Like many remarkable women, Julie d’Aubigny, born in 1673, did not have a normal upbringing. Her father was secretary to the French Court’s Master of Horses. Contrary to what the name may imply, the Master of Horses was actually a pretty important guy, and being his secretary was no small job. Julie’s father’s main responsibility was training the court’s pages, the sons of noble families who attended to the knights. Julie grew up learning how to dance, read, and fence alongside them, and adopted a masculine style of dress from an early age. When she was 14, Julie eloped with an assistant fencing master named Sérannes. When the police tried to arrest Sérannes for killing a man in an illegal duel, the two embarked on a fun fugitive road trip to Marseille. During their travel, they made a living by teaching fencing and singing performances in taverns, local fairs, and other places not “appropriate” for a young girl of her social class. She was so skilled with the sword that audiences sometimes would not believe she was actually a woman. Once, a heckler proclaimed loudly that she was actually a man, to which she tore off her shirt. The heckler had no comeback.
Once they arrived in Marseille, Julie joined an opera company. Eventually, and became involved with a local merchant’s daughter. When the merchant discovered the affair, he sent his daughter to a convent. However, Julie was determined and devised a simple plan that would allow her to run away with her new love. She entered the convent as an apprentice nun, stole the body of a recently deceased nun, placed it in the bed of her girlfriend, and set the building on fire so that everyone would think she had died in the fire. You know,
She approached her dad’s boss, the Master of Horses, to help her persuade the king to grant her a pardon. The king did, and Julie and the merchant’s daughter had a beautiful love affair for 3 whole months before Julie got bored (again) and dumped Sérannes back at her parent’s house. Homosexual acts were still illegal at this time, though women were rarely prosecuted for them. Still, homosexuality was seen as immoral and unnatural, and Julie’s girlfriend’s parents were probably just happy to have their little girl back.
After this, Julie ran off to Paris to join the opera, where she became a well-loved singer, performing under the name Mademoiselle de Maupin. She was known as much for her beautiful voice as her torrid love affairs. The final years of her career were spent in a relationship with the Madame la Marquise de Florensac, upon whose death Julie was inconsolable. She retired from opera in 1705 and (ironically) joined a convent in Provence where she died two years later at age 33.
Her life is fictionalized in the 1835 novel Mademoiselle de Maupin by famous French writer Théopile Gautier. However, the book’s portrayal of sexuality and gender was too radical for most at the time and was heavily censored. Nonetheless, it seems a fitting tribute to an unusual woman and an extraordinary life.