Swordswoman, Opera Singer, Runaway: 'Goddess' Chronicles A Fabled Life Author Kelly Gardiner's new novel is a fictionalized version of the life of Julie d'Aubigny, a swashbuckling 17th-century fencer-turned-opera singer whose exploits often seem stranger than fiction.

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

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A guy 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 duelist and a lover of men and women, famous and cloistered. (Laughter) And I'm just getting started. Kelly Gardiner, the Australian writer for young adults, has written her first novel for grown-ups with a character who seems to leave no adult passion untested. Her novel is called "Goddess." Kelly Gardiner joins us now from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

KELLY GARDINER: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: And Julie was a real person, wasn't she?

GARDINER: She was indeed. Some people find it little bit hard to believe that she was true because her life is so remarkable, but, yes, she really did live.

SIMON: Raised in the stables at Versailles, but - I made a note of your phrase - I am not at home as part of a throng. Is that key to understanding her?

GARDINER: I think so. One of the reasons that I wrote the books - 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've felt incredibly alone for a lot of her life and incredibly brave.

SIMON: Her fencing tutor, when she is 13, makes her his mistress. Julie says he gave everything I desired and quite a few things I hadn't known existed. Oh, my word.

GARDINER: (Laughter) He was her father's boss. And he was one of the great nobleman of France at the time, a 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.

SIMON: Yeah. There's a lot of fencing in this book. As soon as I say that, I realize metaphorical but also actual fencing in this book.

GARDINER: Well, I used to fence as a kid. It's one of the reasons I know about her. I fenced all through school and college, but I have to say that I'd - 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.

SIMON: What draws her to a woman named Clara?

GARDINER: The idea of this is that she - Julie escapes from Paris and ends up in Marseilles, and she joins the opera there, starts singing. And she becomes famous for the first time...

SIMON: I mean, forgive me, we have to ask - how does a duelist on the run become a star of the Paris Opera?

GARDINER: (Laughter) Well, 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, Thevenard, who was baritone. And he auditioned for the Paris Opera 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 the world's great musical companies. And she became - both of them became stars.

SIMON: And then there follows what you call the evening of gasps.

GARDINER: So 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. Fought them, one after another, beat them all and then returned to the ball.

SIMON: (Laughter) Just another night at the palace.

GARDINER: As you do, that's right. And, you know, that really sealed her reputation as a wild, uncontained woman who just did not care about any of the protocols.

SIMON: Yeah. And how important was historical accuracy to you as a novelist?

GARDINER: It's very important to me. But also I had to try and understand how somebody so remarkable would think of herself and how would people see her. And what I realized, as a result of my research, was that there was this entire tradition of women warriors in France at that time - quite celebrated - and they had fought. They had worn men's clothes and they were celebrated, like Joan of Arc had been many years before, and perhaps that was the tradition that she fitted into.

SIMON: It did occur to me reading the novel - and you want to be careful with this sort of thing - but if Julie a'Aubigny had been alive now, someone would've said, well, there's a support group you ought to join.

GARDINER: (Laughter) Oh, look, I think if she arrived now, we would still be amazed. She would still be larger than life. She's like an Olympic gold medalist combined with Lady Gaga. She's that remarkable. And she would probably still be a star today. There's not really anybody like her now.

SIMON: And like a lot of great stars we could mention, she didn't last a long a course, did she?

GARDINER: No, and it's - again that's - it's hard to understand why she died very young. She died at 33. Her lover at the time had died and she was distraught - absolutely distraught. And she retired to a convent and died perhaps of a broken heart, if such a thing is possible, a couple of years later.

SIMON: And does she go on with you nevertheless?

GARDINER: I think she lives on inside me and everyone who hears her story. Throughout the century she's been written about. There have been - there's a French miniseries. There have been movies. There are ballets. 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.

SIMON: Kelly Gardiner - her new novel - "Goddess." Thanks so much for being with us.

GARDINER: It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

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