, his claim of a victory over a Highland regiment is--'an interpolation.' De Broglie writes, 'we purpose retreating. I send M. d'Éon to withdraw the Swiss and Grenadiers of Champagne, who are holding in check the Scottish Highlanders lining the wood on the crest of the mountain, whence they have caused us much annoyance.' The English outposts were driven in; but, after that was done, the French advance was checked by the plaided Gael: d'Éon did not


              quell the mountaineer
    As their tinchel quells the game.


Not a word is said about his triumph even in the certificate of the two de Broglies which d'Éon published in 1764.

In 1762, France and England, weary of war, began the preliminaries of peace, and d'Éon was attached as secretary of legation to the French negotiator in London, the Duc de Nivernais, who was on terms so intimate with Madame de Pompadour that she addressed him, in writing, as petit époux. In the language of the affections as employed by the black natives of Australia, this would have meant that de Nivernais was the recognised rival of Louis XV. in the favour of the lady; but the inference must not be carried to that length. There are different versions of a trick which d'Éon, as secretary, played on Mr. Robert Wood, author of an interesting work on Homer, and with the Jacobite savant, Jemmy Dawkins, the explorer of Palmyra. The story as given by Nivernais is the most intelligible account. Mr. Wood, as under secretary of state, brought to Nivernais, and read to him, a diplomatic document, but gave him no copy. D'Éon, however, opened Wood's portfolio, while he dined with Nivernais, and had the paper transcribed. To this d'Éon himself adds that he had given Wood more than his 'whack,' during dinner, of a heady wine grown in the vineyards of his native Tonnerre.

In short, the little man was so serviceable that, in the autumn of 1762, de Nivernais proposed to leave him in England, as interim Minister, after the Duc's own return to France. 'Little d'Éon is very active, very discreet, never curious or officious, neither distrustful nor a cause of distrust in others.' De Nivernais was so pleased with him, and so anxious for his promotion, that he induced the British Ministers, contrary to all precedent, to send d'Éon, instead of a British subject, to Paris with the treaty, for ratification. He then received from Louis XV. the order of St. Louis, and, as de Nivernais was weary of England, where he had an eternal cold, and resigned, d'Éon was made minister plenipotentiary in London till the arrival of the new ambassador, de Guerchy.

Now de Guerchy, if we believe d'Éon, had shown the better part of valour in a dangerous military task, the removal of ammunition under fire, whereas d'Éon had certainly conducted the operation with courage and success. The two men were thus on terms of jealousy, if the story is true, while de Nivernais did not conceal from d'Éon that he was to be the brain of the embassy, and that de Guerchy was only a dull figure-head. D'Éon possessed letters of de Broglie and de Praslin, in which de Guerchy was spoken of with pitying contempt; in short, his despatch-boxes were magazines of dangerous diplomatic combustibles. He also succeeded in irritating de Praslin, the French minister, before returning to his new post in London, for d'Éon was a partisan of the two de Broglies, now in the disgrace of Madame de Pompadour and of Louis XV.; though the Comte de Broglie, 'disgraced' as he was, still managed the secret policy of the French King.

D'Éon's position was thus full of traps. He was at odds with the future ambassador, de Guerchy, and with the minister, de Praslin; and would not have been promoted at all, had it been known to the minister that he was in correspondence with, and was taking orders from, the disgraced Comte de Broglie. But, by the fatuous system of the King, d'Éon, in fact, was doing nothing else. De Broglie, exiled from Court, was d'Éon's real master, he did not serve de Guerchy and de Praslin, and Madame de Pompadour, who was not in the secret of her royal lover.

The King's secret now (1763) included a scheme for the invasion of England, which d'Éon and a military agent were to organise, at the very moment when peace had been concluded. There is fairly good evidence that Prince Charles visited London in this year, no doubt with an eye to mischief. In short, the new minister plenipotentiary to St. James's, unknown to the French Government, and to the future ambassador, de Guerchy, was to manage a scheme for the ruin of the country to which he was accredited. If ever this came out, the result would be, if not war with England, at least war between Louis XV., his minister, and Madame de Pompadour, a result which frightened Louis XV. more than any other disaster.

The importance of his position now turned d'Éon's head, in the opinion of Horace Walpole, who, of course, had not a guess at the true nature of the situation. D'Éon, in London, entertained French visitors of eminence, and the best English society, it appears, with the splendour of a full-blown ambassador, and at whose expense? Certainly not at his own, and neither the late ambassador, de Nivernais, nor the coming ambassador, de Guerchy, a man far from wealthy, had the faintest desire to pay the bills. Angry and tactless letters, therefore, passed between d'Éon in London and de Guerchy, de Nivernais, and de Praslin in Paris. De Guerchy was dull and clumsy; d'Éon used him as the whetstone of his wit, with a reckless abandonment which proves that he was, as they say, 'rather above himself,' like Napoleon before the march to Moscow. London, in short, was the Moscow of little d'Éon. When de Guerchy arrived, and d'Éon was reduced to secrétariser, and, indeed, was ordered to return to France, and not to show himself at Court, he lost all self-control. The recall came from the minister, de Praslin, but d'Éon, as we know, though de Praslin knew it not, was secretly representing the King himself. He declares that, at this juncture (October 11, 1763), Louis XV. sent him the extraordinary private autograph letter, speaking of his previous services in female attire, and bidding him remain with his papers in England disguised as a woman. The improbability of this action by the King has already been exposed. (Pp. 242, 243 supra.)

But when we consider the predicament of Louis, obliged to recall d'Éon publicly, while all his ruinous secrets remained in the hands of that disgraced and infuriated little man, it seems not quite impossible that he may have committed the folly of writing this letter. For the public recall says nothing about the secret papers of which d'Éon had quantities. What was to become of them, if he returned to France in disgrace? If they reached the hands of de Guerchy they meant an explosion between Louis XV. and his mistress, and his ministers. To parry the danger, then, according to d'Éon, Louis privately bade him flee disguised, with his cargo of papers, and hide in female costume. If Louis really did this (and d'Éon told the story to the father of Madame de Campan), he had three strings to his bow, as we have shown, and one string was concealed, a secret within a secret, even from Tercier. Yet what folly was so great as to be beyond the capacity of Louis?

Meanwhile d'Éon simply refused to obey the King's public orders, and denied their authenticity. They were only signed with a griffe, or stamp, not by the King's pen and hand. He would not leave London. He fought de Guerchy with every kind of arm, accused him of suborning an assassin, published private letters and his own version of the affair, fled from a charge of libel, could not be extradited (by virtue of what MM. Homberg and Jousselin call 'the law of Home Rule!'), fortified his house, and went armed. Probably there really were designs to kidnap him, just as a regular plot was laid for the kidnapping of de la Motte, at Newcastle, after the affair of the Diamond Necklace. In 1752 a Marquis de Fratteau was collared by a sham marshal court officer, put on board a boat at Gravesend, and carried to the Bastille!

D'Éon, under charge of libel, lived a fugitive and cloistered existence till the man who, he says, was to have assassinated him, de Vergy, sought his alliance, and accused de Guerchy of having suborned him to murder the little daredevil. A grand jury brought in a true bill against the French ambassador, and the ambassador's butler, accused of having drugged d'Éon, fled. But the English Government, by aid of what the Duc de Broglie calls a noli prosequi (nolle being usual), tided over a difficulty of the gravest kind. The granting of the nolle prosequi is denied.[44] The ambassador was mobbed and took leave of absence, and Louis XV., through de Broglie, offered to d'Éon terms humiliating to a king. The Chevalier finally gave up the warrant for his secret mission in exchange for a pension of 12,000 livres, but he retained all other secret correspondence and plans of invasion. As for de Guerchy, he resigned (1767), and presently died of sheer annoyance, while his enemy, the Chevalier, stayed in England as London correspondent of Louis XV. He reported, in 1766, that Lord Bute was a Jacobite, and de Broglie actually took seriously the chance of restoring, by Bute's aid, Charles III., who had just succeeded, by the death of the Old Chevalier, to 'a kingdom not of this world.'

[Footnote 44: Political Register, Sept. 1767; Buchan Telfer, p. 181.]

The death of Louis XV., in 1774, brought the folly of the secret policy to an end, but in the same year rumours about d'Éon's dubious sex appeared in the English newspapers on the occasion of his book, Les Loisirs du Chevalier d'Éon, published at Amsterdam. Bets on his sex were made, and d'Éon beat some bookmakers with his stick. But he persuaded Drouet, an envoy from France, that the current stories were true, and this can only be explained, if explained at all, by his perception of the fact that, his secret employment being gone, he felt the need of an advertisement. Overtures for the return of the secret papers were again made to d'Éon, but he insisted on the restoration of his diplomatic rank, and on receiving 14,000l. on account of expenses. He had aimed too high, however, and was glad to come to a compromise with the famous Beaumarchais. The extraordinary bargain was struck that d'Éon, for a consideration, should yield the secret papers, and, to avoid a duel with the son of de Guerchy, and the consequent scandal, should pretend to be a woman, and wear the dress of that sex. In his new capacity he might return to France and wear the cross of the Order of St. Louis.

Beaumarchais was as thoroughly taken in as any dupe in his own comedies. In d'Éon he 'saw a blushing spinster, a kind of Jeanne d'Arc of the eighteenth century, pining for the weapons and uniform of the martial sex, but yielding her secret, and forsaking her arms, in the interest of her King. On the other side the blushless captain of dragoons listened, with downcast eyes, to the sentimental compliments of Beaumarchais, and suffered himself, without a smile, to be compared to the Maid of Orleans,' says the Duc de Broglie. 'Our manners are obviously softened,' wrote Voltaire. 'D'Éon is a Pucelle d'Orléans who has not been burned.' To de Broglie, d'Éon described himself as 'the most unfortunate of unfortunate females!' D'Éon returned to France, where he found himself but a nine days' wonder. It was observed that this pucelle too obviously shaved; that in the matter of muscular development she was a little Hercules; that she ran upstairs taking four steps at a stride; that her hair, like that of Jeanne d'Arc, was coupé en rond, of a military shortness; and that she wore the shoes of men, with low heels, while she spoke like a grenadier! At first d'Éon had all the social advertisement which was now his one desire, but he became a nuisance, and, by his quarrels with Beaumarchais, a scandal. In drawing-room plays he acted his English adventures with the great play-writer, whose part was highly ridiculous. Now d'Éon pretended to desire to 'take the veil' as a nun, now to join the troops being sent to America. He was consigned to retreat in the Castle of Dijon (1779); he had become a weariness to official mankind. He withdrew (1781-85) to privacy at Tonnerre, and then returned to London in the semblance of a bediamonded old dame, who, after dinner, did not depart with the ladies. He took part in fencing matches with great success, and in 1791 his library was sold at Christie's, with his swords and jewels. The catalogue bears the motto, from Juvenal,

Quale decus rerum, si virginis auctio fiat,

no doubt selected by the learned little man. The snuff-box of the Empress Elizabeth, a gift to the diplomatist of 1756, fetched 2l. 13s. 6d.! The poor old boy was badly hurt at a fencing match in his sixty-eighth year, and henceforth lived retired from arms in the house of a Mrs. Cole, an object of charity. He might have risen to the highest places if discretion had been among his gifts, and his career proves the quantula sapientia of the French Government before the Revolution. In no other time or country could 'the King's Secret' have run a course far more incredible than even the story of the Chevalier d'Éon.


Andrew Lang