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Professor casts doubt on one of history's greatest cross-dressing memoirs

Friday, February 20, 2015

LAWRENCE – One of the oldest firsthand accounts of a cross-dresser should be reclassified from historical memoir to fantasy, a University of Kansas professor argues.

Paul Scott, associate professor of French, casts doubt on the memoirs of François-Timoléon de Choisy, an abbot, historian and nobleman who wrote a manuscript about living under several female guises during his twenties in 17th century France. The memoirs includes accounts of a series of female lovers, some of whom he dressed as young men, and fathering a daughter.

Found by a nephew and published after Choisy’s death in 1724, the manuscript was published as a memoir. Ever since, scholars have largely accepted the account as true.

“Unfortunately, one of the great cross-dressing memoirs we have in history isn’t real,” Scott said. “We want it to be true because it so fantastical. But if you regard it with any scrutiny, there are implausibilities, contradictions, anachronisms and no contemporary corroboration whatsoever.”

Scott’s article, “Authenticity and Textual Transvestism in the Memoirs of the Abbé De Choisy,” has been published in the journal French Studies, which is published by Oxford University Press.

Choisy’s father was attached to the house of the Duke of Orléans, and his mother was a close friend of Louis XIV. During his lifetime, Choisy participated in the papal conclave that elected Pope Innocent XI in 1676. He was the abbot of Saint-Seine in Burgundy, a respected historian and theologian, diplomat to Siam and dean of the Académie française.

However, he is best remembered for his cross-dressing escapades and series of love affairs detailed in his memoirs. For centuries, the public and scholars took Choisy’s account at face value, including the well-known French philosopher Jacques Lacan, who in 1966 pointed to Choisy as an example of "perfect perversion."

“That someone who was so highly placed at court could have done this is really quite shocking and titillating,” Scott said. “It is a great story. It has all the elements – religion, sexual scandal, nobility and court intrigue. It has everything you want to read.”

But Scott questions how there could be no other mention of Choisy’s cross-dressing among contemporary writers. Other accounts in Choisy’s memoir, Scott said, are beyond belief, such as when he dresses flamboyantly as a female in front of the cardinal archbishop of Paris and the royal family.

Scott found anachronisms in Choisy’s description of fashion, locations and paintings. For example, Choisy mentions women wearing the stinquerque, a band of material used to conceal plunging necklines and the forerunner of both the necktie and the scarf, which didn’t come in to fashion until after Choisy’s exploits.

Oftentimes Choisy’s memoir parallels fictional work popular during the same time period. Scott points to the similarities between Charles Perrault’s cunning wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” and Choisy’s tales of a cross-dressed male in bed with a girl who is unaware of his true identity and intentions.

“I say it is a brilliant piece of work, a wonderful piece of fantasy and imagination. But we should read this as fiction rather than fact,” Scott said.

After looking at the original manuscript, Scott said it is clear that Choisy intended for the memoir to be read.

“In his other works, he was sloppy. But on this one, he has no mistakes. It is beautifully written, and he has worked on it again and again,” Scott said.

Even as fiction, the memoir is important to history, Scott said. Choisy’s eccentricity allowed him to express radical ideas that would have normally been censored or dangerous.

Choisy is among four eccentric priests from the late 17th century and early 18th century who Scott is writing about in his upcoming book, “Surreptitious Subversions: Breaking Institutional Codes in Ancien Regime France.” Scott believes it was subversive writing such as Choisy’s that helped pave the way for the French Revolution.

Photo: In the above engraving, executed by Sébastien Leclerc, François-Timoléon de Choisy is portrayed at right. Source: http://www.pleinchant.fr/