‘I cannot walk in high heels,’ I said. ‘I was raised as a boy, you see, from infancy.’
‘These are haute couture, Mademoiselle,’ said Rose Bertin. ‘The Queen herself wore something very similar only two weeks ago.’ That clearly settled it; she would not countenance disagreement.
‘Must I put them on now?’ The cream silk brocade shoes had pointed toes and curved heels. How could I wear them all evening? But, were those real diamonds in the buckles? Exclusive merchandise, by appointment to Her Gracious Majesty Marie Antoinette. Bertin did not serve bourgeois women. A lawyer’s wife had, so it was rumoured, been turned away from her shop.
‘It is essential, Mademoiselle,’ said Rose Bertin. ‘Shoes before stays. Once everything is on, you will find you are unable to reach your shoes. Even with your coiffure, because it will be so high, it will become difficult for you to lean so far forward’. The two lady’s maids assisting her simpered at each other.
Dressed in just the soft linen chemise, it was still easy for me to bend and push my feet into the shoes. They were a little tight, but how pretty they looked! I allowed myself to admire my neat ankles, in their silk stockings. I stood up, my ankles wobbling as I tried to keep my balance.
‘I feel too tall,’ I said, viewing the room from a new perspective.
‘Mademoiselle will feel even taller when her hair is dressed’, smiled Bertin. She was a plump woman with a complacent, rather pig-like face. Her own hair was curled, pomaded, powdered, piled, probably the length of my forearm, above the top of her head, and surmounted with stiff layers of lace, like a preposterous gâteau. As was her assistants’ hair. Three crazy gâteaux, bobbing about. People called Bertin the Minister of Fashion, because of her sway over the ladies of the Court, and, thanks to Marie Antoinette, her claims on the public purse. And now she was in charge of me. In four hours she was to transform me from an ex-diplomat, and Chevalier of the Order of St Louis, into a blushing young girl. Or at least, a girl of a certain age.
A few years ago, in London, was when the gentlemen had started betting on whether I was a woman. I possessed all the male credentials. I had served as a dragoon at the Battle of Villinghausen, had been a spy in Russia, and after the end of the Seven Years War I was appointed chargé d’affaires at the French Embassy at St James’s, one of the finest postings on the diplomatic circuit. Of course, I also carried out a few secret observations for his Majesty, the old king Louis, before he died, information that might be useful when invading England, to which few of his own ministers were privy.
But, despite my medal of the Royal and Military Order of St Louis, despite my skill with a sword, other men perceived that I was not as they were. I was small, slightly plump, or rounded, you might say. I had dainty hands and feet, and my voice was rather elevated in timbre, effeminate even. I was accused of mincing when I walked. I had lovely blonde curls which came up a treat when powdered, and stunning blue eyes with long lashes, even though I say so myself.
In the end, they ran a book at the London Stock Exchange with insurance policies that would pay out in the event that I was discovered to be female. I was recognised everywhere I went, and regularly fought duels with speculators who threatened to disrobe me. It all went to Court. But, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ruled that such questions could not be forced in a Court of Law, and the whole racket collapsed.
The ambassador, of course, accused me of being an embarrassment to the diplomatic service. He pressed for my recall, and when it came, I ignored it, responding instead by publishing a selection of diplomatic letters. The book was an instant success and terrified the King’s ministers. They knew I had held back the more politically agonising papers, the juiciest morsels, in reserve. Insurance, you might say. I had to be handled carefully. That was why they had sent Beaumarchais.
And now, here I was, preparing for my grand presentation at the Court of Versailles.
‘In truth,’ I said, to Bertin and her assistants, ‘it takes more effort to dress a modern young lady, than to equip a whole regiment of dragoons.’
I perched on a chair, facing myself across the dressing table. The November dusk had descended outside the shutters, and only candles lighted the bedchamber. Either side of my face, a tall candelabra cast a warm glow. The mirror I gazed into was pleasantly hazed by age, giving my skin a softer and more youthful colour, or at least so I appeared to myself. On the table in front of me lay an array of objects: plumes, beads, hairpins, porcelain jars of cosmetics, brushes of all different sizes, puffs of wool. Behind me, between the bed curtains, I could see the hem of a vast dress laid across the four-poster.
‘The powder first, and then the hair,’ said Bertin. She reached a brush across and started to powder me. ‘Once your panniers are on, I shan’t be able to reach you.’
White lead. It was rumoured to make women crazy, to dull the skin so that more must be applied, and more. A thick white powder to cover the skin, just as the mind becomes obscured, shrouded in dust. But for that evening at least, my features acquired a dazzling whiteness that looked bright and fresh even in the dull glass. Soot painted on the eyelashes, cinnabar dusted on the cheeks, and I began to look less like my previous self, and more like the self I hoped to be.
After the make up, it was time to arrange my hair. My hair was still long and fair, paling in places to silver, but its length and colour was barely of any significance. Rose Bertin brushed my coiffure up and up, applying pomatum, powder, rolls of wool, sidecurls, cushions, stiff buns of false hair, hairpins, sewn stitches, flowers, foxtails, ostrich plumes, kerchiefs, lace, and a few small ornaments. For at least two hours I held my aching neck very still, balancing the huge heart shaped structure upon my head, and terribly afraid it would all come sliding down. It seemed to stretch nearly to the ceiling, and I was afraid that I would knock it when I stood up.
‘One moment, mademoiselle, one moment more.’ Bertin fastened diamond earrings to my newly pierced ears, and stepped back again.
Finally I could move, and examined my reflection in the mirror. A womanly face, at last! I felt a shock of recognition. I turned my head this way and that, smiling sideways at myself. There was no movement at all in my coiffure as I rotated, and the preposterous confection remained in place, as securely as if held by plaster.
Beaumarchais’ Transaction had stipulated that I should return to France as a woman. It was, he had said, the most advantageous arrangement for me.
It had been a difficult first encounter. I had become unused to welcoming the elegant gentlemen of the French Court at my rooms in Brewer-Street. I rather preferred to see my English friends, like Wilkes, and Walpole, or even exiled Parisian pamphleteers; rakes and radicals who enjoyed drinking a little and smoking a pipe in front of the fire. But one day, not long after the death of His Majesty King Louis XV, my servant presented me with Beaumarchais’ card and I found him in my smoking room, displaying to me the beautifully embroidered tails of his blue taffeta court coat, and peering at the leather bindings on my bookshelves, wondering no doubt where the seditious titles were.
‘I haven’t any copies of my book left, in case you were looking. Completely sold out in just a few days.’ I watched as he sat down again, with a little exhalation of breath. He had had his pretensions as a writer, mostly of little plays that had not found favour with the Royal censors.
‘In Paris the booksellers were renting copies by the hour,’ I said, to pique him.
Beaumarchais shifted uncomfortably from buttock to elegant buttock in the oak armchair, which sadly lacked the gilding and silk cushions to which he was accustomed. He kept a distance back from the table, which, though covered with a white cloth, was speckled with spilt ash, and wore the dusky circles left by port glasses.
‘I have come to inform you,’ he replied, ‘that your work here is at an end. The new King has disbanded the old arrangements, and all your papers are to be surrendered and destroyed. You have no further mandate.’ Beaumarchais, who had buried two wealthy wives in rapid succession, eyed me with a sweet smile.
‘And me?’ I ventured a smile in return.
‘Recalled to Paris,’ he said.
‘But I’m very happy here,’ I said. ‘Apart from the usual financial embarrassments, of course. Why should I return to France?’
‘Allow me to persuade you,’ he said. He sat back in the armchair, looking as handsome as he could, fixing me with his dark eyes, his hands clasped behind his head, his lower body thrust out ever so slightly. ‘I’ve heard about your feminine tastes.’
I was silent, wondering how much they knew. At least Beaumarchais was unaware that the papers he sought lay under the floorboards, beneath his chair.
‘And perhaps feminine desires. It’s rumoured that you disport yourself rather with Mars than with Venus. And there is also a story that, as the eldest child, you were raised as a male to enable your father to inherit. It is said that you are a woman in a soldier’s coat, an Amazon, waiting to be unmasked.’ His eyes ran over me, delineating my hands, my mouth, my bosom…
So, Rose Bertin was preparing me as though I were a young bride on her day of joy.
‘You must put on the stays now,’ she said.
The stays were made of silk, plain inside, and figured with roses outside, quilted and stiffened with a grid of whalebone. They moulded my body into a firm conical shape, spreading out across the bosom, cinching at the waist. A pannier, hooped with rattan, and padded with cork, spread out from each hip. Bertin’s assistants, who were buxom girls with heavy forearms, pulled on the laces.
‘Lean forward, Mademoiselle,’ they insisted, as I struggled to remain upright. Stays are a symbol of womanly uprightness and virtue, I thought, grasping vainly at the dressing table.
‘How does that feel?’ asked Bertin. ‘I think we may have to lace you tighter to fit the dress.’
I could not quite expand my lower ribcage, and my assent came out rather muted. It was said that women had died in their stays, their lungs compressed and filling with flux. The dress was, however, of paramount importance.
The panniers jutted out like gigantic petals. I stretched my hands out either side, as far as I could stretch, and they did not reach the edges. With my torso in its new constriction and my cork and rattan rear bouncing behind me, I started to feel armoured, as though wearing a cuirass again.
I glanced over at the huge dress that lay upon the bed, its white silk frills and flounces, bows and lace. A pile of petticoats lay atop it, their massive folds forming a heap that rivalled the top of my coiffure in height. It was all quite presposterous. But I deserved it.
I had led Beaumarchais on, I admit it, to the point when he wrote to the minister who had sent him that I was mad with love for him. And he, in turn, bought me little presents that betrayed my tastes: ribbons, flowers, ornaments, lace kerchiefs, jewelled brooches, fancy items in brass and tin, ‘toys’ as the English called them. We exchanged portrait miniatures as a sign of our growing affection for one another.
Soon came the day when, I having risen tardily from my down bed, he strode unannounced into my chamber, pushing my servant aside. I had only just finished shaving, and was in my chemise, with my arms and legs bare. I whisked a shawl around my shoulders, but too late to prevent him from seeing the plump curves of my décolletage.
‘So, it is true,’ he said. ‘You are a woman.’ He sat down, unasked, on the end of my bed. I protested about his presence in my chamber, so early, and uninvited, but he merely sprawled himself sideways on the bed, resting up on his elbow, enjoying my discomfiture. His eyes searched the room, taking in the satins and flounces of my gowns, the dainty shoes that lay scattered about the floor, the wigs.
‘What a beautiful creature you are,’ he said. ‘A pity that such charms have been concealed for so long from the gaze of the world. Could I be the first, perhaps, to discover them?’
I ducked my chin and gazed up at him from under my eyelashes. ‘I have jealously guarded my virtue,’ I replied.
‘Of course,’ he murmured, ‘if we were to marry…’
We eventually signed a Transaction: I would hand over the papers, my debts would be paid, and the King would fund a new bridal trousseau. So I returned to Versailles as a woman.
It was time for the dress.
‘Now, mademoiselle,’ sighed Bertin, with an air of supreme fulfilment. Ah, the dress. It was of pure white Lyons silk, with thin stripes and dots, flouncing, smocking, silk roses, tassels and quilted ornamentations. At the elbows were triple layered lace engageantes. The same needlepoint lace frothed in the neckline. There was a matching petticoat, and a stomacher.
It took the three of them to manoeuvre the heavy petticoat around my body, over the huge panniers, tying it with ribbons around my waist. Then the stomacher had to be pinned to the stays. I eyed Bertin’s nimble fingers as she did this, feeling more fear that I had ever felt in battle.
‘Now for the overgown’, declared Bertin, and she and her assistants held it out for me to put my arms through the sleeves. They lifted it into place over the panniers and settled it in a rustling silken cloud around me. The bodice fastened with a series of hooks to the stomacher, its silk stretched smoothly over the stays. With a sigh, Bertin stepped back, spreading her hands out, ‘Voilà!’ and her assistants beamed.
Fluttering an ivory and mother of pearl fan, I turned and studied myself in the tall mirror above the fireplace. In my white gown and with my skin dusted as white as a sugar bonbon, surmounted by my powdered, improbable hair, I had become a garlanded marble building, a sort of stone folly, sculpture-stiff in my heavy petticoats and my stays, brittle with roses and pale tassels. My face was too stiff to betray emotion; if my knees trembled my skirts would hold me up. But I left the bedchamber and started to march down the long corridor that led to the Hall of Mirrors, and the assembled courtiers, and the royal presence. As if travelling to join my regiment, I marched alone.
The end of the engagement to Beaumarchais had been terrible, devastating. He had slighted me in public, after all his promises of affection, of sincere regard, of the purity of his passion. He claimed he had obtained the money from the King for my trousseau and for our marriage. Returning to Versailles with me as a new bride upon his arm would have neutralised my threat, my property would have been his, even the papers that still lay hidden under the floorboards in my Brewer-Street apartment.
But he could not go through with it. He held on to as much of the money as he could. I had deceived him, he claimed, I was mad, I was outrageous, I was monstrous, he refused to be the gallant cavalier to a Captain of Dragoons.
‘I shall go alone, then,’ I told him.
And at last, bearing my ponderous dress and coiffure with the solid courage of a soldier, and with my ankles straining for balance on my high-heeled shoes, I entered the Hall of Mirrors. More than ten years had passed since I had last been at Court here, and then I had been in a dragoon’s uniform. It was crowded with a chattering throng, stiffly encased in formal clothes, embroidered and ornamented, men and women, thickly powdered and wigged, whose eyes rested on me as I passed, and flickered away again. No one dared greet me. Muttering insincere apologies to frosty old women, I thrust my panniered skirts sideways through the courtiers, until I found myself in front of the King and Queen.
They looked younger than I had expected. The King looked rather embarrassed, and the Queen was hiding her smiles behind her fan. But she, the child of the Habsburg emperors, famous for her haughtiness, for her curt dismissal of Madame du Barry, for the ease with which all except the chosen few were disdained, extended me a cordial greeting.
‘Mademoiselle de Beaumont, la Chevalière d’Eon,’ she said, ‘we welcome you to the Court of Versailles.’ I made a low curtsey, as low as my heels and skirts would permit. I had become the woman I had always been destined to be.
© M Wallis 2020