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Book Review: Goddess by Kelly Gardiner

Friday, August 12, 2016 - 14:00

I approached Kelly Gardiner’s novel Goddess with a combination of excitement and dread. It’s hard not to have mixed feelings when someone tackles the story of a real historic figure with whom one is already in love. In my completely biased opinion, anyone who encounters the biography of 17th century swordswoman and opera star Julie d’Aubigny, Mademoiselle de Maupin and does not fall in love has something wrong with them. And any writer who encounters that biography is likely to be struck by two conflicting thoughts: “I must write about her!” and “Nobody would find her believable as a fictional character!”

When I ran across a reference to Gardiner’s novel, my finger hit “buy” so quickly I may have sprained it. But it took me a while to work up the courage to read the book. What angle had Gardiner taken on her protagonist? How had she treated d’Aubigny’s bisexuality? (The most famous fictional treatment of her by Gautier falls solidly in the “sordid decadence” genre.) Would the book focus solely on d’Aubigny’s transgressive gender and sexuality? Or would it provide a deep, rich look at a complex figure? I can’t pretend to an objective opinion, but I will begin by saying that I enjoyed the book very much and my heart was not broken by it.

Goddess clearly aims for the literary fiction genre, as opposed to all the other possible genres the story might inhabit. While the historic setting is solid, it doesn’t feel like the focus of the novel—more like the vehicle. Gardiner enjoys playing games with voice and mode, and fortunately is deft enough at them that the prose doesn’t get in the way of the characters. The chapters alternate between d’Aubigny’s monologue to the priest who has been sent for her deathbed confession (thus eliminating a certain amount of suspense for those not already familiar with her early death) and passages in a third person present tense that fill in the details of her life. This technique sometimes plays at the edges of confusion, particularly when d’Aubigny’s disguises are presented externally through viewpoints that take the disguise at face value. But the alternations in voice always tie us back into the narrative.

I was quite a ways into the story before I could relax about how d’Aubigny’s sexuality would be portrayed. In the initial chapters, her liaisons with men—often based more on pragmatism than desire—are the focus, and her desire for women is depicted either as tragically unfulfilled (in the escapade with her first girlfriend in the convent) or conveyed only through teasing innuendo in her narration to her confessor. But never fear, we get unambiguous (though never sordid) descriptions of her relationships with women, from the Comtesse who taught her how to make love, to the close sisterhood of opera singers, to the Marquise who becomes the great love of her life. Yet the several men who combine the roles of friend and lover are also sympathetically portrayed. My impression is that those who are looking for well-depicted historic bisexual characters will find as much to enjoy as I did.

There is an air of the picaresque novel here—not surprisingly. A biography is hard to fit into the outlines of an over-arching plot, and it’s enough to turn the jumble of episodes from d’Aubigny’s life into a single coherent narrative without trying to find deeper meaning. Gardiner has nudged the story to greater coherence by the fiction (I believe) of combining two characters: the woman she fought three duels over, precipitating her exile to Brussels, and the Marquise de Florensac, her greatest love.

Gardiner has done a masterful job of turning d’Aubigny into a believable, three-dimensional character. One who is flamboyant, unrepentant, and larger than life, but with flaws and motivations that unify the disparate elements of her life. If you—like me—are desperate for a detailed, definitive, scholarly biography of Julie d’Aubigny, this fictional treatment of her life may help you hold on in the mean time.

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I discovered this novel when putting together a link post on Julie d'Aubigny for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project.