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.