Goddess by Kelly Gardiner
Imagine that you are a literary agent and a Ph.D. candidate comes to you with an idea for a novel. She proposes to write about a woman who was born at Versailles in 1673 and lived only 33 years. She was not royalty, but she learned how to handle a sword, to read, to dance, and all the other skills of the court along with the pages. A beautiful woman, she prefers to dress as a man. At age 14, she becomes the mistress of Louis XIV’s Master of the Horse for whom her father is a clerk. She will fight duels, and she will become a renowned opera singer in France, Belgium, and Spain. Men and women will be her lovers and she will spend time in a convent and eventually die there.
Preposterous, you reply, but it is all true. Or, mostly true. Because the legend has outgrown the person. Julie d’Aubigny was real. Born in 1673, she died in a convent in 1707. Kelly Gardiner has researched the life of La Maupin, as she was also known, and written this engrossing novel as part of the requirements for her doctorate. Nearly every character in the novel was real; fewer than ten were created to provide connective tissue.
The conceit is that d’Aubigny on her deathbed confesses to an inconsequential country priest who seldom speaks. She insists that he write it all down so that others more forgiving than this priest may read it and accord her the grace she desires. This recitative, as befits opera and drama, falls into five acts that reflect different periods in the protagonist’s life. “I was a star, once… I was a goddess… I was a monster, once. That was my real sin. That was my downfall.” Near her end she reiterates that no matter how high one reaches, the fall is inevitable. “I soared and then I fell.”
The stories d’Aubigny tells the priest are taken from the historical/legendary accounts. Goddess is generally accurate although exploits accrue to her as they did to Davy Crockett, for example. He really did not kill a bear when he was three, but the stories emphasize his prowess. So too, here. La Maupin was ahead of her time. She was equally skilled with a sword or manipulating men at all levels of society with her beauty. She learned how to fight at Versailles. She learned womanly skills and artifices at the hands of the Comtesse when she began singing at the Opéra. La Maupin believes that a woman can be strong, lead an army, and rise above her stifling station as a woman.
Goddess is a delight in so many ways. It is well written, capturing the period in which it is set. If you like Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel, do not miss this novel. Julie d’Aubigny is a flawed, but powerfully engaging heroine. She is a modern woman who knows who she is, what she wants, what she can do, and she possesses the means to pursue her goals. La Maupin says of her story, “It’s about our souls, our hearts, isn’t it? About love. About the people around us.” And, it is the people around her, who weave in and out of her story, that make it so engaging.
An Australian, Kelly Gardiner has previously written the Swashbuckler trilogy for young readers and novels for young adults, along with many magazine articles. She teaches creative writing at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Goddess was first published in 2014 in Australia and is her first adult novel; however, one can hope that it will not be her last.