Today I am celebrating the birthday of Ninon de l’Enclos, a courtesan, freethinker and patron of the arts who was born in Paris in 1620. Her mother was a devout Catholic, but her father, a professional musician, was much more of a free spirit. He taught her to play the lute and the clavichord and took her with him around the salons of Paris. In 1632, he was exiled from France following a duel over another man’s wife. Ninon identified much more with her father, so she must have found life difficult with her fanatical mother. She did not see that her mother’s religion brought her happiness and began to believe that it was all nonsense. She also resolved never to marry. To this end, she allowed herself to be ‘ruined’ by a cousin of the king, to make sure her mother couldn’t marry her off. Her mother put her in a convent.
Having sworn not to marry, Ninon had three choices, she could join the Church, become a governess or become a courtesan. The Church was definitely out as she didn’t believe in God. She left the convent less that a year later, when her mother died. Governess would have been boring. She was soon back in the salons again and well on her way to becoming one of Paris’s most celebrated courtesans. The Salons of Paris were places where people who were interested in literature and philosophy gathered together to amuse one another and exchange ideas.
Ninon was also famous for being beautiful and for retaining her beauty far into old age. In fact, some believed that when she was eighteen, she was visited by a mysterious white haired old man who is known only as the Noctambule (the sleepwalker). He told her that he had come to bestow on her one of three gifts. She must choose which she wanted: Riches, glory or eternal beauty. He told her that he had wandered the earth for six thousand years and had only made this offer to four other people: Semiramis, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and Diane de Poitiers. Ninon was the fifth and last person he would ask. She chose beauty and he asked her to write her name on a black tablet. In return for this gift, he would visit her once more, three days before her death and she must give him her soul. Good story, but it was probably made up by a drunken priest who was a bit obsessed with her.
Although she had a succession of wealthy lovers, she was never supported by any of them. Her independence was important to her. Her lovers had to understand that she needed to accept paid assignations with other men. They also had to understand that they couldn’t keep her. When she said it was over, it was over. She rarely had a relationship that lasted longer that three month and she was perfectly happy with that. Her behaviour was considered a scandal amongst more devout circles of Paris, not just for her numerous affairs, but also for her non-belief in God. In 1656 she was imprisoned in the Convent of the Madelonnettes at the behest of Queen Anne of Austria, who was then regent of France. But she was visited by Queen Christine, the exiled queen of Sweden, who intervened on her behalf and she was soon released.
By 1667, she was running a salon of her own at the Hôtel de Sagonne. She offered lectures on the subject of love; both how to win love and how to properly end an affair. Men had to pay for her advice, but women, she taught for free. Her salon became a safe meeting place for people who, like herself, were sceptical about Christianity. She believed that it was possible to live a moral life without being a Christian. Philosophically, she was a neo-Epicurean which means that she felt pleasure was the most important thing in life and that pain should always be avoided. She argued that, while wealth, power, honour and virtue might contribute to our happiness, it is the enjoyment of pleasure that really drives us and we shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Christianity, she felt, was responsible for making us ashamed of pleasure and that was wrong: “They preferred the austerities of deserts and rocks to the pleasures of a garden bursting with flowers.”
For her, sex was the pinnacle of human pleasure, but in order for it be really great, men and women should treat each other with equal respect. In seventeenth century France, women were expected to be pleasant and amusing and men intellectual and commanding. She said men should be more sympathetic and amusing and women shouldn’t be afraid of being clever.
Ninon believed that love is an instinct which knows no reason. It is an amoral passion that will die if you try to refine it with moral codes like chivalry. She has this to say about it:
“If you attempt to walk in the footsteps of our ancient heroes of the romances and attempt to develop great and restrained sentiments, you will soon discover that this alleged heroism only turns love into a sad and occasionally lethal folly. Love in fact is fanaticism. If you separate it from the romantic baggage public opinion has added to it, it will soon give you its proper sort of pleasure and happiness. Trust me: If it were reason that designed the affairs of the heart, love would be insipid.”
When people thought that is was terribly immoral of her to be always falling in love with someone new, her reply was that love should not be the subject of either praise or blame. It would be the same as deciding whether being thirsty was a good or a bad thing.
She lived a long and happy life and died when she was eighty-five. In her will she left money to the nine-year-old son of her accountant to buy books. He grew up to be the famous writer, historian and philosopher, Voltaire. Want to know if the Noctambule came back for her like he promised? He did but, as she did not believe in God, she had no soul to give him and he had to go away empty handed.