Abbot de Choisy explains why he finds such pleasure in cross-dressing:
“I tried to discover from whence such a bizarre pleasure comes: here it is. The essence of God is to be loved, to be adored; man, as far as his weakness allows him, strives for the same thing; so, as beauty gives birth to love, and as it is usually given to women, when it happens that men have or believe themselves to have a few beauty traits which can give them love, they try to augment them through women’s clothes, which are very flattering. Then they feel the inexprimable pleasure of being loved. I have felt more than once what I have said through sweet experience; and when I found myself at balls and plays with beautiful gowns, diamonds and patches and heard said softly close to me: there’s a beautiful person! I felt within me a pleasure which can be compared to nothing else, so great it is. Ambition, riches, love do not equal it, because we always love ourselves better than we love others.”
Although he only responds
“with a modest and disdainful expression to people who comment on his beauty within his hearing”,
a certain coquetry can be detected. It is true that he loves homage. He is unable to contain his joy when his uncle tells him, out-of-the-blue:
“From what I see, I should call you my niece. Truly, you are very pretty!”
Even the priest of Saint-Medard gives him one day this impromptu compliment:
“I admit, Madame, that you are very attractive… “
And he can’t possibly not know that his colleague is of his own sex!
It is in this same Saint-Medard Church that Choisy is one day called upon to take up the collection. A murmur of admiration runs through the public:
“Is it really true that this is a man?”
And Francois-Timoleon de Choisy adds this comment on the remarks which he reports with visible complacency:
“You can understand that this confirmed me strangely in my taste for being treated like a woman.”
Another time, at Bourges, he goes to Mass, with the wife of the Lieutenant-General. On leaving the church, before joining his carriage, he hears someone murmur behind him: “what a beautiful woman! ” And he says that this “did not fail to give me pleasure”.
It is when he is living at Saint-Marceau, under the name of Mme de Sancy, that he abandons himself without any further constraint to this fury of toilette and clothing. He confesses it himself:
“I started by having my ears re-pierced, the old holes having closed; I put on embroidered corsets and gold and black dresses, with white satin decorations, with a busk and a big ribbon at the back to mark my waist, a big flowing train, a highly powdered wig, pendant earrings, patches, a little bonnet with a fontange.”
He also possesses
“a dress of black worsted, closed in the front with black buttonholes going right to the bottom, and a train half an aune [60 cm] long that a lackey carried for me, a little wig not very heavily powdered, very simple earrings and two big patches of velvet at my temples”.
Dressed like this, the abbot goes to see the priest of Saint-Medard. The priest
“greatly praises my dress, and tells me that it is much more graceful than those little priests with their jackets and their little coats, who inspire no respect: that is roughly the way that several Paris priests dress”.
He goes next to visit the prominent people of the neighbourhood, the Marquise d’Usson, the Marquise de Menieres, and other parishioners of distinction. For a month, he does not miss going to the Grand-Mass and listening the priest’s sermon every Sunday, “which gave him great pleasure”. In between, he visits the poor and distributes a few alms to them.
Terribly coquettish, Abbot de Choisy is prolix in the description of his clothes. Every time that the occasion presents itself (if necessary he provokes it) the abbot delivers himself up to the highly detailed analysis of his appearance. The wish to please, to charm, to know himself to be irresistible explains this coquetry and this passion for female clothes.
One of his biographers has very well described this aspect of his psychology. G. Desnoiresterres says:
“We are not in the presence of someone who has lost his head after an orgy, dressed himself up in skirts and covered his face with patches, but who, the next day, puts on his own clothes again, along with his own personality. Briefly, all this is not a mascarade, but very deliberate, serious behaviour which, rather curiously, will be flattered, excused, encouraged, by people whose character renders this indulgence and facilitation incomprehensible.”
It is true that even priests find nothing wrong in these excentricities. Some make no difficulties about being the guests of their equivocal parishioner, dining in his company, composed, it is true, of middle-class people or nobles and virtuous ladies, who did not hesitate, either, to respond to the civilities of the singular abbot. Even if it is spoiled by mockery, this tolerant spirit is remarkable, and far from the prejudices usually associated with the reign of Louis XIV.
One evening, when the gallant abbot was giving a supper to Mme d’Usson, and five or six of his neighbours, she spoke to him in these terms:
“From now on, I shall call you Madame.”
Then, turning toward the priest present at this gathering, adds:
“Isn’t this a beautiful lady?”
The ecclesiastic replies:
“It is true, but it is just a mask.”
Stung, the abbot answers:
“No, Monsieur, no. In future, I will not dress in any other way. I will wear only black dresses lined with white, or white dresses lined with black, nothing can be reproached me; like you, these ladies advise me to wear this clothing and assure me that it suits me quite well. I also say to you that I supped, two days ago, at Madame, the Marquise of Nouailles’ home; Monsieur, her brother-in-law, came to visit her and highly praised my clothing and, in front of him, everyone present called me Madame.”
The priest says:
“Ah! I surrender to such an authority, and admit, Madame, that you are very attractive.”
If we insist on repeating this, it is to underline the abbot’s naivety.
To be continued.