Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Milady at the National Portrait Gallery

Last summer, London's National Portrait Gallery bought its first painting of a man in women's clothes. The painting shows Chevalier d'Eon, Louis XV's secret envoy to Russia and England, dressed as a woman. Accused by his enemies of being a hermaphrodite, he may have served as inspiration for the character of Lady de Winter in The Three Musketeers.

In his coy introduction to his translation of Alexandre Dumas' classic, Lord Sudley tackles the mystery of Milady, "who is referred to by all the men as 'the vampire', the 'creature from Hell', the 'monster', the 'woman who is not a woman'..." It is perhaps this last nomenclature that is the most telling.

"All men who come her way are first fascinated and then repelled by her, and in the end the terror she inspires in them is, as it were, the terror of the supernatural." Branded with the fleur-de-lis for a youthful crime, "Only her husbands (she had two) and her lovers find out her 'secret', and for that, she declares they must die... Might not Dumas, in creating such a character, have intended to convey that Milady had that particular form of physical malformation which was regarded even in the 16th and 17th centuries as a terrifying token of divine displeasure, punishable by death - a malformation of which the fleur-de-lis was merely a symbol?"