Woman in Battle Dress

Written by Antonio Benítez-Rojo Jessica Powell (trans.)
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1827, Henriette (Enriqueta), a convict, and Madeline, a prostitute, are on a ship bound for New Orleans from Havana. Henriette is being deported and sent to a convent. Bribing the captain, Madeline exchanges her passport and clothes with Henriette’s, which lets Henriette escape. Later, while ensconced in a New York hotel, she pens her memoir.

Henriette Faber was born in 1791 in Switzerland. Orphaned at a young age, she is brought up by her uncle. After her husband, a dashing Hussar, is killed, she poses as a man called Henri and enrolls at the medical school at the Université de Paris at the age of 18. We learn of her service – forbidden to women at that time – as a surgeon in Napoleon’s Army and her participation in various campaigns, including the disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812. Henri is captured by Wellington in Spain and then finds her way to Cuba, getting in trouble with another woman and the law there. This captivating account keeps us turning the pages.

This is the last novel by the late Antonio Benitez-Rojo, an acclaimed Cuban author. Using the sparse historical records, he has skillfully reconstructed Henriette/Enriqueta’s not-widely-known life story. The exquisitely detailed chronicle, written in the first person and seamlessly translated by Jessica Powell, is a fascinating read. We are taken along with Henriette on her epic journey, hear her thoughts, and observe the joys and pains she experiences while growing up, attending grand balls, having adventures on the battlefield, dealing with slaves, and practicing medicine in the demanding disguise of a man. Although the “telling” format Benítez-Rojo uses for her story can be tiring to read at times, he keeps the novel to a manageable length. This is a valuable addition to existing stories about courageous gender-bending women, and as such it is highly recommended.