So in her comments on my last entry, Ketutar mentioned her fandom for one of the original action writers, Alexander Dumas, he of the Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo fame. Coincidentally, Dumas was mentioned in the latest copy of American Fencing, a nice little rag all we American Fencing Association members get (which reminds me that I’m overdue for paying my dues for the year).
From a novelist’s viewpoint there’s an intriguing fact about Dumas: his paternal grandmother was a former slave of African descent from the West Indies, and even after Dumas became a big-time bestselling author in Europe, he had to deal with racial prejudice. Ironically this black ancestry was appropriate because, as the AF article points out, it was very common to find in the 18th and 19th centuries many slaves and former slaves and free men (and women) of African descent who were highly skilled at fighting with everything from sabers to cutlasses to broadswords and rapiers, daggers, you name it. There were also more than a few black and “mulatto” master swordsmen. Who knew? I certainly didn’t.
Like in New Orleans. Seems that it was the only city in the U.S. where the sword duel was still common, and that’s where you could find plenty of blade masters who happened to be black free men or “mulatto” and who were so freakin’ good even white bigots went to their “salles d’armes” for lessons.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges was being called the greatest swordsman of his time. (Weird fact: he often had public fencing bouts with a famous white cross-dressing chevalier, which is a fancy way of saying knight.) And the greatest fencing master of the entire nineteenth century mighta been Jean-Louis Michel. He had “mixed black and white parentage,” had emigrated from Haiti, became a soldier under Napoleon, the regimental fencing master, and – this for me is the really cool part – taught his daughter to fence. She was good enough to defeat many of her father’s male students.
Movies and TV shows really don’t show us this kind of history, do they? I mean, people kinda snicker when Catherine Zeta-Jones fights expertly with a sword in the Zorro flicks, ‘cause they assume women back then never ever did anything remotely athletic, at least not respectable women. But history says otherwise.
So maybe this is where novelists could pick up the slack and write fictional takes on these real-life fascinating sword fighters. Maybe because New Orleans is such a natural setting for paranormal stories, the 18th and 19th century black fencing masters who lived there could be inspirations for a whole line of novels.
There is at least one modern-day European novel (well, written in the last several years but set in 19th century Spain) that involves a woman and fencing. I finally got a copy of The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and will start it in the next few days. In his story, a mysterious woman who is brilliant at swordplay comes into the master’s life and turns it upside down.
How cool is that?