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The Strange Case of the Chevalier d’Eon

In the mid-18th century – at the height of the power struggle between France and England and the political ferment of both nations – a French spy with a peculiar personal agenda came to prominence in London. Jonathan Conlin tells his story.

Two different depictions of the Chevalier d'Eon. The left hand one is by Pierre-Adrien Le Beau; to the right is an engraving by J.B. Bradel dated 1779.On July 14th, 1775, a 43-year-old adventurer and playwright, Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais, wrote a letter to the Comte de Vergennes, foreign minister to Louis XVI of France. The future author of The Marriage of Figaro (1784) was in London, sent there by the French king on a secret mission to negotiate the return of a rogue spy: the Chevalier d’Eon. Beaumarchais may have been chosen to deal with the Chevalier because he was considered disposable: someone who could write plays in which humble valets run rings round noblemen could easily be dismissed as a fantasist if things went public. However, he clearly relished his new role. Another kind of acting, spying gave Beaumarchais the chance to lift the curtain on the hidden motives behind events. As he discovered, diplomacy was actually quite straightforward compared to writing plays. Reading the intentions of entire states was, he informed Vergennes, far easier than reading the hearts of real-life individuals:

I have always found the secrets of governments far easier to penetrate than those of individuals.Whatever lies in a nation’s best interest, that it will do – if it has the means, and as long as its ministers are not imbeciles, or bribed. It is not the same with individuals, whose interests lie hidden, compromised and restrained in a thousand ways, and which can only be guessed at rather than truly perceived.

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