Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2020 Issue

Antoine Bret, or the Dream Life of Ninon de Lenclos

A02eca41-bb2d-42b1-a244-405a14853449

Ninon de Lenclos

Ninon de Lenclos (1616-1706) represents the French liberated woman and the feminine “bel esprit”. She was a free thinker, and very modern in the way she lived her love and sex life and attracted renowned thinkers of her time. I recently came across a small book about her that was put together by Antoine Bret (1717-1792) in 1751: Mémoires et Lettres pour servir à l’Histoire de la Vie de Mademoiselle de L’Enclos (Rotterdam)*. A fascinating read.

 

 

We’ve already discussed Ninon’s life in a previous article, when reviewing the forged collection of letters that she allegedly exchanged with Madame de Sévigné’s son. But this book (Amsterdam, 1751) gives a true portrait of Ninon. The author, Antoine Bret, dedicates his work to one Eugénie, prophesizing: “In a distant future, Ninon’s merit will be less underlined than her weaknesses. Young people will see her as a “precious woman”, women as a woman of loose morals, and people from high society as a character embellished by enthusiasm and partiality. But you, dear Eugénie, who judges no one harshly but yourself (...), you won’t be surprised to find out that her superior understanding, her eternal beauty and her exquisite character were admired by all.” I excitedly opened L’Abbé de Feller’s Dictionnaire Historique (Liège, 1792). I was impatient to read what this man, who judged everyone harshly, had written about this woman. I was not disappointed. “She didn’t want to sell her charms too openly, and thus she practiced a sort of decent “libertinage”. As corrupted minds always welcome the mask of virtue that covers the true face of vice, her house became the meeting place of the finest courtesans of the time.” She lived in a small house, Rue des Tournelles, in Paris. An orphan from age 15, she invested her money and lived on her interest all her life. Thus she remained independent. She was very close to the burlesque writer, Scarron, and his young wife, Madame de Maintenon (who later married Louis XIV). “There were times when both women had but a single bed to share for months,” Bret writes.

 

Bret also explains that she had “the nicest legs in the world, an admirable body and a gorgeous breast. She was beautiful upon examination rather than at first sight.” But there was something irresistible about her: “When she spoke, her pronunciation and her voice were filled with voluptuousness. Even her breathing awoke desire.” As a matter of fact, she seduced men like La Rochefoucault, Prince de Condé, Coligny, or Marquis de la Châtre—and they were not attracted to her body only: “Scarron asked her about his novels, Molière about his comedies and Fontenelle about his dialogues,” L’Abbé Feller admits. But—how come, Mr Feller? “The philosophers and ‘beaux esprits’ are so weak that they are flattered by the judgement of a mere courtesan whom they appoint judge of their works and talent.” All right!

 

According to Bret, Ninon de l’Enclos always refused money from her lovers. Seducing was apparently her main concern and she did it as long as she could. L’Abbé Geodyon was 29 when he met her—and she was 79. He had to wait several months before he could get what he wanted. Then one fine day of May, “it was getting hot, and Geodoyn found her lying on her couch; he jumped at her feet and begged her, in the name of love, to give him what she had promised. She gladly complied.” He then wondered: why did she keep him waiting for so long? She replied: “I apologize, it was as hard for me as it was for you; I just wanted to wait until I turned 80—which happened yesterday evening.” In French, we say: c’est dans les vieux pots que l’on fait la meilleure soupe.**

 

There’s a dark part to her life as well. Her dissolute life caused her first son to commit suicide. She took care of him and invited him to spend a lot of time in her house outside Paris but she never told him that she was her mother—when he turned 19, he fell in love with her, and tried to kiss her. She had no choice but to tell him the truth. “He went straight to the nearby wood, and killed himself with his sword,” Bret writes. Two men later claimed to be the father of Ninon’s next son. “After several years of dispute,” Bret resumes, “they played dice to decide who was the father. The Count d’Estrées won.” Place you bets!

 

This rambling portrait is made of various anecdotes, souvenirs, odes and descriptions—it is very entertaining. We learn that Ninon didn’t like men with big hands or a big belly. “She thought it was hideous.” She also thought that wrinkles would have been more convenient should they be located on our heels rather than on our faces, etc. The book closes on a collection of letters she wrote to St. Evremond, “who never was her lover”. As Feller puts it, “they are some sort of notes written without pretension.” As a matter of fact, the forged letters later published by Crébillon Fils are far more interesting. Sometimes, fiction is stronger than truth. And in Ninon’s life, this is rare enough to be mentioned.

 

 

T.E

 

* The first edition came out the same year in Amsterdam (Rollin Fils and Bauche Fils). Our edition is a pirate one that came out in Rotterdam. It is a small in-12 volume (title page, 1 page, 212 pages).

 

** Editors note: In English. “the best soup is made in old pots.”


Posted On: 2020-12-01 05:09
User Name: mairin

Interesting and enjoyable information, Thibault. Ninon de Lenclos is an attractive subject, am inspired to know more, especially any London connections (e.g., women at the Stuart court and English women writers of her time). The Wikipedia page on Ninon is quite detailed, hoping you'll supply some edits & updates. I'll look for Ninon in my copies of Gramont's memoirs, also d'Aulnoy's. Her role as a patroness, another angle to investigate. Thank you for introducing many of us to Ninon, and for including the handsome portrait (an engraved frontis., evidently).
- Maureen E. Mulvihill, Collector & RBH Guest Writer.


Posted On: 2020-12-02 06:35
User Name: EHRENGARDT

Thanks for your kind words and your remarks, Maureen. There's indeed much more than this article about Ninon de Lenclos, whose life keeps on fascinating a lot of people today! Your links are very interesting.
T. Ehrengardt


Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 20.<br>Mrs S. C. Belnos.</b> <i>The Sundhya or the Daily Prayers of the Brahmins,</i> 1st edition, 1851. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 20.<br>Sir Harry Darell.</b> <i>China, India, Cape of Good Hope and Vicinity,</i> 1st edition, 1852. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 20.<br><i>Scots Magazine,</i></b> 61 volumes, 1739-1800. With important maps of North America. £1,500 to £2,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 21.<br>Ian Fleming.</b> <i>Casino Royale,</i> 1st edition, 1953. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 21.<br>Virginia Woolf.</b> <i>Really and Truly,</i> 1915. Autograph confessions book. £4,000 to £6,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 21.<br>Evelyn Waugh.</b> <i>Vile Bodies,</i> 1st edition, 1930. £3,000 to £4,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 21.<br>J. R. R. Tolkien.</b> Autograph letter signed on Old English, with corrected typescript. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 21.<br>Lewis Carroll.</b> <i>The Hunting of the Snark,</i> 1st edition, 1876. Presentation copy. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 21.<br>Essex House Press.</b> <i>Poems of William Shakespeare,</i> 1899. One of 450 copies. £1,000 to £1,500.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 21.<br>Lafcadio Hearn.</b> <i>A Japanese Miscellany,</i> 1st edition, 1901. Presentation copy. £1,000 to £1,500.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 21.<br>Jules Verne.</b> <i>Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas,</i> 1st UK edition, 1873. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers, Jan 21.<br>Charles Dickens.</b> <i>The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit,</i> 1st edition, 1844. Original cloth binding. £800 to £1,200.
  • <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>January Auction<br>January 23, 2021</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> AUDUBON, John James. <i>Carolina Parrot, Plate 26.</i> London: Robert Havell, 1827-1838. $125,000 to $175,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> AUDUBON, John James. <i>Fish Hawk or Osprey, Plate 81.</i> London: Robert Havell, 1827-1838. $145,000 to $175,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> AUDUBON, John James. <i>Brown Pelican, Plate 421.</i> London: Robert Havell, 1827-1838. $75,000 to $100,000.
    <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>January Auction<br>January 23, 2021</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> DE BRY, Johann Theodore, attributed to. Pair of Watercolor studies of Tulips. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> FUERTES, Louis Agassiz. <i>Alaskan Brown Bear.</i> Watercolor and gouache on board. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> HILL, Thomas. <i>Big Trees.</i> Oil on canvas. c. 1903. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>January Auction<br>January 23, 2021</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> GOULD, John. <i>A Monograph of the Macropodidae or Family of Kangaroos.</i> London: by the author, August 1st 1841-May 1st 1842. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> GOULD, John. <i>A Monograph of the Odontophorinae, or Partridges of America.</i> London: Richard and John E. Taylor for the Author, [1844]-1850. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> JANSSONIUS, Joannes. <i>Atlantis majoris quinta pars, orbem maritimum seu omnium marium…</i> Amsterdam: Joannes Janssonius, 1652. $50,000 to $80,000.
    <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>January Auction<br>January 23, 2021</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> DONCKER, Hendrik. <i>De Zee-Atlas ofte Water-Waereld, vertoonende alle de Zee-Kusten van het bekende deel des Aerd-Bodems.</i> Amsterdam: Henrick Doncker, [1658-1665]. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> BURR, David. <i>Map of the City and County of New York with the Adjacent Country.</i> Engraved map with original hand color. Ithaca, NY: Stone & Clark, 1839. $9,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Jan. 23:</b> CURRIER, Nathaniel and IVES, James Merritt. <i>The City of New York.</i> Lithograph with original hand color. New York: Currier & Ives, 1884. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jan 28:</b> Joseph F. Kernan, <i>College Football,</i> oil on canvas, <i>The Saturday Evening Post</i> cover, 1932. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jan 28:</b> Joseph C. Leyendecker, <i>Golfer Lighting a Cigarette,</i> oil on canvas, c.1920. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jan 28:</b> Howard Chandler Christy, <i>In the Field,</i> charcoal & watercolor, published in <i>Scribner’s,</i> 1902. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jan 28:</b> N.C. Wyeth, <i>Standish Reading,</i> pen & ink, for <i>The Courtship of Miles Standish,</i> 1920. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jan 28:</b> Johnanna Stewart Mapes, <i>A Fairy Book,</i> conté crayon, for <i>St. Nicholas Magazine,</i> 1907. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jan 28:</b> Arnold Lobel, pen & ink, for <i>The Frog & Toad Coloring Book,</i> 1981. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jan 28:</b> Antonio Lopez, <i>Today’s Fashions,</i> study for <i>The New York Times,</i> 1981. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jan 28:</b> Charles Schulz, <i>“I’ll have to go back to the house…I forgot my rubbers…”</i> pen & ink, original 4-panel <i>Peanuts comic,</i> 1960. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Jan 28:</b> Constantin Alajalov, <i>Family Tree,</i> watercolor and gouache, cover for <i>The New Yorker,</i> 1938. Estimate $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <center><b>Il Ponte Casa d'Aste<br>Books and Manuscripts<br>26 January 2021</b>
    <center><b>Il Ponte Casa d'Aste<br>Books and Manuscripts<br>26 January 2021</b>
    <center><b>Il Ponte Casa d'Aste<br>Books and Manuscripts<br>26 January 2021</b>

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions