I cannot begin to convey how much I love this book. I personally think it’s the finest thing Gautier ever wrote. It is a fictionalised account of the life of Madeleine de Maupin, an historical figure infamous for her habit of cross-dressing, her duelling abilities and her theatrical talent. She is even said to have abducted a nun she fell in love with from a convent, but sadly there is very little evidence to support this.
The novel was published in 1835, and caused quite a stir. Reading it, it’s somewhat incredible that it got published at all, considering its themes of cross-dressing, homosexuality, and frank discussions of sexual relations. Not to mention Gautier’s defence of the ‘art for art’s sake’ philosophy, and his argument that the artistic world is purely decorative and inherently amoral – sentiments that would be echoed years later by a certain Mr Wilde you may or may not have heard of.
The story begins with the sorrows of a young aesthete, the Chevalier d’Albert, who is dissatisfied with the inadequacies of nature compared to art, and longs to find a mistress who will live up to his aesthetic ideal. He finally settles on a beautiful young widow, Rosette, whom he sees more as a cipher for his fantasies than a lover in her own right. It would be easy to find d’Albert and his often blatant misogyny appalling (at one point he suggests that a woman may as well jump off the roof after the age of thirty, because her looks are fading), but somehow Gautier manages to deflect this, partly through making d’Albert somewhat ridiculous. How can you take him seriously when he states that he wants to kill men who seem to be a better-looking version of himself, because they have committed an act of ‘plagiarism’? Obviously, Gautier took his ideas of art and aesthetics very seriously, but I cannot help but feel that he had a slightly tongue-in-cheek attitude when representing his young hero. Everything is thrown into turmoil when d’Albert finally sees his vision of perfection in another human being while holidaying at his mistress’s house. However, the object of his affections is (shock! horror!) a man. Or so he thinks…
The narrative is then continued by the eponymous heroine, Madeleine de Maupin, who is dissatisfied with the limited role in life that she can play as a woman, and curious to know what men are really like when they think there are no females around to impress. She masquerades as a young nobleman, Theodore, and quickly becomes disillusioned with the male sex, before finding herself in the awkward position of having both Rosette and d’Albert fall in love with her. Not that she finds it awkward for too long, and is soon doing all she can to make the most of her unusual situation.
The novel was revolutionary in so many ways, not just because of its controversial subject matter but also because it acknowledged that women have desires and aspirations of their own, and also admire the subtleties of artistic perfection. It makes gender performance obvious, and is equally merciless to both sexes. Incidentally, the aspect of gender performance in Mademoiselle de Maupin is a subject I am especially intrigued by, and I’ve written a longer essay on the subject which is here, if you’re interested.