Motherless Julie d’Aubigny is brought up in the palatial stables of Versailles by her fencing-instructor father. He treats her much as any other squire under his tutelage, and Julie lives in breeches and develops into a superlative swordswoman – until the King’s Master of Horse transplants this striking boy-girl to Paris to become his mistress at age thirteen.
Sounds improbable, the stuff of melodrama and costume romance? Well, truth is stranger than fiction in this case. Kelly Gardiner’s novel traces the larger-than-life career of a real historical personage. In the process, she creates a unique, blunt and quite compelling voice for this gender-bending, swashbuckling, and radically unconventional French opera singer.
As attested by historical sources of varying reliability, Julie runs away with her fencing tutor, falls in love with and abducts a nun, skewers a nobleman in a duel and then conducts a life-long affair with him, becomes a star of the Paris opera, kisses a married noblewoman in the middle of a crowded ballroom and then duels three furious defenders of the maligned woman’s honour, lives in disgrace in Brussels only to become Elector Maximilian Emanuel’s uncooperative mistress, flees to Spain, and eventually resumes her celebrity opera career in Paris.
In short, this is a wonderful story, made all the more gripping for being founded on truth. Gardiner undertakes to bring this ambiguous and outrageous woman back to life and to furnish motivations, emotional or otherwise, for her actions. She succeeds with flair. The only aspect that reduced my enjoyment was the choice of narrative structure. Julie’s history is recounted in part from her deathbed, and such hindsight retelling largely removes the suspense from the novel. Even so, I wholeheartedly recommend this book as the most exquisitely-rendered historical novel I have read in years.