Monday 17 July 2017

Extraordinary Lives : Swashbuckling Across France

A French print from around 1700 by an anonymous artist entitled
“Mademoiselle Maupin d’Opera” depicting Julie d’Aubigny as an opera singer.
There was quite a remarkable group of women who lived in the17th and 18th centuries who lived extraordinary lives for their times – the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and the soldier-adventurer Catalina de Erauso to name a few. At the moment I’m quite taken with the life of Julie d’Aubigny (1673-1707), whose action-packed, swash-buckling, body-snatching, opera-singing life was extraordinary for enough for her to feature as a companion to Doctor Who in a comic book adventure. In fact, there can be very few men of her time had more extraordinary lives than hers.

Julie was perhaps fortunate in having the father she had, for Gaston d’Aubigny was secretary to Prince Louis de Lorraine-Guise, Count of Armagnac. Gaston was also responsible for the education and training of the pages of the royal court of King Louis XIV of France. Julius was accepted into the classes, which included horse-riding and fencing, and she got used to wearing male clothes like the young male trainees. Sensing the restrictions of female clothes at an early age Julie chose to wear men’s clothes for the majority of the rest of her life.

So far, so dull, except for learning how to fight with a sword, which other young women didn’t. Then, at the age of 14 she became the Count of Armagnac’s mistress. That would have caused as bit of a scandal, even if there were other royal mistresses around the court. But Julie was a teenager and unmarried. So the Count married her off to an aristocrat called the Sire de Maupin de Sainte-Germain-en-Laye. From then on Julie became known as the Madame de Maupin, or just La Maupin when a later career choice took off.

Now that Julie was married Armagnac packed her husband off to the south of France to be a tax collector while he had his way with her.

Then things really started to hot up. Julie spent her time in the fencing schools of Paris, challenging the tutors to matches. One of these tutors, Monsieur Sérannes, became her lover after Armagnac dropped her. But her cushy life as a privileged aristocrat ended when Sérannes killed a man in a duel. Duels were illegal at the time, so the couple fled Paris. Deprived of income they headed south earning money in the fairs and inns as a fencing-singing (not at the same time) double-act.

Julie dressed as a man the whole time but always made it clear that she was a woman (a female singing fencer was a big attraction). But one young man in one audience challenged her. He didn’t believe she was a woman. So, what did she do? She did what any other 16-year-old would do. She flashed her boobs at the crowd.

Julie also had quite a talent for singing as well. When they got to Marseille she trained as a singer under Pierre Gaultier, a friend of the composer who invented the military marching band and modern ballet, Jean-Baptiste Lully.

It wasn’t long before Julie tired of Sérannes. She had found another love, a merchant’s daughter who was even younger than she was. The girl’s parents were horrified, so they packed her daughter off to a convent. Undaunted, Julie followed, and abandoned her male attire to join the same convent. The two teenagers could be together, but life in a convent was not the best environment for a relationship so they decided to run away together.

Knowing Julie, just running away from a convent was no ordinary task. She waited until an elderly nun had died. Then, Julie dug up the body. Yes, grave-robbing was another of her skills, and put the corpse in her girlfriend’s bed. To cover up the switch Julie set fire to the convent and she and her girlfriend escaped amid the chaos.

The plan backfired, sort of. In her absence Julie was accused of kidnapping, grave-robbing and arson. She was condemned to death – as a man, because they couldn’t believe a woman could do such a thing.

On the run again Julie enjoyed three months with her young lover (whose name is not known). But boredom set in again and the girl was sent back to her parents while Julie returned to her singing-fencing career in the inns and fairs of rural France. She was talent-spotted by an alcoholic former singing star who offered to train her properly. Perhaps now, at the age of 18, Julie though about finding a more normal life.

But no. She enjoyed singing, but she enjoyed fencing just as much. On her way to Paris to start her professional singing career she encountered a young man who insulted her (in one version of the tale). Julie challenged him to a duel and succeeded in thrusting her sword straight through his shoulder. The next day the man’s servant came to apologise for his master’s insult and took Julie up to see him in his room. It was only then that Julie revealed her true gender and identity and, guess what? She and the injured man, who turned out to be Count Louis-Joseph d’Albret, became lovers. This was perhaps the only true love relationship Julie had with a man. They were only lovers for a short time but they remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Julie continued on to Paris, picking up yet another lover, a fellow singer also heading for Paris called Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard. Don’t forget that Julie had a death sentence hanging over her in Paris, and once there her identity would be revealed and she risked arrest. Calling on her former lover, the Count of Armagnac, for help he persuaded the king to drop all charges against her.

Still only 18 years old Julie found herself performing at the Paris Opera. It wasn’t long before she realised her best singing voice was as a contralto, and this turned her into a star. There weren’t many starring roles for a contralto at that time, but Julie found composers were writing leading roles especially for her. This was the time she became known as La Maupin. She stayed at the Paris Opera for 15 years.

And if you think the first 18 years of her life were packed with enough packed and that she has decided to settle down and become a singing celebrity you’d be wrong.

The next 18 years of her life were just as extraordinary, and included a duel with three men one after the other, an affair with the ruler of Bavaria, and a disagreement with the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg all made sure her teenage reputation stayed with her. Unfortunately, we can’t. Julie d’Aubigny’s life is so extraordinary that I’ve split it into two parts. Part 2 will appear at the end of the month. And you’ll never guess what she did with a handful of radishes.

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