Ninon de l’Enclos is a relatively obscure figure in the English-speaking world, but is much better known in France where her name is synonymous with wit and beauty.
While this may be the case today, a generation after her death her name still lingered on the lips of Englishmen intrigued by her reputation.
Anne de Lenclos was born in Paris in 1620 and nicknamed ‘Ninon’ by her father, a fun-loving libertine who had somehow married a devoutly religious wife whose views on life couldn’t have been more at odds with his own.
Despite her mother’s best efforts to turn Ninon into a god-fearing pious woman, the young girl was determined to live a life of pleasure. To Madame de Lenclos’s horror, her daughter allowed herself to be “seduced and ruined” by the Comte de Coligny.
Monsieur de Lenclos abandoned his family when Ninon was fifteen following a duel over another man’s wife. When Madame de Lenclos died ten years later the unmarried Ninon entered a convent, only to leave the following year.
Returning to Paris, she became a popular figure in the salons, and her own drawing room became a centre for literary discussion. Women dominated French cultural life in the 17th century, leading intellectual debate. Ninon befriended and encouraged the young Molière.
But it was during this period that her life as a courtesan began. She took a series of notable and wealthy lovers, including the king’s cousin the Great Condé and François, duc de La Rochefoucauld. At one point, Cardinal Richelieu offered fifty thousand crowns for a night in her bed. She took the money and sent a friend instead.
“Ninon always had crowds of adorers but never more than one lover at a time, and when she tired of the present occupier, she said so frankly and took another,” wrote Saint-Simon.
“If anyone had proposed a life of chastity to me, I should hang myself,” Ninon is supposed to have once said.
She swam in the nude, openly talked about sex, and instead of waiting to be wooed was happy to be the pursuer, cruising the Cours la Reine each day in a sedan chair, stopping when she saw someone she liked and propositioning them.
“Love with passion but only for a few minutes,” was her motto. She had a time limit for her lovers of three months but on one occasion she did dabble in monogamy, living for three years with the Marquis de Villarceaux. They moved to his country estate but after the novelty wore off, she left him and moved back to Paris.
When he followed her in a jealous fury, she cut off all her hair and handed it to him, starting a new fashion for the ‘Ninon bob’.
Her behaviour – outrageous for a lady of the age – eventually met with the disfavour of Queen of France, who had her imprisoned in a convent. While there, Ninon spent her time writing a book called La coquette vengée (‘The Coquette Avenged’), which she is said to have hidden in her underwear.
Once released, she retired from her courtesan lifestyle and concentrated more on her literary friends, among them the great French playwright Jean Racine. But she also opened an academy where she taught the art of love to the sons of the aristocracy, 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. She would listen to the specific problems of her pupils privately, advise and guide them, and on occasions, take them to bed for physical demonstrations.
Ninon lived to be 85, ending her life as the independent woman she had always set out to be and a very wealthy one at that. After her death in 1705, she was eulogized as a sex icon and was the subject of numerous plays, books, and myths.
Her name certainly lived on in the mind of the young wealthy naturalist who travelled together with Captain James Cook aboard the Endeavour on the voyage to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus in 1769. After spending several weeks there and getting to know the natives, Joseph Banks saw a likeness in the woman the Endeavour’s men had come to know as the Queen of the Island.
This woman, whose real name was Oberea or Purea, was described by Cook in his journal as “about 40 years of age, and, like most of the other women, very masculine.” The Endeavour’s resident artist Sydney Parkinson characterized her as a “fat, bouncing, good-looking dame.”
But what intrigued Banks most was the way she treated her lover, a young man called Obadee, who he assumed was around 25 – much the same age as he was. The ‘queen’ seemed to have her own time limit for her lovers and, with Banks’ arrival, it appeared Obadee’s had expired. The naturalist was more interested in one of her attendants, however. He wrote in his diary:
“She seems to us to act in the character of a Ninon d’Enclos who satiated with her lover resolves to change him at all events, the more so as I am offered if I please to supply his place, but I am at present otherwise engaged; indeed was I free as air her majesty’s person is not the most desirable.”
Ironically for someone who was so sought after, Ninon was no beauty either. 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. And it wasn’t long before Banks too was seduced by Oberea.
The above top illustration was by the French painter Louis-Marie Lanté. The etching was by Antoine-Jean-Baptiste Coupé. The article combines biographies from Wikipedia and Elizabeth Kerri Mahon’s blog Scandalous Women.