Recent biographies by Gary Kates and Nina Rattner Gelbart of two eighteenth-century figures, a transgendered officer and diplomat--the Chevalier d'Eon--and a state-sponsored midwife named Mme du Coudray, offer unexpected insights into the themes of gender, Enlightenment, and revolution when considered in tandem. Jeffrey S. Ravel notes that in the context of the last decade's emphasis on the role of gendered thought and behavior in the onset of revolution, it is striking that these two life stories do not necessarily conform to our historiographical expectations. Although both du Coudray and d'Eon adopted unconventional positions in relation to Old Regime standards, their life stories were thoroughly fashioned by the possibilities and limitations of existence in an absolutist polity. Lisa Forman Cody, however, argues that the lives of d'Eon and du Coudray also display characteristics that foreshadow a more modern sense of self. Du Coudray's mission, Cody suggests, hints at future republican projects that harness maternity to the cause of national regeneration, while d'Eon's legal troubles in England generate modern conceptions of bodies and selves as separate and self-possessed. Kates, in his contribution to the forum, discusses how his encounter with d'Eon across two centuries changed his own ideas about gender. His research, and meetings with contemporary transgendered individuals, led him to rethink his gender assumptions and question the feminism he had inherited from the 1970s. Gelbart, in turn, found herself locked in a struggle with her subject to unveil the private feelings and emotions that du Coudray had so carefully hidden in the written record. In her essay, she openly reflects on the biographical process in the tale of the king's midwife. Finally, Elizabeth Colwill takes note of the historiographical and methodological issues that the biographical genre raises for historians. Both Kates and Gelbart, she suggests, were attracted to "the hidden motivations of their 'secretive subjects,'" leaving some reviewers uneasy with the "accuracy" of their work. Colwill, however, argues that "fact vs. fiction" may be a false construction, because the art of interpretation is not at odds with careful archival reconstruction.


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pp. 379-407
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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