From A Gallery or Eccentrics, by Morris Bishop, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1928; pp. 85-101.
FRANÇOIS DE CHOISY
FRANÇOIS-TIMOLÉON DE CHOISY, Prior of Saint-Lô of Rouen, of Saint-Benoist-du-Sault and of Saint-Gelais, Member of the Académie française, sometime Abbé of Saint-Seine in Burgundy and Arch-Dean of the Cathedral of Bayeux, author of an edifying History of the Church, the Lives of David, Solomon, and Saint Louis, a Journal of a Missionary Voyage to Siam, and of many books of piety for young catechumens, would have today a sweeter reputation had he not so persistently played the coquette in woman’s attire.
He himself attributed his taste for gowns, petticoats, furbelows and falbalas to his mother, Mme de Choisy, the confidante of Mlle de Montpensier, the Great Mademoiselle, cousin of King Louis the Fourteenth. “My son,” she would say, “be not prideful, and bethink you that you are but a bourgeois. True, your fathers have been Masters of the Requests, and Councillors of State; but in France one recognizes only the nobility of the sword. Our nation, given to warfare, has put its glory in its arms; therefore, my son, that you may be not prideful, never see any but quality folk. Go pass the evening with the little Lesdiguières, the Marquis de Villeroy, the Comte de Guiche; you will early accustom yourself to complaisance, and there will linger in you all your life an air of civility which will make all people love you.” The child quarreled with the young 86 Duc d’Albret, the future Cardinal de Bouillon. His mother, learning of the tiff, cried out, “What! The nephew of M. de Turenne! Quick, run to him, or quit my roof forever!” Again she gave her son wise counsel, bidding him always leave to the strongest, to the King himself: “My son, there is nothing like the trunk of the tree.”
She was a master-woman, “une maîtresse-femme,” according to her son’s tribute. Jean Mélia, in his compendious work on the Abbé,1 sets down many a testimony to her charm and wisdom. Beauchasteau could scarce conceive her a mortal woman:
Quand je me ressouviens de vos charmants discours,
J’ai peine à concevoir que vous soyez mortelle.
Somaize and others tell of the beauty of her spirit; Segrais records that without study or reading she spoke and wrote divinely well. Tallemant des Réaux, a less lyric observer, reports rather the outrightness of her speech, and the great-lady unconstraint of her manners. One day a tart was set on her table, she ate her fill of it, then said to her guests, “Hold, there is some remaining; eat it, if you will.” Little Gramont entering her house followed by lackeys in finery, “Jesus!” she exclaimed, “a pimp so well turned out! ’Tis a good trade then!” Others of her conceits and pleasantries, as Tallemant relates them, would offend the virtuous and excite the reproof of the censorious.
Her adjuration to her son to cling to the trunk of the tree proceeded from her own dealings with the world. In an audience with King Louis she said to him, “with 87 hardihood akin to effrontery,” in her son’s phrase, “Sire, if you would become a proper man of the world, you must see me often.” Indeed, he did her a thousand friendly acts, endowing her with a pension of eight thousand livres, or francs; to the august bounty, says the abbé d’Olivet, she was not insensible.”
Her cherishing of greatness was to determine the singularity of her son’s character. It will be remembered that the Cardinal Mazarin, minister during the minority of Louis the Fourteenth, bore an unhappy recollection of the long and bloody broils between Louis the Thirteenth and his brother, Gaston of Orléans. The wily Italian intended that the reign of his charge should not be so troubled by the jealousy of the younger brother, Philippe, Duke of Orléans, known more generally as simple Monsieur. The Cardinal’s plan revealed an astuteness that would have done honor to a modern specialist in child training. He arranged that the boy should be feminized, that uneasy thoughts of war, ambition, and the sweets of power should be stilled in his bosom. Monsieur was taught to cultivate girlish graces, and in his teaching Mme de Choisy proved a devoted mistress, using her son as a small instrument of churchly diplomacy. “I was dressed as a girl,” says Choisy, “every time that little Monsieur came to our house, and he came twice or thrice a week. I had my ears pierced, and wore diamonds, patches, and all the little gewgaws to which one becomes easily used and which one parts with so hardly. Monsieur, who loved all that, showed me boundless friendship.
“As soon as he arrived, followed by the nieces of the Cardinal Mazarin and some of the Queen’s maids, he was put to his toilette and his hair dressed; he had 88 broidered stays to conserve his figure. His doublet was removed and woman’s gowns and petticoats were put on him, and this was done, so they said, by order of the cardinal. . . . When Monsieur was dressed and adorned, one played at Little Prism, the game in fashion; and at about seven the collation was brought, but not servants appeared. I would go to the door of the chamber to fetch the dishes and I would put them on little stands about the table; I would pour drink, and I was sufficiently paid by some kisses on the brow with which the ladies honored me.”
The cardinal’s policy found brilliant justification in its results. Monsieur’s feminine graces charmed the court throughout his life. He constantly painted his cheeks, and would dress in women’s clothes at every opportunity. He loved to be with women, to dress them and do their hair, but he was never held to be a menace to their virtue. He did indeed manifest the old warlike vigor of his line, winning the battle of Cassel, though grieving his troops by leading them with his hair cued and curl-papered.
The sight of her son in maidenly tire pleased Mme de Choisy. She kept him thus accoutered until his eighteenth year, “through a false tenderness,” as he afterwards concluded. From the age of five or six, she had his face rubbed daily with a certain lotion, by virtue of which no hair ever sullied his beauty. “From my childhood,” he says, “stays were put upon me which bound me very close and raised up my flesh, which was plump and round. I also took very good care of my neck, which I would rub every evening with calf-water and sheep-foot pomade, which render the skin soft and white.” Nutmeg and cloves, drugs exciting to turbulence, 89 were banished the house. From the age of ten he served in some sort as his mother’s secretary, being thus initiated into the mysteries of politics and the intrigues of the court. “This,” he says, “was of great advantage to me and was destined to form my character.”
She found little difficulty in the choice of her son’s career. His readiness of wit and urbanity of manner destined him clearly for the tonsure. He was therefore named abbé of Saint-Seine in Burgundy on January first, 1663, when he was aged eighteen years and eight months. Shortly afterwards he sustained his thesis in the Sorbonne, being opposed by the abbé Le Tellier, the shouting abbé. “I shouted as loud as he,” testifies Choisy, “and whether I was right or not, the Doctors beat on their stalls and imposed silence upon him.”
Though he visited his cure, he continued to dwell in Paris, restricting his ecclesiastical duties to the drawing of his revenues. A few months after receiving his abbacy, he journeyed to Bordeaux, and there engaged himself as an actress. “I played in the comedy for five months as a girl, and every one was deceived. I had suitors to whom I accorded little favors, though I was much reserved about great ones; there was much talk of my modesty. I enjoyed the greatest pleasure that one can taste in life.”
His mother died in 1666; the abbé wept her, and chose as his share of the inheritance her jewels, ear-pendants, rings, and diamond crosses. “I was rapt with joy to possess the jewels wherewith to deck myself and play the belle.” About 1668 he was bidden to the ball of Monsieur, his childhood’s playmate. “Monsieur would have much desired to be able to dress as a woman, but he dared not because of his dignity; princes 90 are imprisoned in their grandeur. In the evenings he would put on a mob-cap, ear-drops and patches, and would gaze long at himself in mirrors, amid the incense of his admirers. He gave every year a great ball on Shrove Monday. He bade me come to it in a sweeping gown, unmasked, and he charged the chevalier de Pradine to lead me in the coranto. The assembly was very fine; there were thirty-four women, tricked out with pearls and diamonds. I was much praised; I danced to the last perfection, and the ball was made for me.”
Yet a manly heart beat beneath the silken bodice. Though his ecclesiastical rank dispensed him from warlike service, he accompanied his king to the Flanders wars in 1667; he was at the siege of Orsoy and at Condé’s passage of the Rhine; he served at a field-mass before His Majesty. He then returned to Paris, doffed the cuirass for stays of whalebone, and beat his sword into a lorgnon.
He seems, in these days, to have dressed mostly in the guise of a gallant abbé, with ear-pendants and beauty-patches. And if such trickings may appear to some in ill accord with ecclesiastical dignity, we must recall that he was an abbé commandataire, having taken only a preliminary vow and having received the tonsure, as the Church strictly required of those who were to received its revenues. He was not alone in hesitating to abjure the world’s vanities. Saint-Simon tells us of the abbé d’Entragues, who “preserves the whiteness of his complexion by frequent bleedings, and who sleeps with his arms tied above him to have the more beautiful hands, who receives visitors sitting in bed, dressed like a reliquary, with a lace mob-cap, many topknot-ribands, a ladder of ribands in his stays, a flounced bed-cloak, 91 and beauty-patches.” François de Harlay, Archbishop of Paris, was said by common bruit to have yielded to the remonstrance of authority by reducing the number of his mistresses to three. The fearless Fléchier, in one of his great sermons, berated the Bishop of Clermont for giving balls in the bishopric, for dressing in garments cut of episcopal purple in the latest modes of the court, and for setting unholy conditions on marriages he performed, while in his diocese a scapegrace priest carried a rabbit-gun with the Holy Sacrament as he journeyed to distant farms. Taine records that in the following century the abbé de Saint-Germain installed a dancer, Mlle Leduc, to preside as hostess in his abbacy.
The abbé de Choisy, mincing in his finery, called upon Madame de la Fayette and her austere lover, the duc de la Rochefoucauld. The caustic novelist vowed that the abbé would do better to dress entirely in women’s clothes, and Choisy chose to take her at her word. He returned to her in his finest gown. She cried, “Ah, the lovely creature! You have done well to follow my counsel.” Stern La Rochefoucauld approved her judgment; and Choisy, emboldened, began to appear publicly in the costumes he loved so well.
His decision was made in 1672, when he was in his twenty-eighth year. He had his hair cut, to better support the wig, and had his ears newly pierced. He wore “embroidered stays and black and gold house-gowns, with facings of white satin, a busked cincture, and a great knot of ribands in the back to mark the waist, a long sweeping train, a much-powdered peruke, patches, a little bonnet with a fontange.” He bought a house in the faubourg Saint-Marceau, and went to dwell there under the name of Madame de Sancy, with a 92 great train of servants and a chaplain. Yet he made no effort to mystify his neighbors, posing rather as a whimsical gentleman, proudly reading to the curé of his parish an account of his foibles in the Mercure Galant. The curé expresses his indignation that any one should take ill the abbé’s pranks. “M. le curé loudly praised my gown, and told me that it had a far better grace than had those little abbés with their jackets and little cloaks, who gained no public respect.”
The abbé manifested his piety by renting a pew in Saint-Médard, opposite the pulpit. “The churchwardens sent me always a lit taper to walk in the procession, and I would follow immediately after them. A lackey bore my train; and on the day of the Holy Sacrament, as the procession was making the great tour, M. de la Neuville gave me his hand, and served as my squire. After five or six months, I was brought the loaf, to render the consecrated bread. I did the business very magnificently, but I did not wish any trumpets. The churchwardens told me that a woman must present the holy bread and take the offertory, and that they would rejoice if I should be willing to do them that honor. . . . I prepared myself as for a festival which was to show me as a spectacle to a great throng of people. I had a chamber-gown made of white China damask . . .” After a long description of his finery he proceeds, “I presented the holy bread, and I went to the offering with good enough grace, so I was told; and then I took up the offering, in the morning at high mass, and in the evening at vespers and benediction. I had a squire, a serving-woman who followed me, and three lackeys, one of whom carried my train. Some folk teased me, saying that I was something 93 coquettish, for that in passing among the chairs I would sometimes stop, while the beadle was clearing the way, and I would amuse myself by looking in my mirror, to resettle my ear-pendants or my steenkirk:2 but I did this only in the evening at benediction, and few people perceived it. I became very tired through all the day: but I had so much pleasure in seeing myself applauded by all, that I felt no weariness until I was abed. I forgot to say that I took two hundred two-and-seventy livres.”
It was a happy life that he led in the faubourg Saint-Marceau. He was awakened for his chaplain’s mass at noon, and would hustle into a chamber-gown, a petticoat, and a taffeta coif to hide his mob-cap. He received M. le curé and many friends, especially the maidens of the neighborhood, who had no such fear of him as of the tempestuous gentlemen of that reign. Every one complimented him on his finery, but none found anything therein that was not modest. He gave little concerts and lotteries; he would take his fair neighbors to the opera and the comedy. With M. le curé, he would go weekly to distribute alms to the poor. “I would hear fruit-women and water-carriers say somewhat loud behind us, ‘There goes a good lady, God bless her!’ . . . An apple-woman whose whole stock I bought to give to a poor family, said to me, clasping her hands, ‘God be with ’ee, good lady, and keep ’ee fifty years more as pretty as you are.’ These simple praises bring great pleasure, and I perceived even that M. le curé was not insensible to them.’
This sweet existence was interrupted by M. Mansart, 94 him of the roofs, the superintendent of buildings for His Majesty. He represented to the King that the Crown might well take over the abbé’s splendid quarters in the Luxembourg, as the abbé was dwelling so contentedly in his faubourg. To hold his right Choisy with a sigh doffed his dresses and returned to court life, and straightway fell victim to a disastrous passion for play. “I lost all my money, and then my ear-pendants and my rings; I had no longer the means to play the belle. A rage of gaming took me; I sold my house in the faubourg Saint-Marceau, and lost the money. I thought no more of dressing as a woman, but only of traveling far to hide my misery and shame, and to essay to dissipate my chagrin.”
It was the day of high play in high place. Primi Visconti avers that Choisy lost 100,00 écus (300,000 francs) at raquette. The Duc d’Antin won more than 700,000 livres. His mother, Mme de Montespan, lost and won 400,000 pistoles (four million francs) in one night; she played 150,000 pistoles on three cards and won. Primi Visconti gives us a colorful picture of a game of bassette among great folk. “One might see the Comtesse de Soissons in a great armchair with a quantity of little dogs about her, with Mme de Vertamon dealing the cards and Mme de Rambures tearing them up, the Marquis de Gordes watching, lorgnon in hand, the Duc de Vendôme taking tobacco, the Comte de Gramont tearing off his peruke, the Chevalier de Vendôme smiting the table with his fist, the Duc de Créquy turning up his sleeves, the Bishop of Langres throwing down his hat, the Comte de Roye tapping with his foot, the Marquis de Seignelay swearing, and all acting in conformity with the grief or content that fate 95 made them feel, except the Comtesse de Soissons and Giustiniani, who did not let their feelings be divined. Similarly the Marquis de Beaumont, who lost 10,000 pistoles and fell into poverty without uttering a single word.” Of a different stamp was the High Master of the Wolf-Hounds, M. d’Heudicourt, who made such bounds on his stool, playing lansquenet, that he would upset his neighbors, and incessantly spat over his shoulder without the warning that etiquette demanded. In England also men took cards seriously. A letter of Lady Sunderland, of 1680, tells us, “My Lord Cavendish’s journey is stop’d awhile; he has not only lost all his mony, but coach-horses and plate, all he had: my Ld Clifford says, he expects his pictures and house will be gone next.” In the Verney Memoirs, for the same period, we read, “Sir Richard Temple’s little daughter Maria is christened on his birthday in the drawing room. The baby’s mother, and the godmothers, Lady Chaworth and Lady Gardiner, are immersed in cards. They leave off gambling for three or four rounds while the service is actually performed, then fall to it again, oblivious of everything about them.”
Choisy confesses of himself, “Gaming has always persecuted me; it has cured me of these bagatelles of dressing as a woman for several years, but every time that I ruined myself and wished to give up play, I fell again into my old weaknesses and again became a woman.”
He was no doubt in the mood to quit the fever of the courtly gaming-rooms when he suffered a rebuff which determined him to seek a more regular existence. He was attending the Opera, in a white gown flowered with gold, with facings of black satin, and with rose-colored 96 ribands. The Duchesse d’Uzès, sitting in the royal box with the Dauphin, espied him, and bade him enter. The Dauphin, a boy of twelve, was delighted with the pretty abbé, and invited him to join in the collation being served in the box. But, says Choisy spitefully, Rabatjoie, Killjoy Montausier, the preceptor of the Dauphin, arrived. “How do you find her?” asked the Duchess. “I avow,” declared Montausier, “madame or mademoiselle — I know not how to call you — I avow that you are pretty; but in truth have you no shame, to wear such a costume and to play the woman, since you are happy enough not to be one? Go hide yourself; the dauphin thinks you are a sad creature.” The dauphin interrupted that to the contrary he found her beautiful as an angel; but Choisy, much abashed, resolved to retire from court.
He bought an estate near Bourges and there dwelt under the name of the Comtesse des Barres, indulging in many a gay and romanesque adventure with the daughters of country gentry and with actresses. Some three years later he returned to Paris, to lead a life of disorder and extravagance, which attracted the reprobation of the King himself. The royal displeasure seems not to have been lasting, for in 1676 the abbé was appointed to accompany the Cardinal de Bouillon to the conclave which was to elect a Pope. If d’Alembert is to be trusted, Choisy’s recommendations to France persuaded Louis to permit the election of Innocent XI.
In 1683 the abbé fell ill of a fever. The thought of death, the canceler of beauty, came to haunt him as he lay sick in the Seminary of Foreign Missions. The good clerics fought with Satan for his soul; the abbé promised that if he should come again to health he 97 would consecrate his life to God alone. During his convalescence he wrote four edifying dialogues, on the immortality of the soul, on the existence of God, on providence, and on religion. They wee published in the following year, the fortieth of his life.
The sincerity of his conversion was well and outwardly proven, for in 1684 he offered himself for a hazardous task in expiation of his follies. He proposed to convert the King of Siam to the true faith. There were indeed carpers who saw in his design something else than holy zeal. His friend and biographer, the abbé d’Olivet, writes, “he was cruelly pressed by his creditors, who were assailing him on all sides. He had made considerable losses at gaming and he thought he would save much money by going to Siam; in this he was much mistaken.” The abbé’s apostolic mission, he himself tell us, impoverished him for the ten years following.
He published a sprightly journal of his voyage, of fourteen months of seafaring and three of exhortation. His impressions of sea and land are always genial, but lack the grandiose touch. He describes the Canary Islands thus pithily: “They say that good jams are made here. The mountains are covered with snow.” Ship-life pleased him, especially, as his mind was now turned heavenward. “I think there is no better seminary than a vessel. I have never yet repented of having come on this galley.” The victualing of the ship, he repeatedly tells us, was admirable.”
But the King of Siam proved reluctant to abandon his idols. Choisy exhorted in vain, the palm of Saint Francis Xavier was not destined for him. He found, however, much satisfaction in the Asian pomp of the 98 mission’s reception; “I thought I had become Pope,” he informs us. His happiness was only clouded by the fact that Father Tachard received by error the great gold crucifix which Siam’s ruler intended for Choisy.
Meanwhile his aspirations toward rectitude were crowned by his elevation to the priesthood. At the hands of the Bishop in partibus of Metellopolis he received, in Siam, the four minor orders on December 7, 1685, the sub-diaconate on the 8th, the diaconate on the 9th, and the priesthood on the 10th. At the same time he deprecates and exults over this unwonted celerity, and cites the example of his friend Daniel de Cosnac. He preached one day before the queen, and the Cardinal Mazarin, enraptured, dubbed him Bishop of Valence on the spot. Cosnac betook himself straightway to the Archbishop of Paris. “Monseigneur, the King has made me bishop, but I am not yet a priest.” “I shall order you when you will.” “And I beg you also to make me deacon.” “Willingly.” “And I must crave also the sub-diaconate.” “In the name of God, shall I baptize you?”
Returning to France, Choisy brought costly presents and messages of amity from the King of Siam to the great brother monarch. He made, however, the blunder of bringing also presents for the Cardinal de Bouillon. How could the unhappy abbé have known that during his absence Louis had ceased to shed warm beams on the Cardinal, and ha indeed banished him the court? For such ill address Choisy shared the Cardinal’s disgrace; he retired in shame to the Seminary of Foreign Missions, and there wrote his Life of David and his Interpretation of the Psalms. These he dedicated to the King, prefacing the Life of David with a 99 new psalm of praise. “The new Christians of the Orient pray for you without ceasing,” he cried, “and they look upon you as, after God, the author of their salvation.” His Majesty recognized the love in Choisy’s bosom, which must have dictated the words, and he received once more the happy subject to his favor.
Thereupon the French Academy, recognizing the abbé’s services to letters, elected him to an armchair among the forty immortals. His was the seventeenth armchair, in our time the illustrious throne of Littré, Pasteur, and Gaston Paris. He was received by M. Bergeret, who addressed to him a perhaps over-laudatory allocution, in the course of which he compared the new immortal’s mother, Mme de Choisy, to Cornelia, the faultless mother of the virtuous Gracchi.3100
He was inducted into the Academy in 1687, at the age of 43. He lived until 1724, busy with his great History of the Church, in eleven volumes, and his other works of piety and of history, both churchly and secular. To these should be added some tales designed to divert the spirit, at the same time elevating the soul with precepts of morality, and his memoirs. Some of his recollections of his exploits as Madame de Sancy and as the comtesse des Barres were written for the amusement of the Marquise de Lambert, widely known as a paragon of virtue in a licentious age. Certain gross memories there set down have happily been excised from all printed versions of his works.
During these years of expiation by good works of his youthful extravagances, it yet appears that his old habits were strong in him. In his house he wore none but women’s clothes; in this garb he composed all his pious works. Says d’Alembert, “He could not bring himself to quit women’s wear when he was alone, not thinking that there remained in that very solitude a witness more redoubtable than mankind. . . . Interrupting sometimes his work to cast for a moment a sad glance upon himself, he would cry with the simplest sincerity, ‘What a painter for the Anthonys and the Pachomiuses, for the Augustins and the Athanasiuses!’ ”
He was not a very estimable man, concluded his kinsman d’Argenson. In this judgment we must concur; but had he been an estimable man this history would not have been very interesting.
1 L’Étrange existence de l’abbé de Choisy, Paris, 1921.
2 A negligent lace scarf, so called from the battle of Steenkirk, where the French nobles were too hurried to knot properly their neckerchiefs.
3 The contemporary keys to the Caractères of La Bruyère unanimously interpret the character of Théodote as that of the abbé de Choisy. This character appeared first in the seventh edition of the work, in 1692. Servois, in his great edition of the Caractères, rejects the attribution, and with evident reason. Yet if the coat seemed to contemporaries a passable fit, Choisy might have worn it, though it was cut for another. Some traits of the character of Théodote are here subjoined; “Théodote has, with his austere garment, a comic visage, that of an actor making his entrance on the stage; his voice, step, gesture, attitude, match his face; he is subtil, sly, sweetish, mysterious; he comes close to you and says in your ear, ‘ ’Tis a fine day; ’tis thawing fast.’ If he has not the great manners, he has at least all the little ones, even those which are fit only for a young précieuse. Imagine the application of a child in building a house of cards or in capturing a butterfly, ’tis that of Théodote for an affair of no account, which does not deserve one’s slightest bestirring; but he treats it seriously, as something capital; he hustles, bustles, brings it to success. . . . Théodote loves favor madly; . . . he makes his vows to it, cultivates it, serves it mysteriously; he is in ambush for everything that appears with the liveries of favor; if any man has a likely chance for favor, Théodote offers himself to him, intrigues for him, secretly sacrifices to him merit, alliances, friendships, engagements, gratitude. If the post of Cassini [the celebrated astronomer, director of the Observatory] should fall vacant, and if the doorman or the postillion of the favorite should see fit to ask it, Théodote would endorse his request, would consider him worthy of this post, would find him capable of observing and calculating and opining on parhelia and parallaxes.” But La Bruyère was a good friend of Choisy, and was not thus venomous toward his friends.