The Badass Rogue Who Cross-Dressed and Dueled Her Way to Infamy
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Because you could live five lives and still not have as many stories.
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How many duels do you think you could fight in a single day? A glimpse at one badass French swordswoman in action offers a possible answer: three. After attending a royal ball dressed as a man, and romancing and then kissing another woman on the dance floor, she was challenged by three men. She proceeded to take them on one by one, and to best all three.
If you can believe it, that’s not even among the top three most improbable stories about Julie d’Aubigny, aka Mademoiselle Maupin, the renowned daughter of a clerk in the court of Louis XIV. While it’s hard to know how many of the stories about d’Aubigny are true — even her real name remains unclear, with some accounts calling her Émilie, others Madeleine and some simply “la Maupin” — legends about her have survived, reminding us that even in the 17th century, some people are born to impress.
When an audience member questioned her gender … d’Aubigny ripped off her shirt in front of him.
“What’s most dizzying to me is the pace of her life,” says Kelly Gardiner, author of Goddess, a fictionalized account of d’Aubigny’s life. “Most of the more astonishing events happened before she was 20.” While researching Goddess, Gardiner visited every known location of one of d’Aubigny’s most notorious exploits and pored over primary sources for information about her wily subject. What she found: a woman who flouted social convention, class, gender, marriage and the law.
Born around 1673, d’Aubigny was taught fencing by her father, an assistant to the Count d’Armagnac. As a teenager, she was married off to a pretty boring guy who bestowed her with one of her famous names: Maupin. Predictably, d’Aubigny, who was having an affair with d’Armagnac, didn’t stick around. Instead, she found a fencing expert, known as Séranne, and ran away with him. The couple traveled the countryside, showing off their fencing skills to the public. When an audience member questioned her gender — she was just too good at sword-fighting to be a woman, you see — d’Aubigny ripped off her shirt in front of him.
Her next known lover was the daughter of a merchant, who ended up sending his girl to a convent to keep her from the insatiable d’Aubigny. She promptly enrolled in the convent too. While Gardiner hasn’t found evidence for the following story, it appears in most accounts of d’Aubigny’s life: She and her lover disinterred the body of a recently expired nun, put it in the lover’s room and set the convent on fire before fleeing.
Then, as now, body snatching was a non-non: After failing to appear in court to answer charges of kidnapping, body snatching and arson, d’Aubigny was sentenced to death. All that, and the affair with her convent girlfriend didn’t even last. One appeal to the king later, thanks to the Count d’Armagnac, and d’Aubigny was freed, after which she moved to Paris and became an opera star known as Mademoiselle de Maupin. She was “received with raptures,” according to Robert Malcolm’s biographical sketch of d’Aubigny in his 1855 Curiosities of Biography, which also claims that later in life, d’Aubigny reunited with her husband and eventually saw a priest to receive the last rites. The move to Paris happened around 1690, which would have made d’Aubigny just 17.
While an opera star, d’Aubigny continued dueling. Aside from the three duels in one night, which saw her sentenced to death again and pardoned again, she wound up in a duel with the Comte d’Albert. Stories vary — in some, the count doesn’t realize that his opponent is a woman; in others, he’s a crude would-be Romeo — but the outcome is always the same: D’Aubigny wounds the count, then allegedly nurses him back to health, thus beginning a lifelong friendship. All this dueling, though, was still illegal, so d’Aubigny fled to Belgium, where she became the mistress of the elector of Bavaria. When he grew weary of her and offered her 40,000 francs to leave, d’Aubigny threw the money back at him and, according to Malcolm’s Curiosities of Biography, “kicked him down stairs.”
By some accounts, d’Aubigny spent time as a maid in Madrid before returning to Paris, where she fell in love with the famously beautiful Madame la Marquise de Florensac. The couple reportedly played house for two years, until the latter died suddenly. While d’Aubigny’s cross-dressing and open affairs with women were exceptional for the time, Gardiner notes that they weren’t unheard of — there are records of lesbian couples living together, and other women also lived by the sword.
After her lover’s death, d’Aubigny, still in the opera, lived for another few years, likely into her mid-30s. The exact cause of her demise is unknown. Most contemporary accounts of her life, Gardiner explains, were written by men offended by her actions and by the fact that d’Aubigny always won. She also inspired an 1835 French novel, Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, in which a character named Madeleine de Maupin seduces both a young man and his mistress while in various disguises.
“She was a star,” Gardiner says, noting the difficulty of parsing fact from fiction when it comes to d’Aubigny. Many of the stories were told in “tabloid pamphlets, posters and newssheets,” stories that people sang songs about in the streets and taverns. Rumors quickly spread, Gardiner adds: “Imagine trying to make sense in a few hundred years of news reports written now about performers.”
Audio produced by Meradith Hoddinott
This story was original published in May 2017.