Abbot de Choisy loves to be looked at and admired. For this, he dresses with excentricity in private but also, or above all, in public.
As we have already said, Choisy rented a pew opposite the pulpit. The churchwardens have a lighted candle given to him whenever there is to be a procession. A lackey carries the train of his gown, and on the day of the Saint-Sacrement, a titled person gives him his hand. One day, he has to hand out the blessed bread. He says:
“I did the thing magnificently, but I didn’t want any trumpets.”
This access of modesty can only astonish us, knowing our man as we now do. But wait! The churchwardens come to avert him to prepare himself to take up the collection. He hesitates an instant… but only an instant. Mme d’Usson takes it upon herself to persuade him: this would give such pleasure to the whole parish! The good apostle admits:
“I did not allow myself to be begged further, but prepared myself for it as if for a festival which was to put me on display before a great number of people.”
And he does not omit to note that, for this circumstance, Mme de Nouailles lent him her grand pendant earrings, that he fixed on the left-hand side of his hair, five or six diamond and ruby studs, that he had three or four big beauty patches and more than a dozen small ones, and a Steinkerque cravate “which pretended to cover my breast”.
But let us appreciate the remarks made by the abbot-woman about his performance:
“I was criticised for having been a little coquettish, because when passing over the chairs, I sometimes stopped while the verger cleared the way for me, and amused myself by looking in a mirror to adjust something wrong with my earrings or my Steinkerque; but I only did it in the evening at the Benediction and few people noticed it. I became very tired during the whole day, but it gave me so much pleasure to see myself applauded by everyone, that I only felt tired when I was in bed. I forgot to say that I made two hundred and seventy-two pounds. There were three young men, very attractive, whom I didn’t know, who gave me each a gold louis. I thought that they were strangers: it is certain that a lot of people come from other parishes, knowing that I am to take up the collection. I admit that in the evening, at the Benediction, I felt great pleasure. It was nighttime; people spoke more freely. I heard, two or three times, in different places of the church, people who said: But is it true that this is a man? He is right to want to pass for a woman. These praises appeared to me to be truths that I had not begged for; these people had never seen me before, and they were not just seeking to please me.”
The abbot, who, from childhood, had been made into, and who had wanted to be, a woman, now considers himself to be one because he speaks about himself as a woman. He has completely entered into the role.
This perpetual cross-dressing does however start a bit of gossip. Satirical verses run through the streets. This sort of thing:
“Sancy, in the Faubourg Saint-Marceau
Is dressed like a girl;
He wouldn’t appear so beautiful
If he was still in town.
He is kind, he is gallant,
He will soon have some lovers.”
We could ask a few questions about Abbot de Choisy’s sexual orientation. In spite of appearances, he doesn’t seem to have had any homosexual relationships. No love affairs with men are known, and his confessions show his attraction to women. But he plays with his cross-dressing. Dressed as a woman, he seduces young, inexperienced girls whom he goes to hunt in convents. He disguises them afterwards as men. The Abbot de Choisy’s behaviour is more related to a fetichism of women’s clothing than to homosexuality.
Choisy is not an unique case, in History, of cross-dressing or very effeminate men. We only have to mention Abbot d’Entragues, a contemporary of Choisy, who maintained the whiteness of his skin by frequent blood-lettings and slept with his arms suspended so as to have more beautiful hands. He
“received visitors on his bed, decorated like a shrine, with a lace cornette on his head, a lot of fontanges, ribbon lacings on his corset, a bedwrapper and beauty patches”.
In the middle of the French Revolution, there was a Duke d’Aiguillon who also cross-dressed, and whom, when it was discussed whether he should be raised to the Presidency of the National Assembly, drew this sharp reply:
“You must know, Monsieur, that here, as on the French throne, the sceptre does not fall to the distaff side.”
A little later, the Count de Courchamps, creator of the Souvenirs de la Marquise de Crequy, old and crippled, dressed as a woman, a cornette on his head, waving a fan on a divan. Then there’s the Chevalier Christophe-Paulin de Freminville, who died in 1848, the author of a Vie de Duguesclin and of the Antiquites de Bretagne, who feels no greater joy than that of showing himself in women’s clothes. A panegyrist of the dead man writes:
“It is hard to believe that this former sailor, this knight absorbed by the History of the Middle Ages, loved, during his retirement in Brest, to put on women’s clothes and he put such elegance into this way of dressing, which contrasted singularly with his tired face, tanned by a life at sea.”
This digression has momentarily taken us away from Abbot de Choisy. Psychiatrists have noted in him the infantilism “characterised by his baby face and its absence of moustache” and “psychologically, by a certain degree of puerilism”. This puerilism of an infantile body must incline him toward homosexuality “because of an abnormal education and the customs of his time”.
We leave the last word to Sainte-Beuve, whose critical penetration of this character does not appear to be mistaken: He writes:
“We have seen many times, that cross-dressing has been a means of licence and disorder, and serves to facilitate passions, intrigues, in the most ordinary cases. For Abbot de Choisy, who is not exempt of guilty disorders, cross-dressing however seems to be the principal thing, the biggest attraction; he loves the mirror for the mirror, the toilette for itself, the trinket for the trinket. Free in front of a mirror to Adonise himself and pout with a patch or a bow which suits him, having around him a circle who encourages and admires him, and who tells him in as many ways possible: You are beautiful like an angel! That is his ideal and his supreme happiness.”