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The Crossdresser’s Secret

Brian O’Doherty,
The Crossdresser’s Secret
(Sternberg Press, 2014)

Brian O’Doherty has written a profoundly speculative novel about a historical figure, Charles-Geneviève-Louise-Auguste-André-Thimothée d’éon de Beaumont (1728 – 1810), better known as the Chevalier d’éon. The Chevalier (or Chevalière, as he was called when in drag) has become a seminal figure in transgender history.1 d’éon’s very profession involved doubleness: he was a French diplomat representing the court of Louis XV as well as a member of Louis XV’s shadow government, The Secret (hence the pun of the novel’s title). In true 18th-century fashion, this aristocrat was also a decorated war hero, lawyer, censor, author, and spy.2

“It must indeed be acknowledged that she (the Chevalière d’éon) is the most extraordinary person of the age,” wrote Edmund Burke, theorist of the Sublime in 1781. Huge sums of money—the equivalent of $2 million today—were wagered on d’éon’s sex in 18th-century London. He wrote a proto-WikiLeaks tell-all Lettres, memoires, et negociations particulieres (1764) that became an immediate bestseller and seriously embarrassed his colleagues as well as the crowns of both England and France. That was the end of any hopes for a by-the-book, diplomatic career.

Written in the first person, O’Doherty’s novel painfully outlines the difference between choosing to dress as a woman, as the protagonist did, particularly at moments of fierce job stress (“to calm myself I dressed as a woman for night walks”); and his being ordered to dress as a woman full time—after decades of being a thorn in the royal behind—by Louis XVI upon d’éon’s return to France in 1777. In this evolution from elective to compulsory transvestitism, an odd sort of feminism emerges, for d’éon learns what it’s like to live as a woman—specifically how horrifically constraining it is to get into late 18th-century women’s court dress when you’re used to rousting about as a soldier.

d’éon’s erotic persona, as delineated by O’Doherty, remains solipsistic. From the first page we are made pointedly aware of the fact that he is an anatomical man. “I have only to look down […] to confirm my sex. In the valley between my thighs […] 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.” He makes no bones about being a voyeur (“I have more pleasure in looking than in doing”) and an onanist who occasionally masturbates into his mother’s silk shoe. He never marries and has no affairs to speak of, certainly no homosocial relations: he spurns the attention of one Graviere, a gay courtier at Versailles, who later commits suicide. d’éon seems perfectly comfortable spending a couple of weeks as an honored female guest in a convent. He dies impoverished and celibate at the Regency, London in the company of a widow, Mrs. Cole, who becomes aware of his gender only after the autopsy. Apart from a bravura cross-dressing orgy scene in Russia (a young d’éon finds that the Empress Elizabeth was “better looking as a man”), this is not a bodice (or codpiece) ripper but rather a slow, steady, unflashy disquisition on power, ambition, self-promotion, feminism, and faith.

In its measured, evenhanded way, it de-sensationalizes, and renders down-to-earth, the longueurs and frustrations of d’éon’s insanely picaresque life. O’Doherty is particularly good at evoking 18th-century dailiness: his description of how d’éon successfully finds a place to hide the top-secret letters of commission from Louis XV behind a darkened picture in his cousin’s guest bedroom is a tour-de-force. The author expertly establishes the layout of the room, and lavishes an art historian’s formal inventory on the painting’s ornate frame, “which, after an hysterical profusion of curlicues at the corners, climaxed at the top center in two entangled putti.”

All this provides O’Doherty a perfect opportunity to exercise his favorite themes of Duchampian slippage, displacement and ambiguity—aesthetic concerns he has been pursuing in his visual art, critical writing, and fiction since the 1960s. O’Doherty (born in 1928) is an Irish writer in exile and a classic instance of a polymath. His early medical training informs his three works of fiction, Crossdresser (2014), The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. (1992), and The Deposition of Father McGreevy (1999) as well as his visual art. (In particular, his sculptural “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp: Lead 1, slow heartbeat” (1966) features a mechanically slowed-down electrocardiograph of Duchamp that O’Doherty presented as a kind of peepshow, in a boxed oscilloscope.) O’Doherty’s protean, advisory roles at the National Endowment for the Arts; his distinguished teaching career at Barnard College and elsewhere; his writing on American modernists, including Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko; his maverick editorship at Art in America in the early ’70s, during which he published many critical pieces under the name of Mary Josephson (a pun on the Holy Family from a lapsed Irish Catholic); his wildly influential collection of essays Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976), originally published in Artforum, which inspired the name of several art galleries; and from 1972 to 2008, his politically charged alias Patrick Ireland, (which he retired only when Northern Ireland’s troubles ceased, and he staged a grand mock burial performance for his alter-ego at the Irish Museum of Modern Art at Kilmainham in Dublin)—all suggest affinities with the shape-shifting of d’Eon.

O’Doherty’s feel for the inscrutability of contemporary art can be sensed as an implicit presence in one of the oddest passages of “Crossdresser.” In going through his deceased father’s papers (some of which are affixed to the walls of the study), d’éon tries to understand their seemingly nonsensical (or geriatric) notations, such as “NOITANIGAMI.” The whole sequence reads like a description of one of Patrick Ireland’s visually teasing yet sumptuous wall drawings involving string, Italianate colors and notations based on the Celtic alphabet:

During the past week, as I removed the papers pinned to the walls, I had noticed slashes of the same black paint underneath, vandalizing the Chinese wallpaper. [...] I thought of the codes I had used as a spy. There was no code. On each wall, if I got far enough away, was a crudely painted word, written in reverse. [...] The letters were more than two feet high, painted with a sweep of the arm, sometimes overlapping one letter with another. When I deciphered “imagination,” I felt a delightful convergence, as if my father and I had entered the same category.

Although its story is compelling, O’Doherty’s novel isn’t easy going. There are long stretches of Franco-British diplomatic history; discourses on Early Christian theology; tortured speculations on the identity of the Holy Spirit which d’Eon comes to conflate with that inner voice constantly nagging at him—rendered as a speaking character in the book—which he calls “Companion.”

There is much speculation on d’éon’s part on what it means to defend women’s rights: the freethinking views of the English Enlightenment, his own ambitions as a writer and his compulsion to cross-dress all color his views. After reading a pamphlet, Female Rights Vindicated, penned by “A Lady,” he asks:

Why were the writers supporting equality for women mostly men? [...] When I write about women’s virtues do I have a woman’s feelings? And what are a 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.)

 All of O’Doherty’s fictional heroes are intelligent creeps, his protagonists morally ambiguous, exasperating, repugnant. In O’Doherty’s first novel, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P., Dr. Mesmer, a proto-New Age, para-sympathetic healer (is he visionary or quack?) undertakes the cure of a blind piano prodigy, gets mixed up with her parents and is banished from the court of Maria Theresa in Vienna. The question remains: Did he abuse the girl? In The Deposition of Father McGreevy, a small-town Irish priest tries our sympathies (rather like the hypocritical nuns in the film Philomena) in his first-person account of the atrocities that occurred during two terrifically hard winters in a tiny mountain village. McGreevy is quick to confess his minor hypocrisies, but this can’t help him from being disgraced and ultimately defrocked.

d’éon is more complex than either Mesmer or McGreevey, and the arc of his learning (and unlearning) is larger and ultimately more satisfying than in the other two books. The Crossdresser’s Secret is O’Doherty’s best book, the richest convergence of his erudition, polemical provocation and penchant for alter egos. The writing is brilliant, clear, unsentimental, and the pleasures afforded by it are grownup ones indeed.3


  1. Long before the TV series Transparent, with Jeffrey Tambour as a transitioning father who struggles to come out to his biological family, there was a late 1950s – early ‘60s heterosexual crossdresser’s resort in the Catskills, the Casa Susanna, originally called the Chevalier d’éon resort. (See Michel Hurst and Robert Swope’s photo album Casa Susanna, (Powerhouse Books, 2005), which in turn inspired Harvey Fierstein’s play of 2014 Casa Valentina.)
  2. The Chevalier d’éon seems quite well known in French pop culture. See Mylene Farmer’s hit song “Sans contrefacon” of 1987. The second-verse lyrics read: “Dans ce monde qui n’a ni queue ni tete / Je n’en fais qu’a ma tete / Un mouchoir au creux du pantalon / Je suis Chevalier d’éon.
  3. O’Doherty’s novel was exhibited as an artwork in a show devoted to the theme of Oscar Wilde’s influence, Wilde Art: International Group Exhibition at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris from May 16 to June 26, 2014.


Brooks Adams

BROOKS ADAMS is a contributing editor of Art in America. He lives in New York and Paris.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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