Julie D’Aubigny – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

(A note about the writing to follow: I have used feminine pronouns to refer to Julie D’Aubigny below, as all sources I could find on her did this. However, she does not fit neatly into the gender binary of her time.)

Julie D’Aubigny lived her life at the intersection of history and legend. She was born around 1670-73 in France, and died in 1707. It’s shocking to me that we don’t have a prestige drama about her life – Julie’s story has everything: drama, costumes, swords, sex, violence… Come on, HBO. Do your thing.

Julie’s father was master of horses to King Louis XIV. Unconventionally for the time, her father taught her to fence along with the pages he trained. At the young age of ~14ish, in 1687, Julie was married to a Monsieur Maupin, who left on business pretty much immediately. Seemingly untroubled, Julie ran off with a Monsieur Séranne, a fencing master who was wanted for murder, instead. While evading law enforcement, they employed themselves singing and providing fencing demonstrations. Around this time, Julie took to dressing in men’s clothing. A couple sources claim that a crowd once doubted that she was actually a woman due to her impressive skill, so she whipped off her shirt and removed all doubt.

Shortly after making her debut in the Marseilles opera company, she left Séranne for a young blonde woman (whose name is unfortunately lost to history). The woman’s parents objected, naturally, and sent their daughter off to a nunnery. Julie, undeterred, joined the same nunnery, stole the body of a recently-deceased nun, placed it in her lover’s bed, and burned the building down to escape with her paramour. For the crimes of grave-robbing, arson, and kidnapping, Julie was sentenced (as a man) to death. King Louis eventually pardoned her. After what must have been a whirlwind relationship, Julie resurfaced three months later in Poitiers, single again and taking voice lessons.

It wasn’t long before Julie’s nomadic spirit took hold. She made her way north to Paris. Along the way, she was offended by a young lord Louis-Joseph d’Albert, the son of the Duke of Luynes. She dueled him and won, stabbing him through the shoulder. Both were troubled by their consciences. d’Albert apologized, and Julie visited him in his rooms and nursed him back to health. The pair had a brief, passionate affair.

After parting ways with d’Albert, Julie continued on to Paris, where she joined the Paris Opera in 1690, having already fit more into three years than most people can claim to in a lifetime. Onstage, she made a name for herself with her beautiful voice. Offstage, she gained notoriety for her temper, her wit, and her skill with the blade. She fought a singer, M. Dumenil, after he harassed her and other women of the opera company. She took his watch as a trophy. He tried to claim that he’d been robbed by a gang, but was humiliated when Julie returned his items to him and proved that she’d been the one to teach him a lesson.

Five years later, in 1695, Julie once again ran into legal trouble. At a court ball (again following her typical MO of dressing in men’s clothes but not making much of an effort to hide her gender), Julie kissed a woman. Three men, offended by this conduct, challenged her to a duel. She won handily, but had broken King Louis XIV’s law against dueling and had to flee to Brussels before receiving her second royal pardon.

By 1705, Julie had retired from the opera and faded into obscurity. She died sometime around 1707, and there is no record of where she was buried.

I’m so drawn to Julie because she is chaos incarnate, a force of nature. I can’t imagine that she was easy to befriend (or even, perhaps, safe to be in the same room with), but she was certainly smart, brave, and strong. Something in me recognizes something in her. As a genderqueer, bisexual person who dedicated a solid half their life to pursuing dreams of the stage, I was delighted to learn about another performer who didn’t fit into any boxes. I’m also intrigued by the questions she leaves behind. It’s strange and sad to me that we have so much detail on her adolescence and young adulthood, but we don’t know why she retired, how she died, or where she is buried.

Written by Cori Davis (they/them) from Marblehead, MA. Follow them on Twitter! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.

Sources and further readings:

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