Lenclos, Ninon de (1623–1705)
Lenclos, Ninon de (1623–1705)
Perhaps the most famous of French 17th-century courtesans, who enticed clients and lovers with an irresistible mixture of wit, charm and intellect, struggling throughout to gain financial independence and overcome the social stigmatism attached to her nonconformist lifestyle. Name variations: true first name "Anne" but usually called "Ninon"; last name sometimes given as "L'Enclos" or "Lanclos," the historically correct spelling. Pronunciation: nee-NÕ duh lã-KLO. Born Anne de Lanclos on January 9, 1623, in Paris, France (some sources erroneously cite November 11, 1620); died in Paris on October 17, 1705; daughter of Henri de Lanclos (a minor nobleman) and Marie-Barbe de la Marche; given some education at home by her father, but largely self-taught; never married; children: (with Louis de Mornay, marquis de Villarceaux) a son, Louis de Mornay (1652–1730), later chevalier de La Boissière.
Forced by unfortunate circumstances into prostitution, moved from lover to lover until late in life, slowly attaining a degree of social acceptance, thanks to a reputable intellect and the ability to maneuver adroitly within the bounds of permissible behavior; voluntarily entered into convents (1643 and 1648); forcibly committed into a refuge-home for "fallen women" (1656); always emerged from these socially cleansing retreats with a slightly increased degree of respectability; attained complete financial independence (1670s); hosted a small but well-known salon during the last decades of her life, entertaining both the high Parisian nobility and respected men of letters.
Late at night in the modest Paris apartment of a pretty young girl who was resting in her bed-chamber, a small man clad all in black entered unexpectedly, waking the sleeper. The nocturnal visitor's eyes were fiery, his face spiritual, and he introduced himself as one who had power over the fate of men. Indeed, he had come to hear the girl's wishes for her own destiny, offering her either supreme greatness, vast riches, or eternal beauty. The 18-year-old brunette chose the latter, but had to pledge secrecy and sign the man's old black book with its crimson pages. Noctambule, for so he called himself, then gave her the power to charm any man, a power he had in 6,000 years only accorded four other women—Semiramis (Sammuramat ), Helen, Cleopatra (VII) , and Diane de Poitiers . "You will always be young and fresh," he promised. "Never will your lovers leave you first. You will not age. You will excite passion at an age in which other women are surrounded only by the horrors of decrepitude." Three days before her death, Noctambule returned. Drawing back the bed-curtains, he produced the leather-bound volume with her signature on its blood-red pages. Stricken with terror, Ninon de Lenclos cried out in mortal anguish, realizing she had sold herself to none other than Lucifer himself…. Or so one of any number of leg ends embellishing the famous courtesan's life goes. In fact, one of the prime challenges in reconstructing her life is the separation of fact from fiction. Who, then, was this remarkable woman who engendered such a fascinating but enigmatic legacy?
The mystery begins with Ninon's birth. The parish register of Saint-Jean-en-Grève in Paris, France, documents the baptism of one Anne de Lanclos on November 11, 1620, the date of birth given by most older biographies. Her most recent scholarly biographer, however, plausibly argues that the girl born in 1620 was most surely an older sister who died in infancy, and establishes Ninon's correct date of birth as January 9, 1623. All in all, very little is known about her family background, and much has been distorted by tendentious and unscholarly early biographers. Ninon's father, a talented but impoverished lute-player of dubious noble extraction—he styled himself "squire"—was Henri de Lanclos, seigneur de la Douardière; her mother one Marie-Barbe de la Marche , a distant relation of the aristocratic Abra de Raconis family. The fate of Ninon's two brothers, Charles (born 1617) and Léonor (born 1619), is shrouded in obscurity.
Despite his relatively humble origins, Henri de Lanclos had powerful and well-placed patrons, so necessary for survival in 17th-century France. These included Charles II de Lorraine, second duc d'Elbeuf (1596–1657), and Timoléon d'Epinay, marquis de Saint-Luc, governor of Brouage and vice-admiral of France (c. 1580–1644). In 1632, while he was captain of a company in the regiment of Saint-Luc, all sources consistently describe Lanclos as leading the life of a debauched and disreputable minor noble. While it seems clear that his maverick behavior influenced Ninon in the same direction, early biographers go too far in attributing to Lanclos a "philosophical" influence on his daughter. Ninon's mother was supposedly extremely pious and of limited intelligence, but this is another literary construction of the 18th century, designed to explain Ninon's free-thinking non-conformism as a function of an inner intellectual struggle brought on by the antithesis of the philosopher-father and the bigot-mother.
Henri de Lanclos' real character is revealed in a sordid episode at stark odds with his legendary intellectualism. In January 1631, he was accused in a shabby affair of adultery, in the course of which he and some hangers-on violently beat up a female witness and then assassinated Louis du Maine, baron de Chabans, whom Lanclos believed was behind an imminent guilty verdict in the case. In December 1632, he fled the law, even before the Paris courts had issued a warrant for his arrest (July 23, 1633). First hiding out with powerful patrons, he later left the country. Thereafter his exact whereabouts and future career remain obscure; perhaps he died in 1649 in the battle of La Bouille, near Rouen. Lanclos' only real positive legacy to his daughter was a love for music and a gift for lute-playing. As for his moral influence, the overtly sexual nature of Lanclos' relationships with his mistress and wife, characterized by open caresses and witnessed by young Ninon, can hardly have failed to have contributed to the formation of her own liberal attitude toward contemporary sexual mores.
After the flight of her father, Ninon continued to live with her mother in the rue des Trois Pavillons, under rather straitened circumstances, Lanclos having been a spendthrift who apparently left them penniless. To help make ends meet, her mother sent Ninon out to play the lute for money in the fashionable and aristocratic Marais quarter of Paris. By virtue of her intelligence, wit and social graces—Ninon sang and danced well, played the clavecin, guitar and theorbo, too—she was accepted into the good social circles of the Marais, and soon frequented local salons. This formative experience was significant, for it taught Ninon proper behavior in polite society—the savoir-faire necessary for the success of her future career.
Ninon's first lover—not client—was the impoverished but seductive Charles-Claude de Beaumont, vicomte de Chaumusy, sieur de Saint-Etienne. Believing Saint-Etienne might marry Ninon, her mother granted him broad liberties with the young girl. Regrettably, all matrimonial hopes came to nought: Ninon and her mother had gambled heavily and lost. For the relationship with Saint-Etienne had been premarital—therefore illicit—and Ninon had lost her virginity, virtually destroying any chance for a good marriage. Indeed, in 17th-century France, roughly 90% of all girls took their matrimonial vows as virgins. Thus, Ninon's behavior, in defiance of all religious and social norms, had already marked her out as a marginal member of society.
For a short time, Ninon appears to have had an insignificant platonic affair of sentimental value with one Henri de Lancy, baron de Raray, captain of the gendarmes of Gaston d'Orléans. But by the time she was 18, family finances had deteriorated to the point that her mother felt impelled to sell the attractive girl's favors to Jean Coulon, councillor at the Paris Parlement and a neighbor in the Marais. Coulon was a Frondeur—or rebel against central authority during the minority of Louis XIV—and reputed to be very much a libertine. He was married to an equally unfaithful wife. When it had become apparent that he had taken an interest in Ninon, she did her best to keep the previous liaison with Saint-Etienne secret. But to no avail, for Ninon was soon found out and expelled from the polite society of honnêtes-femmes (virtuous women) she had frequented in the Marais, not to be readmitted until decades later.
The affair with Coulon was arranged in a business-like manner, and it was agreed he would keep her at a decent rate of 500 livres per month, common whores earning only 3–4 livres a meeting. The relationship lasted until 1650. So, from 1641 on, Ninon was publicly considered a courtesan. Dictionaries of the period indicate that contemporaries distinguished closely between prostituées and courtisanes. The term prostitute (and its derogatory variant putain, or whore) designated the lowest class of woman who sold her body for profit, and was universally defined in negative moral and social terms. Conversely, courtisane denoted a "kept woman who makes her living by making love," and was even considered somewhat respectable. Most important, courtesans were largely tolerated and unmolested by the law.
The misfortunes of her youth … had made her a courtesan. The need for affection, attraction of pleasures, and taste for liberty had determined her to move from man to man. By sleeping with her clients and favorites, she sought her profit or her pleasure…. Her aim was … to escape the destiny of vulgar prostitutes.
During her association with Coulon, Ninon soon added another paying lover-protector, François-Jacques comte d'Aubijoux (died 1656). Aubijoux, like Coulon an opponent of Cardinal Richelieu's absolutist policies, had been wounded in the rebellious army of Montmorency (1632) and was a key figure in the plot of Cinq-Mars (1642). Forced to flee France after the plot's failure, Aubijoux returned to Paris in 1643, after the Cardinal's death. Ninon's liaison with Aubijoux was significant because it improved somewhat her social acceptance in higher society. He was of an ancient and prestigious family, a seigneur with 40,000 livres per annum income, and, by 1645, king's lieutenant in Languedoc and governor of Montpellier. The relationship also improved her finances, for Ninon now disposed of a combined annual income, from Coulon and Aubijoux, of some 12,000 livres. By comparison, when the president of the Paris Parlement separated from his wife, he provided her with an annual allotment of 15,000; the famous playwright Pierre Corneille was given a pension of 2,000 livres per annum by the king, and Jean Racine only 600. By all standards, therefore, Ninon was quite comfortably well off. Notwithstanding, having two paying lovers was a clear indication of her status as a professional courtesan.
Coulon and Aubijoux were attractive and self-confident men in the prime of manhood, accustomed to spending money on the good things in life. Like many another epicurean noble, they took pleasure in fine horses, fashionable attire, an excellent cook—and the caresses of women such as Ninon, which they unabashedly enjoyed. But in the end they were clients, and as such failed to satisfy Ninon's personal desires. One year into her relationship with Coulon, she met her first real love, Gaspard de Coligny, duc de Châtillon. Coligny was bisexual and the young lover of Louis II de Bourbon, duc d'Enghien (1621–1686, later the Great Condé) during the middle 1640s. Again transgressing the accepted moral code, Ninon took the initiative in this short, and apparently rather carnal, affair, but was soon jilted. The experience prompted her resolve to be the first to terminate all love affairs in the future. Coligny was followed by César Phoebus, comte de Miossens (1614–1676, maréchal d'Albret by 1653), said to be a particularly virile lover. Louis II de Bourbon, prince de Condé and victor of Nördlingen and Rocroi (1643–45), succeeded Miossens but failed to match his reputation in the alcove with that on the battlefield.
Ninon's mother died in the spring of 1643. Bereft of all family support, Ninon decided to enter a convent for a time, as a form of social rehabilitation and to augment her status vis-à-vis future clients. Taking such a step was not unknown among famous courtesans of the day. By 1644, Ninon had returned from seclusion, adroitly benefiting from her stratagem. Some sources contend that she had a relationship with the archbishop, Alphonse-Louis du Plessis de Richelieu (died 1653, brother of the famous cardinal), while at the convent. Though this appears dubious, he did visit Ninon frequently, indicating her social acceptability. She was also presented with a house worth 8,000 écus, by one Marc-Antoine Perrachon, future councillor and secretary of the king (1653). Ninon did not accord Perrachon any favors, it is said, and returned the gift once the donor became obtrusive. This was a significant act, because through it she had declared her personal independence. Indeed, according to Duchêne it was "the point of departure of a new life. Henceforth, she was a free woman, disposing of herself as she saw fit." At least, one should add, from a point of view of moral volition, and as long as she had enough paying lovers to choose from to assure a comfortable existence. For without a dowry and with her personal history, marriage to a suitable husband was hardly feasible.
In 1648, she traveled to Lyons for reasons unknown. Some authors have speculated that she sought treatment for a venereal disease, another version has it that she was pursuing a lover. Most probably, she was fleeing the capital troubled by the Frondist insurrection. Returning to Paris the following year, from about the age of 25 on she could not be bought; she would choose whom she liked and accept their favors, and long was to be the list of men whose advances she rejected—her "martyrs." Meanwhile, Paul Scarron, the famous poet and dramatist, was the first to publicly acclaim Ninon and her charms—both physical and intellectual—in his Recueil de quelques vers burlesques, published in 1648:
Oh beautiful and charming Ninon,
To whom no-one will ever reply "No,"
Such is the authority
Acquired in all places by a young woman
When, along with wit, she possesses beauty …
Ninon proceeded to benefit from the relatively relaxed morals characteristic of French society during the early Regency of Anne of Austria (1601–1666). Ninon took a new lover for a time, Pierre marquis de Villars-Orondate (1619–1698), later ambassador to Spain (1659) and known for his martial prowess; and she set up a reserve client-paymaster—Coulon and Aubijoux were still keeping her—one Léon Fourreau, on whose purse she drew heavily. Sometime before 1650, Ninon accosted Philippe de Montaut-Bénac, duc de Montaut, known as the duc de Navailles (1619–1684), whom she invited to her couch simply because he appealed to her—again reversing the usual gender roles. Through her psychologically refined coquettish behavior, she had perfected the art of attaining moral domination over the men with whom she had intercourse—clients, "martyrs," and favorites. It was she who decided the moment and nature of the encounter, always reinforcing her status of high-class courtesan, as against common prostitute.
By 1650, Ninon had managed her income well enough that she was almost capable of doing without any clients at all; the pressure of necessity was much reduced, and she had nearly attained her goal of complete financial independence. June of the year found her moved from the rue des Trois-Pavillons, where she had lived with her mother, to the rue des Douze-Portes, next to the Temple in the faubourg de Saint-Germain. The year also marked the crossing of a significant threshold of social acceptance, for most of her contemporaries seem to have believed that she had completely forsaken the outright sale of her favors.
During the early 1650s, Ninon indulged in a number of "caprices," a succession of lovers she took for her own pleasure and amusement: Henri de Sévigne (1623–1651), husband of the famous Marie de Sévigné ; Antoine de Rambouillet, marquis de La Sablière (1624–1680), husband of Marguerite de La Sablière ; and Henri-François, marquis de Vassé. She also narrowly escaped being locked up by the authorities, for early in 1651 the queen-mother, Anne of Austria, threatened her with forced entry into the convent. While the exact circumstances of this episode are not exactly known, Ninon the religious skeptic had probably gone too far with her nonconformist behavior during the period of the fast, or perhaps her earlier alliances with a number of Frondeurs had rankled. In any case, the threat was never realized, and any number of anecdotes—such as that of Saint-Simon—exist to adorn her supposed interview with Anne. The famous memorialist of court life under Louis XIV wrote that the queen-mother, finally exasperated with Ninon's blatant behavior, sent off a lettre de cachet commanding her to enter a convent, but without specifying a certain religious order. Upon receipt of the royal warrant, Ninon impudently informed the bearer which convent she preferred, and in which town; the queen, impressed with this show of spirit, withdrew her letter, leaving Ninon in peace.
From 1651 to 1656, Ninon was the mistress of Louis de Mornay, marquis de Villarceaux, an aristocrat not only exceedingly rich and a holder of many offices, but also high in favor at court. He was to be her last "paymaster." Villarceaux was 33 when the relationship began; it was to become the only real love match of her life. During this period, Ninon often left Paris and lived at the country château, near Meulan, of a rich friend of the marquis, one Charles de Valliquierville. It was there she secretly gave birth, sometime in July–August of 1652, to their son, Louis de Mornay, later chevalier de La Boissière. (He would become a naval officer and die on July 14, 1730, in Toulon.) The matter was delicate, for Villarceaux was married and could hardly recognize the boy at the time—though he would do so by officially registering him with the Parlement de Paris on November 29, 1690, a year before his death and long after the break with Ninon.
In the autumn of 1652, having restored her beauty, Ninon returned to Paris, where she reportedly received an invitation from the president of the Parlement of Paris to play the lute for him and his wife—a sign of social acceptance. At first, it seems Ninon lived with Villarceaux in the town house of the latter's friend, one Boisrobert, but on January 10, 1654, she moved to the rue de Richelieu, renting a house for 500 livres per annum. Ninon had become quite accepted and even fashionable in Paris, having been the subject of at least one collection of flattering poems. Nonetheless, she still had to take care not to cross the bounds of propriety and cause another scandal. Another pregnancy followed, and during the summer of 1654, Ninon again left the city to deliver Villarceaux's second child, who did not live. In June of the following year, she assured the financial future of her surviving son with an endowment; Villarceaux would prudently do the same in 1657, using Valliquierville as an intermediary.
By 1654—Ninon was now 31—it appeared the young woman who had in desperation offered to sell her charms 13 years earlier, and been expelled from the good circles of the Marais, had come a long way socially. Duchêne described her situation:
She is rich enough to offer herself, should she so desire, to a lover of her choice. She is intelligent and no one is bored in her company. She can play the lute exceedingly well. She can converse. She can even discuss Herodotus, Plato or Epicurus. She is an expert on moral discourse. Yet, be that as it may, she is still a courtesan whom ladies of rank refuse to meet.
The "constance" of her relationship with Villarceaux was not applauded by the circle of libertines around Ninon; her close friend, Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis, seigneur de Saint-Evremond (c. 1614–1703), even noted that the brilliance of her eyes and mouth was always in direct proportion to the number of her lovers. Indeed, the sensuous Ninon could not be satisfied by one man for long. So, in 1655, surrounded by a circle of young, admiring seigneurs, she took up with Miossens again, provoking a mad fit of jealousy in Villarceaux. And by March of 1656, royal patience with Ninon's behavior had also run out. She had finally lost in the double game of libertinage and trying to keep up appearances. As a public disgrace to morality, she was committed to the Madelonnettes on order of the queen-mother, who was scandalized by Ninon's candid impiety and licentiousness, all within sight of the Louvre.
Prostitution, the major cause of which appears to have been female unemployment, was at that time widespread in Paris and the provinces, and it is well known that many Versailles aristocrats frequented the capital's whores. Theoretically prohibited by law as early as 1560 due both to the spread of syphilis and a general concern for health and hygiene, it was still widely tolerated. Indeed, by 1780 the bourgeois annalist Louis-Sébastien Mercier was to count 30,000 common whores and 10,000 luxury prostitutes in Paris alone. Nonetheless, legislation became increasingly repressive during the reign of Louis XIV, prostitutes being treated as just one category of deviant within the overall scheme of social control typical of the ancien régime. Significantly, execution of the applicable decrees was entrusted to the lieutenant general of police in Paris. On rare occasions deported to the colonies, prostitutes in most cases were committed to one of a whole array of more or less penal institutions designed to reform their lifestyles.
The Madelonnettes, on the rue des Fontaines, to the north of the Marais, was such an institution. Having Ninon committed there meant treating her like a simple prostitute and demanding penitence. Fortunately, after but a short stay under the nuns' austere regime, Ninon's friends at court—the opposition to the moralizing party of the so-called dévots—obtained her transfer to a convent at Lagny, where conditions were somewhat less harsh. Situated on the Marne, 30 kilometers from Paris, Lagny was an ancient abbey founded in 644 by the Benedictine order, which had belonged since 1641 to the order of Saint Maurice. Little is known of the life Ninon led there, except that she was soon granted permission to receive visitors, the most famous of whom was Queen Christina of Sweden , who made it a point during her stay in Paris to seek out the famous courtesan.
Ninon's fidelity during the Fronde seems to have been in her favor, for she was released thanks to the intercession of her friends—notably the Maréchal d'Albret—and returned to Paris in the spring of 1657. Though neither penitent nor converted to the moral values of her detractors, she now understood that her situation would remain subject to scrutiny, and that she therefore would have to monitor more prudently her public behavior and speech. This was to include the faithful, if hypocritical, attendance of the mass and observation of church holidays and customs. Moving from the rue de Richelieu as a sign of her resolve to take up a new life, she took up residence at the rue des Tournelles, not far from the Place Royale, scene of her debut as a lute-player and near the home of her dear friend, the poet Scarron. Here she was to remain the rest of her life. Ninon's new home was hardly a sumptuous aristocratic town-house, but more typical of the comforts of the middling bourgeoisie, requiring the services of just four servants: a cook, kitchen help, valet, and chambermaid. Its modest size permitted only a limited number of guests, so the salon she kept was rather intimate and low-key.
At this time, much ado was made about the ostensible letters written by Christina of Sweden, urging Louis XIV to invite Ninon to Versailles, and arguing that the young king's education could only be accomplished by associating himself with a woman of like wit and intelligence. One biographer interpreted such talk as an indication of public sympathy for and renewed social acceptance of the punished courtesan. In fact, many contemporaries stressed that her moral weaknesses seem to have been forgotten in favor of her capacity to set an example of savoir-faire in her famous salon. Henceforth, she was portrayed mostly in a positive light that downplayed her early career, as a variety of popular poets and playwrights celebrated her beauty, musical talents and—more important—her intellect. Duchêne even speculates that when Madeleine de Scudéry , well-known for her irreproachable morals, included a flattering portrait of Ninon in her writings, this was because she perceived the former courtesan as a feminist ally.
During the decade from 1661 to 1671, Ninon slowly but surely gained favor in the best social circles, adopting the more dignified appellative of Mlle de Lanclos. Her respectability was enhanced by the comforts of financial security, for having astutely invested her accumulated capital in various municipal funds, during the last 30 years of life she enjoyed an annual income of some 7–8,000 livres. She took her last known lover—her last caprice, as she put it—in March 1671. The 23-year-old Charles de Sévigné (1647–1713) was none other than the son of Henri de Sévigné, a previous beau, and Ninon was three years younger than Madame de Sévigné, her lover's mother. The liaison lasted three weeks and was strongly disapproved of by Madame de Sévigné, especially due to Ninon's known religious cynicism. Indeed, she was never able to clear herself completely of a bad reputation concerning her heterodox religious views, and as late as 1696 a popular song appeared noting her irreligion.
Saint-Simon—who devoted an entire chapter of his memoirs to her "singular character"—left a vivid impression of Ninon's salon during the early 1690s, independently confirmed by the Duchesse de Montpensier (Anne Marie Louise d'Orleans Montpensier ). His portrait features "Mlle de Lanclos" entertaining with decorum the cream of court and town, with politics and religion as strictly prohibited subjects:
Everything about her was done with seemliness and that outward show of modesty, which is often lacking, even with high-born princesses…. For this reason, she numbered among her acquaintances the noblest and most fastidious men at Court, so that it became the fashion to be received at her house…. There was never any gaming, nor vulgar laughter, nor quarrelling, nor mocking at religion and politics; but much witty, polished talk of matters old and new … for the tone was always light, well-mannered, and restrained. She knew how to begin a conversation and was well able to maintain one, because she was intelligent and well-versed in the affairs of every period.
Most significantly for her personal satisfaction, and though it had taken her over five decades, during the last years of her life, Ninon overcame the ultimate social barrier: she had finally been accepted, was frequented and invited by the women of the best society.
"Sound in mind and body to the end," according to Saint-Simon, Ninon de Lenclos died at her home on October 17, 1705, after a brief illness of three days, having gone to confession previously that month. As early as 1725, Châteauneuf was to write of her: "Ninon understood early that there can be only one and the same moral code for both men and women." In effect, she had rebelled against, and attempted to put out of effect, the double standard.
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William L. Chew III , Professor of History, Vesalius College, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium