Saturday, November 3, 2018

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents La Maupin Mistress of Sword and Stage

C. LA MAUPIN aka Julie d'Aubigny

The majority of the readers of the English-speaking race who enjoy Théophile Gautier’s fascinating romance Mademoiselle de Maupin are not aware that the heroine was a real person. The novelist has of course made such alterations as are required to translate crude fact into more elegant fiction, and to obliterate so far as can be done the criminal or partly-criminal aspect of the lady’s venturous career. But such is one of the chief duties of an artist in fiction. Though he may be an historian, in a sense, he is not limited to the occasional bareness of truth. His object is not that his work shall be true but rather what the French call vraisemblable. In narrative, as in most arts, crudeness is rather a fault than a virtue, so that the writer who looks for excellence in his work has without losing force, to fill up the blanks left by the necessary excision of fact by subtleties of thought and graces of description, so that the fulness or rotundity of the natural curves shall always be maintained. In truth the story of La Maupin is so laden with passages of excitement and interest that any writer on the subject has only to make an agreeable choice of episodes sufficiently dramatic, and consistent with each other, to form a cohesive narrative. Such a work has in it possibilities of great success—if only the author has the genius of a Théophile Gautier to set it forth. The real difficulty which such an one would have to contend against would be to remove the sordidness, the reckless passion, the unscrupulousness, the criminal intent which lies behind such a character.

The Mademoiselle de Maupin of real life was a singer at the Opera in Paris at the end of the seventeenth century. She was the daughter of a man of somewhat humble extraction engaged in secretarial work with the Count d’Armagnac; and whilst only a girl married a man named Maupin employed in the province. With him she had lived only a few months when she ran away with a maitre d’armes (anglicè, a fencing master) named Serane. If this individual had no other good quality in matters human or divine, he was at least a good teacher of the sword. His professional arts were used in the service of his inamorata, who became herself an excellent swordsman even in an age when swordsmanship had an important place in social life. It may have been the sexual equality implied by the name which gave the young woman the idea, but thenceforth she became a man in appearance;—in reality, in so far as such a metamorphosis can be accomplished by courage, recklessness, hardihood, unscrupulousness, and a willing obedience to all the ideas which passion and sensuality can originate and a greed of notoriety carry into execution.

In a professional tour from Paris to Marseilles, in which she as an actress took the part of a man, she gained the affections of the flighty daughter of a rich merchant of Marseilles; and, as a man, ran away with her. Being pursued, they sought refuge in a convent—a place which at that age it was manifestly easier to get into than to get out of. Here the two remained for a few days, during which, by the aid of histrionic and other arts, the actress obviated the necessary suspicions of her foolish companion and kept danger away. All the while La Maupin was conscious that an irate and rich father was in hot search for his missing daughter, and she knew that any talk about the venture would infallibly lose her the girl’s fortune, besides getting herself within the grip of the law. So she decided on a bold scheme of escape from the convent, whereby she might obliterate her tracks. A nun of the convent had died and her body was awaiting burial. In the night La Maupin exchanged the body of the dead nun for the living one of her own victim. Having thus got her companion out of the convent, she set the building on fire to cover up everything, and escaped in secret to a neighbouring village, taking with her by force the girl, who naturally enough was disillusioned and began to have scruples as to the wisdom of her conduct. In the village they remained hidden for a few weeks, during which time the repentance of the poor girl became a fixed quantity. An attempt, well supported, was made to arrest the ostensible man; but this was foiled by the female swordsman who killed one of the would-be captors and dangerously wounded two others. The girl, however, made good her escape; secretly she fled from her deceiver and reached her parents in safety. But the hue and cry was out after La Maupin, whose identity was now known. She was pursued, captured, and placed in gaol to await trial. The law was strong and inexorable; the erring woman who had thus outraged so many conventions was condemned to be burned alive.

But abstract law and the executive are quite different things—at least they were in France at the close of the seventeenth century: as indeed they are occasionally in other countries and at varying times. La Maupin, being a woman and a clever one, procured sufficient influence to have the execution postponed, and so had the full punishment delayed, if not entirely avoided. More than this, she managed to get back to Paris and so to begin her noxious career all over again. Of course she had strong help from her popularity. She was a favourite at the opera, and the class which patronises and supports this kind of artistic effort is a rich and powerful one, which governments do not care to displease by the refusal of such a small favour as making the law hold its hand with regard to an erring favourite.

But La Maupin’s truculent tendencies were not to be restrained. In Paris in 1695 whilst she was one of the audience at a theatre she took umbrage at some act or speech of one of the comedians playing in the piece, and leaving her seat went round to the stage and caned him in the presence of the audience. The actor, M. Dumenil, an accomplished and favourite performer but a man of peaceful disposition, submitted to the affront and took no action in the matter. La Maupin, however, suffered, through herself, the penalty of her conduct. She had entered on a course of violence which became a habit. For some years she flourished and exercised all the tyrannies of her own sex and in addition those habitual to men which came from expert use of the sword. Thus she went attired as a man to a ball given by a Prince of the blood. In that garb she treated a fellow-guest, a woman, with indecency; and she was challenged by three different men—each of whom, when the consequent fight came on, she ran through the body, after which she returned to the ball. Shortly afterwards she fought and wounded a man, M. de Servan, who had affronted a woman. For these escapades she was again pardoned. She then went to Brussels where she lived under the protection of Count Albert of Bavaria, the Elector. With him she remained until the quarrel, inevitable in such a life, came. After much bickering he agreed to her demand of a settlement, but in order to show his anger by affronting her he sent the large amount of his involuntary bequest by the servile hand of the husband of his mistress, Countess d’Arcos, who had supplanted her, with a curt message that she must leave Brussels at once. The bearer of such a message to such a woman as La Maupin had probably reckoned on an unfriendly reception; but he evidently underestimated her anger. Not contented with flinging at his head the large douceur of which he was the bearer, she expressed in her direct way her unfavourable opinion, of him, of his master, and of the message which he had carried for the latter. She ended her tirade by kicking him downstairs, with the justification for her form of physical violence that she would not sully her sword with his blood.

From Brussels she went to Spain as femme de chambre to the Countess Marino but returned to Paris in 1704. Once more she took up her work as an opera singer; or rather she tried to take it up, but she had lost her vogue, and the public would have none of her. As a matter of fact, she was only just above thirty years of age, which should under normal circumstances be the beginning of a woman’s prime. But the life she had been leading since her early girlhood was not one which made for true happiness or for physical health; she was prematurely old, and her artistic powers were worn out.
Still, her pluck, and the obstinacy on which it was grafted, remained. For a whole year she maintained a never-failing struggle for her old supremacy, but without avail. Seeing that all was lost, she left the stage and returned to her husband who, realising that she was rich, managed to reconcile whatever shreds of honour he had to her infamous record. The Church, too, accepted her—and her riches—within its sheltering portals. By the aid of a tolerant priest she got absolution, and two years after her retirement from the opera she died in a convent in all the odour of sanctity.

Article by Bram Stoker.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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