Occasionally history renders fiction almost unnecessary. This was especially true in the case of Julie d’Aubigny, who blazed her way through Parisian society in the final years of the 17th century. She was a striking, swashbuckling, cross-dressing contralto; a lover of handsome men and beautiful women; a formidable duellist; and the toast of the Paris Opéra, where she was better known under her husband’s surname as Mademoiselle de Maupin. That’s how I was first introduced to her, by Théophile Gautier, on a sunny afternoon several years ago during a university holiday. At the time I was just charmed by the way that Gautier had created a plot which so cleverly mimicked that of As You Like It (a performance of which is at the heart of the novel), but I had no idea that de Maupin had been a real person. Nor did I have any inkling of her fabulous, roistering life, until I read Gardiner’s engaging book. It’s been quite a revelation, and she has been immediately fast-tracked onto my list of favoured historical ‘uppity women’.
Julie d’Aubigny is dying. From her sickbed in an Avignon convent, she dictates her confession to a scandalised priest. As the only child of a minor official in the Versailles stables, Julie grows up a tomboy, learning to ride and to fence with the palace’s ragtag band of pageboys. Already a beauty at thirteen, she becomes the mistress of her father’s employer, the Comte d’Armagnac; until, that is, she starts sleeping with her fencing master and persuades him to run away with her. The two vagrants head south to the glowing port city of Marseille, ‘a city of knives and tempers‘, where they swagger and show off their swordsmanship to fools who’ve never seen a woman fight before. And Julie makes her first appearance on the stage, having longed to sing ever since watching the Opéra as a child at Versailles. Fortunately she has the voice for it. Marseilles opens to them like a flower to the sun. But then it all goes wrong.
There’s a girl. It gets complicated. The beloved is packed off in a fast coach to some convent in Avignon and Julie, tempestuously, goes haring after her like a knight from one of the old romances. She infiltrates the convent; finds her love; and they plan an escape. But subtlety has never been Julie’s way. Suddenly, running free with her beloved, she finds a price on her head. She’s wanted for arson, corruption and a thousand things besides. The penalty is death. When another way out is offered, she takes it. She’s only sixteen. From there, her rise is meteoric. Within a matter of years, this quarrelsome tomboy is on the stage at the Opéra in Paris, captivating hearts, thrilling them with her gorgeous, androgynous voice and bringing life to Lully’s goddesses and queens. This would be enough, if Julie were anyone else. But she thirsts for too much life, too much living. Her existence is a catalogue of passions and duels and, like all things which burn too quickly, she wears out before her time. Here she is, exhausted and spent, in a peaceful nunnery, counting her final hours to the sound of birds and plainchant. She’s barely thirty.
This novel does a great job of bringing Julie to life. Its chapters alternate between first-person, for her discussions with the priest – in which she bullies, berates, hectors and teases him – and third-person for vignettes of her past. The mixture of viewpoints doesn’t always work smoothly, but I grew used to it, and thought Julie’s own narrative voice was splendid: I could see her in my mind’s eye, still sharp and uncompromising in her illness. Where the novel falls down, however, is that Julie is ultimately just too perfect. She’s unapologetically narcissistic in her own sections, but the third-person chapters back up her view: she is the most beautiful woman in France; the best duellist; a superlative singer… Men melt before her and women are uniformly swept away. Gardiner obviously adores her protagonist, and I can understand why, but there were times when I felt that a slightly more critical approach might have been more rewarding.
Oh, and it’s all very operatic. Immediate, passionate connections are made with glances across crowded rooms, and Julie lives life as if through a sequence of arias. Her rages are grander, her miseries deeper and her loves more intense than those of a normal character and yet, somehow, it does work, precisely because the story is told in such a dashing fashion. On balance, it’s the kind of book you have to feel predisposed to like: you have to agree, at the beginning, that you’re going to be entranced by this character and simply allow yourself to be carried along on a breathless romp through Golden-Age France.
For those who enjoy grand operas, trouser roles, feisty female characters and a pleasing amount of derring-do, this book should be an enjoyable diversion. If you’re willing to throw yourself into the tumultuous flood of Julie d’Aubigny’s life, it’s quite the journey: she comes across as a smarter, bolshier and more glamorous counterpart of the Chevalier d’Eon (who would live a hundred years later). In fact, I can think of one person who should certainly read this book. Dehggial, how about it? I’ll send you my copy as an early Christmas present…