Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Mademoiselle Savalette De Lange, Henriette-Jenny

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | October 26, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, Transgender & Intersex
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Savalette_de_Lange.JPGMademoiselle Savalette De Lange, Henriette-Jeanette, lived in 18th century France in the Palace of Versaille. She was a ubiquitous figure of high Parisian society, and her life is a story of transgender empowerment at the same time that hers was also a difficult lot.

Her story comes to us today from one of the fascinating gems of the internet: "A Gender Variance Who's Who." Written under the nom de plume of "Zagria" since 2006, it provides daily biographies of gender variant people. For those who enjoy biography, and the fascinating mysteries of wondering "who was this person and what was their life like?," it rarely fails to delight. It's not political - or is it? For those who are fighting to have society recognize trans identity as legitimate, as something other than a mental illness or a deception, it provides a historical parallax against which this modern argument can be measured.

Who was Mademoiselle Jenny Savalette de Lange? Was she, in fact, the exile Louis XVII Bourbon?

My discussion is based on Zagria's bio of Mademoiselle De Lange, which you can read here.

Mademoiselle De Lange was received into the most select royalist society of Paris, as the daughter of a well-respected royalist, and she was looked upon as a woman of true virtue and great intelligence, according to M. Lenote's Romances of the French Revolution (p. 57). Brilliant proposals of marriage had been made to her, but two were broken off suddenly at the last minute before marriage. She was known to be poor, although upon her death, she was discovered to have a considerable sum, and had a pension from the State due to her father's status, and also managed the post office at Villejuif for a while, and was given an apartment in the Chateau de Versailles for a while. She wrote a good deal, "in a large, effeminate, almost illegible" hand, which apparently caused all her correspondents to complain. She was quite helpful to others, finding situations for servants, and finding money for people in debt, and many were quite devoted to her, called her "My Dear Angel." She had a great deal of influence, and befriended Queen Amelie and Prince Louis, Napoleon III.

M. Lenote, whose biography discusses (p.57) the letters she wrote and received, interprets them as insolent to her royal correspondents. But given his obvious shock at the idea that someone born male could live as female, and must be mentally ill, it seems that he went astray in understanding that she was, in fact, someone who was a part of royal society, and spoke to them as her peers and equals.

According to several sources, however, she was not the exiled Louis XVII de Bourbon, based on DNA testing recently performed.

Nonetheless, here is someone who seems to have made the very best of a difficult situation. Imagine being a transsexual woman trapped in the 18th century? No medical care, in fact, going to a doctor or a hospital could mean exposure and imprisonment. No marriage, which could be equally problematic. Secrecy always, and fear of discovery. And yet, she lived, by these accounts, a very full life with many dear friends and lovers.

When I read of the 18th century life of Mademoiselle Savalette De Lange, Henriette-Jenny, and I compare it to the struggles of trans people in our 21st century, I feel as if, in some ways, she had it easier. Just this week I worked with another victim of severe, beyond-belief anti-trans bullying in the workplace, whose story I cannot here reveal and which may never be known, and condemned in my mind the beckoning hand of openness by which we are tempted to think that we will be accepted, only to be so cruelly rejected to point of emotional torture. But, due perhaps to the looming hammer of the evolving law, that situation may have yet a happy ending. For Mademoiselle Savalette De Lange, there could never be such a happy ending, and yet, it appears that she was content to be herself, and seek the approval of no one outside herself for her justification. Perhaps there is a lesson there for us.

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Angela Brightfeather | October 27, 2011 9:59 AM

There certainly is a lesson to learn in the life of Mademoiselle De Lange. Something along the lines of dealing and coping with the hand your played and making the best of it.

She was typical of every Transgender person who was born before the surgical invention of SRS and as all of them prove, there is life before surgery and it can be lived in a meaningful and constructive way. I do think that your conjecture about her having to live a life of fear due to discovery at any time, is a bit over the top, expecially in France, which had already accepted the talents of people like the Chevalier D'Eon, and points to the fact that Trans people might have had more acceptance and freedom to express themselves than we might have today in some areas of this country.

Often on this blog and others, there are arguments about who are, or who are not Transgender. De Lange is an example of a Trans person who was not driven to take her own life or to devalue it because she could not have an operation to satisfy her. Unlike many in our community today, that because operations are available, adopt the conception that their lives are not worth living any longer without it....De Lange proves, as many before and after her in history, that Trans people who did not have the opportunity, endeavored to and became the very best men and women that that they aspired to be and lived their lives helping others and with pride in their achievments.

I prefer to believe that at the end of her life, she died in piece and with the knowledge that she did become all that she could be. That she put the life that she was living, before the dreams that she may have had and found a way to simply be a good person because there was no choice or hope for her dreams coming true. So she moved on. This was an act of bravery, common sense and self awareness that sets an example for all Trans people, that the gift of life is more important and supercedes the gift of gender in my opinion.