From Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin
Illustration: Culture Club (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: Julie d’Aubigny

What it’s about: Seventeenth-century France had no shortage of colorful figures, but it doesn’t get much more colorful in any era than “bisexual sword-fighting opera singer.” d’Aubigny only lived to age 33, but she led a wild life from start to finish.

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Biggest controversy: Basically every minute of her love life. d’Aubigny was raised at court—her father trained Louis XIV’s pages, and she was taught dancing, drawing, and fencing alongside them. His boss, Comte d’Armagnac, the king’s master of the horse, took d’Aubigny as his mistress when she was only 14, but then married her off to Sieur de Maupin (from this point, she was known as Madame de Maupin, though this is the last time her husband appears in the story, so it’s not clear what, if any, relationship the two had).

Around the same time she got married, d’Aubigny was involved with Sérannes, a fencing master. When he killed a man in an illegal duel, the pair fled to Marseille, where they made a living giving fencing exhibitions and singing at taverns. As she had when training with the pages, d’Aubigny dressed in men’s clothing, though she made no pretense at being a man.

After Sérannes, d’Aubigny was involved with a young woman (whose name history does not record). The girl’s parents put her into a convent, so d’Aubigny entered the convent herself and helped her girlfriend escape by putting the body of a dead nun in her bed and then setting the room on fire to disguise the body’s identity. The pair made their escape, but the young woman returned to her family after three months, and d’Aubigny was tried in absentia (as a man) for kidnapping, body snatching, and arson, and sentenced to death by fire.

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But by that point, she had fled. In Villeperdue, a young nobleman insulted her; she challenged him to a duel and stabbed him in the shoulder. He turned out to be Louis-Joseph d’Albert Luynes, the son of a duke. He apologized for the insult, and the two became lovers. After he recovered from his injury, he rejoined the military and they parted ways. d’Aubigny moved on to a fellow singer, Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard, and the two of them hoped to join the Paris Opera.

She was a rousing success, but d’Aubigny her life continued to be filled with drama. She beat a male singer who was harassing female members of the opera; she attempted suicide when she was rejected by a fellow singer (who was otherwise occupied as the Grand Dauphin’s mistress); and in 1695, she kissed a woman at a society ball and was promptly challenged to duels by three different men. She won all three, but the law forbade duels in Paris, so she fled to Brussels, where she took up with Maximilian II Emanuel, Bavarian governor of the Low Countries.

d’Aubigny eventually returned to Paris, resumed her career, and fell in love with the Marquise de Florensac. But upon her death, d’Aubigny was inconsolable, retiring from opera and—ironically—joining a convent. She died two years later of unknown causes, at only 33 years old.

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Thing we were happiest to learn: When she wasn’t burning down convents and stabbing people, d’Aubigny seems to have been a pretty successful singer. In Marseille, she sang with composer Pierre Gaultier’s opera company while just 14 or 15. As an adult, she sang with the Paris Opera, originating roles in Didon (1693), Tancréde (1702), Iphigénie En Tauride (1704), and Alcine (1705). One critic credited her with “the most beautiful voice in the world.”

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There’s more to d’Aubigny’s story that Wikipedia leaves out. Our mandate here at Wiki Wormhole is to stick to the Wikipedia page and that alone, but it was too tempting to dig up more of the story elsewhere. Kelly Gardiner, author of d’Aubigny biography Goddess, says on her website that de Maupin, d’Aubigny’s husband, was sent to the provinces as a tax collector almost immediately after the wedding, leaving d’Aubigny to her adventures. While traveling with fencing master Séranne, a man refused to believe a woman could be so good at swordplay, so she promptly took off her shirt to prove him wrong.

She scared off her lover Maximilian II Emanuel after she stabbed herself with a real dagger during a performance. He sent a messenger with 40,000 francs asking her to leave him alone; she threw the money at the messenger’s feet and left for Madrid. There she was a maid to a countess, who she disliked so much that she wove radishes into her hair before a ball, in such a way that everyone but the countess could see them. Needless to say, she was unemployed by morning. She bounced back, however, eventually performing at Versailles and introducing the Italian contralto style of singing to France. Gardiner also notes that at one point Greta Garbo was in talks to play d’Aubigny in a biopic that never materialized. However, even Gardiner doesn’t know the cause of d’Aubigny’s death, or the name of the girl she broke out of the convent.

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Also noteworthy: d’Aubigny’s adventures live on in fiction. One hundred twenty-five years after her death, poet, playwright, and novelist Théophile Gautier was commissioned to write a “historical romance” based on d’Aubigny’s life. What resulted was the heavily fictionalized Mademoiselle De Maupin, in which Gautier simplified her many romances into a love triangle between d’Albert and his mistress, both of whom were smitten with a man named Théodore, not knowing he’s in fact de Maupin in disguise. Gautier takes the gender fluidity one step further, having de Maupin, as Théodore, play Rosalind in As You Like It, in which the character also presents herself as a man. Blurring gender lines was shocking enough in the era that the book was banned in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Further down the Wormhole: While d’Aubigny only lived a few years into the 1700s, her reputation was cemented in the century after with Gautier’s fictionalized version of her life, which led to further accounts which continue to this day. But modern readers tend to see d’Aubigny through the lens of Gautier’s Romanticism. This artistic movement of the early 19th century was a reaction to industrialization and the scientific revolution, contrasting the stark reason of the age with an emphasis on emotion and nature. The movement had adherents as diverse as Dumas, Pushkin, Hugo, and Washington Irving, whose story “Rip Van Winkle” is still remembered today, for its hero who sleeps for 20 years and has to adjust to modern times when he awakes. While Irving’s stories have a definitive author, they’re still considered part of a tradition of American folklore, which can include everything from Paul Bunyan to Uncle Sam to legends like the Fountain Of Youth or the Lost Ship Of The Desert. We’ll explore the high sands in search of that vessel next week.