Ninon de L’Enclos
Born Anne de l’Enclos in Paris on November 10, 1620 (maybe 1615 or 1623), she was nicknamed “Ninon” at a young age by her father, Henri de l’Enclos, a published lute player and composer, who taught her how to sing and play the luteand clavicord. He was exiled from France after a duel. When Ninon’s mother, Marie-Barbe de la Marche died, one year later, Ninon entered a convent, only to leave next year. For the rest of her life, she was determined to remain single and independent.
Returning to Paris after her father died, he became a popular figure in the salons, and her own salon became a center for discussion and consumption of the literary arts. It was during this period that her life as a courtesan began. Ninon took on a succession of notable and wealthy lovers, including the cousin of the King of the Great Condé, Gaston de Coligny, and François, Duke of La Rochefoucauld . These men are not compatible with her. However, she prided herself on her independent income. “Ninon always had a multitude of worshipers, but never more than one lover at a time, and when she tires of the present occupant, she frankly said so and took another. Yet such was the authority of this nonsense, that no one man dared fall out with his successful rival; she was more than willing to allow them to visit as a family friend” Saint-Simonwrote.
In 1652, Ninon took with Louis de Mornay, the Marquis de Villarceaux, with whom she had a son, also named Louis, in 1653. She lived with the Marquis until 1655, when she returned to Paris. When she would not return to him, the Marquis fell into a fever. To comfort him, Ninon cut her hair and sent the sheared locks to him, starting a short hair fashion style named “like Ninon”. This life (less acceptable, as it would become in recent years) and her views on organized religion caused her some problems, and she was imprisoned in the Madelonnettes Convent in 1656, at the request of Anne of Austria, Queen of France and Regent of her son Louis XIV. Not long after, however, she was visited by Christina, the former Queen of Sweden. Impressed, Christina wrote to Cardinal Mazarino on behalf of Ninon and arranged for her release. In response, as an author she defended the possibility of living a good life in the absence of religion, especially in 1659 de La Coquette Vengee (“La Ligue Avenged”), edited and press in Amsterdam.
She was also noted for her ingenuity. Among her numerous sayings and jokes are “It takes much more genius to make love that to command armies” and “We must be careful to put in a stock of provisions, but not of pleasures: these ones must be collected by the day.” From the late 1660s she withdrew from her courtly lifestyle and concentrated more on her literary friends – from 1667, she hosted their meetings at l’Hôtel Sagonne , which was considered “the” place of Ninon de Lenclos’s salon despite other places in the past. During this time she was a friend of Jean Racine, the great French playwright. She would later become a close friend with devotee Françoise d’Aubigné, better known as Madame de Maintenon , the maid of honor who would later become the second wife of Louis XIV, whom she presented each other. Saint-Simon wrote that “Madame did not like to be mentioned Ninon in her presence, but she did not dare to deny her, and wrote cordial letters with her from time to time, until the day of her death.”
Ninon eventually died at the age of 84 (or 90), as a very wealthy woman. Until the end, that “she was convinced that she had no soul, and she never abandoned that conviction, not even in old age, not even in the hour of her death.”Ninon de Lenclos is a relatively unknown figure in the English-speaking world, but she is much better known in France, where her name is synonymous with wit and beauty. Saint-Simon noted “Ninon made friends among the greats in all walks of life, had wit and intelligence enough to keep them, and, what is more, to keep them friendly to one another.”Dorothy Parker wrote the poem “Ninon de Lenclos on her last birthday” and also referred to Ninon in another of her poems, “Words of Comfort of Being Scratched In A Mirror”, writing, “Ninon was once the talk of France . “L’Enclos is the eponymous heroine of Charles Lecocq’s 1896 ‘s comic opera , Ninette. It is in evidence that Ninon’s father was a gentleman of Touraine and connected, through his wife, with the family of Abra de Raconis, a race of no mean repute in the Orleanois, and that he was an accomplished gentleman occupying a high position in society. Her mother, a woman of undoubted virtue and exemplary piety, following the usual path in the training of her only child and making a sad failure. Ninon swung away from the extreme of piety represented by her mother, and was caught at the other extreme by the less intellectually monotonous ideas of her father. She would be devouring such profane books as Montaigne, Scarron’s romances and Epicurus, as more in accordance with her trend of mind.Mademoiselle de l’Enclos never forgot a friend in a lover, indeed, the trait that stands out clear and strong in her character, is her whole hearted friendship for the men she loved, and she bestowed it upon them as long as they lived, for she outlived nearly all of them, and cherished their memories afterward. As has been said, Ninon de l’Enclos was Epicurean in the strictest sense, and did not rest her entire happiness on love alone, but included a friendship which went to the extent of making sacrifices.“I soon saw that women were put off with the most frivolous and unreal privileges, while every solid advantage was retained by the stronger sex. From that moment I determined on abandoning my own sex and assuming that of the men.”So well did she carry out this determination, that she was regarded by her masculine intimates as one of themselves, and whatever pleasures they enjoyed in her society, were enjoyed upon the same principle as they would have delighted in a good dinner, an agreeable theatrical performance, or exquisite music.To her and to all her associates, love was a taste emanating from the senses, a blind sentiment which assumes no merit in the object which gives it birth, as is the case of hunger, thirst, and the like. In a word, it was merely a caprice, the domination of which depends upon ourselves, and is subject to the discomforts and regrets attendant upon repletion or indulgence.After her first experience with de Coligny, which was an abandonment of her cold philosophy for a passionate attachment she thought would endure forever, Ninon cast aside all that element in love which is connected with passion and extravagant sentiment, and adhered to her philosophical understanding of it, and kept it in its proper place in the category of natural appetites.
To illustrate her freedom from passionate attachments in the distribution of her favors, the case of her friend Paul Scarron will give an insight into her philosophy. In his younger days, Scarron contributed largely to the pleasures of the Oiseaux des Tournelles, the ecclesiastical collar he then wore not being sufficient to prevent his enjoying worldly pleasures.In the course of time Scarron fell ill, and was reduced to a dreadful condition, no one coming to his succor but Ninon. Like a tender, compassionate friend, she sympathized deeply with him, when he was carried to suburb Saint Germain to try the effects of the baths as an alleviation of his pains. Ninon went to him, and passed entire days at his side. Scarron had received numerous favors from her, and being one of her select “Birds,” who had always agreed with la Rochefoucauld that, “There are many good marriages but none that are delicious,” she assumed that her friend would never entangle himself in the bonds of matrimony. But he did and to his sorrow. When Ninon had returned to Paris after a long sojourn with the Marquis de Villarceaux, she knew that Scarron had married the amiable but ignoble Mademoiselle d’Aubigné. This young lady was in a situation that precluded all hope of her ever attaining social eminence, but aspiring to rise, notwithstanding her common origin, she married Scarron as the first step upon the social ladder.
Without realizing that this woman was to become the celebrated Madame de Maintenon, mistress of the king and the real power behind the throne, Ninon took her in charge and they soon became the closest and most affectionate friends, always together even occupying the same bed. Ninon’s tender friendship for the husband continued in spite of his grave violation of the principles of his accepted philosophy, and when he was deserted, sick and helpless, she went to him and brought him cheer and comfort. Ninon was so little imbued with jealousy that when she discovered a liaison between her own lover, Marquis de Villarceaux and her friend, Madame Scarron, she was not even angry. The two were carrying on their amour in secret, and as they supposed without Ninon’s knowledge, whose presence, indeed, they deemed a restraint upon their freedom of action. The Marquis considered himself a traitor to Ninon, and Madame Scarron stood in fear of her reproaches for her betrayal. But Ninon, instead of taking either of them to task, as she would have been justified in doing, gently remonstrated with them for their secrecy, and by her kindness reassured both of them and relieved them from their embarrassment, making them understand that she desired nothing so much as their happiness. Both the Marquis and his mistress made Ninon their confidante, and thereafter lived in perfect amity until the lovers grew tired of each other, Madame Scarron aiming higher than an ordinary Marquis, now that she saw her way clear to mounting the social ladder.Ninon had always been an ardent supporter of the throne, and on that account imagined herself to be the enemy of Richelieu. There were many others who believed the same thing. They did not know that should the great Cardinal withdraw his hand for a single moment, there would not be any more throne. When the human hornets around him became annoying, he was accustomed to pretend to withdraw his sustaining hand, then the throne would tremble and totter, but he always came to the rescue; indeed, there was no other man who could rescue it. Cabals, plots, and conspiracies became so thick around Ninon at one period that she was frightened. Madame Scarron’s house became a rendezvous for the factious and turbulent. Madame Scarron was aiming at the throne, that is, she was opening the way to capture the heart of the king. This was too much for Ninon, who was more modest in her ambitions, and she fled frightened.The Marquis de Villarceaux received her with open arms at his chateau some distance from Paris, and that was her home for three years. There were loud protests at this desertion from her coterie of friends, and numerous dark threats were uttered against the gallant Marquis who had thus captured the queen of the “Birds,” but Ninon explained her reason in such a plausible manner that their complaints subsided into good-natured growls. She hoped to prevent a political conflagration emanating from her social circle by scattering the firebrands, and she succeeded admirably. The Marquis was constantly with her, permitting nobody to intervene between them, and provided her with a perpetual round of amusements that made the time pass very quickly. Moreover, she was faithful to the Marquis, so wonderful a circumstance that her friend and admirer wrote an elegy upon that circumstance, in which he draws a picture of the pleasures of the ancients in ruralizing, but reproaches Ninon for indulging in a passion for so long a period to the detriment of her other friends and admirers. But Ninon was happy in attaining the summit of her desire, which wag to defeat Madame Scarron, her rival in the affections of the Marquis, keeping the latter by her side for three whole years as has already been said. However delighted Ninon may have been with this arrangement, the Marquis, himself, did not repose upon a bed of roses. The jealousy of the “Birds” gave him no respite, he being obliged in honor to respond to their demands for an explanation of his conduct in carrying off their leader, generally insisting upon the socalled field of honor as the most appropriate place for giving a satisfactory answer. They even invaded his premises until they forced him to make them some concessions in the way of permission to see the object f their admiration, and to share in her society. The Marquis was proud of his conquest, the very idea of a three years’ tête à tête with the most volatile heart in France being sufficient to justify him in boasting of his prowess, but whenever he ventured to do so, a champion on the part of Ninon always stood ready to make him either eat his words or fight to maintain them. Madame Scarron, whom he so basely deserted for the superior charms of her friend Ninon, often gave him a bad quarter of an hour. When she became the mistress of the king and, as Madame de Maintenon, really held the reins of power, visions of the Bastille thronged his brain. He knew perfectly well that he had scorned the charms of Madame Scarron, who believed them irresistible, and that he deserved whatever punishment she might inflict upon him. She might have procured a lettered cachet, had him immured in a dungeon or his head removed from his shoulders as easily as order a dinner, but she did nothing to gratify a spirit of revenge, utterly ignoring his existence.At the expiration of three years, peace had come to France after a fashion, the cabals were not so frequent and the rivalry between the factions not so bitter. Whatever differences there had been were patched up or smoothed over. Ninon’s return to the house in the Rue des Tournelles was hailed with joy by her “Birds.”It was perhaps due to Ninon’s kindness in the Villarceaux episode that enabled her to retain the friendship of Madame de Maintenon when the latter had reached the steps of the throne. The mistress of royaltyendeavored to persuade Ninon to appear at court but there was too great a difference in temper and constitution between the two celebrated women to admit of any close relations. Ninon made use of the passion of love for the purpose of pleasure only, while her more exalted rival made it subservient to her ambitious projects, and did not hesitate with that view to cloak her licentious habits beneath the mantle of religion, and add hypocrisy to frailty. The income of Ninon de l’Enclos was agreeably and judiciously spent in the society of men of wit and letters, but the revenues of the Marchioness de Maintenon were squandered on the useless decoration of her own person, or hoarded for the purpose of elevating into rank and notice an insignificant family, who had no other claim to such distinction than that derived from the easy, honesty of a female relation, and the dissolute extravagance of a vain and licentious sovereign.As old age approached, Ninon ceased to be regarded with that familiarity shown her by her intimates in heryounger days, and a respect and admiration took its place. She was no longer “Ninon,” but “Mademoiselle de l’Enclos.” Her social circle widened, and instead of being limited to men exclusively, ladies eagerly took advantage of the privilege accorded them to frequent the charming circle. That circle certainly became celebrated. The beautiful woman had lived the life of an earnest Epicurean in her own way, regardless of society’s conventionalities, and had apparently demonstrated that her way was the best. She had certainly attained a long life, and what was more to the purpose she had preserved her beauty and the attractions of her person were as strong as when she was in her prime. Reason enough why the women of the age thronged her apartments to learn the secret of her life. Madame de Maintenon, then in the height of her power and influence, had never forgotten the friend of her youth, and now, she offered her lodgings at Versailles. It is said that her intention was to enable the king to profit by an intimacy with a woman of eighty-five years who, in spite of bodily infirmities, possessed the same vivacity of mind and delicacy of taste that had contributed to her great renown, much more than her personal charms and frailties. But Ninon was born for liberty, and had never been willing to sacrifice her philosophical tranquility for the hope of greater fortune and position in the world. Accordingly, she thanked her old friend, and as the only concession she would grant, consented to stand in the chapel of Versailles where Louis the Great could pass and satisfy his curiosity to see once, at least, the astonishing marvel of his reign.At her last years, she contributed with the nephew of her notarius, François-Marie Arouet, then named Voltaire. She fortified him with her counsel and left him a thousand francs in her will to buy books for his studies. Voltaire, after earn the money ridiculised the memory of his benefactress.At the age of ninety years, Mademoiselle de l’Enclos grew feebler every day, and felt that death would not be long coming. She performed all her social duties, however, until the very end, refusing to surrender until compelled. On the last night of her life, unable to sleep, she arose, and at her desk wrote the following verses:
“Qu’un vain espoir ne vienne point s’offrir,
Qui puisse ébranler mon courage;
Je suis en âge de mourir;
Que ferias-je ici davantage?”
(“Let no vain hope now come and try, My courage strong to overthrow; My age demands that I shall die, What more can I do here below?”).
On the 17th of October, 1706, she expired as gently as one who falls asleep.