Original post published 17 October 2014
Esfinges member and author Kelly Gardiner thought you might enjoy this extract from her new novel
Goddess, based on the life of seventeenth century swordswoman and opera singer, Julie
d’Aubigny (or Mademoiselle de Maupin).
My father told me that if you take a blade in your hand, you take your own life and
someone else’s life in your hands, too. Haven’t forgotten.
But it’s more than that. When I take a blade in hand, I know what has to happen, what it
means. I understand my opponent’s intention and my own.
Everything is clear to me–outline, details, future, emotion. Not like the world, where
everything is muddy and messed, and nothing ever works out the way you mean it to– no
matter how skilful or how honourable you are, no matter how vile your enemy.
When I was a child, we had the finest teachers: the Rousseau brothers, Monsieur de
Liancourt–you’d hardly credit it, would you? The finest swordsmen of any age and there they were, drilling us all day, sitting by the fire with Papa of an evening, recalling every bout,
every mistake each opponent made.
That’s how I learned that fencing is like mathematics, like the logic of Socrates, the art of
the ancients. There’s no luck, only genius and memory and slashed knuckles. It’s like music, with its own patterns and rhythm and inevitability. So is the body.
Art, music, fencing, love, mathematics. All genius. All lyrical.
Most of the men I’ve ever fought had no inkling of this– the deep mystery of it, the
science of it, the intricacy–the intimacy–the knowledge that lives in your veins and muscles and soul.
The fencing masters adjust your pose, your wrist, just as singing masters try to rearrange
your throat and tongue, as concert masters order the notes, the cadence. I’ve had many
masters. I hear their voices. I don’t need to, anymore, but they still speak to me, through me.
‘Your only enemy is fear,’ Master Liancourt used to tell me. ‘The man before you is
simply a pretender. Measure his impatience with the blade–slide it, tap sharply, test his
reserve, his courage.’
‘All your stealth rests in your fingertips, all your power in your thighs,’ Papa said, over
and over. ‘The strength comes only from your mind. Fingertips. Wrist. Thighs. Brain. These are your weapons. The sword is merely a beautiful accessory.’
On Saturday mornings, Master Liancourt paid a string quartet to play in the corner. Our
footwork drills pounded in time with the beat. If they played a long jig, our legs would be
ready to fall off by the end. ‘Lunge, retreat, retreat, lunge, flèche, en garde.’ His voice loud
over the music, me humming along. ‘Lunge, lunge, and again, hold it there until I say, until the end of this gavotte. Straighten your back, d’Aubigny, head high now. Strong. That’s right.
Hold it. No trembling. No falling.’ No trembling.
‘Straighten your arm–the movement is only in the wrist; your wrist is liquid, your wrist is
steel.’ And look at me now–at my hands.
‘My dancers.’ He’d laugh. ‘My ballet. Let’s have a little divertissement. A minuet!’
Off we’d go again, grinning like madmen, groaning after a while, and eventually, one by
one, we’d give up, legs gone to water under the intense pain, the boys all furious, despairing.
Not me. I don’t crack. I outlasted them all. Until now.
My father used to say, ‘Never let your guard down, never turn your back.’ Never did.
The only certainty I’ve ever known lies in the purity of the blade. I always understand
exactly what to do and when–what will happen next and how to respond. I don’t think. I
know it–in my fibres, in my blood and my bowels.
Just like the great masters, I remember every movement of every duel, as if they were all
preserved in amber–frozen, perhaps, like trout in the Seine–but animated by memory. Every twitch of the blade, every parry–the foot tap, the blink, the drop of sweat on the end of a nose, the slight widening of the eyes just before pain makes itself properly known–a sleeve damp with blood, the howl of fury and defeat.
And, yes, hatred.
I never met a man who was delighted to be bested by a woman, except, of course, my
darling d’Albert. Some laughed about it later; many became friends. But every one of
them believed he would be the one to master me–even to kill me– and they all clenched
disappointment in their teeth, no matter how chivalrous the handshake or how gracious the smile.
I can’t blame them. Disappointment has a horrible taste– I’ve never liked it myself–the
way it burns on the tongue like sulphur and turns your belly to acid.
I can admit now that I made the most of every victory. I strutted like a courtier, always
made sure my smiles were the more munificent. I love winning. Who doesn’t? Only fools or those who’ve never beaten anybody.
But I never saw duelling as a game. A duel is more like a very small, personal war.
Nothing exists but the blades, blood pounding in your ears, breath and anticipation. Strategy and skill are all that matter–in fact, now I think about it, they are your weapons. Those and the reflexes honed by painful hours of training, the unbeatable instinct, and always the mind that remembers every word–every move–ever studied, discussed or witnessed.
I had my favourite strategies, but never a signature stroke. Too predictable, d’you see?
It’s all very well being famous for a certain move–the La Maupin Manoeuvre, if you like.
But your opponents always know it’s going to make its tired old appearance, like a Lully
tragédie, every season. The crowds clamour for it, which is all very well unless you are
fighting for your life.
As I so often did.
Extract published courtesy of Fourth Estate, HarperCollins Publishers.
For more information on Julie d’Aubigny, see Kelly’s website: