The Story of Julie D’Aubigny

As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each article will be dedicated to a New Zealand woman who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Katie Rose Bruce, killed by a man on 17 March 2017, at the age of 20. 

This series ‘Women and History’ focuses on influential women and events throughout history, particularly those which have little recognition in popular culture.

By Jessica Sutton.

We begin this series with a celebration of a very colourful character from French history – Julie D’Aubigny. Julie D’Aubigny, also known as Mademoiselle Maupin de l’Opera, is infamous for her dual love of opera singing and deadly duels. And what a legacy she has left – few people could claim to have achieved “Wild Reputation” as a heading on their Wikipedia page. 

Our wild heroine was born in Paris in approximately 1673 to King Louis XIV’s ‘Master of the Horse’ and his wife. Julie had the strange childhood of being the child of nobility, but also residing in less than luxurious digs – the Palace stables. Raised alongside the court pages, Julie enjoyed dressing and acting as a boy, much to her family’s dismay. Married off at the age of 14 to a man old enough to be her father, Julie refused to be cowed by the expectations of her family. Her first port of call, was a stormy affair with Seranne, her fencing teacher. They ran away together, earning a pittance through swordplay demonstrations at fairs and pub performances. Julie defeated every man who challenged her in fencing, causing one discontented loser to accuse her of being a man, certain that a woman couldn’t be that accomplished a fencer. She silenced him by lifting up her shirt, flashing him, and the entire fairground.[1]

Julie soon grew irritated with Seranne, and caught the eye of a young lady, daughter of a local tradesman, whose name, sadly, has been lost. Julie, in love for the first time, was quickly devoted to her new partner, and also was able to express her love for music by joining an opera company.

However, a fly in the ointment, was the young lady’s conservative parents, who, fearing for their daughter’s chastity, confined her to a convent. Unwilling to give up on their relationship, Julie decided to infiltrate the convent in the guise of a postulant. When one of the nuns in the convent passed away, Julie and her paramour seized the body and placed it in the young woman’s bed, before setting the convent on fire and running away together. This daring escape plan did not go undetected, and Julie was sentenced to death under a male name – the Courts being unable to believe a woman could have carried out such acts.[2]

Julie’s passion for swordplay never wavered. Her love of fencing didn’t stop at competition, she also had a fiery temper and challenged many men who thwarted her a duel. When her partner was forced to return to her family, Julie journeyed alone, until she met Comte d’Albert, an overenthusiastic young man who, supposing her to be a man, challenged her to a duel. Her victory left him seriously wounded. Regretting her hastiness, she treated his wounds, and they became firm friends; by some accounts, lovers.[3]

Her opera career grew and flourished. Presenting herself as “La Maupin”, she was celebrated as a magnificent vocalist and actress. However, she was forced to leave Paris after an incident at a court ball. This incident involved her kissing a young woman at the dance,  duelling three of the young lady’s suitors at the same time, winning, and escaping to Brussels to avoid repercussions. It’s estimated at least ten men challenged her or were challenged by her to a duel – all wounded or killed for their audacity. Her skill was unparalleled.

One would think that she would have been prosecuted for these deaths, and rightly so. France had robust anti-duelling regulations at the time, which would have signalled a sticky end for Julie. However, the law had a fatal flaw: assuming only men had the wit and skill to use a sword, it only applied to men. When she appealed to the King of France, bewildered, he had to pardon her on this basis.

Her next lover was Elector of Bavaria, who quickly found her flamboyant ways exhausting, and paid her 40,000 francs to “please go away”. Offended, Julie threw herself into her opera work, and particularly to the respectability of her opera company. She was known for ferociously defending female performers from the unwanted advances of men in the company. Other thrilling escapades in the same year led her to court appearances – including threatening multiple Dukes and Duchesses with duels, and fighting her landlord over a rent dispute.

1703 was a defining moment for Julie, as she met the woman who was to be the love of the rest of her life, La Marquise de Florensac, described as France’s most beautiful woman. Sadly, La Marquise died of influenza a mere two years into the ‘perfect harmony’ of their life together. The distraught Julie retired to a convent where she died at the age of 33, some say, from a broken heart.

Julie’s resistance of an unsuitable marriage, her astounding talent in opera singing and sword fighting, and her loving relationship with La Marquise, are a welcome reminder that women of history fought back against insurmountable societal expectations to achieve their dreams. In the face of a society that tried to erase her uniqueness, Julie’s life was rich, varied – and more than a little bit wild! Her legacy lives on – giving women of today the fighting spirit we need.




Image by Harmony Lawrence from Pixabay

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