This week we’re going to cover something a bit more lighthearted on our women’s history journey: the tale of Julie d’Aubigny, an exceptionally talented performer on the stage and with a sword that led a life of constant adventure in 17th-century France.
Many details surrounding her life, such as her date and place of birth, where she died, her true name (Émilie, Madeleine and la Maupin are possible varients) and the validity of the litany of incredible stories told of her, are not known.
Historians and researchers have made educated assumptions on these facts, one of which is Kelly Gardiner, author of “Goddess,” a novel recapping the events of d’Aubigny’s life. Gardiner spent four years researching for the book.
“I started to think, how would that have been, to be a cross-dressing, sword-fighting opera singer in the 17th century — I mean, she would have felt incredibly alone for a lot of her life, and incredibly brave,” Gardiner said in an interview with NPR. “So she must’ve felt apart, I think, for a great deal of her life.”
d’Aubigny was born around 1673 and was the daughter of a secretary to King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, Count d’Armagnac, one of France’s great nobles.
Her father was a capable fencer and taught the court pages how to be proper swordsmen. D’Aubingy dressed as a boy and trained alongside her father, excelling at the art of sword-fighting.
At the age of 14, she was made to marry a timid man called de Maupin, while at the same time was rumored to be having an affair with her father’s boss, the Count d’Armagnac. She chose a different path and ran away with a swordmaster named Séranne. The pair found themselves down on their luck in Marseille, making ends meet by holding fencing demonstrations at fairs and in taverns.
At one of these events, a member of the audience questioned her gender. Surely she couldn’t be a woman as she was too good at the art of fencing. To the shock of everyone involved, she took off her shirt to vanquish anyone’s doubts.
d’Aubigny, in her teenage years, participated in the city’s Opera after taking singing lessons. These performances earned her praise and attracted the fancy of a woman in the crowd. They became lovers, but the woman’s father had her shipped to a convent in Avignon.
Not long after, d’Aubigny showed up at the convent and devised a scheme to escape. The two took the body of a recently deceased nun, placed it in their room and set fire to the whole building. d’Aubigny and her lover were on the run for three months before they were caught, then the girl was returned to her family and d’Aubigny was sentenced to death.
Thanks to an appeal from d’Armagnac she was pardoned by the king and moved to Paris in 1690, pairing up with a new lover, Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard, a singer.
Thévenard auditioned for the Opera National de Paris and was hired immediately. His condition was that d’Aubigny could also audition and the theatre reluctantly agreed. Her audition was a success and at the age of 17, she found herself a member of one of the world’s premier musical companies.
She became a star, performing in every company production from 1690-1694. This was where she gained fame as Mademoiselle de Maupin.
Her Opera career came to a halt when at a court ball dressed in men’s clothes, d’Aubigny kissed a woman on the dance floor and was challenged to duel with three different men.
She met them outside and beat them all at once, but was forced to leave, as dueling was still outlawed in France.
D’Aubigny fled to Brussels, where she became the lover of the Elector of Bavaria. He found her a bit too much to handle after she stabbed herself on stage with a real dagger, and offered her 40,000 francs to leave him alone. She threw the coins at the feet of his emissary and stomped off to Madrid, where she worked as a maid for Countess Marino, the wife of the Prime Minister of Spain at that time.
She resented the Countess immensely and dressed her hair with horse radishes before a grand ball. Everyone but the Countess could see them and d’Aubigny was on the road back to Paris before any recompense could be given.
After being given a second pardon at the behest of the king’s brother, La Maupin made her grand return to the stage. She appeared in most Opera productions and introduced the Italian idea of the contralto voice to France.
She also picked up where she left off in terms of escapades of debauchery.
To quote Gardiner’s summary: “She defended chorus girls against lecherous barons and pompous tenors, became infatuated with the soprano Fanchon Moreau, tried to kill herself, threatened to blow the Duchess of Luxembourg’s brains out and ended up in court for attacking her landlord.”
She and Thévenard remained great friends until her retirement. However, they were not without a few spats, such as one instance on stage where she bit his ear so hard it bled.
In 1703 she fell in love with Madame la Marquise de Florensac, described by many as the “most beautiful woman in France.” In addition, La Florensac was a quite famous, wealthy and well-connected woman. The couple lived in perfect harmony for two years, until de Florensac died of a fever.
The events following this have yet to be nailed down. Most sources agree that d’Aubigny stayed in the Opera for a few more years before moving into a convent where she died at the age of 33, a rather unspectacular end for this tale.
The story of d’Aubigny has been portrayed in several forms of media over the years, as legend and reality have blended together to create a portrait of an extraordinary woman who lived a spectacular life.
“Throughout the centuries, she’s been written about … and every so often, she becomes famous all over again, and she’s famous all over again now,” Gardiner said. “It’s fascinating to see — whenever society starts to think about, what does gender mean, what does sexuality mean, she’s just one of the names that comes up, and people start thinking about her, and talking about her, and portraying her all over again.”