Friday, November 9, 2007
Ninon de Lenclos - Mademoiselle Libertine
"A woman who has loved but one man, will never know love."
The Sun King was known to ignore the views of his advisors and peers during his long reign, but whenever he wanted a second opinion, he was known to ask "What would Ninon do?"
Who was this Ninon that an absolute monarch like Louis XIV would seek her advice? She was a French author, courtesan and patron of the arts, whose long life lasted almost as long as the The Sun King's reign in France. In her lifetime, she was known as the sine qua non of courtesans, her salons were attended by some of the greatest minds in France, including Racine, Corneille, de Francois, duc de la Rochefoucauld and Moliere, who tried out all his plays on her first.
After her death, Saint-Simon summed up her career as: "A shining example of the triumph of vice, when directed with intelligence and redeemed by a little virtue." Her prowess with men was so well known that there is a urban legend that for years after her death, the women of Versailles sued to petition her be-ribboned skull for erotic success.
She was born Anne de Lenclos on November 10, 1620 (another Scorpio, what a surprise!) in the Marais district of Paris, although some biographies give her date of birth as everything from 1614 to 1623. She was nicknamed 'Ninon' by her father who she adored. Her family were middle class, Voltaire wrote that her father was a lute player. Her parents were a study in contrasts. While Madame de Lenclos was almost pious in the extreme, Monsieur de L'enclos was a fun-loving libertine who abandoned them when Ninon was fifteen after a duel over another man's wife.
Ninon grew up in a tug of war between the religiousity of her mother, and the free-wheeling attitudes of her father. It was easy to see which parent would win out, although Ninon loved both her parents. From an early age, Ninon was determined to be independant and unmarried. After observing the disasterous marriage between her parents, it is easy to see why. When she was 12, Ninon declared to her father that she was no longer a girl, but a boy. Amused, her father had his tailor make her an outfit consisting of breeches, doublet, and boots, taking her out riding in the park dressed in her new garb. He also educated her like a boy, teaching her history, philosophy and lute playing.
By the age of 13, Ninon's opinions on religion had been formed. She snuck in books on Montaigne (a noted writer during the Renaissance who became famous for his ability to combine serious intellectual speculation with anecdote and biography), and other philosophers into her prayer books in church. And once she even sang a bawdy song in the middle of a sermon during Holy Week. When she was scolded by the cleric, Ninon declared that religion was nothing but an invention.
Despite her mother's best efforts to turn her into a god-fearing pious woman, Ninon was determined to live a life of pleasure, both physical and mental. Since she had no dowry to speak of, Ninon only had a few choices in life. Either to marry, enter a convent, take a position as a governess like her friend Madame de Maintenon, or become a courtesan. To the horror of her mother, she allowed herself to be seduced and ruined by the young Comte de Coligny. Thus she embarked on the life that led to her fame and fortune.
Ninon took a succession of notable and wealthy lovers, including the King's cousin, the Great Conde, three generations of the Sevigne family, Saint-Evremond, the duc D'Enghien among others. She divided her lovers into three categories, "the payers, the martyrs, and the favored."
Even Cardinal Richelieu desired to be among her lovers, offering 50,000 crowns for a night in her bed. Ninon took the money and sent her friend, the courtesan Marian Delorme instead.
Ironically for someone who was so sought after, Ninon was no beauty. She had a long nose, heavy eyebrows, and a double chin. But her lovers didn't care. One of them admitted that her mind was more attractive than her face. Ninon was a rare creature when 2/3 of the women couldn't sign their name. The accepted virtues of feminity were silence, docility, chastity, piety, and domesticity, none of which Ninon possessed. As she once said, "If anyone had proposed a life of chastity to me, I should hanged myself." Uninhibited, Ninon swam in the nude, and talked about sex openly like a French Dr. Ruth. But her biggest erotic secret was probably the fact that she bathed regularly.
Instead of waiting to be wooed, Ninon was not afraid to be the pursuer. She would cruise the Cours la Reine each day in a satin sedan chair, until she saw someone she fancied, and then propositioned them with billet-doux. "Love with passion but only for a few minutes," was her motto. She had a time limit for her lovers of three months. Only once did Ninon engage in monogamy. For three years, she lived with the Marquis de Villarceaux. Unlike her other lovers, he was not an intellectual but a compulsive womanizer. It was lust at first sight. They moved to his country estate, where he hunted, while Ninon continued her studies with a resident scholar. They had a son who Ninon loved and promoted for the rest of her life.
After the novelty of monogamy wore off, and de Villarceaux's charms no longer satisfied her, Ninon left him and moved back to Paris. When he followed her in a jealous fury, Ninon cut off all her hair and handed it to him, starting a new fashion for the "Ninon bob" in the process. Like most of her other lovers, de Villarceaux couldn't stay mad at her for long and they stayed friends.
She also established a salon at 28 rue des Tournelles in the Marais. It soon became the place to be seen. Women dominated French cultural life in the 17th Century. It was French women intellectuals who created the idea of the salon, where ideas could be entertained. Ninon's own drawing room became the place to discuss literary arts. At her salon, there was no card playing or loud chatter, no arguments and absolutely no discussion of religion or politics. Ninon kept things light and easy with an emphasis on music and art. She permitted no drunkards, and shunned alcohol herself.
She wasn't a snob either. At first her salon was all male, but later in her life, woman began attending. Although she was shunned by most respectable women, Ninon became friends with Francoise Scarron when as a young wife, she attended Ninon's salon's with her husband the poet Paul Scarron. The women were so close that after her husband's death, Francoise moved in with Ninon, leading to rumors that the two women were lovers.
Ninon was also known for her wit, in an age of prized wit. When her opinions on organzied religion landed her in hot water, and into a religious house on Anne of Austria's orders, Ninon sweetly suggested, "The Monastery of the Grand Cordeliers?" This monastery as all of Paris knew was notorious for it's debaucheries. On another occasion, one of her lovers refused to go on a business trip unless Ninon signed a contract vowing of fidelity while he was gone. Although she signed it, as soon as he was gone, she took up with a series of new lovers, declaring "Oh that little guarantee that I signed?"
While she was imprisoned by Anne of Austria, Ninon took the time to write a little book called the "Vengeance of the Coquette" which she secreted in her underwear. She was finally released after her friend, Queen Christina of Sweden convinced Cardinal Mazarin to release her.
When Ninon entered her forties, she decided to retire from being a courtesan. Instead, she opened an academy where she taught the arts of love to the sons of the aristocrazy, with a special emphasis on pleasing women. Her curriculum apparently included the care and handling of a mistress or a wife, the correct approach to wooing, and ways to end an affair. Ninon's school was an immediate success. Although no formal record was kept of her classes, many of the things she said were remembered and then widely repeated by her pupils.
Among them: "Talk to your woman continually about herself and seldom about yourself"
"It is all very well to keep food for another day, but pleasure should be taken as it comes," and "A woman who is through with a man will give him up for anything except another woman!"
Ninon would listen to the specific problems of her pupils privately and advise and guide them. On several occasions, she took them to bed to demonstrate the act of love when verbal instruction just wouldn't do. Many women of the nobility were jealous of the instruction the men received and wanted instruction of their own. While she wouldn't conduct classes for them, she did help them privately. When one young woman wanted to know how big a woman's breasts should be to please a man, Ninon replied "Large enough to fill an honest man's hand."
There is a story that Ninon had a son who was raised by his father, and did not know who his mother was. The son was introduced to Ninon and fell in love with her, unaware of her identity. When Ninon revealed the truth, he committed suicide, since their love could not be consummated.
Ninon lived to be 85. Although she no longer went by her nickname, preferring Mademoiselle L'Enclos, she still had lovers up until the very end. In her later years, she became enamored of her lawyer, Franois Arouet's son, also named Francois who later went by the name Voltaire. In her will she left 2,000 livres for him to buy books. Ninon regretted nothing in her life except aging. "Old age is a woman's hell," she said. On her deathbed, she composed this final verse:
I put your consolations by,
And care not for the hopes you give:
Since I'm old enough to die,
Why should I longer wish to live?
After her death, she was eulogized as a sex icon, the subject of numerous plays, books, and myths.