Transvestite antiquarian bookseller

Posted on 25th September 2020 by simonbeattie

I’m currently putting together a new list of 18th-century material, and thought I’d share one item from it here. It’s two etchings of the ‘walking bookseller’, Theodora Grahn, ‘Baron de Verdion’, from 1793 and 1803.

These are two versions of the much-reproduced image of Theodora Grahn/de Verdion, an émigré cross-dressing bookseller in Georgian London.  The first was available ‘gratis to the purchasers of the Wonderful Magazine’, the second was issued the year after her death, from breast cancer, aged 58.

‘Among the many extraordinary Germans living in London in the Georgian period, few can have been more extraordinary than Theodora Grahn (1744–1802).  Grahn, the only child of an architect, was born in Leipzig and, following her parents’ early demise, was brought up by an aunt in Berlin.  She is said to have developed language skills at an early age.  During the Seven Years War she started a business as an exchange broker, a rather precocious step one might think, as she was only 19 when the war ended in 1763.  If not her age, then maybe her gender proved a disadvantage in this profession: it was around this time she began to dress as a man and adopted an aristocratic, masculine pseudonym, “Baron de Verdion”.  After exposure as an impostor, she moved to London around 1770, where, having demoted herself from “Baron” to “Dr. John” de Verdion, she worked as a language teacher and translator and also dealt in antiquarian books and coins and medals …  ‘Although she is said to have had persons of quality among her pupils, her reputation was somewhat disreputable.  Never leaving her house except dressed as a man, she became known for her prodigious consumption of food and drink in coffee-houses and taverns.  Her true gender seems to have been known if not openly acknowledged.  With her “grotesque” appearance and her famous umbrella she became a well-known London eccentric and a subject for satire …  More recently, Grahn has come to the attention of those working in the field of gender studies, who have sometimes assumed she was a transsexual as well as a transvestite.  I’m not so sure, however, that we can draw firm conclusions about her gender identity or sexual orientation from the information we have.  Her assumption of a masculine identity and dress could simply be seen as an effective strategy for a determined young woman in a world that provided so few opportunities for talented and independent women’ (Graham Jefcoate, BL European Studies blog, 26 March 2014).

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