18th century escapades: the votaries of dissipation at Ranelagh

In April 1776 the gentleman who called himself Momus, the Laughing Philosopher went on a ramble and wrote an account of it in the Westminster Magazine. After a walk in the park he found the day so salubrious that he proceeded down the Chelsea Road. Carriages went to and fro so he concluded that “the Rotunda was open for the reception of the polite world.” He was not incommoded by dust “in consequence of the road being watered”. Nor was he prevented “from joining the votaries of dissipation by not being dressed au dernier gout”.

He fell in behind two ladies who were complaining at having to arrive at so early an hour.

Empty vol1

He was fascinated by the head of one of the ladies “which appeared to be fluffed out to an enormous size but what chagrined me the most was to see it decorated with a prodigious quantity of cherries which looked most invitingly plump and juicy”. For himself he had no desire to taste the fruit. It seemed to him they were set in a “dunghill composed of hair, wool, grease and powder”. But another woman nearby “being in a longing condition [i.e.pregnant] cast such wilful glances at them that I actually believed she would have snapped at them had she been tall enough to reach them”

Fruit stall

When the first woman took her seat in the Rotunda the pregnant lady sat as close as she could. Reaching out to touch the fruit she could not contain herself and “tore the whole superstructure to pieces”. As it turned out the fruit was not fit to “be pressed by her lips” and she was obliged to pretend to faint to cover her embarrassment. Momus reports that another lady with a vegetable based hairdo suffered a similar mishap.A hairdresser was summoned to effect repairs. (was this a common occurrence?)

Momus drew a moral from the occasion: “the first beauty in the kingdom will gain more real admiration by the enlargement of her mind than the expansion of her head.”

I don’t suppose he really believed that.

Miss Comeingueout of Opera

I’m assuming the giant hairdos in this  picture are exaggerated for comic effect. This might be closer to actuality:

Ladies magazine

Momus’s night at Ranelagh was evidently pretty typical. Far from that was an event which took place some eighteen years later advertised below:

Chevalier d'Eon announcement from vol 2 crop

The Chevalier D’Eon is history’s most famous transvestite. Or is it as easy as that? The more you look at his life the more disagreement there seems to be. The simplest view is that after a career as a soldier, diplomat and spy he seemed to have fallen out with the French government and agreed to live as a woman for some reason which is not entirely clear. After the French Revolution he lost his government pension and made a living selling off his possessions and engaging in demonstration duels such as the one illustrated below:

Chevalier D'Eon  2

This picture is of a classic D’Eon duel at Carlton House in front of the Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent.

Far more sensational accounts of his life exist however. Giacomo Casanova wrote in his memoirs: It was at that ambassador’s table that I made the acquaintance of the Chevalier d’Eon, the secretary of the embassy, who afterwards became famous.  This Chevalier d’Eon was a handsome woman who had been an advocate and a captain of dragoons before entering the diplomatic service; she served Louis XV as a valiant soldier and a diplomatist of consummate skill.  In spite of her manly ways I soon recognized her as a woman; her voice was not that of a castrato, and her shape was too rounded to be a man’s.  I say nothing of the absence of hair on her face, as that might be an accident.”

Later in his memoirs the great lover takes the opposite view and recounts the story of a 20,000 guinea bet on the gender of the Chevalier. The bet was never won or lost as the Chevalier refused an examination.

The Chevalier lived in London in the role of a middle aged lady even though his pension had dried up. Perhaps he’d settled into the role.

Chevalier D'Eon

There are more sensational stories though such as the disputed account of a spying trip to Russia in female clothes as “Lia de Beaumont” in which guise he infiltrated the maids of honour to the Czarina. As a young man D’Eon was a member of the King’s Secret, a clandestine group of agents working for Louis XV.

The young Chevalier D'Eon aged 25 crop

This picture of the Chevalier from a biography published in 1895 shows a much younger version of his female alter ego which would make the Russian story slightly more plausible (though still unlikely). Was this picture part of the fantasy or evidence that some of the wilder stories were true?

Most accounts agree that a postmortem examination of D’Eon confirmed that he was a man. The psychologist Havelock Ellis referred to cross-dressing as Eonism possibly on the basis that forms of sexual deviance should always be named after a European aristocrat.

D’Eon has also been described as an early celebrity – a manipulator of his own public image. He wasn’t altogether successful but fantasies and images have floated around during his lifetime and long afterwards.

Discovery of the Female Freemason - Copy

“The discovery of the Female Freemason” 1771.

lia de beaumont from deviantart

A cosplay version of the Japanese anime character Lia de Beaumont, the Chevalier’s sister.

One thing is clear however. The Chevalier seems to have been a favourite at Ranelagh:

Chevalier d'Eon announcement from vol 2 crop 2

In the engraving below he is again described as the Chevaliere D’Eon.

Chevalier D'Eon from vol 2

So the votaries of dissipation had a sentimental side.

Images from this post are from a scrapbook in the Local Studies collection about Ranelagh compiled in the 19th century, except for the picture of the young Chevalier which is from Ernest Alfred Vizetelly’s The true story of the Chevalier D’Eon (1895), the Female Freemason which is from Edna Nixon’s Royal Spy: the strange case of the Chevalier D’Eon (1966), and the photo of “Lia de Beaumont” which is from NadiaSK’s DeviantArt gallery (http://nadiask.deviantart.com/ ).


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