Dec 012009

Given to female dress and mannerisms and male identified; a voracious lover of women and a priest; an actress, a gambler, a gentleman and a scoundrel; a human being living their life to the fullest.  Abbe Francois Timoleon De Choisy was common by birth, lacking the ties of blood to be called noble, but reared amongst the ranks of the privileged by virtue of his mother, a woman who had the ear of Louis XIV and encouraged her children to give allegiance to none but the king.

The third child of Mme de Choisy, born after her fortieth birthday, Francois was kept close by her side and dressed in feminine clothing at his mother’s behest.  Under her watchful eye, Francois learned first-hand how to negotiate the deep waters of the royal court, successfully learning the art and décor of feminine beauty and how to best utilize his allure as both a familiar face about court and an exotic beauty; a feminized man.  Patricia Cholakian describes his precocious introduction to intrigue in Women and the Politics of Self-Representation in Seventeenth-Century France: “…from the age of ten on he spent two or three hours every morning copying out letters to his mother’s illustrious correspondents. [Choisy says] ‘it was in this way that I was initiated at an early age to into the mysteries of politics.’”[1]

While growing up at court, Francois often consorted with Phillipe d’Orleans, the younger brother of the king, and both were, by royal decree, socialized as females when playing together.  This sanctioned and encouraged feminization instilled in both Francois and Phillipe an affinity for transcending gendered roles that lasted the entirety of their respective lives and further served to remove any threat of Phillipe ascending to the French throne.  The process of imprinting feminine traits from an early age resulted in Phillipe being “effeminate” enough to never have any reasonable legitimacy as a ruler, as the charismatic role of King needed to be filled by an individual who gave at least a convincing act of being wholly virile and masculine. For Francois, the encouraged feminization bloomed into a love of feminine dress and mannerisms that he continued to practice throughout his life.

Baroque France was a welter of contradictions: while deeply preoccupied with keeping gender roles strictly defined, women were beginning to take the stage as equals to their male counterparts, especially as authors and artists.  Mitchell Greenberg comments on this in Baroque Bodies: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of French Absolutism:

Choisy was both central and eccentric to the Classical world of seventeenth-century France.  First and most obviously he produces himself as a body that incorporates in and on itself the split that Classical society projects out and between the sexes. Then, in another sense, he moves between the social strata of the century, between his bourgeois ancestry and his (mother’s) nobiliary pretensions, a move we see reflected in the spatial shifts in his domestic living conditions between the aristocratic Luxembourg Palace and the bourgeois (and poulaire) St. Marceau quarter where s/he takes up residence. Finally, perhaps the most spectacular example of Choisy’s oscillation between centrality and eccentricity is his famous voyage from the center of the universe (Versailles) to the ends of the world – to Bangkok, as he accompanies an embassy sent by Louis XIV to the king of Siam. Choisy in his life and writings becomes a perfect example of a crossroads, uniting in this person all that absolutist France would keep neatly (and strategically) separated. He is the motley, the ‘both/and (both man and woman, both inside and outside, both aristocrat and bourgeois), the hybrid ‘monstrosity’ that is anathema to Absolutism’s compulsion for the ‘either/or’. [2]

This duality was further reflected through Choisy’s attitude toward himself. He took great pride in his feminine appearance, as noted by Patricia Cholakian. “…he claims that he had no beard at all: ‘From the age of five or six I had been carefully rubbed every day with a certain water that kills the hair at its root, provided it is done early enough.’ Likewise his breasts were sufficiently developed to pass for a girl’s: ‘My corset was very high and stuffed in the front to make it look as if I had a bust, and truly I did have as much as a girl of fifteen.  In childhood, I had been made to wear corsets that were extremely tight and pushed up the flesh, which was plump and well-rounded….one would never have guessed that I was not a woman.’”[3]

His ability to pass as female continued through his life; at the age of twenty-two, he ran away to Bordeaux where he performed and lived as an actress. Marjorie Garber relates in Vested Interests that Francois reminisces about this in his Memoirs: “I have taken the part of a girl for five months in the theatre of a large town…. Everyone was deceived.” [4] He continued his career in the theatre well into his middle years, also acting as a fashion consultant for younger women; a sort of specialized finishing school where mothers and aunts would send their daughters to be tutored by Francois on the finer aspects of feminine dress and deportment.  Choisy also took his lovers from these young women, unbeknownst to their guardians, who thought Choisy to be female bodied.

Choisy continued to dress as a woman throughout his life, and “even into advanced old age the abbe enjoyed putting on women’s accouterments to compose his austere histories of the Catholic Church and kings of France” [5]. Nevertheless, he was aware that his openly cross-dressing limited his ability to become more than an eccentric accoutrement of the French court. Patricia Cholakian discusses this:

“Choisy’s own ambitions were likewise blighted by his effeminacy. He was never appointed to a significant post: ‘He [the king] has never listened favorably to me; and whenever I have asked him for some slight favors, he has refused them all’. Dedicated to the task of extolling Louis, he seemingly accepts this unobliging attitude, and excuses it on the grounds of his transgressive behavior: ‘He was not really wrong; I have brought about my own exclusion, and my hidden and irregular conduct is justification enough for the way I have been treated.’ Yet he was well aware that given his connections at court, he should have prospered: ‘It was within my power to make a considerable fortune…. I can only say in my own defense that out of false tenderness my mother raised me as a girl: how can you make a great man out of that!’” [6]

Against the binary divisions of baroque France, Choisy ensouled the struggle of opposing forces striving for equality.  His personal relationship with his dualistic nature was correspondingly complex, and ranged from vanity to bitter disdain. Unable to happily balance his love of cross-dressing with his desire for material success, Choisy became an inveterate gambler, eventually driving himself to ruin.

Isolated from society and desperately poor, Choisy, in depression, rid himself of all feminine accoutrements, and became seriously ill.  Following what was, to him, a miraculous recovery, Choisy converted and took vows as a priest.  His later years were spent as the abbot of Saint-Seine in Burgundy, where he produced numerous works, including an eleven volume history of the Church, two sets of memoirs, and the short novel for which he is perhaps best remembered, L’Histoire de la marquise-marquis de Banneville.

Considered by many to be a romantic novelization of his life, L’Histoire tells the tale of a young beauty who is raised not knowing that she is different from other girls. Upon discovering that her body is not the same as other young women her age, she struggles with whether she should disclose her secret or remain in silence – for she has fallen in love with a handsome young man.  A merry chase ensues, and the two lovers eventually wed to discover in their nuptial bed that they are very well suited indeed, as the young man disrobes to reveal a woman’s body underneath.  The delighted couple declares they will continue to dress in their preferred fashions, and live happily ever after.

L’Histoire de la marquise-maquis de Bannevile, published posthumously, is apparent in its parallels to the author’s early life.  What is most notable about the book is that the protagonists eschewed traditional gender roles altogether, and still came to a happy ending, unlike the maudlin tale of Abbe Francois Timoleon De Choisy, whose preference for cross-dressing was regarded as a weakling’s affliction.  Doomed to struggle unsuccessfully throughout his life with reconciling his cross-dressing with the expectations of absolutist France, what should be the tale of an astute, charismatic, and complicated person becomes instead a comic tragedy of an irregular eccentric who wore women’s dresses while penning the history of the Catholic Church.



[1] Patricia Francis Cholakian, Women and the Politics of Self-Representation in Seventeenth-Century France. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2001, pg 153.

[2] Mitchell Greenberg, Baroque Bodies: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of French Absolutism. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001, pg 123-124.

[3] Patricia Francis Cholakian, Women and the Politics of Self-Representation in Seventeenth-Century France. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2001, pg 160.

[4] Marjorie B. Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1997, pg 259.

[5] Mitchell Greenberg, Baroque Bodies: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of French Absolutism. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001, pg 122.

[6] Patricia Francis Cholakian, Women and the Politics of Self-Representation in Seventeenth-Century France. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2001, pg 157.


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