Courtesan of the 17th Century – known for her salons and for the continuance of her beauty even into her 90th year.
We should take care to lay in a stock of provisions, but not of pleasures: these should be gathered day by day.1
Anne de l’Enclos was born in Paris in 1620. The exact state of her parents is unknown - reports vary as to whether her father was a lowly teacher of the lute, or a gentleman who enjoyed playing the instrument as a hobby. Her mother is generally considered to have been of a well thought of family, but certainly her daughter had no claim to noble birth.
Ninon, as she was always known, had an unusual upbringing. Her mother was religious, and intended that Ninon should enter a convent. Her father, on the other hand, embraced the Epicurean philosophy – which holds, roughly, that life is intended for the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Ninon adopted her father’s view of life, and scorned the religious leanings of her mother. In church, she could be found reading romances and rather salacious poetry instead of religious works.
By the age of twelve, Ninon had become a valued member of her father’s set, generally young men of advanced ideas who tutored her in various intellectual pursuits. She was generally considered to be a beauty:
Ninon’s form was as symmetrical, elegant and yielding as a willow; her complexion of a dazzling white, with large sparkling eyes as black as midnight, and in which reigned modesty and love, and reason and voluptuousness. Her teeth were like pearls, her mouth mobile and her smile most captivating, resistless and adorable.2
Love never dies of starvation, but often of indigestion.
As the adored idol of so many young men, it could not be long before Ninon fell in love. While it has been suggested that Cardinal Richelieu was first intimate with her, this is not certain, and if true, was almost certainly not an affair of the heart. Ninon’s first love, when she was around 16 years of age, was the Count de Coligny, and though she first assumed that such a passion was forever, she rapidly fell out of love. She then reached the conclusion that love, like other forms of pleasure, was merely another desire, rather than a lifelong bonding of souls.
Choosing the company of men, with whom she identified more readily than with women, who she perceived as sentimental, Ninon de l’Enclos rapidly became the centre of a society of the most intellectual and accomplished men of her day. Her salons were in a house in the Rue de Tournelles, and to be a member of the so called “Birds of the Tournelles” required both rank and merit. Ninon’s lovers amongst her coterie were many, though each liaison was apparently monogamous while it lasted.
A brief pause in Mademoiselle de l’Enclos’ ruling over her famed salons occurred upon the illness of her mother. Ninon suspended her pleasure seeking in order to nurse her parent – her father being away at the time fighting in one of France’s various conflicts. On her mother’s death, Ninon entered a Parisian convent in remorse and grief, however, the pleading of her friends (and probably boredom) soon brought her back to the world she had briefly abandoned. Her father also died some while afterwards – but he only urged her to take more pleasure from life.
Attempts were made by others to infiltrate Ninon’s salons, to have them disbanded, or to set up rival factions. Few could offer such attractions as hers, and other salons, it is recorded, were far from displaying the intellectual and hedonistic delights of the Rue de Tournelles. Jealous rivals prevailed upon the Queen Regent, Anne of Austria, to have Ninon confined to her choice of convent. Ninon chose a Parisian monastery notorious for not adhering to their vows of chastity, and the queen’s amusement and the intercessions of Ninon’s friends avoided her incarceration.
Ninon was devoted to her friends - amongst which circle all of her many ex-lovers could be counted. She seldom appeared at court – though her lack of noble status may have had much to do with this omission. Her friends were in general as devoted to her as she to them – when she fled Paris at a time of dangerous intrigue and plots, she sought and was granted refuge with the Marquis de Villarceaux for three years (incidentally ousting from his attentions his wife and mistress).
Much more genius is needed to make love than to command armies.
Ninon gave birth to two children, both to different fathers. She never married – as she scorned the married state as less than ideal – but fortunately both the fathers of her sons were happy not only to acknowledge them, but to take on their rearing. Indeed, there was some doubt as to the parentage of her first son, and the two rivals for the honour were both eager to claim the child as their own (the matter was settled by tossing dice). This first son became the Chevalier de la Bossière, and lived a fairly long and successful life.
The second son born to Ninon de l’Enclos was the child of the Chevalier de Guersay, and the pair’s son was raised by his father, who exacted a promise from Ninon never to reveal to the child that she was his mother. As the young Chevalier de Villiers came of age, he was naturally admitted into his mother’s closest circle. Perhaps inevitably, he fell in love with Ninon, who was still considered to be a very beautiful, charming woman. Ninon was of course resolute in repulsing his advances, but when no arguments of her age or her indifference could quiet him, she asked his father to release her from her promise, and allow her to tell her son who she was:
“Stop, this horrible love shall not reach beyond the most sacred duties. Stop, I tell you, monster that you are, and shudder with dismay. Can love flourish where horror fills the soul? Do you know who you are and who I am? The lover you are pursuing is your mother”
The Chevalier, Ninon’s son, committed suicide immediately after.
At this stage, Ninon de l’Enclos was sixty-five years old. Her salons became open to women as well as men, and report has it that she remained a beauty. She was courted at least past the age of eighty. She remained at the centre of intellectual Paris – and encouraged a very young Voltaire in his work. She left him some 2000 livres at her death in 1706. She had reached the age of ninety.
The joy of the mind is the measure of its strength.
The records devoted to Ninon de l‘Enclos are generally indulgent of her lifestyle. While most of my sources insist that she would never have accepted money for her sexual favours, some state that on the contrary – it was this income that maintained her in the Rue de Tournelles. She was not above breaking up marriages or families, as her relationships with married men and with sons of rivals attest to. So long since her life, it is impossible to know the drives of this woman – whether she truly had the noble ideals illustrated by my main source, or whether she was simply another grasping courtesan.
The stories of Ninon de l’Enclos’ beauty, too, seem odd today. The concept that a woman of 65 should be as attractive as when she was twenty seems very strange to our minds. BlakJak points out that in the 17th century, a woman’s beauty relied more on her style, her poise and wit, “…rather than on smooth skin and a firm butt”. The standards of beauty we must accept as having been different, still, Ninon de l’Enclos seems to have retained a startling level of beauty even for her times.
1 - Emphasised quotes from Ninon de l’Enclos at http://jdanielsmith.org/home/quotes.htm
2 - Majority of research and block quotations from Aaron Elliott at http://aelliott.com/reading/ninon/life/index.htm