Horatio Morpurgo

Paris, London and Friendship

The whole precarious arrangement rested on no more than an email from a stranger. The offer also seemed a little too good to be true but I was curious and had to be in London anyway. A writer I’d never met, an American, sent me a piece about a tearaway uncle of hers who ended up in England, with whom she then found refuge in her own troubled twenties. The uncle had practised as a psychotherapist for many years from his home off Queensway.

He had now died, leaving behind a cluttered flat on which the lease was ending. ‘The offer’ from his writer-niece was to go and take some of the antique books that had lined the walls of his consulting room. In the sixties and seventies he had enjoyed hunting through London’s flea markets. His daughter – here was her number – was sure to be fine with my just helping myself.

But nobody answered the buzzer. At the agreed time and place I stood checking my phone, aware of myself mainly as an obstacle to the flow of pedestrians from a nearby Tube station. It was a relief when two women approached, obviously on the lookout for someone. The daughter introduced herself and then her companion, explaining that her friend had come along to film me as I browsed, if that was all right? The flat had been her childhood home: one way she was dealing with this life-change was to make a film. 

In the former consulting room, opposite big windows that gave onto the street, her father’s book collection was by now much thinned out. Bonham’s had taken what they wanted. Another auction house, she explained, had taken further boxfuls and promptly gone broke, so none of that had ever been paid for. Did I detect traces of suspicion here? Families are always complicated places and this one was, evidently, going through a complicated time. The daughter asked me to stack anything I wanted on a table where she could check through them.

I browsed as the camera rolled: it was a little like walking through Nothing to Declare – that guilt you feel even with nothing to feel guilty about. But leafing through these leavings, these dusty old books that nobody else wanted, I began to find these doubts about me, if that’s what they were, strangely infectious. What was I doing here? What did I want with Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning or with French moralists in well-thumbed paperback editions? Would I ever actually read them? 


I took about twenty and have read most of them by now. Homeopathic doses of that consulting room, taken over several years, proved beneficial. The Memoirs of Ninon de L’Enclos, With Her Letters to Monsr de St-Evremond, collected and translated ‘BY A LADY’, was among the last I got around to and among the biggest surprises. The second of this two-volume set must once have been left too close to an open fire – the spine is still scorched all down one side. Perhaps that and the worn condition of the covers explained why nobody wanted it. Or perhaps it’s just that the story has been forgotten. 

On the fly-leaf of Volume One, carefully copied out in an English translation, is a love poem to Ninon from one of her many admirers. ‘Ninon’, or Anne de l’Enclos, hosted gatherings at the Rue des Tournelles from the 1660s, living on until 1705. It’s clear from my well-used copy, printed in 1761, and from its infatuated inscription, that her memory was still very much alive half a century later. Charles de Saint-Evremond spent the entire second half of his life in exile, from 1661-1703, almost all of it in London. He remained in touch with his homeland partly through these letters to his former lover and lifelong friend. But it is with Ninon that we must begin. 

Voltaire’s essay about her, written as a letter in 1752, reinvented her for the eighteenth century. Two novels, published the previous year, dwelt on her career as a sexual adventurer. But to Voltaire she was a precursor of the philosophes and his was the version that stuck. It was her attitude to friendship, to the Court and to religion that interested him. The life-project that grew out of her thinking was one he identified with: to live in reasonable comfort surrounded by friends who share your intellectual interests. 

She succeeded in this aim. Her gatherings were smaller and more intimate than what you might find at a grander venue like the Hôtel de Rambouillet, ‘but one talked more naturally… and there was a little more philosophy than at the other’. Ninon was never rich – you brought your own supper – but ‘her philosophy was sincere, firm, constant – above prejudice and vain researches, both’. There was nothing of the pedant about her and her indifference to the life of the Court also appealed to Voltaire, embittered by his own exclusion from it. Indeed, his letter about Ninon was actually written in Berlin, where he had gone in search of the royal patronage denied him at home.

He also wrote a short dialogue about her, an imagined discussion between Ninon and Madame de Maintenon, the wife of Louis XIV, France’s First Lady at the high-point of Le Grand Siècle. The two women had probably been lovers when young. Maintenon had since chosen the life of the Court and devout Catholicism but remembers, now, the freedom they had shared, contrasting it with the shallowness of her present human relations. She invites Ninon to stay at Versailles. Her friend refuses to make herself ‘a hypocrite and unhappy’, inviting Maintenon instead to return to a life centred around friendship, freedom and philosophy. Maintenon replies, in haste, that she sees two senior ministers approaching. Can’t talk now. The end.

There is more to Voltaire’s account of her than you’d immediately guess. He had, aged twelve, met her, aged ninety, and had so impressed her that when she died a year later, she left him 1000 livres. The money, for spending on books, was mainly spent on clothes but the encouragement was never forgotten. His writings about her, into which he smuggled so many of his own preoccupations, were, then, also a belated tribute to an early benefactress. 

The posthumous career as a philosophe that he arranged for her was a carefully edited affair, but his motives were not only self-promotional. When Ninon began her ‘reign’ at the Rue des Tournelles, France was the scene of a religious ceasefire that was only just holding. Louis XIV’s personal rule began in 1661 and the new king’s extravagance and Catholic authoritarianism threatened this delicate balance. The ceasefire was finally broken by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, triggering the mass emigration of Huguenots to neighbouring countries, England among them. 

Yet it was in these very years that recognisably modern forms of sociability – and gender equality – were being pioneered in Paris, independently of Court and Church alike. ‘My God, make an honest man of me,’ Voltaire has Ninon pray, ‘but never make of me an honest woman’. The feminist point is wittily made and it is to Voltaire’s credit that he saw this side of her. Her many affairs scandalised some but raised the question why multiple liaisons should add to a man’s social standing but detract from a woman’s.

Ninon’s appeal to so great a champion of religious tolerance, civility and philosophical debate as Voltaire is easy to understand. Some have seen an ‘information overload’ in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to which universities adapted only slowly. The salons, like the new scientific academies, emerged as ways to help people process a time of unprecedented change. 

Her contemporaries attested to her strong presence in any room: it was for her character that she was sought out, not just the racy lifestyle. She did in fact number statesmen and courtiers among her admirers, whatever Voltaire imagined. One friend described her as ‘always in fashion and yet never like anyone else’. She liked men who talked well and knew how to listen. She may or may not have had an affair with La Rochefoucauld but he was certainly a visitor, was certainly charmed and consulted her in the composition of his famous Maximes. 

She was ‘so cheerful and animated when at table that people said the soup made her drunk’. The delight in spirited conversation was remarked upon by many. ‘I think I will love you for three months. That is infinity for me,’ she announced at the start of one affair. Of another (discarded) lover – from one of the country’s best-connected families – she said, ‘his soul is made of pulp, his body of wet paper and his heart is a pumpkin fricasseed in snow’. 

That she was a great beauty was never true in any conventional sense, nor that she kept her looks to the end, although cosmetics companies still use her name to sell anti-wrinkle cream, or ‘secret homemade facelift recipe’, rather. It was her vivacity that close friends commented upon and the attendant melancholy streak. The dark eyes had made ‘more trouble than all the eyes in the world’. ‘Elle séduit surtout par son regard,’ wrote another. 

It was around this indefinable attraction that her non-conformist gatherings grew. And around these gatherings, in turn, powerful legends took shape. Molière, it was said, gave a reading of Tartuffe at her salon. The Church had responded to the play’s savaging of religious hypocrisy with threats of excommunication for anyone who publicly performed it. In effect it was banned from the theatres for five years. Private performances certainly took place in the meantime but no firm evidence exists for this particular reading. It’s possible that Ninon and Molière met, but there’s no evidence for that either. 

Something about her life lent itself to this kind of glamorisation. So, a private reading of Tartuffe, which may or may not ever have taken place, became, shortly before the Revolution, itself the theme of a play by the feminist Olympe de Gouges. A later oil painting by Nicolas Monsiau, Molière Reading Tartuffe at Ninon de Lenclos’s (1802), still hangs in the library of the Comédie-Française. It shows a room far larger than any at the Rue des Tournelles, crammed with seventeenth-century luminaries. Between Molière and Ninon sits Charles de Saint-Evremond, who had gone into permanent exile several years before Tartuffe was published. Mere fact-checking is of course powerless against this kind of thing. 

Nicolas André Monsiau, Molière lisant Tartuffe chez Ninon de Lenclos, 1802.
Right from Ninon (seated, central), Saint-Evremond, Moliere (standing), La Bruyere (seated), La Rochefoucauld (seated)

Rather than in such fabulation, it is in her correspondence with Saint-Evremond that we find the fullest picture of Ninon’s role in this counter-culture. She had the rare gift of remaining friends with former lovers. He was thirty-eight when they met and she thirty-one. The affair does not seem to have lasted long and their continuing relationship remained not quite decipherable to either of them. He describes himself in connection with her as ‘not simply a friend but not really a lover either’. ‘Be assured,’ she once wrote to him, ‘that I still love you more than philosophy admits of’. The indecipherable something, whatever it was, was mutual. 

Saint-Evremond, another esprit moqueur, had lived dangerously when young and is also thought to have been bisexual. All of which soon landed him on the margins. His lampooning of a more powerful nobleman blocked his path to advancement in the military. He was twice confined to the Bastille for other forms of insubordination. Just as Louis XIV assumed power, a letter was discovered in which he had treated satirically Cardinal Mazarin’s role in negotiating a peace treaty with Spain. Warned of impending arrest, Saint-Evremond fled to Holland and then England where, in Voltaire’s admiring words, he ‘lived and died as a free man and a philosopher’. Voltaire also crossed a powerful nobleman and, after a spell in the Bastille, crossed the Channel, too, in 1726. He had experiences in common with Ninon’s closest friend.

Many in Restoration London, especially at Court, had spent time in French exile during the Commonwealth, which would explain Saint-Evremond’s sympathetic reception. French clothes and French food, French theatre and the French language were in fashion. That he never learnt English was not held against him. Recently discovered letters confirm how badly he missed home, though the religious persecution there alienated him. He was nearly seventy by the time he was offered a pardon and invited back, by which time he was too old (and too stricken with a duchess) to leave.

The first Encyclopédie, in 1754, compared Ninon with Leontium, star pupil and mistress of the fourth century BC philosopher Epicurus. From his garden in Athens, Epicurus taught that the gods existed but were indifferent to human fates. Our proper concern, then, was to live as richly as possible in the only world available to us, the one we perceive with our senses. Epicureanism was, by the seventeenth century, the ‘philosophy of choice for the thinking nobleman’. The first school of philosophy in the ancient world to admit women, it was central to Ninon’s friendship with Saint-Evremond. 

For early modern scientists it was the materialist, or ‘atomist’, side to Epicurus that mattered. For Saint-Evremond, it was the moral philosopher: ‘It is more important to enjoy the world than to know it,’ he would write. The fullest account of what Epicurus meant to him comes from a letter he wrote to Ninon: ‘The love of pleasure and the avoiding of grief are the first and most natural motives,’ he wrote, blandly enough. ‘At the same time,’ he went on, ‘I don’t well know what this “Pleasure of Epicure” was: for I never saw learned people so divided about any point as they have been about the morals of this philosopher.’

For  Saint-Evremond, Epicurus was above all the one who had taught that disinterested friendship is the secret of a peaceful and happy life. He found neither the charges against the philosopher nor the praises lavished upon him to be valid, arguing that he had lived ‘at different times and occasions’ in different ways – partying in youth, later seeking a more reflective way of life. ‘As for me, I look otherwise upon Epicurus in youth and health, than in old age and sickness.’ To another friend he described his old age as a search for ‘the secret of finding happiness in the most common state of life’, as a chance to ‘knock off decently those fetters which prejudice has put upon the world’. 

The ideal of friendship at which he aimed was not quietist retreat:

‘To dissimulate, feign, disguise are vices we do not tolerate in civil society – all the more reason why they should not be suffered in private friendship… In this union of wills, it is not forbidden to have differing opinions: but any dispute must be a conference in order to clear doubts, not some exasperating contention.’ 

In an age of shrill public causes, keeping oneself for one’s friends was an active principle, part of the philosophy by which he kept himself going. 

Those who deplore social media now sometimes talk as if narcissism was a disease which humanity caught off the internet about twenty years back. Three and a half centuries ago, the French moralists set themselves to observe the workings of self-love. Of special concern to them were its social consequences, that it made ‘bringing people to a teachable frame of mind’ so difficult. ‘Men find it difficult to appreciate one another … they are so full of their own ideas that there is no room for anyone else’s,’ wrote La Bruyère. 

Friendship was understood as a space from which the self in its unrulier aspects might be excluded. It was, for Saint-Evremond, a form of ‘true reason, which accords with the imperfections of our nature, which seeks to make up for them as best it can’. It was ‘the enemy of affectation… which neither praises itself nor seeks the applause of the world’. It follows that ‘friendship’ entered into from corrupt motives, by ‘slaves of circumspection’, amounted to a very  serious breach of trust, one which could trouble both ‘the peace of public society and the pleasures of private conversation’.

‘We should court the favour of those whom we wish to benefit, rather than those from whom we hope for benefits’ (La Bruyère). Scrutiny of one’s own motives is a minimum requirement. La Rochefoucauld: ‘Though we often persuade ourselves that we like people more influential than ourselves, our friendship is really based on self-interest alone.’ Both La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère figure among those gathered in Monsiau’s painting to hear Molière read.

‘I am as much concerned about your welfare in London as if you were here,’ Ninon wrote, ‘Old friends have charms which are never so well-known as when we are deprived of them’. She continued to cherish an affection ‘that has withstood length of time, distance of place and the usual coldness of old age’. Theirs was a correspondence course in what friendship can be. 

Ninon had reasons of her own for enrolling. She might be Saint-Evremond’s – as later Voltaire’s – New Leontium, but things were a bit more complicated than that. Already in the eighteenth century and then throughout the nineteenth, hers was a story that, as we’ve seen, sentimental mythographers could not leave alone. Not content with Molière and private readings of Tartuffe, legend soon had it that Ninon had been raised on the essays of Montaigne by her father, a musician and loveable but feckless rogue. Or that from an early age she must fend off the efforts of a pious mother to interfere with her free development. Or now it was her great beauty, together with a comfortable allowance, that in time allowed her to establish one of Paris’s leading salons. 

More recent researches have explored what Ninon had to survive in order to become the person others later chose to idolise. They also help to explain why she might have felt drawn to so remote an attachment figure as Saint-Evremond. Ninon was in fact just ten years old when her father – no intellectual – murdered the husband of his mistress at the time and fled. There was no time to raise Ninon on the essays of Montaigne even had there been the inclination. There is no direct evidence that he ever saw his daughter again or supported her in any way. 

The ‘ultra-devout’ mother was a useful foil for this ‘adorable’ father, but there is not much evidence for her either. Ninon certainly inherited her father’s musical gift but her mother does not appear to have accompanied her to the gatherings at which she played her lute as a young girl. Hardly the behaviour of a devout Catholic, or indeed of a caring mother. Ninon was a courtesan by the age of eighteen. She was twenty when her mother died, by which time a nobleman was paying a fixed monthly rate of 500 livres. There was no assured income for either of them once the father left. It is entirely possible that she turned to prostitution with her mother’s connivance. 

For the years that followed philosophical explanations are, again, not the most helpful. Partners came and went at a dizzying rate, some of them payeurs, others amants. As we’ve seen, there was probably a significant lesbian relationship. To a modern reader this might suggest not so much a life modelled after Montaigne as a craving for affection, the chaotic working through of a life deprived early of all support – affective, educational and financial. 

For all her eventual outward success, in other words, she knew very well how suddenly the laws of social exclusion could strike. Friendship as a refuge from such laws was an idea she had time for. Her experience gave her a kind of hotline to Saint-Evremond’s predicament. Such an eagerly sought connection with a close and yet physically absent friend must surely also have drawn in some way upon the trauma of her father’s abrupt and early departure.

Saint-Evremond would not be forgiven his jibes against the state until it was too late. For Ninon also there were those who would never forgive her the past. So to imagine what Epicurus would have made of the way they’d lived was to affirm what still connected them as the surrounding culture grew less tolerant. 

‘When we say that pleasure is the goal,’ the Greek had written, ‘we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality’. Neither was Saint-Evremond the thorough-going hedonist some have seen in him. Religion, he argued, was ‘more skilful than voluptuous philosophy in the science of pleasures, and wiser than severe philosophy in point of morality’. He shared lodgings with Huguenot immigrants and was sympathetic to their cause. 

The conflict in France could be resolved, he thought, only by a reaffirmation on both sides of Christianity’s central teachings about justice, charity and patience. He marvelled that doctrinal differences could be ‘the occasion for so much barbarity’. ‘This false zeal is the result of self-love,’ he wrote. His approach is close to that of Spinoza, whom he
had met in Holland.

Louis XIV was going to war with England and Ninon was almost eighty when she wrote saying how she longed for a meal with her old friend:

‘The mind has great advantages over the body; yet the body often satisfies little tastes, which recur and which relieve the soul of its sad reflections. You often made fun of mine; I have banished them all. There is no more time when one reaches the last stages of one’s life. One must be content with the day in which one is living.’

They never did dine together again. She must be content with the boxes of tea he sent her, he with the cases of wine she sent him. In one letter he writes that he cannot forget her eyes. She responds, lamenting her youth, that she now reads his letters with the help of spectacles. 

Their correspondence kept them in touch both with their own best years and with the culture that had formed them. Not that they forgot the worst. Saint-Evremond could write of ambitious courtiers (roughly equivalent to today’s media operators): ‘About their hearts there is always a kind of lethargy: help them and they revive a moment, give signs of life. Ignore them and they return to their previous state.’ The rarity of those attempting a disinterested view is not a new problem. ‘At my age,’ he went on, ‘one hour of life well-managed is more considerable with me than the concern of an indifferent reputation’.

We’ve seen how Voltaire reinvented Ninon for the eighteenth century. In nineteenth century London, her salon was invoked by those who met at Charles Lamb’s lodgings in Mitre Court. For Nietzsche the moralists ‘hit the mark again and again, the black mark of human nature’. For Sartre their works ‘constitute perhaps the most original element in French letters’. T. S. Eliot: ‘In the honesty with which they face the données of the actual world, this French tradition has a unique quality in European literature…’. 

They were on to something and they still are. Compulsive updaters of Twitter profiles, try this on for size: ‘We go to far less trouble about making ourselves happy than about appearing to be so.’ Man-of-the-people political campaigners: ‘Simplicity put on is a subtle imposture.’ Shrill denouncers of ‘them’, whoever ‘they’ might be: ‘When we give up hoping for reason in others we are at the end of our own’.

‘There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.’ That was 112 characters. Including spaces. And is what it says any less true now because Pascal wrote it in the 1660s in a foreign language? Answer in 112 characters or fewer, please. If you can. Or if you can’t, it really doesn’t matter. Can you answer it at all? 


Ninon achieved social success in her own town in her own lifetime, while her friend went into exile and stayed there. In death the roles were strangely reversed. She was buried, a respected figure, in a Parisian church long since demolished. Saint-Evremond, leaving money for the Huguenot poor, left arrangements for his funeral to a friend. The friend saw to it that Saint-Evremond’s memorial can be admired to this day at Poets’ Corner, in Westminster Abbey.


Horatio Morpurgo helped to campaign for the establishment of a Marine Protected Area in Lyme Bay. He has written widely about the sea-bed’s recovery there since 2008. His latest book, The Paradoxal Compass, places the West Country’s relationship with the sea, and with science, in a longer historical context.

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