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Swordswoman, Opera Singer, Runaway: 'Goddess' Chronicles A Fabled Life

You can run out of colorful adjectives trying to describe Julie d'Aubigny. She was, according to history, exquisite in appearance, a graceful and superb fencer, a sublime singer, a swashbuckling duellist, and lover of men and women, famous and cloistered — and that's just the beginning.

Australian young adult author Kelly Gardiner has written her first novel for grownups about a character who seems to leave no adult passion untested. It's called Goddess, and Gardiner tells NPR's Scott Simon that some people find it hard to believe that d'Aubigny was a real person, because her life was so remarkable, "but yes, she really did live."

Interview Highlights

On how d'Aubigny must have felt

I started to think, how would that have been, to be a cross-dressing, sword-fighting opera singer in the 17th century — I mean, she would have felt incredibly alone for a lot of her life, and incredibly brave. So she must've felt apart, I think, for a great deal of her life.

On becoming a nobleman's mistress at the age of 13

He was her father's boss, and he was one of the great noblemen of France at the time, very very powerful man. And all of a sudden she was the very young mistress, and was moved into Paris so that he could keep her separate from his wife. But she wanted more, and so very quickly she got bored, and she ran off with her fencing master.

I used to fence as a kid, it's one of the reasons I know about her ... but I have to say that when I'm writing the fencing scenes, I do jump out of my chair and grab a foil — I've still got my old swords — and I act out the scenes for myself, just to make sure that they make sense.

On how, after escaping Paris, she became an opera singer

Whenever society starts to think about, what does gender mean, what does sexuality mean, she's just one of the names that comes up.

I don't know — she just auditioned for the Marseilles Opera, but then later on after the adventures that she had in Marseilles and Provence, she made her way to Paris with another lover, Thévenard, who was a baritone, and he auditioned for the Paris Opera and was hired on his first day, and he said, I will only join you if my girlfriend can come too. And so at the age of 17, she found herself part of one of the world's great musical companies, and she became — both of them became stars.

On "the evening of gasps"

One of the most famous stories about Julie takes place at a royal ball, at the Palais Royal. She attended in men's clothes — she often dressed in men's clothes, in the way that Katharine Hepburn dressed in men's clothes. Not pretending to be a man, just, that was her style. And she saw a young woman on the dance floor, beautiful young woman. And she kissed her. Everyone gasped, and three men, one after another, three noblemen, challenged her to a duel. So she said to them, one after another, yes, I'll meet you outside at midnight. She met them at midnight, fought them, one after another, beat them all, and then returned to the ball. As you do.

On her legacy

Throughout the centuries, she's been written about ... and every so often, she becomes famous all over again, and she's famous all over again now. It's fascinating to see — whenever society starts to think about, what does gender mean, what does sexuality mean, she's just one of the names that comes up, and people start thinking about her, and talking about her, and portraying her all over again.

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