The Crossdresser’s Secret is an artist’s novel by Brian O’Doherty, who is known for both his visual art as well as his artist’s books such as Inside the White Cube. The Crossdresser’s Secret describes the life of Chevalier d’Eon, a historical figure who lived through the tumultuous changes of 18th century France, Russia and London, being both a spy and a celebrity, both man and woman, a writer, an artist, a knight, and a political advisor.
The book starts in Russia at the court of Catherine the Great, where Chevalier d’Eon works as a spy and a diplomat, and where he enjoys the extravagant parties of Russian court life. After the French Revolution, Chevalier d’Eon moves consequently to London and to France.
The book changes its tone several times, starting as a historical novel, but proceeding as philosophy, art history, and it even has sparks of performance in its pages, when chevalier d’Eon makes a broad registration of his father’s possible movements in the house during the weeks before he passed away, describing them carefully like a series of directions, or even a map. There is the issue of Chevalier d’Eon’s sex; how people perceive him, and how the sexes communicate between them in general. And there are the political issues of this tumultuous time, that d’Eon is directly involved in. The novel sticks to the facts about Chevalier d’Eon’s life and even quotes him at times from the numerous journals he left behind.
The plot is thick, and while the tone is that of a page-turner, the reader nonchalantly gets complex philosophical problems to chew on. Discussing both the fluidity of gender, as well as what it means to be an outsider in various societies, the book is not just a historical novel, but can easily be applied to contemporary issues.