Antoine Bret, or the Dream Life of Ninon de Lenclos
- by Thibault Ehrengardt
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.
* 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.”