Chevalier d’Eon, revealed!

This post is by Josselin Blieck the French archivist who worked on a recent cataloguing project about the Chevalier d’Eon.

Special Collections holds significant collections of 18th, 19th and 20th century manuscripts in French, which can sometimes be overlooked. Recent work improving our catalogues has enabled us to make some of the highlights of these collections available.

The Chevalier D’Eon collection consists of the papers of Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, a French diplomat, spy, freemason and soldier who fought in the Seven Years’ War. D’Eon is now chiefly remembered as a transsexual. In 1775, after having lived as a man for 49 years, d’Eon was recognised as a woman by the French Government. D’Eon was allowed to keep the title of Chevalière and decorations – becoming the first woman to receive such honours in French history.

A recent cataloguing project has enabled us to re-catalogue the collection and create detailed item level descriptions which are now available to explore online. Describing the items in this collection was no small task, especially where things aren’t always what they seem.

D’Eon was a master spy who was able to use outstanding skills of persuasion to manipulate public opinion and to earn money by duping the French Government and creditors. As a result, this archive is especially difficult to handle. It contains many forged reports, letters, bills, accounting sheets, etc. D’Eon even produced fake authenticity letters to certify that forged documents were genuine.

These documents are truly fascinating. They show how he brilliantly manipulated public opinion and the French government; I think the forged dialogues with the Prince de Conti or the letters of Beaumarchais are indeed the best parts of the collection.

New Accessions – June 2016

Our rare books cataloguer summarises some of the varied additions to our collections in June.

Richard Van Emden’s latest book is ‘The Somme: the epic battle in the soldiers’ own words and photographs’.  This presents a graphic portrayal of the terrible battle which began a hundred years ago, from the letters and later recollections of soldiers of all ranks and many regiments.  It is illustrated with the photographs they took despite the severe penalties meted out to anyone found with a camera.  The book includes some material from our own Liddle Collection.

‘Thriving in the care of many mothers’ is the autobiography of Rosemary Yvonne Borel, born in Jamaica, who was a student at Leeds in the 1960s, and later travelled around the world on a Carnegie Fellowship. The title refers to the many women who acted as mother-substitutes in her early life. Of most interest to us here is her account of her experience as a West Indian student in Leeds fifty years ago.

Steve Chimombo (1945-2015) was a Malawian writer who took a master’s degree in English at Leeds, and became a professor at Chancellor College. We have received a collection of sixteen of his works, including poems, novels, and literary criticism. Many of Chimombo’s works are retellings of African folk tales, but he also enters the darker areas of the Banda dictatorship and the AIDS crisis.

Africa also features prominently in the memories of another Leeds graduate, Harry Egdell, who spent much of his medical career working in Uganda, firstly in the Royal Army Medical Corps and later as a civilian. His ‘Chapters in Africa’ gives many vivid and entertaining descriptions of African life.

We have acquired a collection of Australian cookery books and pamphlets, mostly from the mid-twentieth century and the far-off days of happy housewives cheerfully cooking in their dream kitchens. From the time of post-war austerity comes a suggestion that when making cakes, dripping could be used a substitute for butter, with a dash of lemon juice to disguise the dripping flavour. There are a number of promotional items – for Bournville cocoa, Copha shortening, Davis gelatine, Kraft cheese, Bushells coffee and more.

A second collection of 100 booklets of photographs from Café Royal Books features more atmospheric views of urban dereliction and seedy seaside resorts. Craig Atkinson’s ‘The University of Leeds’ concentrates on the Chancellor’s Court area; and his “The Tetley Archive” is a selection of scenes of the former Tetley’s Brewery in its working days.