Sunday, 2 March 2014

Meetings: Ninon de Lenclos and Voltaire (1704)

In the autumn of 1704 François de Castagnères, abbé de Châteauneuf introduced his young godson to a living legend, the famous courtesan, salonnière and freethinking patron of the arts, Ninon de Lenclos.  Ninon was eighty-three at the time, the little boy almost ten. Fifty years later Voltaire retained a vivid memory of this incident from long ago.....

"The abbé de Châteauneuf took me to see her when I was very young.  I was about (sic) thirteen years old . I had written some verses which were worth nothing, but which seemed very good for my age.  Mademoiselle de Lenclos had known my mother, who was a very good friend of the abbé de Châteauneuf.  Finally it pleased them that I should be taken to  see her"  [ Sur Madamoiselle de Lenclos (1751)]

Elsewhere Voltaire recalled that  the old lady was  shrivelled  with black and yellow skin, "like a mummy". One can imagine his revulsion. 

There is good reason to suppose Ninon colluded with Voltaire's godfather  in Voltaire's introduction to freethinking literature.  According to  Duvernet's  Vie de Voltaire (1786) "Mlle Ninon asked the abbé de Châteauneuf one day for news of his godson. My dear friend, he replied, he has had a double baptism...for he is only three years old and already knows the Moïsade by heart". (p.11-12)  It is a nice piece of banter and not one to be taken too literally.  The Moïsade was a notorious deistic poem, which Voltaire certainly knew well in later years. More plausibly Duvernet  tells us that, as a small child, Châteauneuf  taught him to recite the fables of La Fontane by heart.

36 rue des Tournelles,
where Ninon
resided from 1657
until her death in 1705

A short time after Voltaire's visit, Ninon  wrote her will. (It is dated 9th December 1704).  As a courtesy to Voltaire's father François Arouet, who was her executor - and no doubt because she saw promise in the son - she left Voltaire a thousand livres to be spent on school books. This was large sum for a very small boy and his father contrived to prevent him getting control of it. He was in his early thirties before he could spend the money, by which time, as Roger Pearson points out, he had amassed a considerable quantity of his own [Voltaire Almighty (2005) p.18.  Émile Magne, Ninon de Lenclos (1912) reproduces the will, together with the an inventory of Nanon's house in the rue des Tournelles.]

The main source for Voltaire's description of the aged Ninon Lenclos  is La défense de mon oncle a tract of 1767.

Voltaire refutes his opponent's assertion that Ninon, like the Biblical Sarah, had been sexually attractive in advanced old age, and had counted among her lovers the ex-Jesuit  the abbé Gédoyn, some fifty years her junior!  The context encouraged exaggeration of her aged appearance, but no doubt there is an element of genuine memory.

No one is more capable of giving an account of the latter years of Madamoiselle L'Enclos than myself, and which in no respect resembled those of Sarah. I am her legatee. I saw her in her latter days, and she was as dry as a mummy. It is true, that the abbé Gedoin was presented to her....I sometimes accompanied the abbé in his visits to her, when he had no other lodging but my house. He was far from being susceptible of any desires for a decrepit wrinkled beldame, whose bones were covered with only a yellow skin, that bordered somewhat upon the black .(Chapter 28: "On Abraham and Ninon de Lenclos") 

In 1701 Voltaire's father had acquired a house on the Île de la Cité overlooking the central courtyard of the Palais de Justice. Nicolas de Gédoyn, having been made a canon of the Sainte-Chapelle, moved into lodgings close by at about the same time.

In the Dictionnaire philosophique Voltaire repeats much the same denial: 

In my childhood I saw a lot of the abbé Gédouin the abbé de Châteauneuf, and of Mademoiselle l'Enclos; I can assure you that at the age of eighty her face bore the most hideous marks of old age,  her body had all its infirmities, and she had in her mind the maxims of an austere philosophy.

Scurrilous accounts of Ninon's latter day sexual exploits were, of course, legion; Voltaire himself repeated the story that she had succumbed to Châteauneuf's advances as a sixtieth (sometimes Voltaire has seventieth!) birthday present to herself.  Maybe Voltaire heard as much from Châteauneuf himself; who knows, perhaps it was even true!

 Ninon de Lenclos died peacefully on 17th October 1705.  She passed away reconciled with the Church, surrounded by holy pictures having, a short time before, made her confession and taken communion at the nearby church of Saint-Paul-des-champs.  This allowed her to be buried most respectably in the (now demolished ) church  - under the floor, it is to be noted, NOT in the extensive adjoining cemetery.

Legend has it that on the last night of her life, unable to sleep, Ninon rose, and at her desk wrote the following verse, much more befitting the correspondent of Saint-Évremond. She faces the coming oblivion with tranquil acceptance:

 Qu’un vain espoir ne vienne point s’offrir,          
Qui puisse ébranler mon courage;          
Je suis en âge de mourir;          
Que ferias-je ici davantage? 

(Let no vain hope now come and try,
my courage strong to overthrow;
My age demands that I shall die,
What more can I do here below?)

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