French swordswoman and singer Julie d'Aubigny (1670–1707), also known as Mademoiselle Maupin or La Maupin, was renowned for her opera performances, her beauty, her fencing, her cross-dressing, and her bisexual love affairs. She inspired Mademoiselle de Maupin, an 1835 novel by Théophile Gautier.
D'Aubigny was likely born in 1670 (some sources say 1673) to Gaston d'Aubigny, the secretary of the count d'Armagnac, who worked in the royal court of King Louis XIV of France. Gaston d'Aubigny was a heavy drinker, gambler, swordsman, and ladies’ man, and his libertine ways may have influenced his daughter. He arranged for an education that was unusual for girls of her era: she was instructed by the teachers of royal court pages, with lessons including writing, grammar, drawing, and dancing. Gaston d'Aubigny also hired fencers to teach his daughter swordsmanship, believing that she should be capable of defending herself. By age 16, she matched her father and other talented swordsmen in fencing skills.
D'Aubigny was considered unusually beautiful, and in her mid-teens she became the mistress of the count d'Armagnac. She was soon married to a man with the last name Maupin, “a young man of impeccable if colorless character,” according to Cameron Rogers in Gallant Ladies, “whose occupation it was to lend respectability to the nocturnal absences of his girl-wife.” When she was 17, d'Armagnac ended their affair; meanwhile, her marriage faltered as Maupin discovered his wife's short temper. When he took a job outside Paris, she stayed behind. Angry and wild, she returned to the fencing halls and often started fights with shopkeepers and aristocrats.
Possessing a good singing voice, d'Aubigny sought an audition with Pierre Gaultier, director of the Marseilles Academy. She passed the audition and made her professional debut as an opera singer around 1688, billed as Mademoiselle d'Aubigny. By some accounts, d'Aubigny's appeal rested on her deep contralto voice, a range more common to castrated men. However, she is listed as a soprano in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera.
Because she often dressed as a man and participated in the overwhelmingly male sport of fencing, d'Aubigny began to attract the romantic attention of women. According to some accounts, she fell in love with a young woman from Marseilles whose disapproving parents attempted to stop the relationship by sending their daughter to a convent in Avignon. D'Aubigny followed, joined the convent, convinced her lover to run away with her, set a fire in the convent, and left the corpse of a recently deceased nun in the young woman's room to hide their departure. Three months later, the relationship ended and the young woman went home to her parents.
D'Aubigny was unable to return to Séranne or to Gaultier's opera. A tribunal of the parliament in the city of Aix convicted her in absentia of kidnapping and other crimes and an edict was issued across southern France condemning d'Aubigny to death by fire if captured. The edict referred to her as Sieur d'Aubigny, or sir, to hide the scandal of the same-sex relationship. D'Aubigny fled north toward Paris, stopping in Poitiers for a month or two to study singing with a new teacher. She sang in taverns to make money on her journey.
Stopping one night at a tavern in Villeperdue, near Tours, d'Aubigny ended up dueling a young man, Louis-Joseph d'Albert de Luynes, the count of Albert, over an insult. Although the count was a skilled swordsman, d'Aubigny parried his thrusts and slashed him in the shoulder. The duel led to her most enduring romantic relationship when she nursed d'Albert back to health and they fell in love. When he was ordered to report for military service in Germany, the two promised to reunite, and though they each had a succession of other lovers, they often rekindled their romance.
In Rouen, d'Aubigny found a new boyfriend, Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard, a talented young singer. They traveled to Paris to seek work in the opera. D'Aubigny also sought out her former lover, the count of Armagnac, and requested his help in dismissing the death sentence against her. The count convinced King Louis XIV to annul it.
Both d'Aubigny and Thévenard were hired by the Paris Opera in 1690. She debuted that December, billed as Mademoiselle Maupin, in the role of Pallas in Hermione and Cadmus. Her performance made her wildly popular among the men of Paris and she quickly had her choice of new lovers. Meanwhile, she continued going out in Paris dressed as a man and romantically pursuing women. She briefly reunited with the count d'Albert, who was by now a war hero, but he returned to battle soon after.
D'Aubigny continued to impress opera audiences. On September 11, 1693, she debuted as the enchantress in Dido. Meanwhile, her short temper led her to challenge more men by the sword. One night a vulgar opera singer named Duméni rudely propositioned her and several other female Paris Opera performers; disguised in male costume, she hunted him down in Paris's Place des Victoires and challenged him to a duel. When Duméni backed down, she berated him for insulting women, beat him 50 times with a cane, and stole his watch and snuff-box. The next day, when Duméni told the opera cast that he had been in an epic fight with three men, d'Aubigny revealed that she alone had beaten him, then produced his watch and snuffbox to prove it.
In one famed story of her duels and bisexual attractions, d'Aubigny dressed as a gentleman and crashed a party thrown by either King Louis XIV or the French prince Phillippe at the Palais-Royal. Imitating a man, she danced and flirted with a marquise, then passionately kissed her. The marquise screamed, and three men leaped to her defense. D'Aubigny challenged them each to a duel. Out on the street, she bested each man in turn, wounding and mocking them. Then she returned to the party and told the king or prince about the duels. She expected to be arrested, but an amused King Louis XIV declared that the laws against dueling did not apply to women.
D'Aubigny traveled to Brussels, Belgium, and took some roles in operas there in 1697 and 1698. She attracted the interest of Belgium's ruler, Duke Maximilian Marie Emmanuel, and was briefly his lover. By some accounts, after his interest in her cooled, d'Aubigny stabbed herself during an opera performance and left the country. Some accounts of her life say she traveled to Spain, where she worked as a maid to an Italian countess because she could not find work as a singer.
Returning to France in late 1698, d'Aubigny was rehired at the Paris Opera. She played the leading role of Minerva in the opera Theseus in November of 1698. Her second stint at the Paris Opera proved more successful than her first, in part because veteran performer Marthe Le Rochois had retired, leaving more leading female roles open to her. Her work in comedies proved especially popular. “Her physical beauty and natural talent were said to have compensated for a lack of musical training,” wrote Julie Anne Sadie in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera.
On February 27, 1702, d'Aubigny performed in the opera Omphale for King Louis XIV and his wife, Madame de Maintenon, at the royal palace of Trianon. The marquis de Dangeau, who also attended the performance, wrote in his journal (as quoted by Oscar Paul Gilbert in Women in Men's Guise) that d'Aubigny had “the loveliest voice in the world.” That same year, the singer was acclaimed for her performance in an especially difficult role, as Medee in Medus. She also took the lead role in Tancrède, an opera that André Campra reportedly wrote with her in mind.
Meanwhile, d'Aubigny's temper continued to get her in trouble. According to a magistrate's report, as quoted in Gilbert's Women in Men's Guise, in September of 1700, d'Aubigny beat her landlord with a fireplace implement after he refused to make her dinner, then injured one of the landlord's servants. She purportedly escaped punishment thanks to her connections with nobility.
D'Aubigny was often cast in romances alongside her former boyfriend, Thévenard. Their personal relationship was no longer cordial and their feud soon fueled gossip among the opera-going public. “Singing amorously one to another in more than one piece, La Maupin would bite the poor fellow's ear while he retaliated by secret but violent pinches,” wrote Rogers in Gallant Ladies. At one point, d'Aubigny challenged Thévenard to a duel over a perceived insult, but he was no swordsman and declined. According to Gilbert's Women in Men's Guise, he wrote her a letter, explaining that if she stabbed him during the duel, he might die, lose his voice, or be deprived of “the bliss of gazing into your eyes when we play together and you don't fire off those ferocious retorts which rob your expression so completely of its sweetness.”
D'Aubigny's reply demanded an apology. “Since Monsieur Thévenard admits with so good a grace his disinclination for a duel even with a woman, nothing remains for me but to compliment him on his prudence and I agree to forgive him his offense,” she wrote, according to Gilbert. “But I desire that since I have promised him my pardon, he should ask me for it in the presence of those who were witnesses of the insult.” According to Gilbert, Thévenard publicly apologized to her in the opera's foyer.
D'Aubigny rekindled her romance with d'Albert during her second stint in Paris. He had other lovers, however, and she quickly grew jealous. According to a letter written at the time, she confronted one rival, the duchess of Luxembourg, at the woman's church and threatened to kill her if she saw d'Albert again. Ultimately, d'Albert broke off his relationship with d'Aubigny in favor of pursuing other women.
Meanwhile, d'Aubigny became close friends with the madame la marquise de Florensac, whom Rogers, in Gallant Ladies, described as “very beautiful, witty, and elegantly vicious.” When the marquise died in July of 1705, d'Aubigny fell into a grief so deep that some sources suggest the two women had been lovers. She retired from the opera a month after her friend's death and joined a convent.
In 15 years at the Paris Opera, d'Aubigny played 29 roles, most of them acclaimed by the public. Her last performance, as Isabelle in The Venetian Lady, was in May of 1705. D'Aubigny died in 1707, likely at age 37, possibly in Provence. Her life was celebrated and fictionalized by Theophile Gautier in his 1835 novel Mademoi-selle de Maupin. The most celebrated French opera singer of her day, she is remembered as one of France's most skilled duelists and a figure known for her passionate, melodramatic love affairs.
Cohen, Richard, By the Sword, Random House, 2002.
Gilbert, Oscar Paul, Women in Men's Guise, John Lane, 1932.
Rogers, Cameron, Gallant Ladies, Harcourt, Brace, 1928.
Sadie, Stanley, New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Oxford University Press, 1992.❑