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D’Éon vs Rousseau: Gender, slavery and the unique self

Friday, 8 December, 2017
The Chevalier d'Eon.
Portrait of Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont by Thomas Stewart (1792), at the National Portrait Gallery.

Virtually everything about the Chevalier d’Éon’s life was extraordinary. D’Éon had a decorated career as a dragoon, diplomat, spy for the French king and rumoured double agent, not to mention being a prolific author, proto-feminist, freemason, international celebrity and exceptional fencer.[1] However, far more remarkable than all of this is the fact that, aged forty-nine, the Chevalier began a new life as a woman. After rumours began to circulate in 1770, d’Éon, who was living in England at the time, was subsequently taken to court, declared a woman and required to adopt female dress for the last thirty-two years of their life. Upon death, the body was examined and described as ‘unambiguously male’.[2] The reasons for d’Éon’s acceptance of a female identity instead of proving otherwise have been guessed at but never fully explained. Suggestions have ranged from the purely practical, such as the avoidance of assassination, to the deeply personal, such as the hypothesis that d’Éon was an example of a transgender individual avant la lettre.[3]

In around 1785, d’Éon wrote The Maiden of Tonnerre as an attempt to justify their decisions and lifestyle.[4] The intention was for this work to be translated into English and published, but the translation was not completed and the work remained unpublished until 2001. No French edition is currently available. The Maiden of Tonnerre contains a collection of semi-truths, letters, historical fiction and outright fibs claiming to be autobiographical, all tailored to maintain d’Éon’s self-image as a woman who lived as a man for the first forty-nine years of her life. Given this authorial intent, the literary persona of the Chevalière d’Éon, as portrayed in The Maiden of Tonnerre, will accordingly be referred to as ‘she/her’, while the real-life Chevalier d’Éon will continue to be referred to using the gender-neutral pronouns ‘they/their’.

Due to its hybrid nature, The Maiden of Tonnerre is something of a trans-genre text, existing at the crossroads of several literary genres just as its author existed at the crossroads of traditional sex and gender identities. In this work, the Chevalière outlines a conception of gender that is radically different from the stringent gender roles that are so often cited as typical of the late eighteenth century, attesting to a deep-seated psychological component to her embodied situation:

‘I had two personalities. My mind tended toward tranquillity, solitude, and study. Prudence told me that this was the wisest and simplest way to shield myself, but my heart loved the clash of weapons and the display of all the military drills. Unable to consult either man or woman, I consulted God and the Devil and, so as not to fall into the water, I jumped into the fire.’ (p.7)

D’Éon locates stereotypical eighteenth-century masculine and feminine gender roles as central to her anguish. Her hybrid psychological gender identity made up of ‘two personalities’ cannot bring itself to conform to the rigid gender roles society expects of a woman. The real-life d’Éon is likely to have encountered these gender roles as expressed in the famed writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of whom they were an avid follower. However, as will become clear, the two authors vehemently disagreed on key issues surrounding gender.

Engravings of the Chevalier and Chevalière d’Éon by Jean-Baptiste Bradel (c. 1780) which demonstrate a very different interpretation of gender ambiguity, namely that d’Éon is presented as two different people.

To exemplify this, we might recall Rousseau’s declarations in Émile that the ideal woman is ‘modeste en apparence’ and that ‘la femme est faite pour plaire et pour être subjuguée’.[5] Every time the Chevalière is reprimanded by others, it is for violating this strict Rousseauian conception of femininity, whether it be by wearing her dragoon uniform in public or initially refusing to wear dresses when ordered to by the king (p.28-32). It is telling that d’Éon associates her modest, traditionally feminine side with her ‘mind’, while her traditionally masculine military side is associated with her ‘heart’. Not only does d’Éon mingle gender roles, she completely inverts them, reversing the accepted eighteenth-century dichotomy of ‘à l’homme le rationnel, à la femme la sensibilité’.[6]

Indeed, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘god’ and ‘devil’, ‘water’ and ‘fire’ all refer to binary logic founded on the principle of ‘either/or’, which, as d’Éon makes clear, offers no consolation to her unique gendered condition. This claim to singularity resembles Rousseau’s very own conception of the unique self as put forward in his autobiography, the Confessions.[7] It is d’Éon’s singularly non-conforming ‘style of life’ and ‘personality’ that causes her to resent the assimilation imposed upon her when the ladies of the court ‘have [her] play all the roles necessary to teach [her] how to behave at all times like an important noblewoman’ (p.17). This coerced assimilation is comparable to how transgender people are often compelled to ‘pass’ (either fully masculinise or fully feminise their appearance) to minimise their visibility by conforming to modern social custom. Likewise, d’Éon describes these predetermined roles as ‘chains’ and ‘shackles’ and likens the conformity they demand to ‘slavery’, desperately pleading, ‘Just leave me as I am’ (p.74, 62). In using this lexis, d’Éon draws upon yet another Rousseauian concept: the opposition between free will and slavery laid out in Du Contrat social. Thus, d’Éon appropriates two key notions found in Rousseau’s autobiographical and political writings to argue against Jean-Jacques (and much of eighteenth-century French society) on the topic of predetermined, fixed gender roles.

The translated edition of d’Éon’s ‘autobiography’, The Maiden of Tonnerre: The Vicissitudes of the Chevalier and the Chevalière d’Éon, by Roland A. Champagne, Nina Ekstein and Gary Kates (London, 2001).

The Chevalière instead affirms that, as a unique individual, she should be left to interpret gender in her own unique way. D’Éon consequently lives as a woman but performs some aspects of masculinity rather than aligning herself neatly with one or the other. So, if the one concrete conclusion we arrive at is the apparent lack of any concrete conclusion, then it is worth emphasising how d’Éon’s primary concern is pointing out the flaws in neat binary logic that operates with categories like man or woman, real or fake, body or mind and sex or gender. D’Éon’s text reminds us that the Enlightenment should be viewed as an ongoing project rather than an arrogant quest for definitive answers, and, in the absence of sufficient understanding of a phenomenon, it is vital to avoid pre-emptively passing judgement.

This sentiment of not rushing to conclusions when faced with something we do not fully understand is as relevant today as it was in the late eighteenth century. Transgender academics such as Stephen Whittle, Susan Stryker and Eli Clare continue to argue against the compulsion to pathologise trans bodies as undesirably defective. Furthermore, trans individuals are increasingly questioning whether the deeply held self-understandings they have can be entirely due to nurture and environment, denouncing the ‘diarrhoea of theories’ used to conveniently explain away their identity.[8] As The Maiden of Tonnerre makes abundantly clear, these ideas about gender identity are not some passing fad that sprung up in the 1990s. They have, in fact, been around for centuries, and remarkably similar arguments are made, and ignored, in each instance. Now, as before, without stable facts to work with, we must refrain from hastily jumping to conclusions: we begin to question what we think we know, recalling a humbler side to the Enlightenment that is often forgotten.

– Sam Bailey

[1] For a biography of d’Éon, see Gary Kates, Monsieur d’Éon is a Woman: a tale of political intrigue and sexual masquerade (London, 2001).

[2] Roland A. Champagne, Nina Ekstein and Gary Kates trans. and eds., The Maiden of Tonnerre: The Vicissitudes of the Chevalier and the Chevalière d’Éon (London, 2001), p. xvi. All page numbers in our blog post refer to this edition.

[3] These and many other theories are explored in The Chevalier d’Éon and his Worlds: Gender, Espionage and Politics in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Simon Burrows, Jonathan Conlin, Russell Goulbourne, Valerie Mainz (London, 2010).

[4] Tonnerre is d’Éon’s place of birth. The title is an adaptation of la pucelle d’Orléans, Joan of Arc’s French nickname.

[5] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Œuvres complètes de J.-J. Rousseau, vol. 2 (Paris, 1852), p. 659, p. 632.

[6] Raymond Trousson, ‘Préface’, in Romans de femmes du XVIIe siècle, ed. Trousson (Paris, 1996), pp. I-XXXIII (p. XV).

[7] For more on this, see Anna Clarke, ‘The Chevalier d’Éon, Rousseau, and New Ideas of Gender, Sex and the Self in the Late Eighteenth Century’, in The Chevalier d’Éon, eds. Burrows et al, pp. 187-200.

[8] Stephen Whittle, ‘Foreword’, in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Whittle and Stryker (London, 2006), pp. i-xvi (p. xiii).