Today is the birthday of François-Timoléon de Choisy who was born in Paris in 1644. He was a clergyman, an author and a transvestite. He tells us all about his adventures in a book called ‘Mémoires de l’abbé de Choisy habillé en femme.’
Choisy’s mother was on intimate terms with the French Royal family and he grew up at the court of King Louis XIV. He and the king’s younger brother, Phillipe, used to very much enjoy dressing up as girls together. This was mostly at the behest of a cardinal called Mazarin. The previous king Louis XII had had terrible trouble with his own younger brother and the cardinal hoped that if the boy was feminized, he would never grow up with the desire to usurp the king. François, became his designated playmate. His mother dressed him in girl’s clothes every time the young prince visited, which was about two or three times a week. She had his ears pierced, he wore diamonds and was generally dressed in what he later described as: “…all the little gewgaws to which one becomes easily used and which one parts with so hardly.” When the Prince arrived he would be dressed up likewise and the two would play together. They had a great time and the cardinal’s plan worked out pretty well.
Mme de Choisy so much enjoyed seeing her son dressed so beautifully that she continued to dress him as a girl until he was eighteen. She rubbed his face with a special lotion that meant he grew no beard. He tells us that he rubbed his neck with calf water and sheep’s foot pomade, which both sound horrible, to keep his skin soft. Also she banned the use of certain spices in the house. Nutmeg and cloves, it seems, are “drugs exciting to turbulence” and she certainly didn’t want that.
Once he was eighteen, she needed to chose a career for him. The church seemed perfect. François became abbé of Saint-Seine in Burgundy in 1663. Although he visited there occasionally, he mostly remained in Paris, apart from the time he went to Bordeaux. There he spent five months working as an actress. He had many admirers to whom he enjoyed granting small favours but tells us he was: “much reserved about the great ones.” which earned him a reputation for modesty.
In 1666, his mother died, leaving him her jewellery. He wept for his mother but loved the jewels. In 1668 his old playmate, now Phillipe, Duke of Orleans, invited him to a ball. Phillipe was no longer really allowed to dress up but he asked his friend to come: “in a sweeping gown and unmasked.” François had a lovely time. He was much admired and danced beautifully “the ball was made for me” he said.
For the next fifteen years he seems to have dressed sometimes in women’s clothes and sometimes in the clothes of an abbé. But, even then, he kept the earrings and beauty spots. He lived sometimes in the countryside and sometimes in Paris. In rural areas his choice of dress seems to have been quite readily accepted. Even though he never pretended to be anything other that a man who wore women’s clothes, he took part in church services, gave concerts, took his neighbours to the opera and help distribute alms to the poor. He also had a sideline in educating young ladies about fashion. This was a situation he seems to have taken advantage of, as at least one of them became pregnant. In Paris though, he was ruined by gambling and horribly insulted on at least one occasion. Whilst attending the opera in his finery, he was told by a man called Montausier that he was a sad creature who ought to hide himself away. A horribly unkind thing to say, but it seems he was well known for it. Montausier was widely believed to be the inspiration behind the central character in Molière’s play, ‘The Misanthrope.’
In 1683 he became terribly ill and renounced his former ways and promised that, if he was spared, he would devote his life to God. He must have been pretty serious about it, because the following year he set off on a mission to convert the King of Siam to Christianity. The King wasn’t really interested but François wrote a book about his travels and he was made a bishop. He also later wrote an eleven volume history of the French Church. In the latter part of his life he became a very holy man. He still always wore frocks when he was at home though.