Fifty Portraits of Phenomenal People

Fifty Wonderful Portraits.

London: J. Robins and Co, 1824.

Price: $2,000.00

About the item

First edition. [Title page lacking], 8pp. letterpress, and 50 engraved plates by Cooper and Page. 1 vols. 4to. Fifty Portraits of Phenomenal People. Original printed boards, spine rebacked; plates and text quite clean.

Item #20333

A wonderful compilation indeed, with fine engraved portraits of early 19th-century characters.

Among the attractions, who are described in short paragraphs preceding the engravings that make up the bulk of the book, are the French cross-dresser the Chevalier d'Eon, who, for forty years, passed as a woman before it was discovered at his death that 'he had no right to have thrown off the male attire'; 'Dirty Dick', who didn't bathe for 40 years; Signora Girardelli, the extraordinary fire-eater who could pour molten lead into her mouth and spit it out indented with her tooth-mark; the redoubtable Daniel Lambert, whose girth was nine feet four inches; the eccentric pedestrian bookseller and scholar, Henry Lemoine; 'Peter the Wild Boy'; Joanna Southcott, the extraordinary fanatic who declared herself the one spoken of in Revelations, 'the bride, the lamb's wife, and woman clothed with the sun'; Renwick Williams, the monstrous artificial flower-maker and serial killer of women; and many others.

Probably the most famous person depicted in this book is Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, called the “Chevalier d’Éon” (1728-1810), who was a diplomat, spy, and man of letters who fought as a soldier in the Seven Year’s War.

The Chevalier d’Éon is best known today for the ease with which he passed for a woman, including a period of time during which he infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia. D’Éon appeared publicly as a man for 49 years of his life, but even when he was a dragoon in uniform, d’Éon was dogged with rumors that he was a woman in male dress. D’Éon joined a spy organization, the Secret du Roi, in 1756, working directly for King Louis XV. It was as part of this organization that d’Éon was disguised as Lea de Beaumont and served as maid of honor to the Empress.

For 33 years, from 1777, d’Éon dressed as a woman and appears to have identified as female. The Chevalier claimed, in the late 1770s, to have been raised as a boy because Louis d’Éon de Beaumont, the Chevalier’s father, could only inherit from his in-laws if he had a son. D’Éon was permitted to return to France in women’s dress, and to wear the insignia of the Order of Saint-Louis, which had been earned in battle. D’Éon published a book of memoirs in 1779: La Vie Militaire, politique, et prove de Mademoiselle d’Éon, which were ghostwritten and are considered to have been embellished.

Medical examination after his death discovered “male organs in every respect perfectly formed,” but also feminine characteristics, rendering his gender and sex a question of some debate.

The Chevalier d’Éon is probably the inspiration for the character of Oscar in the anime Rose of Versailles, which features a young woman raised as a man to sooth her aristocratic father’s desire for a son. Other representations of the Chevalier in popular culture include several plays, two films, a novel by Vlaentin Pikul, and a supernatural horror manga & anime titled Le Chevalier d’Eon, in which a man is possessed by the ghost of his murdered sister. Most of these portray d’Éon as a woman who has been forced to masquerade as a man, which turns the historical reality on its head.

Overall this book presents a veritable encyclopedia of the curious and of those foibles that were of interest to the 19th-century public.