A French Heroine for Bastille Day…

the book: Goddess by Kelly Gardiner

published 2014

Goddess maupin 2

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.

Goddess Maupin 1

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.
‘My two friends. I love you.’
‘Stop acting like this is the Ascension, Julia,’ says Thévenard. ‘Concentrate.’
‘Bless you. You worry so.’

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.

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. 


  1. Lovely to see you back, Moira!! And what a great post to celebrate Bastille Day. There really are people whose lives have been more fascinating than fiction is, and this is a great example of that sort of person. She must have been really fascinating to know, too.

    1. I loved finding out about her Margot, and I think Gardiner did a great job at giving her a voice.

  2. I've just been looking up the career of La Maupin, and I'm really ashamed to say that I'd never heard of her until now. At school I was bored senseless by history, thanks largely to the way it was told. There sometimes does seem to be a conspiracy to make everything dull, tedious, anodyne, featureless. History is made to seem like a series of treaties and proclamations, with the odd war thrown in. But I was rescued from this belief by reading about people like Julie d'Aubigny.

    People like her flash across the heavens, lighting everything up and living a far more exciting and eventful life than we can possibly imagine. They somehow straddle the world between fantasy and reality. You can hardly believe that they really existed, but they did, and knowing that they did makes you wonder whether all of those impossibly thrilling heroes from the fringes of reality like Robin Hood actually existed as well. What an extraordinary life!

    I'm fascinated by the rogues, the eccentrics, the oddballs from history. Once I've found one, I want to know more about them. She has just joined the list. Thanks!

    1. What a great description of what makes her so encouraging and cheering - and yes, she does bring history to life: there's plenty of detail in the book, and it made me interested to know what else was going on then.

  3. A very interesting account. I may have to go find the book . . .

    In your last para, both the links lead to the Beardsley pic.

    1. Sheer inefficiency about the link, I have corrected it now thanks! It is a fascinating story - Gardiner chooses a very specific way of telling it, and I loved that - it seems to suit the subject.

  4. The extract reads well and the topic seems interesting. If I did not already have so many books. Both author and subject of the book are new to me.

    1. I did enjoy it, though might not be for everyone. I can't even remember how I came across it, but glad I did.


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