Portrait of the courtesan: the "two bodies" of Ninon de Lenclos

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Author: David Harrison
Date: Jan. 2007
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co.KG
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,461 words

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The correspondence of Ninon de Lenclos and Saint-Evremond has long been seen as exemplary of the power of friendship to overcome the pain of old age. Writing into their seventies and eighties, when Ninon was a respectable social figure of the Marais and Saint-Evremond was living in exile in England, the two friends demonstrate what Nancy Arenberg has called, in these pages, "[a] battle against death [...] through the everlasting power of the missive" (254). Ninon herself seems to have foreseen this tribute; in one of her letters, she tells Saint-Evremond "Nous allons meriter des louanges de la posterite par la duree de notre vie, et par celle de l'amitie" (75).

But the name "Ninon de Lenclos" certainly evokes more than just the sage epistoliere of the rue des Tournelles. Indeed, the letters of "Mademoiselle de Lenclos" (as she was known in later years) are inextricably tied to the image of the younger "Ninon"--the libertine courtesan whose seductions were so scandalous that Anne d'Autriche had her briefly imprisoned in the convent of the Madelonnettes (Duchene 196). It is the tension between these two sides of Ninon de Lenclos--a conflict between two bodies symbolized by the two names--that characterizes her correspondence with Saint-Evremond. I propose reading the Ninon-Saint-Evremond letters as a dialogue between two writers who offer different verbal portraits of the courtesan. Saint-Evremond largely offers a portrait of an immortal "Ninon," a youthful body defined by its everlasting power to seduce. His correspondent, though, paints a self-portrait of a declining "Mademoiselle de Lenclos," a body approaching ineluctable death that cannot be altered by the power of words. My reading of the correspondence therefore differs from the nonetheless insightful one given by Arenberg. While Arenberg understands the letters as a mutual "battle against death," I see Ninon de Lenclos, for her part, refusing such a battle and, in fact, using her self-portrait to debunk the myth of language's power over mortality.

Before examining the correspondence, we must deal with the problem of the courtesan's proper name. Anne de Lanclos, as her name was spelled at her baptism in 1620, was given the sobriquet "Ninon" in her youth (Duchene 25). Ninon was an accomplished lute player and witty lover to some of the most famous men at the time, including the Grand Conde. Unlike other courtesans, Ninon was known for her independence; as Duchene puts it, "Ninon gagne sa vie en couchant, elle ne couche pas pour gagner sa vie" (21-22). There is some dispute as to how to spell her family name: some biographers use "L'Enclos" while others prefer "Lenclos," though, as Duchene points out, she signed her name "Lanclos" (363). (For the sake of convenience, I shall use "Lenclos.") What is agreed upon, however, is that the two parts of her name symbolize the two parts of her life. After "retiring" from the work of the courtesan and assuming a more modest life in the Marais, Ninon came to be known as "Mademoiselle de Lenclos." As Saint-Simon puts it in his obituary portrait for Ninon, "Ninon, courtisane fameuse, et, depuis que l'age lui eut fait quitter le metier, connue sous le nom de Mlle de Lenclos, fut un exemple nouveau du triomphe du vice conduit avec esprit, et repare de quelque vertu" (636). Duchene dates this onomastic change as occurring between 1662 and 1670--the same time that her correspondence with Saint-Evremond, exiled from France since 1661, begins (275). In a sense, Saint-Evremond's departure, which is necessary for the epistolary exchange to occur, gives him the image of the earlier "Ninon" to take with him. As if taking a portrait whose model continues to change, Saint-Evremond guards an image of Ninon that will become increasingly anachronistic as she transforms into "Mademoiselle de Lenclos." In this article, I shall refer to Saint-Evremond's correspondent as Ninon, but when putting special emphasis on one of the two ages of her life, I shall use that part of her name between quotation marks.

The Bonnette edition of the Ninon-Saint-Evremond correspondence begins with a letter by Saint-Evremond, and its opening sentences set the tone for Saint-Evremond's portrait of Ninon. With an erudite reference to the history of ancient Greece, Saint-Evremond paints his correspondent as an eternally happy lover:

  N'en deplaise a ce vieux reveur qui ne trouvait personne heureux
  devant la mort, je vous tiens, en pleine vie comme vous etes, la
  plus heureuse creature qui fut jamais. Vous avez ete aimee des plus
  honnetes gens du monde, et vous avez aime autant de temps qu'il
  fallait pour ne rien laisser a gouter dans les plaisirs, et aussi
  juste qu'il etait besoin pour prevenir les degouts d'une passion
  lassante. Jamais on n'a porte si loin le bonheur de votre sexe. (33)

The "vieux reveur" here is Solon, the Athenian lawmaker, who, according to Herodotus, told Croesus, the wealthy Lydian emperor, that no man could be considered happy until the day of his death (19; bk. 1, ch. 32). (1) This anecdote is important because, as shown by Croesus' anger toward Solon, it makes human happiness a condition of future actions rather than of past accomplishments. No matter how much money Croesus has amassed, and no matter how many victories he has enjoyed, he may nonetheless end his life poor and dishonored, and therefore unhappy. Solon's lesson is one of humility and fear: nobody knows what the future may bring, so don't be too smug about success. But Saint-Evremond rejects Solon's point of view, saying that Ninon's happiness derives entirely from the past. Since she has had a succession of illustrious lovers, each of whom has been abandoned when the love affair grew dull, she can be considered the happiest woman in history. Unlike Croesus, Ninon de Lenclos need not fear a reversal of fortune, since, according to Saint-Evremond, her past loves guarantee her present, and future, contentment.

Saint-Evremond immediately places Ninon in a curious temporal space. On the one hand, Ninon has an instinctive knowledge of the ephemerality of pleasure--how pleasure lasts a certain amount of time, beyond which it no longer gratifies. On the other hand, Saint-Evremond views his correspondent as existing outside the bounds of time, as he notes at the end of this same letter. "Quand votre age vous parait un peu avance," he reassures her, "vous retournez en arriere, et vous defaites des annees avec moins de peine, que vous ne quittez une chemise par ce froid-ci. Les miennes vont toujours en avant" (34-35). Another way of putting this is that Saint-Evremond portrays his interlocutor as a perpetual "Ninon," a woman who does not age, despite the passage of time, but remains in a youthful body outside the realm of other mortals.

This portrait of Ninon--the woman of many lovers, as opposed to the mature salonniere of the Marais--is sketched many times by Saint-Evremond. At the beginning of a 1686 letter to her, he says that she must continue to live the life for which she is famous: "Votre vie, ma tres chere, a ete trop illustre, pour n'etre continuee de la meme maniere jusqu'a la fin [...] [P]rononcez donc le mot d'amour hardiment, et que celui de vieillesse ne sorte jamais de votre bouche. [...] Quelle ingratitude d'avoir honte de nommer l'amour a qui vous devez votre merite et vos plaisirs!" (49). While playfully rejecting the vicissitudes of old age, Saint-Evremond resolutely turns Ninon toward the past. Since love is the basis for her prominence and her pleasures, she must always remain a lover. Her role cannot change; she cannot transform herself into a woman defined by a quality other than desire. Writing in 1692, Saint-Evremond expresses this opinion in the form of a maxim: "Vous etes nee pour aimer toute votre vie. Les amants et les joueurs ont quelque chose de semblable: qui a aime, aimera" (55). Once Ninon, always Ninon, and to imagine any alteration is to consign the courtesan to a virtual non-existence: "ne pas aimer est une espece de neant qui ne peut convenir a votre coeur," Saint-Evremond tells her (55).

This imagined stasis is best expressed in the correspondence by the multiple references to Niquee, princess of the medieval romance Amadis de Gaule. In the romance, Niquee is frozen in time while awaiting the arrival of her lover Amadis, and in this state she immobilizes all others who come to admire her. Saint-Evremond makes reference to the legend in a letter from 1685, employing Niquee to symbolize Ninon's unchanging beauty: "Quand la malignite de la nature aurait employe tout son pouvoir a faire quelque changement aux traits de votre visage, vous serez toujours dans mon imagination comme dans la Gloire de Niquee, ou vous savez qu'on ne change point" (47). Later, in 1693, Saint-Evremond makes the same point using practically the same words, as if his language itself were caught in the power of Niquee's transfixing charm: "Vous etes encore la meme pour moi, et quand la nature, qui n'a jamais pardonne a personne, aurait epuise son pouvoir a produire une petite alteration aux traits de votre visage, mon imagination sera toujours pour vous cette Gloire de Niquee, ou vous savez qu'on ne change point" (62). The parallel between the unalterable Niquee and the immortal, youthful Ninon is obviously underscored by the resemblance between the two proper names. The fact that this resemblance is based on the phoneme "ni" evokes the essentially negative power of the two young women who refuse to grow old ("on nechange point," as Saint-Evremond twice remarks). Neither Ninon nor Niquee shall change, and in this respect Saint-Evremond portrays his correspondent in mystical, transcendent terms.

Nancy Arenberg rightly points out that Saint-Evremond's language partakes of the epistolary code of politeness, and that the personal letter, as a genre, invariably relies upon nostalgic memories (245-47). Certainly one wouldn't expect Saint-Evremond to tell Ninon that he envisions her gray and wrinkled. The fact that Ninon responds to Saint-Evremond is, implicitly, a sign that she enjoys his flattery and, perhaps, wishes to identify with his complimentary portrait of her. But surely Saint-Evremond's remarks go beyond what is required of him for polite epistolary exchange and suggest his erotic attachment to the image of the young woman. Indeed, one may ask whether it is necessarily polite to continually remind a retired courtesan of her youthful glory, given that, as Arenberg herself points out, Ninon's body "is a painful reminder of the past, a period when she experienced great carnal pleasures as a desirable woman" (Arenberg 251). In other words, Saint-Evremond's portrait of the immortal "Ninon" may be more a sign of the male writer's particular libidinal cathexis than of his commitment to the "balanced dialogue" (Arenberg 245) required for good letter-writing.

One measure of the divergence between Saint-Evremond and Ninon's perspectives comes in the winter of 1698, with the voyage of the young Duke of Saint-Albans as emissary from England to France. Saint-Evremond writes Ninon, telling her that Saint-Albans, sent by King William III of England to congratulate Louis XIV on the marriage of his grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, will be paying her a visit. Using a wry litotes, Saint-Evremond says that Ninon will not be upset by such a visit: "je crois que vous ne serez pas fachee de voir un jeune cavalier, qui sait plaire a toutes nos dames. C'est Monsieur le duc de Saint-Albans, que j'ai prie, autant pour son interet que pour le votre, de vous visiter" (65). If Saint-Evremond were only interested in having Saint-Albans serve as a messenger between him and Ninon, he could have asked this favor of his close friend Doctor Morelli who, he tells Ninon later in the letter, will also be visiting France (65). Instead, the visit of Saint-Albans clearly has an erotic function that the visit of Doctor Morelli lacks. Thinking of Ninon as an eternally youthful lover, Saint-Evremond chooses a surrogate for himself who will complement the portrait--a twenty-eight year-old man who will stand for the eighty-five year-old exile and nourish his erotic imagination. But Ninon refuses to go along; in a quick response to Saint-Evremond's missive, she says that she has no interest in seeing a young man: "A quoi songez-vous de croire que la vue d'un jeune homme soit un plaisir pour moi? Vos sens vous trompent sur ceux des autres: j'ai tout oublie, hors mes amis" (68). Rather than fall into the nostalgia of youth, Ninon turns away from the past, claiming that all but her friendships has been forgotten. Saint-Evremond is guilty of self-deception: his (male) senses have led him to misportray the body of his correspondent. In fact, Ninon admits to being more interested in meeting Doctor Morelli than Saint-Albans--a sign that she views her body more in terms of infirmity than in terms of libidinal pleasure.

Ninon's own letters, despite occasional gestures of gratitude toward Saint-Evremond's compliments, paint a demystified, sobering image of an aged and aging body. In her first letter to Saint-Evremond in the Bonnette edition, where Ninon refers to an earlier letter that was apparently lost before her correspondent received it, she says: "Je vous ai mande que mes agrements etaient changes en qualites solides et serieuses" (39). If Saint-Evremond focuses on stasis, Ninon focuses on change. She almost always refers to her body as a site of transformation where, for example, wrinkles have marked her increasing wisdom: "Je crois, comme vous, que les rides sont les marques de la sagesse" (54). She tells Saint-Evremond that she now wears glasses in order to read: "A quoi songez-vous d'oublier qu'il me faut lire en lunettes ces histoires d'amour?" (53). Her body, as she views it, no longer merits a desirous gaze: "Le corps, a la verite, n'est plus digne d'attention" (63). Ninon's self-portrait is definitely that of "Mademoiselle de Lenclos," a woman who has abandoned the image of her earlier self.

Paradoxically, one might say that Ninon is simply trying to practice the Epicurean philosophy that--in the most famous letter of their correspondence --Saint-Evremond outlines for her. Trying to understand how Epicurus can be portrayed in so many contradictory ways by antiquity--for some he was a rigorous ascetic, for others he was an indulgent hedonist--Saint-Evremond concludes that the different portraits of the Greek philosopher must correspond to different ages in his life: "Pour moi, je regarde Epicure autrement dans la jeunesse et la sante, que dans la vieillesse et les maladies" (44). From this conclusion, Saint-Evremond develops his own form of Epicurean philosophy, in which one should seek pleasure according to one's own age and corporal disposition:

  Apres tant de discours je conclus que l'indolence et la tranquillite
  doivent faire le souverain bien d'Epicure infirme et languissant:
  mais pour un homme qui se porte bien, pour un homme qui est en etat
  de pouvoir gouter les plaisirs, je crois que la sante se fait sentir
  elle-meme par quelque chose de plus vif que l'indolence, comme une
  bonne disposition de l'ame veut quelque chose de plus anime qu'un
  etat tranquille. (46)

The young person finds pleasure in stimulating the senses, the older person finds pleasure in avoiding pain: such is exactly the lesson that Ninon de Lenclos seems to obey, as she transforms from a youthful seductress to a more mature woman. But Saint-Evremond apparently refuses to allow Ninon to follow the Epicurean path he lays out for her. His imagination fails to let the courtesan change, to become a different person than the one that she was when she was young. In an undated letter, Saint-Evremond even asks Ninon if her apparent serenity is not an artifice hiding the passionate lover still inside her: "Ne sentez-vous point dans votre coeur une opposition secrete a la tranquillite que vous pensez avoir donnee a votre esprit?" (51). So much for Epicurus: when it comes to Ninon, Saint-Evremond sees no possibility for achieving mature tranquillity.

Nancy Arenberg notes the difference between the two correspondents' representation of the body, and she rightly states that Ninon has a more "pessimistic outlook" than Saint-Evremond (251). But I think that Arenberg understates the degree to which Ninon's letters focus on death and, moreover, how Ninon unsentimentally rejects the power of language to transcend death. Indeed, rather than "defy the passing of the years by upholding the epistolary pact" (Arenberg 254), Ninon's letters seem to refute that language holds any such power of defiance. When remarking on the death of the Duchesse de Mazarin--one of several deaths that are mentioned in the correspondence--Ninon allows little room for verbal consolation: "Il n'y a plus de remede, et il n'y en a nul a ce qui arrive a nos pauvres corps" (77). On several occasions, Ninon says that she prefers the absence of language to ineffectual "reflexions" that cannot alter the pain of death. For example, she says that "tout est inutile quand on ne saurait rien changer; il vaut autant s'eloigner des reflexions, que d'en faire qui ne servent a rien" (75). Or, again: "Vous disiez autrefois que je ne mourrais que de reflexion; je tache a n'en plus faire, et a oublier le lendemain le jour que je vis aujourd'hui" (79). In these same letters, Ninon even gives voice to suicidal thoughts: "Je suis lasse quelquefois de faire toujours la meme chose, et je loue le Suisse qui se jeta dans la riviere par cette raison" (75); "De quelque sorte que cela soit, qui m'aurait propose une telle vie, je me serais pendue" (79).

In a passage that deserves more attention than it has received, Ninon places her entire epistolary exchange with Saint-Evremond under the sign of death:

  J'aurais souhaite de passer ce qui me reste de vie avec vous: si
  vous aviez pense comme moi, vous seriez ici. Il est pourtant assez
  beau de se souvenir toujours des personnes que l'on a aimees, et
  c'est peut-etre pour embellir mon epitaphe, que cette separation du
  corps s'est faite. (60)

Separation, of course, is the necessary condition for writing letters, and thus one might understand Ninon as taking comfort in the memories she can share with her correspondent. But the "pretty memory" of the past quickly morphs into the "embellishment" of an epitaph: each letter is a memento mori rather than a celebration of life. Without any of Saint-Evremond's idealism, Ninon bracingly declares that epistolarity does nothing to combat death; rather, each epistle has the mark of the writer's own tombstone.

To say, then, that Ninon rejects the portrait of "Ninon"--the immortal beauty akin to Princess Niquee--would be an understatement. Her letters clearly give a self-portrait of a "Mademoiselle de Lenclos"--that is, the aging woman nearing death. As with the name "Ninon," whose constituent two syllables suggest the negative power of Niquee to deny the passage of time ("Ni--non"- "on ne change point"), so the name "Lenclos" has symbolic value in that it evokes the enclosure ("L'enclos") that circumscribes life. The elderly Ninon de Lenclos is approaching the closure of her days, and thus her self-portrait shows the marks of time in greater relief than the portrait sketched by her correspondent.

My discussion of the "two bodies" of Ninon de Lenclos--one an immortal, mystical body, described by Saint-Evremond, the other a mortal, declining body, as described by Ninon herself--obviously evokes Kantorowicz's study of The King's Two Bodies, which was employed by Louis Marin to analyze the depiction of Louis XIV in the seventeenth century. I would like to conclude by suggesting that Marin's elaboration of Kantorowicz's ideas illuminate the Ninon-Saint-Evremond correspondence, and indeed help explain our continued fascination with Ninon today. Marin takes Kantorowicz's theory of sovereignty and adds to it the concept of representation (Marin 9). It is the representation of Louis XIV, Marin tells us, that truly makes him king and invests him with power (12). In particular, the official portraits of the king, whether painted portraits or verbal portraits, are the means by which Louis XIV becomes an absolute monarch. Without these portraits, the king is just another man--that is, just another body: "[l]e monarque n'est absolu que dans son portrait officiel que ses sujets tirent de lui" (290). Likewise, the Ninon-Saint-Evremond correspondence shows the importance of representation in creating or denying the power of the courtesan. The image of the seductive Ninon depends upon the reiterated portrait of her youthful body. Put another way, Ninon de Lenclos becomes the most famous courtesan of the seventeenth century through the power of a fantasized representation of her body. Roger Duchene notes that "Ninon la courtisane n'est pas passee a la posterite pour ses charmes physiques, mais parce qu'elle etait une femme d'esprit" (361). Yet it is notable that both editions of Duchene's book feature a youthful image of Ninon on their cover, despite the fact that at least one of these images is of questionable attribution (375). Even if Ninon de Lenclos's "esprit" grows deeper with age, it is impossible to imagine her as having anything other than a young body. Our fascination with Ninon, then, suggests the continued force of Saint-Evremond's fiction: the witty, erudite woman who never truly grows old. By the same token, it indicates that a gendered role such as the courtesan's--or perhaps, indeed, gender itself--is a product of the portrait one gives to it.


Arenberg, Nancy. "Getting Old: Reflections on Aging in the Letters of Saint-Evremond and Ninon de Lenclos." PFSCL32.62 (2005): 243-56.

Duchene, Roger. Ninon de Lenclos, ou la maniere jolie de faire l'amour. Paris: Fayard, 2000.

Herodotus. The Persian Wars. Trans. George Rawlinson. New York: Random House-Modern Library, 1942.

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Lenclos, Ninon de and Saint-Evremond. Lettres sur la vieillesse. Ed. Rene Bonnette. Toulouse: Ombres, 2001.

Marin, Louis. Le Portrait du roi. Paris: Minuit, 1981.

Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, duc de. "Mort et singularites de Ninon dite Mlle Lenclos." Memoires. Ed. Yves Coirault. Vol. 2. Paris: Pleiade-Gallimard, 1983. 636-38.

(1) The Bonnette edition incorrectly attributes Saint-Evremond's reference to Seneca. Emile Colombey, in his earlier edition of the correspondence, correctly attributes it to Solon. See Correspondance authentique de Ninon de Lenclos (1886). Geneve: Slatkine, 1968. 89, note 1.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A167778411