Readers of historical romance have long assumed that the Georgian era, including the Regency, was a time of strict binary sexual identity. This view has been aided by romantic novelists from Heyer onward who rarely strayed from that perception. As a writer of Regency fiction, I am complicit. However, the last two decades have opened the door for a more realistic interpretation of the times: that the spectrum of human gender identity was no different then than it is now. No person of those times better reflects this reality than the Chevalier d’Éon.
Born Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont in France, d’Éon defied limits from a young age. Though the son of a poor nobleman, he rose quickly to notice through his remarkable intelligence and insightful political writings. In 1756, he joined a network of spies called the Secret du Roi (the King’s secret), a clandestine organization reporting directly to King Louis XV and often subverting official French policy. Shortly thereafter, his androgynous features, skill at mimicry, and iron nerve allowed him to infiltrate the Russian court as a woman. Although this claim by his biographer cannot be absolutely substantiated, the remainder of d’Éon’s life provides ample evidence of its probability.
Upon his return from Russia to France, d’Éon resumed his male persona, joined the French dragoons, fought in the Seven Years War, and was wounded in battle. Not long after, he was dispatched to London to draft the treaty ending the war, a role that earned him the title of Chevalier – effectively knighthood. However, when the new French ambassador to Britain humiliated him on apparent orders from Louis XV, d’Éon fought back. He threatened to release publicly a slew of letters describing the Secret du Roi, a move that would have deeply hurt the king’s standing with an already disgruntled French public. The British people, meanwhile, supported d’Éon and ridiculed the French ambassador over his treatment of d’Éon.
In time, rumors began circulating in London that d’Éon was really a woman – a modern day Joan of Arc – despite the fact that he dressed in military uniform. A betting pool was begun and he was invited to settle the bet. d’Éon declined to participate, saying that the examination would prove dishonoring regardless of the result. In short, he left the question unanswered because he believed his gender should be of no consequence in how he was treated. In 1776, he returned to France after Louis XV’s death – as a man. However, soon after his arrival he claimed that he had been female at birth and was raised male so his father could inherit from his in-laws. He demanded to be recognized as female by the French court. The new king, Louis XVI, agreed but under one condition: that d’Éon dress according to the claimed gender. When the king offered significant funds for a new wardrobe, d’Éon agreed.
d’Éon returned to England in 1785 where she would spend the rest of her days. Identifying now as a woman, she reclaimed her popularity with British nobles and commoners alike. She participated in fencing tournaments until suffering a serious injury in 1796. Painter Charles Jean Robineau produced a remarkable painting showing d’Éon fencing in a gown against Monsieur de Saint-George at Carlton House in the presence of the Prince of Wales.
The chevalier’s fortunes waned when her stipend from the French government ended with the French Revolution. She slipped slowly into poverty and suffered partial paralysis after a fall before dying in 1810 at the age of 81. The surgeon who examined d’Éon post-mortem provided the long-awaited answer of d’Éon’s gender – but it was not what anyone of the time would have expected or understood. While possessing of fully-formed male organs, d’Éon had many feminine characteristics, including “breasts remarkably full.” As such, d’Éon was possibly intersex.
The Chevalier d’Éon teaches us many things in hindsight. She taught us that gender fluidity is nothing new, nor is the extent to which others willfully misunderstand it. She showed us that a society willing to label people as “other” risks losing contributions from some of its best and brightest. Mostly, however, d’Éon demonstrated that intelligence, courage, and accomplishment are not byproducts of gender or gender identity, but rather of the human spirit. As she might have said, gender and gender identity should be of no consequence in how we treat one another. We are all just human beings adrift on the sea of a boundless universe, and so should cling to one another with grateful appreciation for everyone’s unique story.