In 1809, at the age of 18, 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 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
"As detailed as any work of history and as action filled as any swashbuckler, Woman in Battle Dress is not only Antonio Benítez Rojo's last and most ambitious book, but also his masterpiece. In this graceful English translation of Henriette Faber's autobiography––more than fiction, less than fact––American readers will have access to one of the most engaging novels to come out of Latin America in recent years."––Gustavo Pérez-Firmat, Columbia University
"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
"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. The idea that a woman must pretend to be a man in order to become a physician, and is then punished by being forced back into a woman's identity, only to escape to New Orleans as a fictional character, works as a Stendhal novel in reverse. Napoleonic France and the colonial Caribbean are chartered by men; New Orleans is extraterritorial, ready for a new saga. A true Doña Quijota, Henriette Faber takes on these roles to gain her freedom in a novel, the only modern space larger than life."––Julio Ortega, Professor at Brown University, author of Transatlantic Translations
"Reviving the Renaissance and Baroque figure of the virago, in Spanish Golden Age theater the mujer varonil, Antonio Benítez Rojo creates a fascinating woman protagonist who dresses and acts like a man, mostly as a qualified medical doctor, while participating in major historical events in Europe and the Caribbean. The reader's attention is captivated by the suspense generated by the fear that her true sex will be discovered, and entertained by her wiles in trying to prevent it. Woman in Battle Dress is a rich and engaging historical novel."––Roberto González Echevarría, Sterilng Professor of Hispanic and Comparitve Literature, Yale University, author of Modern Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction
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.