Sunday 30 July 2017

Extraordinary Lives : Swashbuckling Across France Part 2

Two weeks ago I wrote about the extraordinary exploits of Julie d’Aubigny (1673-1707) pictured above. Today we continue her story.

After spending several years on the run for kidnapping a nun and burning down a convent Julie arrived in Paris at the age of 18 with a royal pardon and a glorious future as a star of the Paris Opera. She became a celebrity. Composers wrote parts especially for her and high society feted her.

In true celebrity style Julie’s off-stage behaviour continued to attract attention. She fell in love with the lead female singer, the prima donna of the Paris Opera, Marie Le Rochois (c.1658-1728). There was another singer Julie fell for, a rising male star called Franchon Moreau (1668-after 1743). He turned her down and Julie was shattered. She became so depressed, so it is said, that she attempted suicide.

But there’s always someone who wants a bit of the action and is jealous of being left out. A famous tenor at the opera, Louis Gaulard Dumesny (d.1702), had been trying to earn the affection of both Julie and Marie, and just about any other women he thought he had a chance with. When he made a concerted effort to woo Julie she turned him down. Dumesny responded by insulting her. Julie’s response to that was characteristic.

One evening Julie laid in wait for Dumesny in a public square. When he appeared Julie leapt out in front of him and challenged him to a duel. Dumesny didn’t recognise her because he hadn’t seen Julie in her male attire before and turned into a wimp. He refused to fight. Whereupon Julie got out her walking cane and thrashed the living daylights out of him. For good measure she took his watch and snuff box.

The following day Dumesny arrived at the opera covered in bruises. People asked what had happened and he said that he had been attacked by a bunch of ruffians who stole his watch and snuff box. This was Julie’s cue. She called him a liar and a coward and took out the watch and snuff box and threw them back at him. How embarrassed he must have been.

Life at the opera and in society circles continued. One very posh royal ball in 1697 provided more extraordinary behaviour from Julie. She was attending in her finest male attire. One young woman attracted her attention and Julie began chatting her up and flirting. They even danced together. Julie also knew there were three men who were equally vying for the young lady’s attention. There were strict conventions and rules about courtship at public events like this ball where royalty is present, but Julie threw them all out of the window when she kissed the young lady in full view of the other guests. At this point the three would-be suitors challenged Julie to a duel.

There’s no time like the present, they say, and the four of them marched out of the ballroom and into the palace gardens. Julie took on all three of the men, one after the other, and beat them all. The king was not amused. When Julie returned to the ballroom he reminded her that duels were banned. The king’s brother, however, was very amused and persuaded the king to let her off because the ban only applies to men not women.

However, the scandal was a bit too much and Julie felt the urge to travel again. She left Paris and went to Brussels. There she took up a guest role at the Brussels opera. Her tempestuous behaviour wasn’t dampened. At one time she had an argument with the “Duchess of Luxembourg” (there was no such title at the time, so I assume this lady would have been the wife of the Duke of Nassau, Prince of Orange, who ruled the area we now call Luxembourg). Julie threatened to blow the Duchess’s brains out!

Julie’s reputation attracted the attention of Prince Maximilian I Emanuel von Wittelsbach, the Elector of Bavaria. It wasn’t long before the two were having an affair. But Julie proved to be a bit too much for him, especially after seeing her stab herself with a real dagger during one opera performance. To help ease the pain of dumping her he thought a gift of 40,000 livres and a gentle hint to go away might do the trick. It backfired spectacularly after he chose the husband of his new mistress to deliver the money to her. Julie was outraged. She threw the money back at him and chased him out of her house. When he returned to retrieve the money both it and Julie had gone.

Madrid was Julie’s next destination. Perhaps she was trying to keep a low profile there, because she got a job as the maid to a Spanish countess. You just know something is going to happen before too long, and so it did. Julie didn’t like the countess very much. One evening when Julie was getting the countess ready for a grand ball she thought it would be amusing to put radishes in the countess’s hair. The countess went to the ball unaware of her unusual hair adornments. She probably didn’t stay at the grand ball very long, but by the time she got back home Julie was long gone.

Julie returned to Paris and the opera. When her ex-lover Marie Le Rochois retired Julie became her replacement as prima donna. There were a few more altercations with the law, usually involving herself and her old friend the Count d’Albret, and her continual verbal duels with Gabriel-Vincent Théverard, the singer who got her the job at the Paris Opera in the first place.

Life was relatively uneventful after that. In 1703 she met and fell in love with Marie Thérèse de Senneterre de Crussol d’Uzès (1670-1705), wife of the much older Louis, Marques of Florensac. Marie Thérèse was said to be the most beautiful woman in France. The two women became a couple. Marie Thérèse left her 68-year-old husband, and her two young children by him, and went to live with Julie until her death two years later.

Julie was heart-broken. She retired from the opera and from her swashbuckling activities. She may have decided that life wasn’t worth living without Marie Thérèse and set about putting all her affairs in order. This included reconciling herself with her husband. Remember him from Part 1? He was the unfortunate man who was packed off to the south of France to become a tax collector as soon as they had married.

It is ironic that her extraordinary life on an adventure all over France started with her setting fire to a convent, for it is in a convent that she spent the final two years of her life.

Julie d’Aubigny’s reputation during her lifetime not only meant that she was a national celebrity but that stories about her were exaggerated through the years. From recent research undertaken by her biographers who have trawled through the archives to separate fact from fiction it seems that Julie’s life story needed no exaggeration and that on the face of it she did indeed lead an extraordinary life.

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