20 Enero 2017 13:35
A portrait of Ninon de Lenclos, the courtesan who conquered 5,000 noblemen with her charm and intellect.When Louis XIV made Versailles the capital of the French nobility, the palace quickly became a hotbed of orgies and affairs. The nobles enjoyed plenty of free time, and had no qualms about using it to satisfy their sexual predilections – which were not always as refined as their cultural tastes.
As the book An Erotic History of Versailles makes clear, the French ruler’s court was a place of sexual freedom, as well as power and politics.Women like Madame de Maintenon and Madame de Montespan grew to prominence as erotic icons, revered almost as goddesses. But perhaps the most infamous of them all, still celebrated for her seductive exploits, is Ninon de Lenclos: one of French history’s greatest sex symbols. Legends about Ninon abound. It’s said that she had over 5,000 lovers; that she slept with every man at court except for the king himself; and that she drove some of her lovesick suitors to suicide. She was even a muse to Molière himself, who apparently tried out all his plays on her first. Some of these stories may have been embellished somewhat, to promote Ninon as a protofeminist revolutionary, but historians’ fascination for her is not unfounded.
Ninon was born into a family of minor nobility in Touraine. Her mother was deeply religious, spending much of her time in prayer, while her libertine father did the rounds of the finest brothels of Paris. Ninon found her father’s dedication to art and excess far more appealing than her mother’s piety. She persuaded her father to educate her as a boy, dressing in male clothing and immersing herself in philosophy, languages and literature.Ninon was made an orphan at the age of 17. Her education enabled her to manage the small fortune she inherited more shrewdly than other women in her position might have done. And instead of seeking a wealthy husband with whom to settle down and live a life of comfort and ease – as might have been expected at that time – Ninon purchased a house and made it into one of the finest salons in Paris.
Many of the most important noblemen of the era came to debate literature and philosophy in her salon. But what made the gatherings unique is that they would often end with Ninon’s unforgettable erotic displays. Her breasts – much praised in writings of the time – were not her only, or even primary, asset however. She captivated men with her eloquence, wit and wisdom.But despite what her rivals would have us believe, Ninon was not a whore.
As the book says, ‘whores worked in slums, taverns, cabarets, gambling halls and other such places of sexual misery, where women existed merely to serve men. Ninon hosted a much-frequented literary salon, to which the most intellectual noblemen came flocking.’ In short, more than a prostitute, she was a woman who took advantage of her reputation and sensuality to triumph in Parisian society.Ninon became a celebrated sex symbol, and almost every man of note attempted to attain her for himself. The flip side of all this adoration was the enmity that she roused in her many rivals. Madame de Sévigné was the most slanderous of these, but perhaps that’s not surprising considering that Ninon was lover to both Sévigné’s husband and son (when she was over fifty years old).
Ninon’s revolutionary ideas about the role of women in society got her confined to a convent for a year by order of Anne of Austria. Though she did discover the joys of lesbian sex while she was there.And although some courtesans resented Ninon’s success, others surrendered to her charms, and did their best to learn from her example. She became a sort of sexologist of her day, teaching young courtesans the tricks they’d need to bag the finest noblemen. Madame de Maintenon herself was an assiduous ‘student’ of Ninon, something the French king had misgivings about.
As well as being a great source of carnal knowledge for aspiring courtesans, Ninon continued to take lovers well into her sixties. She also kept the secrets of her gay friends, who would come to her to share their fantasies. Ninon’s Epicurean principles meant that she was far more tolerant and open-minded than most of the nobility of the day.Although some consider Ninon to be a feminist icon, she did little in practical terms to improve the rights of women of that period.
Ninon looked after herself. She knew how to cajole men into doing what she wanted, but rarely lifted a finger for anyone unless she expected to get something in return. Ninon was a unique individual, with some revolutionary ideas, but she didn’t lead a feminist revolution. Instead, she taught women to be ‘a goddess in the daytime and a whore at night,’ essentially compliant with the male dominance of the age.