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Woman in Battle Dress

by Antonio Benitez-Rojo

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Woman in Battle Dress by Cuban author Antonio Benitez Rojo is based on the true story of Henriette Faber. Henriette was born in Switzerland in 1791. In 1809, at the age of 18 and at a time when women were prohibited from studying medicine, she enrolled in medical school disguised as a man. She was drafted into the Napoleonic army and took part in the 1812 retreat in Russia. She eventually emigrated to Cuba where she continued to practice medicine. She eventually married a woman. Three years later, the woman turned her into the authorities and she became the subject of one of Cuba’s most sensational trials.

Henriette was a woman who refused to accept the limitations of her time and was willing to suffer the same hardships that would have been considered heroic in a man. Instead, she was humiliated, stripped of her license, imprisoned, forced to dress in women’s clothes, and eventually exiled. Yet little has ever been heard of her outside of Cuba. In Woman in Battle Dress, Rojo has taken the bare outlines of her life and written a truly sweeping and engrossing historical novel.

The story is admittedly slow but slow doesn’t always mean bad or boring and certainly not in this case. I found myself rereading passages and pages not because I missed something but because I wanted to experience it again. Rojo does an impeccable job of recreating not only Henriette’s life but her voice. This was especially true when writing about her experience as she takes part in the army’s retreat in the dead of a cold Russian winter – Henriette speaks with the clarity and objectivity of a scientist but despite or perhaps because of this, this section of the novel is truly as chilling as the landscape and experiences she is describing.

Woman in Battle Dress is written in the style of a memoir supposedly as she is on her way to exile in Louisiana and in the dense prose of the era, a style that may be off-putting to some readers. However, for any who are fans of historical novels or the classics, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

4.5 ( )
  lostinalibrary | Aug 12, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0872866769, Paperback)

In 1809, at the age of eighteen, Henriette Faber enrolled herself in medical school in Paris—and since medicine was a profession prohibited to women, she changed her name to Henri in order to matriculate. She would spend the next fifteen years practicing medicine and living as a man.

Drafted to serve as a surgeon in Napoleon's army, Faber endured the horrors of the 1812 retreat across Russia. She later embarked to the Caribbean and set up a medical practice in a remote Cuban village, where she married Juana de León, an impoverished local. Three years into their marriage, de León turned Faber in to the authorities, demanding that the marriage be annulled. A sensational legal trial ensued, and Faber was stripped of her medical license, forced to dress as a woman, sentenced to prison, and ultimately sent into exile. She was last seen on a boat headed to New Orleans in 1827.

In this, his last published work, Antonio Benítez Rojo takes the outline provided by historical events and weaves a richly detailed backdrop for Faber, who becomes a vivid and complex figure grappling with the strictures of her time. Woman in Battle Dress is a sweeping, ambitious epic, in which Henriette Faber tells the story of her life, a compelling, entertaining, and ultimately triumphant tale.

Praise for Woman in Battle Dress

"Woman in Battle Dress by Antonio Benítez-Rojo, which has been beautifully translated from the Spanish by Jessica Ernst Powell, is the extraordinary account of an extraordinary person. Benítez-Rojo blows great gusts of fascinating fictional wind onto the all but forgotten embers of the actual Henriette Faber, and this blazing tale of her adventures as a military surgeon and a husband and about a hundred other fascinating things is both something we want and need to hear."––Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome

"A fascinating novel, in a brilliant translation, about the unique fate of Henrietta Faber who played a gender-bending role in the history of Cuba."––Suzanne Jill Levine, noted translator and author of Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions

"A picaresque novel starring an adventurous heroine, who caroms from country to country around the expanding Napoleonic empire, hooking up with a dazzling array of men (and women) as she goes. A wild ride!"––Carmen Boullosa, author of Texas: The Great Theft

"Very few novels dare to explore the historical representation of women to the extent that Woman in Battle Dress does, with impeccable veracity and bravado."––Julio Ortega, Professor at Brown University, author of Transatlantic Translations

Antonio Benítez-Rojo (1931–2005) was a Cuban novelist, essayist and short-story writer. He was widely regarded as the most significant Cuban author of his generation. His work has been translated into nine languages and collected in more than 50 anthologies. One of his most influential publications, La Isla que se Repite, was published in 1989 by Ediciones del Norte, and published in English as The Repeating Island by Duke University Press in 1997.

Jessica Powell has translated numerous Latin American authors, including works by César Vallejo, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Cardenal, Maria Moreno, Ana Lidia Vega Serova and Edmundo Paz Soldán. Her translation (with Suzanne Jill Levine) of Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo's novel Where There's Love, There's Hate, was published by Melville House in 2013. She is the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship in support of her translation of Antonio Benítez Rojo's novel Woman in Battle Dress.

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 22 Jul 2015 15:30:56 -0400)

"In 1809, at the age of eighteen, Henriette Faber enrolled herself in medical school in Paris--and since medicine was a profession prohibited to women, she changed her name to Henri in order to matriculate. She would spend the next fifteen years practicing medicine and living as a man. Drafted to serve as a surgeon in Napoleon's army, Faber endured the horrors of the 1812 retreat across Russia. She later embarked to the Caribbean and set up a medical practice in a remote Cuban village, where she married Juana de Leon, an impoverished local. Three years into their marriage, de Leon turned Faber in to the authorities, demanding that the marriage be annulled. A sensational legal trial ensued, and Faber was stripped of her medical license, forced to dress as a woman, sentenced to prison, and ultimately sent into exile. She was last seen on a boat headed to New Orleans in 1827."--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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