- IntroductionTrans Victorians
On saturday, 26 May 1810, the following excerpt appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle, or, The Norwich Gazette describing the death of Chevalier/Chevalière d’Éon:1
The Chevalier D’Éon . . . died at his lodgings in New Milman Street, Guilford Street, on Tuesday last. . . . It will be remembered that a great doubt at one time existed to which gender he belonged, which, however, was set at rest by the verdict of 12 matrons who decided in favour of the female; and from that time to the present he wore the costume of that sex. But on his decease taking place it was unexpectedly discovered that the Chevalier was a perfect male!(“Postscript”)
Fifty-five years later, during a terrible heat wave in London, the gifted surgeon and social reformer Dr. James Miranda Barry died of dehydration following a long illness. Despite Dr. Barry’s instructions before he died, Sophia Bishop, a charwoman, acted out of respect by preparing his body for burial at Kensal Green Cemetery. A few days after Dr. Barry’s burial, Bishop went to the military post at Horse Guards and told the authorities that Dr. Barry was a woman. As historian Rachel Holmes writes, “Barry’s own body passed into history as one of the most disputed corpses of the modern age” (3). Clearly, though, only five decades earlier, there was another body that was highly disputed in life as well as in death.
This may seem like an odd and perhaps even sensational place to start my introduction to this special issue of Victorian Review on trans Victorians. D’Éon and Barry, though, exemplify a Victorian conundrum, or at least a conundrum for scholars of the nineteenth century. We have often looked to figures like d’Éon and Barry as examples to demonstrate the ways in which Victorians were caught up in the imperial project of categorization and obsessed with a rigid gender binary that assigned women to the private and men to the public sphere. As famous controversial public figures who were often written about in the British popular press because neither adhered to a strict gender binary, the ambassador and the doctor actually present Victorian scholars with an opportunity to move away from our [End Page 31] own narratives of nineteenth-century British culture as one of absolute binarisms.
As the above news article regarding d’Éon exemplifies, the chevalier/chevalière’s sex was often in dispute because of the ambassador’s gender presentation. Over the course of the nineteenth century, d’Éon, instead of passing into obscurity, in many ways became legendary. In 1895, eighty-five years after d’Éon’s death, the Leeds Times published an article entitled “Duellists In Petticoats” that featured the late ambassador as one of the duellists: “As dauntless a fighter as ever buckled a sword during the year when Louis XV was King . . . was the Chevaliere d’Éon. Whether this strange being was a man or woman . . . is not positively known to this day” (4). It is important to note the newspaper’s spelling of d’Éon’s title in the feminine despite the majority of the news articles earlier in the century proclaiming d’Éon as a “perfect male.” The ambiguity surrounding d’Éon’s identity as either a man or a woman simultaneously points out a gender dichotomy and underscores the possibility of someone embodying both or neither.
Likewise, Dr. James Miranda Barry was known during the time of his medical posts in South Africa, Jamaica, and Canada as a bit of dandy. He loved lavish and colourful waistcoats when he was out in society just as he often took British and Dutch authorities to task for the horrendous ways that former slaves, sex workers, and people suffering with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) were treated.2 Interestingly, Barry’s masculinity was anything but hypermasculine. As Lord Albermarle wrote in his memoirs, “I beheld a beardless lad . . . with an unmistakable Scotch type of countenance—reddish hair, high cheek bones. . . . there was a certain effeminacy in his manner”(144). Like d’Éon before him, Dr. Barry never clung entirely to one side or the other of the...