the book: Goddess by Kelly Gardiner
My boots were always well-heeled and shiny with pig fat, but it wasn’t until d’Armagnac took me into his entourage that I felt the joy of sliding my feet into boots meant for me, into leather not already moulded over the years into another’s shape…
The softest leather imaginable— they seemed almost too soft for riding and perhaps even for walking, but they pinched like blazes. Gold breeches, especially tailored to my legs— dear Lord, what a sight I must have been. Can you imagine? Like some creature of the darkness, escaped from a country fair— or a fool from the Comédie-Française. I thought I was gorgeous, in the same way that a peacock imagines that the tail is the bird. La. I can laugh now. At the time, the cut of my cuffs, the lace on my blouse, were matters of great importance to me— and to d’Armagnac. In my defence, lest you think me one of those trivial women who worries only about her wardrobe, I grew up in a palace where good tailoring and statecraft were indistinguishable, where courtiers believed that a misjudged earring might lead to exile and ruin. And occasionally they were right…
He gave me everything I desired and quite a few things I hadn’t known existed. There were finely stitched breeches cut to my own measurements, for days when I was riding or fencing or being a boy, as well as a satin gown, and one of green linen, and embroidered petticoats, for the evenings we spent together. I had silks, a hat with peacock feathers, earrings of garnet clusters, fruit from the garden that I didn’t have to steal.
commentary: Celebrating all things French on 14th July, Bastille Day - this is a fictionalized story of a real 18th Century heroine, a cross-dressing, bisexual, larger-than-life figure. The Wikipedia description of her is this: ‘Julie d'Aubigny (167[0/3]–1707), better known as Mademoiselle Maupin or La Maupin, was a 17th-century swordswoman and opera singer. Her tumultuous career and flamboyant life were the subject of gossip and colourful stories in her own time, and inspired numerous portrayals afterwards.’
Gardiner’s book is a tremendous portrayal of that life, full of excitement and life, and written in a high style that suits the subject. Alternating chapters tell her story in the 1st and 3rd persons – Maupin is telling her story to a priest on her deathbed in a convent.
She learns to fence and dress as a boy from a young age: then becomes mistress of an important man, and is married off to a nobody for respectability’s sake. She becomes an opera singer, gets involved in various romances with women, is subject to endless accusations, and carries on sword-fighting whenever she can. Her love affairs with women are beautifully-described, affecting and romantic.
In proper afterword style, Gardiner (who is plainly in love with her heroine, and who can blame her?) says ‘You probably think I made this up. I didn’t. This novel is an interpretation of the life of the very real Julie d’Aubigny. All of the episodes described in this novel are based on documented events in her life. That doesn’t mean that they really happened, because there are so many different accounts of her life...’
So – she has done a great job of interpreting the story: Julie is a delight to read about, with a most distinctive and enjoyable voice. At times she reminded me of the (much later) heroine of La Dame Aux Camelias – the story that became the opera La Traviata (she could have sung the role...). Meanwhile she was off fighting three duels at once, as in the story of The Three Musketeers by another Dumas.
I liked this from a duel scene:
Her seconds take their places. D’Albert stands next to Saint-Rémy, with signal arm raised, Thévenard to her left with a spare pistol. She smiles at them— her bearded giant, her golden boy.I read the book very quickly, enjoying it hugely, during a very difficult train journey – and thought it was quite short (this was on Kindle). That’s the ultimate compliment, as it is actually more than 380 pages long.
‘My two friends. I love you.’
‘Stop acting like this is the Ascension, Julia,’ says Thévenard. ‘Concentrate.’
‘Bless you. You worry so.’
The top picture of La Maupin is by Aubrey Beardsley. The second one is by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ. Both are from the Athenaeum website.