Just Like Us ambassador Sophie Cundall shares her bisexual icon with DIVA for International Women’s Day
BY SOPHIE CUNDALL
Picture the scene: a costume ball, think Bridgerton but a century or two prior, transported across the channel to France. Dresses swish in time with throbbing violins, playing the music du jour. A couple appear, centre stage, right below the chandelier, perhaps. In the cut glass above, you observe their elegant figures, snaking across the dancefloor in perfect time to the rhythm. Then, you notice heads starting to turn. A gasp ripples across the velvet glove clad crowds. The elegant couple who so transfixed you kissed! More shocking still, the man in the suit has taken his hat off. He doesn’t seem to be a man at all. The kiss was between two women! Three men rush over to this genderless figure: three challenges to duel. Mademoiselle de Maupin beats them all.
This is one of the many tales that haunt the name Mademoiselle de Maupin, or Julie d’Aubigny, her given name when she was born in 1673. An elusive and enigmatic figure, her actions in 17th century France were consistently the centre of scandal, and even prison sentences. Her refusal to dress consistently as either man or woman, and her overt bisexuality formed the root of many of these scandals. This combined with an uncanny knack for fencing and sword-fighting, presumably learned from one of her many lovers. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, she was also a professional opera singer. For those history nerds among you, this likely isn’t surprising: at the time, opera singers and actresses associated with the theatre were considered to have loose morals and many lovers. The theatre was considered a hotbed of immorality, or, as we’d probably say now, fun.
Mademoiselle de Maupin has a significant amount of exploits under her belt. It’s widely believed that she concocted an obscene plan to rescue her girlfriend, who was forced into a convent by her parents, by setting fire to the convent and rescuing her girlfriend after placing an exhumed body into her bed. It’s important to note here that this wasn’t necessarily an anti-religion move, but convents at this time were often used as a prison-like solution to families who’d run out of money to marry off their daughters with dowries.
Maupin was sentenced to death, not for the fire, but for the act of “kidnapping” another woman: the idea of their relationship was quite simply unthinkable to 17th century society. Their letters prove the affair was anything but a non-consensual kidnapping. The girl appears to have fallen in love with Mademoiselle de Maupin after seeing her in one of her opera performances – it’s a real love story for the ages.
I really wish I’d learnt about this at school: 16 year old Sophie who was also a classical singer, and feeling rather uncool about it, would’ve jumped for joy.
Towards the end of her life, she met the Madame La Marquise de Florensac. A woman so beautiful, she had had to flee previous lovers’ obsessions. Iconic. Mademoiselle de Maupin too fell head over heels for this gorgeous noblewoman, and the pair lived comfortably as a couple until La Marquise’s unfortunate death of a fever. Imagine that: an actual cohabiting lesbian couple in 17th century France. How many young bisexual and lesbian women’s lives would’ve been changed by hearing about this pair at school? More than many.
The stories of figures like Mademoiselle de Maupin inspire me to continue to go into schools and offer a glimpse into LGBTQI history with the students in the audience who might just need to hear it to make them come in the next day.
A true bisexual icon, Mademoiselle de Maupin is one of my favourite figures from LGBTQI history, evidence that we have always been here, and always been having tremendous amounts of fun.
Sophie Cundall is an ambassador for LGBTQI young people’s charity Just Like Us. Head over to their website here to support their fantastic work.
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