The Hairy Lady

Original title: L’infante sauvage

Author: Pasa, Mario

Publication Date:

January 2023



Original language and publisher

French | Actes Sud

Territories Handled

Netherlands, North America, Scandinavia


History, Literary Non-Fiction

The Hairy Lady

Original title: L’infante sauvage

Author: Pasa, Mario


It is the figure of Ambroise Paré, whose thirst for scientific discovery was well known, whom the author decides to elect as the guardian angel of little Madeleine from 1580 onwards, under the reign of Henry III in Paris and against the backdrop of the plague. And why wouldn’t she have been born during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre? And why wouldn’t it have been Catherine de’ Medici who commissioned the first charcoal portrait of her? For we know virtually nothing for sure about the eldest daughter of Pedro Gonzalès, one of the king’s ‘savages’, who like her father suffered from congenital hypertrichosis (abnormal hair growth) from birth.

Resolving to answer the many riddles surrounding the family through the art of fiction, Mario Pasa makes Madeleine the closeted heroine of his novel. Taking as his inspiration the portrait of her that hangs in Ambras Castle in Austria, he explores her life and by extension the royal fad for having a monster at court. For the Gonzalès family really are devilishly different. They repel the gaze yet invite voyeurism, embodying the paradox of an educated society that is nevertheless still imbued with superstition and fascinated by curiosities of nature. A ‘monkey savant’ rejected by her mother and compelled to appear in the presence of the queen Catherine de’ Medici without ever speaking, Madeleine ruefully sees herself as ‘both a playmate and a toy, a studying companion and a faithful pet’. She is ultimately acquired by Alexander Farnese and dispatched to Italy, where she will live out the rest of her days.

The well-honed turns of phrase, the delicious and imaginative folds of late Renaissance language blended with modern prose, and the well-read and well-researched approach conjure up a distinct and singular atmosphere: that of a novel of historical cloth which at the same time subtly points up the rough stitches of our modern world (the violent nature of human relationships, the fear of difference, our relationship to gender, ostracism, the rejection of anything unconventional) and makes us reflect on the power of image and the forms that intolerance can take, even today.