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Prose with Skirts

Eoin O’Brien

The Crossdresser’s Secret, by Brian O’Doherty, Sternberg Press, 478 pp, £16.50, ISBN: 978-3943365962

Brian O’Doherty is arguably best known as an artist, whose painting and sculpture are to be found in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Pompidou Centre. He has created the genre known as “Rope Drawings” in which the precision of architecture and the colour and contrast of painting are brought into spatial harmony. Over a hundred “Rope Drawings” grace galleries and public spaces in many countries, capturing as he once put it “the feeling that motivates dancers to throw themselves into space and their desire to remain suspended therein” ‑ an impossibility for the dancer that is overcome by the artistic ingenuity of the rope drawings. The world-renowned painter, sculptor and visionary George Segal described O’Doherty’s drawings as “the greatest oeuvre of drawings by any post-War American artist”. In addition, O’Doherty is a sculptor, critic and novelist, who has also written two earlier books, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P and The Deposition of Father McGreevy (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000), as well as numerous works on literary and artistic criticism that include American Masters: The Voice and the Myth; Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space; Studio and Cube: On the Relationship between Where Art Is Made and Where Art Is Displayed; and two dramatic works, Dream and Hello Sam. And lest we forget he is also a medical doctor, having graduated from University College Dublin in 1952, a happening that is not altogether without relevance to The Crossdresser’s Secret, but his doctoring background is best exemplified, and daringly so, in the Portrait of Marcel Duchamp: Lead 1, slow heartbeat and Duchamp Boxed, in which the paintings are endowed with a unique and enduring immortality whereby Duchamp’s heart throbs on in perpetuity long after his death. For more on the art and times of O’Doherty see Benda Moore-McCann’s illuminating Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland: Between Categories.

So when a new novel comes from the pen of this remarkable polymath – and this much misused word is applicable for once ‑ we need to sit up and pay close attention. The Crossdresser’s Secret belongs to the literary genre known as the historical novel, whereby an event or personality of the past serves as the creative stimulus for a novel, which by definition (though some would not agree) is a work of fiction. But this is where we run into difficulty. It can be argued that a reviewer should not be concerned with definitions as to which class of literature he is reviewing and just get on with the job. However, with The Crossdresser’s Secret, the reviewer is challenged not alone with the book but also with the persona of the author, which is not the case with the run-of-the-mill book when the subject is paramount and the author is of incidental interest. Why should this be so? First, there is a moral imperative in all that O’Doherty does – he does not immerse himself in a subject for fifteen years without having a damn good reason for doing so and in The Crossdresser’s Secret, the societal suppression of sexual individuality is exposed, challenged and, in my view, given a new and enlightened structure to inform future discussion. Secondly, in the novel, the point of commencement, for what I have called the moral imperative, may lie (almost certainly does) in the multiplicity of personalities that are to be found both in Brian O’Doherty and the Chevalier d’Eon. So in the works of O’Doherty, we can relate to Sigmund Bode, Mary Josephson, William Maginn and most famously Patrick Ireland, each of whom has been a conduit for O’Doherty to express his iconoclastic ideals through a diversity of expressionistic personalities, or as he has put it: “I speak of ‘I’, and that notion of myself … is strange to me, for there are several persons I have met in recent months, all of them myself.” And in d’Eon we find a not dissimilar cohort of genii struggling to express themselves ‑ the decorated soldier, captain of dragoons awarded the Order of Saint-Louis, and the honour of the Chevalier d’Eon; the trusted diplomat and confidant of Louis XV who held the office of plenipotentiary minister for France in London; the accomplished swordsman; and the woman, who ingratiated herself with royalty and diplomats in the capitals of Europe. Third, whereas at the expressive level O’Doherty may be categorised simply as a painter, a sculptor, a dramatist, or a novelist depending on your point of view, there is the more complex and rewarding interpretation of the artist in the totality of his being when as a philosopher he draws from the rudiments of the past and the occult influence of primitive language to probe disturbingly and ruthlessly, as one commentator has put it rather nicely, “the ‘I’, the ‘Here’”.

Who was the Chevalier d’Éon? Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Eon de Beaumont, usually known as the Chevalier d’Eon, was born to a noble but impoverished family in Tonnerre, Burgundy on October 5th, 1728 and died in poverty in London on May 21st, 1810.

His father, Louis d’Éon, was a parliamentary barrister, and, not surprisingly his son entered the Collège Mazarin in Paris, to study for doctorates in canon and civil law; he successfully completed his studies at too young an age to be awarded such honours, and he was granted special privilege to graduate and to enrol in the list of parliamentary barristers in Paris. By the age of twenty-five he had published books on the political administration of ancient and modern people, and a history of financial development in France. Besides being a precocious intellect, D’Éon was an excellent athlete and so good a swordsman that later in life he had no rival except the most famed swordsman of the age, the Chevalier de Saint-George.

One of the more informative and erudite commentators on the life the Chevalier, Bram Stoker, has commented as follows in Famous Imposters, written in 1910: “In all the range of doubtful personalities there is hardly any one whom convention has treated worse than it has the individual known in his time ‑ and after ‑ as The Chevalier d’Éon. For about a hundred and fifty years he has been written of ‑ simply as a man who masqueraded in woman’s clothes.”

Stoker is indeed correct in his assertion that there was very much more to the Chevalier d’Éon than he is given credit for. During his life, d’Éon moved among the elite of several nations in exciting (and dangerous) times. He did so by adopting two personas, one male and the other female, and he excelled in both, being able to perfect feminism when among women (and men), and as an accomplished swordsman and decorated soldier, he was readily accepted in the company of men (and women). Quite apart from his exploits on the diplomatic and political stages, and on the battlefield, he also wrote a number of books that give insight into the devious intrigue of the period.

In 1755 the Prince de Conti, asked King Louis XV to send d’Éon to Russia on a secret mission with the Chevalier Douglas, so as to bring the courts of France and Russia into closer diplomatic harmony. Rumour and fable (probably instigated by the Chevalier) has found substance in attributing the success of this mission to d’Eon being able to infiltrate the court disguised as a maid of honour, the lady Lea de Beaumont, who became a confidante and friend of the Empress Elizabeth.

Returning briefly to France, he joined the secret network of spies that Louis set up without the knowledge of his government, known as the Secret du Roi. From then until the king’s death in 1774, d’Éon became his trusted loyal agent and correspondent.

He returned to St Petersburg with the title of secretary of embassy, dressed on this occasion as a lieutenant of dragoons. In this role he convinced the empress that her chancellor had betrayed her interests and the post was conferred on Count Woronzow, who was much more favourably disposed to France. In recompense the king conferred d’Eon with a handsome pension and made him a captain of dragoons. In this role he fought with distinction in the battles of Hoecht and Ultrop (where he was wounded) and in the battle of Eimbech (where he put the Scots to flight), and at the head of eighty dragoons and twenty hussars he overthrew a battalion of the enemy at the battle of Osterkirk.

Besides all this, d’Éon was the carrier of many important dispatches between the nations of Europe – a task that was not without its dangers in those days of horse-dependent transport. He brought news of successful negotiations for the peace of Versailles from Vienna in 1757 and he also carried the dispatches of the great victory of the troops of Maria Theresa. After the death of the empress of Russia in 1762 he was dispatched to London to draft the peace treaty that formally ended the Seven Years’ War. The treaty was signed in Paris in 1763 and in gratitude for his important role in negotiations he was awarded the Order of Saint-Louis, becoming the Chevalier d’Éon.

D’Éon was sent to London as chargé d'affaires, and then plenipotentiary minister, where he spied for the king to further his ridiculous ambitions for an invasion of England. Despite the fact that he habitually wore a dragoon’s uniform, rumours circulated in London that he was a woman and a betting pool was started on the London stock exchange about his true sex. In England, his diplomatic skills allowed him to forge excellent relationships with the aristocracy, which were enhanced by gifts of the produce of his father’s vineyard in Tonnerre and lavish entertainment in his capacity as interim ambassador. However, on the arrival of the new ambassador, the Comte de Guerchy, in October 1763, d’Éon was demoted to the rank of secretary and humiliated by the count, who, he alleged, had tried to poison him. In desperation, he published much of his secret diplomatic correspondence in Lettres, mémoires et négociations particulières du chevalier d’Éon, which was published in 1764. In this popular and infamous book he derided de Guerchy as being unfit to be ambassador, but with canny prescience, he withheld the king’s secret plan to invade England, and this hostage may well have secured his survival, life being very dispensable in those troubled times. In a letter to Louis XV, d’Éon claimed the new ambassador tried to have him poisoned: “Subsequently I have discovered that M. de Guerchy caused opium, if nothing worse, to be put in my wine, calculating that after dinner I should fall into a heavy sleep, that they would put me, still asleep, onto a couch and, instead of my being carried home, I should be carried down to the Thames where probably there was a boat waiting ready to abduct me.” Frustrated by the king’s lack of response and not content with the diplomatic turmoil caused by the book, d’Éon sued de Guerchy for attempted murder and he in turn successfully sued d’Éon for libel. Eventually, in 1764, Louis XV granted d’Éon an annual pension of twelve thousand livres and he continued to work as a spy, living in political exile in London and working on Les loisirs du Chevalier d’Éon, which was published in thirteen volumes in Amsterdam in 1774.

Following the death of Louis XV in 1774, d’Éon negotiated a return from exile with Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799), famous for his play The Barber of Seville (1775) and later The Marriage of Figaro (1784). Louis XVI rejected the old plans for an invasion of Britain, but he was anxious to acquire all documentation relating to the secret du roi. One of d’Éon’s demands in the negotiations was that the government publicly recognise him as a woman and the king not only agreed but made it conditional that he must always wear women’s clothes, for which he also granted funds for a female wardrobe.

D’Éon returned to France in 1777 and met Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. When France joined the American War of Independence against Britain, he sent letters to the king’s ministers, begging them unsuccessfully to continue his military service and send him to America. During the next decade he lived mostly with his mother at the family home in Tonnerre, from where he published a books of memoirs: La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d'Éon.

In 1785, four years before the French Revolution, d’Éon returned to England, where he fell on hard times; the pension granted by Louis XV was terminated after the French Revolution, and the family’s properties in Tonnerre were confiscated. D’Éon had to sell personal possessions, including his library and earn money in fencing tournaments until he was seriously wounded in Southampton in 1796. In 1792 he sent a letter to France to the national assembly, and volunteered “to fight and die for the nation, the Law, and the King” and to lead a division of women soldiers against Austria. In 1804, he was sent to a debtors’ prison for five months and he spent his last years bed-ridden and in poverty living with a kindly widow named Mrs Cole. In 1805 he signed a contract for his autobiography, entitled La Pucelle de Tonnerre, but this was never published.

Chevalier d’Éon died on May 21st, 1810 aged eighty-one. Just as during his life attempts had been made to carry him off for the purpose of settling bets by a humiliating personal scrutiny, so too, in death, the issue was pursued and an autopsy was performed before several witnesses of position and repute, amongst whom were several surgeons including Père Elisée, First Surgeon to Louis XVIII. The medical certificate ran as follows:

Je certifie, par le présent, avoir inspecté le corps du chevalier d’Éon, en présence de M. Adair, M. Wilson et du Père Elisée, et avoir trouvé les organs masculins parfaitement formés. (I hereby certify that in the presence of Mr Adair, Mr Wilson and Father Elisée I have examined the body of the Chevalier d’Éon and have found perfectly formed male organs.)

The Chevalier d’Éon was buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, and his remaining possessions were sold by Christie’s in 1813.

So much for the fascinating career of a remarkable Frenchman, but however exciting and dramatic his life may have been, it is fair to say that it was nothing to the acclaim and misinterpretation that was to follow in a vast secondary literature that shows no sign of abating. It is intriguing to speculate as to what it is about d’Éon that has so attracted countless writers and artists to create what is effectively a d’Éon cult. But we should at least endeavour to identify the reasons and assess where The Crossdresser’s Secret rests within this legacy. First, d’Éon had many admirers and influential friends (also of importance in this regard is that he amassed probably a greater number of enemies) who would have perpetuated his exploits in conversation, correspondence, memoirs and fictional writing. Not all did so to his credit: Horace Walpole, who met d’Éon in 1786, described him as loud, noisy, and vulgar – “her hands and arms seem not to have participated of the change of sexes, but are fitter to carry a chair than a fan”. James Boswell wrote simply that “she appeared to me a man in woman's clothes”. Politicians and writers such as Beaumarchais would no doubt have entertained many a dinner ensemble with tales of the Chevalier.

It is paradoxical, none the less, that the Chevalier died in poverty without his friends seeming to much care about his impoverished state, yet when he died the hovering scavengers were on hand to determine his sex. It would be interesting to know who benefited from the sale of his possessions at Christies ‑ his library at one time contained some six thousand volumes and five hundred rare manuscripts. Suffice it to say, that the curiosity he engendered in life did not abate with his death or, as Voltaire was to so aptly classify him: “A nice problem for history.”

Let us turn then to d’Éon’s literary output, which it seems has not been adequately researched, with some works being only available in French. His output was prodigious by any standard, ranging from the infamous Lettres, mémoires et négociations particulières du chevalier d'Éon, to Les loisirs du Chevalier d'Éon: sur divers sujets importants d'administrations, etc. pendant son séjour en Angleterre, in no less than thirteen volumes, and La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d'Éon, which is ostensibly a biography by a friend, M de la Fortelle, to which there is undoubtedly a strong autobiographical contribution from d’Éon himself. It is unlikely that these now much dated writings did much to fuel the fire of legend, though they have provided substance for the scholarly biographies that have been written since his death.

So what is it that so fascinates and stimulates the many thousands of references to Chevalier d’Éon on the internet that include numerous scholarly studies (Havelock Ellis coined the term eoinism to denote the phenomenon of transgender behaviour),symposia, theses on his sexuality, plays (the recent play Casa Valentina is based on the book Casa Susanna that portrays the heterosexual transvestite resort in New York once called The Chevalier d’Éon and the Beaumont Society, an organisation for transgender people, is named after the Chevalier d'Éon), dance productions for theatre, television productions, films, and a massive visual output in portraiture, caricatures and animated cartoons and mangas? And, of course, many novels have been based on the fabulous life of the Chevalier d’Éon, to which must now be added The Crossdresser’s Secret.

The Crossdresser’s Secret is much more that it appears to be at first read. It could simply be judged as a classic historical novel, and as I have already said, it would rank with the best of them. Indeed, the author does himself an intellectual disservice by relegating his work to the novel genre: “It should be remembered that while most of the events and details of d’Éon's life, and frequently his own (written) words are included, this is a novel, which adds its own interpretations and fantasies of d’Éon's inner life and family experience ...” However, there is, unless I am badly mistaken, another “secret” to be uncovered in the Crossdresser (over and above the pun on the secret du roi in the title) and that is perhaps more a secret that the author has left for the reader to uncover, namely his identification with the need for expression through diverse persona and, more importantly, empathic support for the psychological attributes of a duality that permits not alone survival, but even acclaim, in society that more often regards such behavioural characteristics as deviant. O’Doherty has been able to empathise without difficulty with the duality of d’Éon’s personality and in doing so has provided a tender and moving (but at no time condescending) interpretation to the so-called “plight” of the trans-gender personality. And, we are left in no doubt in the novel, as was the case in life, d’Éon is a male: “I have only to look down, ...  In the valley between my thighs, resting its head a little wearily, is my member, its blue bonnet turned to one side, its concertina of wrinkles traversed by a master vein, a very Danube of veins, all arranged, like a gourmet’s dish, under the rich doily of my escutcheon.” This book is not for those of prudish temperament; the mores of the times are vividly and at times shockingly portrayed: “Other women, trailing bits of male underwear, rode men crawling around on their hands and knees. Some ‘women’, lying back as if seeing a beatific vision, drank their wine while their ‘men’ buried their heads in the flounces and laces of their nether garments. This spectacle included other varieties of pleasure. In a near corner, two ‘women’, their dresses around their waists, lay facing each other side to side, gazing intently into each other’s eyes as they fumbled with their companion’s undergarments to reveal two soldiers standing at attention. Oddly enough, I did not see anyone being used in the Italian fashion. As these occasions go, it seemed somewhat provincial to me – no children and no cruelty.”

O’Doherty uses a multiplicity of devices to serve his complex mission – the relationship with his mother casts shades of Oedipus on his ambivalence to heterosexual relationships – “I have more pleasure in looking than in doing” ‑ but also illustrates the sexual pleasure associated with female attire. “Slipping into these undergarments, with their flounces, borders, strings, and bows, I felt, as I watched myself in the mirror, a swelling of my member, which eventually subsided, but in doing so, seemed to spread its pleasure, like a magic oil, over my body.”

The period and the eccentricities of the major figures are so enlivened by O’Doherty’s meticulous research that the reader is drawn into the circumstance with d’Éon: “My audience with the King (Louis XV) took place in his study, noisy with the ticking of numerous clocks. … I searched for some fragments that would intrigue him: Elizabeth’s permanently voracious appetites serviced by the priapic Ruzamovsky (he smiled in a rather pained way); of her contradictory and unpredictable dealings with her ministers (he looked thoughtful); of the favor she had shown me (he kept his eyes on an ormulu clock that had gone into a frenzy of chimes). Then all the clocks began to strike, catching up with the other in a hullaballoo of chimes. His Majesty put his forehead in his hand, then ran a finger down his long Bourbon nose and back again.” And with his mistress Madame Pompadour, who would be an even greater arbiter than the king in determining d’Éon’s future (and that of countless others): “I waited for an hour in the ante-chamber to the room Boucher has decorated for her ... Everything was designed to show her culture in the arts and sciences … She sat on a high chair and smoothed her skirts, the same ones she wore in Boucher’s portrait, which made her look like a Queen, smooth face, elegant posture, commanding presence. Older now, and fatter, she looked more like a great rug thrown over a chair. She raised her eyes. Her gaze was dead, as if she lived at some distance behind it.” And in a later audience with Pompadour her crimson lips put d’Éon in mind of Volatire, who once said of Boucher “that he does not paint a single nude without her bottom being as made up as her face”.

The political shenanigans of the time are cast in masterly prose that never leaves us in doubt as to the meticulous research forming the scaffold of this novel. There are from time to time delightful truisms that resonate today with all the force of two centuries ago: “What annoys me most of all is that our defeated allies, the Russians, will prosper. Invading Russia is like wading into the sea with the tide going out, thinking you are gaining ground. Russia is an unfathomable vastness.”

There is within d’Éon yet another conflict of personality – perhaps confluence rather than conflict would be better – the presence of whom may not be too altogether unfamiliar to O’Doherty himself. Named simply “Companion”, this alter ego is, as d’Éon explains, more than just the voice of conscience: “At such moments, Companion becomes my double, our voices echoing each other’s ... When did this second nature join me? Possibly at an early age when the opinion of others became a prism in which I saw myself refracted. My companion probably was born with the first realization that one is strange to oneself. It is not the voice of conscience. She always speaks in the same tone, clearly. Companion communicates in soundless intimations. I have learned to pay heed to it. It sometimes makes me cringe in retrospect, even after years have passed.” O’Doherty elevates the psychology of transgender sexuality to new plane of understanding by allowing d’Éon to express sensual and sexually genuine sentiments that show a very profound empathy – I nearly said sympathy but this would be a disservice – with the profundity of the range of human sexuality. When d’Éon in his frequent forages as a woman is mistakenly regarded as being the mistress of d’Éon himself, the effect on him is interestingly insightful: “I am liked well enough. But after being awarded a mistress, I was liked even better. When I returned from my ‘female’ walks, I fell into the silly habit of talking to my member. ‘Little do they know’, I would address it as I lay down and it turned its wobbly eye on me, ‘that you are the villain of this comedy, hidden beneath my nether garments (beautifully stitched by nuns from Combrai). Some rumors say you do not exist. Others that you pursue a mistress. The two of us are conspirators, but you are the most minor of partners unable to betray our secret, for you may have an eye, but not a mouth.”

There is then the fetish of d’Éon’s mother’s shoe, which would in psychological realms be seen as a deeply sensitive analysis of how a fetish can influence all sexuality from blatant pornography to the more subtle entices of the lingerie industry that thrives on the ephemera of sex. “I looked down at my now silent partner, and was moved by an obscure impulse to teach it a lesson. I retrieved my mother’s shoe from the closet and admiring its sinuous curve, its heart-shaped sole, its raised heel, its satin toe shining in the lamplight, pleasured myself. It was around this time that I began to void my water squatting.”

To understand just how un-fictional O’Doherty’s delicate representation of fetishism is in The Crossdresser’s Secret (and to appreciate perhaps the influence of doctoring all those years earlier, or put another way, the insight of the physician) it is reasonable to turn to that astutest observer of human behaviour, Ernest Becker, who said of fetishism: “One of the main puzzles has been what the fetish object represented, what the meaning was of a shoe or a corset, leather, and furs, or even an artificial leg. Freud and his followers maintained steadfastly that it represented ‘a quite special penis’ – the mother’s. It was also argued that the fetish represented a denial of the penis, a vagina, feces, and the like. All of which seems to indicate that what it represented was not dear, that it could represent many things to many different fetishists, which is surely the truth of the matter. But another thing is sure, which is that the fetish had to do with a problem posed by the sexual act ... Fetishism represents the anxiety of the sexual act, the danger of species functioning for a symbolic animal, what must the fetish be if not some sort of magical charm?”

Becker sees the fetish as a means of liberation of the personality from the straitjacket in which convention has imprisoned it. Freud, who any sane observer must wisely view with circumspection while always being alert to the seductive persuasion of his remarkable prose, was probably right (at least in the case of the Chevalier d’Éon) in saying that the fetish saved the person from homosexuality, because it provided a means of transforming reality. Boss, quoted by Becker, says of one of his patients: “Whenever he saw or touched [ladies’ boots] the world changed miraculously ... Naked women or a woman’s hand without a glove or especially a woman’s foot without a shoe ... seemed to be like lifeless pieces of meat in a butcher shop ... However, when the woman wore a glove, a piece of fur, or a riding boot, she was at once “raised above her arrogant, too humanely personal level.’” If we persist a little further with this line of argument and examine the reasoning of Boss’s patient who regarded “sexual intercourse” as “great disgrace for humans” we can understand, or at least come to have a glimmer of appreciation, as to how the “fetish changes all this by transforming the whole quality of the relationship. Everything is spiritualized, etherealized.”

The Crossdresser’s Secret is a magnificent achievement – it proves, if proof was needed, that O’Doherty is as fine a writer as he is a painter. This indeed could be his downfall; two, or more talents, in the one personality must necessarily vie for precedence whereas devotion to one, albeit to the consternation (and detriment) of the other, it could be argued, would permit the concentration, as distinct from the sharing, of creative energies; this is hardly a line of reasoning that da Vinci or Beckett would subscribe to. As to the music of O’Doherty’s prose, here is one example caught appropriately in the despair of d’Éon for the destruction of good prose in the expression of diplomatic reportage, a protest that surely has contemporary resonance in the world of text messages and the slow but steady destruction of English in journalistic reportage: “Who will read all this muddy Styx of prolixity, on which bloated adjectives float like dead dogs and adverbs scuttle like rats as verbs are borne slowly with the current before striking rocks of nouns? Do I exaggerate? What else can you do with this Stygian flow? If good prose is not good character, it is at least a kind of good breeding. You can sweeten the darkest evil with probity of style.”

The Crossdresser’s Secret, ranks, in my view, with the great historical novels – War and Peace, The Leopard and I Claudius, just to mention my favourites ‑ and it can be read and enjoyed as such. But, perhaps in time, it will be seen, not alone as a novel but rather as a treatise on the psychological nuances of transgender sexuality, or stated more candidly the elusive dividing line between heterosexual and homosexual affinities. At one point the Chevalier states: “How did I know this was not written by a man posing as ‘A Lady’? Why were the writers supporting equality for women mostly men? Why didn’t women write for themselves? And if men wrote in support of women, did their prose have skirts, as it were? When I write about women’s virtues do I have a woman’s feelings? And what are woman’s feelings? When I wear dresses, what are my feelings? No matter how long I wear a dress, I possess the certificate of my manhood (which stirs at the thought. Of course if you become aware of any part of your body, it starts to think. You can give consciousness to your big toe. I once heard a dancer at Versailles say ‘My right knee is angry with me today’).” Indeed O’Doherty, speaking recently of one of his pseudonyms, Mary Josephson, had this to say: “My mother gave me the name Mary, which I resented profoundly. I always wanted to write as a woman, whatever a woman is, and each sex is mysterious to the other. Do women write differently from men?”

So those readers who delve deeper into The Crossdresser’s Secret will come away wiser, but disturbed, and it will take some time to ponder and identify the reason for disquiet; I think it is being left with no option but to examine the secrets we may share to greater or lesser extent, in one form or another, with the enigmatic Chevalier, who despite all the duplicity that was thrust upon him, and in spite of the complexity of his personality, retained his principles and integrity. It would be fair to say that Brian O’Doherty, in The Crossdresser’s Secret, has redressed the lament of another Irishman, Bram Stoker, who wrote just over a century ago: “In all the range of doubtful personalities there is hardly any one whom convention has treated worse than it has the individual known in his time ‑ and after ‑ as The Chevalier d’Éon.”

1/10/2015
Eoin O’Brien's latest book, The weight of Compassion and Other Essays is reviewed in the current issue of the DRB.

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