Here’s what I know about the real life story of Julie d’Aubigny.
There’s much that we don’t know about her: her date and place of birth, where she died, or how many of her infamous adventures are true.
Even her name varies. In her lifetime and after her debut she went by her professional name, Mademoiselle Maupin, and the crowds called her La Maupin (although her married name was Madame de Maupin, opera singers were traditionally addressed as Mademoiselle). In some cast lists her name is given as Julie-Émilie de Maupin. D’Albert addressed her as Émilie in his letters (published at his death in 1759), while Thévenard called her Julia in his famous note. Biographers and writers have used all of these names. After the publication of Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin in 1835, in which the character based on Maupin was called Madeleine, that name too has been used. Nowadays, she is best known as Julie d’Aubigny.
Writing a book about Julie d’Aubigny is a challenge that has taken four years and a huge amount of research. So here’s the true story of her life on which Goddess is based, compiled from contemporary sources, later biographers, and my own archival research. (And yes, there are spoilers below, even though the story is three hundred years old and available in many books and all over the internet.)
Julie d’Aubigny: the (true) life story
Born around 1673, Julie was the daughter of a secretary to King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, Count d’Armagnac, one of France’s great nobles. I believe she lived at first in the riding school at the Tuileries Palace in Paris, then moved with the court to Versailles in 1682, and spent her youth in the Great Stables (Grande Écurie). Her father was an accomplished swordsman and trained the court pages, and so educated his only child alongside the boys. She dressed as a boy and excelled at fencing from an early age.
By the age of 14 she had become d’Armagnac’s mistress and he found her a husband, the timid sieur de Maupin, who was promptly dispatched to the provinces to a stimulating job in tax collection. Some accounts claim he was sent off the morning after the wedding.
But she quickly tired of d’Armagnac and ran away with a fencing master called Séranne, with whom she found herself down on her luck, for the first of many times, in Marseille. They earned what they could from giving fencing demonstrations at fairs and in taverns – at one, a man refused to believe she was really a woman because she was simply too good. She took off her blouse and the crowd fell silent.
She began her singing career with the Marseille Opéra, and her early appearances on stage were admired, particularly by one young woman (name unknown) with whom she fell in love. The girl’s family quickly packed her off to a convent in Avignon. Julie followed, entering as a postulate. One night after an elderly nun died, the pair stole the body, placed it in the girl’s cell and set fire to the convent, and escaped. They were on the run for three months and Julie was sentenced to death in absentia by the parliament in Provence under the name sieur de Maupin, as the judges couldn’t quite admit the possibility of one woman abducting another – let alone from a convent.
The girl was returned to her family eventually, and Julie continued her journey through the countryside, now back in men’s clothes. One day she literally bumped into a young nobleman, Comte d’Albert, who challenged her to a duel, not realising she was female. She beat him, wounded him, nursed him back to health, and in some accounts he is the great romance of her life. At the very least they were lifelong friends.
She took singing lessons from a retired teacher, Maréchal, and paired up with a new lover, Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard, who also fancied himself as a singer. Together they returned to Paris and on their first day there, while Julie was visiting her old lover d’Armagnac to convince him to arrange a pardon for her little indiscretion in Provence, Thévenard auditioned for the Opéra, and was hired immediately. His condition was that Julie also be allowed to audition and the Opéra reluctantly agreed, so by the age of 17 she found herself a member of one of the world’s greatest musical companies.
She was pardoned for her crimes by the King and went on to become a star, appearing in all of the Opéra’s major productions from 1690 to 1694. She became adored and celebrated – she became La Maupin.
Her career in Paris was interrupted after she attended a court ball in men’s clothes and kissed a young woman on the dance floor, for which insult she was challenged to a duel by three different noblemen. She told each of them she would meet him outside, fought them all at once, and beat them all. But given that Louis had outlawed duels, she had to flee to Brussels, where she became the lover of the Elector of Bavaria. He found her a bit too much to handle after she stabbed herself on stage with a real dagger, and offered her 40,000 francs to leave him alone. She threw the coins at the feet of his emissary and stomped off to Madrid in a huff.
She found herself working as a maid to a Countess Marino, whom she resented so much that one night before a grand ball she dressed the Countess’s hair with radishes so that everyone but the Countess could see them. Needless to say she was on the road back to Paris before the Countess arrived home.
La Maupin was pardoned for her duels, this time through the intervention of Monsieur, the King’s brother, and returned to the stage. She performed for the court at Versailles, appeared once again in most major Opéra productions, and introduced the Italian idea of the contralto voice to France. She defended chorus girls against lecherous barons and pompous tenors, became infatuated with the soprano Fanchon Moreau, tried to kill herself, threatened to blow the Duchess of Luxembourg’s brains out, and ended up in court for attacking her landlord. She and Thévenard remained best of friends until her retirement, although they also had some infamous spats, and one evening on stage she bit his ear so hard he bled.
Through many heroic and sometimes pathetic adventures, the crowds adored her – in spite of her high-profile affairs with women, her brawling and duelling, her breeches and swords and even her contralto.
In 1703 she fell in love with Madame la Marquise de Florensac, the “most beautiful woman in France” (Saint-Simon 1897) – so beautiful that she too had had to flee to Brussels for several years because the Dauphin was obsessed with her. La Florensac was also one of the most famous, wealthy and well-connected women in France. The two women lived, according to one account, in perfect harmony for two years, until de Florensac died of a fever.
Distraught, La Maupin entered a convent where she died at the age of 33, in the words of one biographer, “destroyed by an inclination to do evil in the sight of her God and a fixed intention not to”, after which, he claims, “her body was cast upon the rubbish heap” (Gilbert 1932).
Julie d’Aubigny has been the subject of many books and biographical works, at least one film, several plays, a ballet, numerous memes, and a French TV series. She was most famously reimagined in the 19th century by Théophile Gautier in his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, in which the essence of her – although not her real life – became an enduring symbol of beauty, the Romantic ideal, and decadence.
And now I hope I have brought her to life again for you.