Sunday, December 26, 2010

Gautier, Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835)

This intriguing novel of sexual identity is s brilliant, if imperfect work, Gautier's first novel. Mostly in epistolary form, the story is set somewhere in provincial France. The only clue to its time-period is that the main characters put on a private performance of a Shakespeare play (As You Like It) in translation (Comme il vous plaira), which sets it in the some time after François Guizot translated the play in 1821.

The name of the title character is taken from an actual remarkable woman: an 17th century female opera singer, duelist, cross-dresser, and lesbian named La Maupin. Gautier apparently first planned to write a historical novel about the singer and then simply took inspiration from her life,

On one level, the novel is a simple love triangle, a little like George Sand's Indiana (1832). The three parties are a poet, d'Albert, his widowed mistress, Rosette, and a man named Théodore, who turns out to be a women (Maupin) in men's clothing, The twist is that both Rosette and D'Albert fall passionately in love with Théodore -- a matter of great distress to D'Albert, who is tormented by the thought that he may be a homosexual.

As You Like It is cleverly worked in. Just as Orlando is in love with Rosalind, who disguises herself as man (Ganymede), Orlando finds himself strangely drawn to him/her. Ganymede offers to cure Orlando of his love by impersonating Rosalind. meanwhile Rosalind-as-man has to fight off the amatory advances of the shepherdess Phebe.

And in the performanve, these ether roles are played by D'Albert, Théodore, and Rosette.

But what in Shakespeare is portrayed as Platonic love, in Gautier is strongly carnal. D'Albert enjoys a torrid sexual relationship with Rosette, though he finds her a little shallow. Rosette makes a strongly sequel play for Théodore/Maupin. In in the end, Théodore/Maupin ends up in loses her virginity with D'Albert, to whom she reveals her true sex, and then with Rosette, though the details of their lovemaking is rather politely understated. In the end, Théodore/Maupin escapes from both of them.

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