Gautier's Mlle. de MaupinThis page is a minor rewrite of a plot summary/review that I wrote just after reading Gautier's novel Mademoiselle de Maupin. The original review was written for a couple of friends with whom I was exchanging mail regarding the Mlles. Maupin and De Maupin.
Mademoiselle de Maupinby Theophile Gautier, 1835
English translation, The Heritage Press NY, 1944
illustrated by Andre Dugo
electronic edition of the original French
available from Amazon.com
Reviewed by Jim Burrows
The plot of the book, revolves around a romantic triangle. D'Albert and his mistress Rosette are both in love with Théadore whom neither of them knows is really mlle. de Maupin.
Maupin disguises herself as a man so that she can learn about men before trying to find herself one. Her masquerade is entirely successful as she's something of a tom-boy. Her new found cavalier friend takes her home to meet his widowed sister, with whom she flirts masterfully and who falls deeply and passionately in love with her. She in turn falls in love with Rosette, the widow, not sexually, but sensually, romantically and aestheically, (which is probably the most important and fundamental of the three).
Rosette throws herself at Maupin. They kiss and embrace and get interrupted at the last possible minute on a couple of occasions. Maupin reacts however as if it is unthinkable and more than that, impossible, that this love could find any expression. In the end, Maupin duels with her friend the brother and flees. She takes up a wild and roistering life as a cavalier. Said life is however entirely chaste. Eventually she encounters a young girl who will be abused for certain, and spirits her away, disguised as her page. She never reveals her sex to this girl who runs off to be her ... lover/mistress, and thinks of herself as that, but is too innocent or naive or just plain simple to realize that lovers have been known to do things other than kiss and sleep clothed in the same bed.
Rosette, meantime, consoles herself after losing the great love of her life by becoming the mistress of a young fellow named d'Albert, who in turn settles for her while waiting for the great love of his life who has so long refused to show herself. D'Albert loves Rosette in a quiet passionless way, as much for her beauty as for, dare we say it?, well any sort of carnal aspects that there might be to her being his mistress. Maupin returns still masquerading as "Théadore", complete with page, and d'Albert falls as deeply in love with "him" as is possible. He has recognized his one true love, and is by turns aghast and totally unconcerned with that love being a man.
They put on "As you like it" and Maupin, who is playing Théadore, plays the part of Rosalind playing Ganymede, and does so so convincingly that d'Albert who plays Orlando is convinced that Théadore must be a woman so he takes to calling her Rosalind in his own mind. Eventually they share a wild night of passion, during which time d'Albert ... um, acquits himself heroicly, performing, we are lead to believe, more repeatedly than many men couple in a week or month. He collapses eventually and wakes to find de Maupin gone. She spends an hour or three in secret with Rosette--en chambre, as they might say, but certainly in camera, for our narrator despite having full access to the letters and journals of all involved and all their confidants, cannot find out what passes there beyond the possible clue that two pearls de Maupin had been wearing may have been found by the maid in the bed clothes.
The maid's discovery of the pearls, conveyed in hushed tones, is the only hint in the whole book that it is even physically possible that the two women might have found some expression for the soaring love, deep passion, and overwhelming sensuality that they have experienced for the last 100-200 pages. It is, of course, so totally unthinkable that Gautier can barely bring himself to circumlocute his way around to mentioning the curiosity of the pearls at all.
Mlle de Maupin vanishes immediately after this. D'Albert receives a letter from her to the effect that that one night was so glorious that it is best that they break off their relationship before perfection is spoiled. She advises d'Albert and Rosette to share some kisses and laughs or the like.
We find ourselves, then, with a book whose scandalous message is that love and passion can be aroused and bestowed solely for their own and beauty's sake, without regard for the sex of the beloved, or the expectations of society, convention or the individual, yet this same book cannot bring itself to contemplate that such feelings could find any physical expression. All the characters are iconoclasts and free thinkers, overpowered by wild and unbridled passion, and yet entirely chaste because they can think of no way to express it physically.
More amusing because Gautier based his character on the seventeenth century actress whose interests in members of her own sex caused parents to send their daughters to convents and over whom she fought public and illegal duels. That Gautier did base Mlle De Maupin on the historical figure is clear from the alias she uses during her masquerade, "Théadore de Sérannes". "Sérannes" was the name of the lover with whom La Maupin ran away after having her husband appointed to a post in the provinces.
Notes and Other ReferencesThis section contains a footnote to the review above and whatever other references to Gautier's novel that I come across.
What I found particularly amusing about the moralizing in Larousse was that one of the things that most impressed me about the book was the unshakable moral certitude of Mlle. de Maupin, the author and even the modern translator. It may just be that my social circle includes enough bisexuals and lesbians that my perspective is different, but I really did find myself reacting with "how quaint" when the absolute impossibility of any physical expression of Mlle de Maupin's love, attraction, and desire for Rosette completely stopped her.
Excerpted material is all copyright the original authors/translators.