Portrait of Ninon de Lenclos with a Lute

Portrait of Ninon de Lenclos with a Lute

A Story by Alysa Salzberg

A biographical sketch in homage of the remarkable French courtesan, philosopher, writer, musician, and patroness of the arts, who lived from 1620-1705.


I feel so much energy that it is a thing unthinkable to simply sit down and simper. I want pleasure, movement, laughter, words pouring from throats into the air like sweet perfumes.

I sit and wait for the evening to begin. My chambermaid has done my hair. The curls fall around my face, tickle my cheeks. I take up my lute and play. And as I play, I remember more than ever my kind father. It was he who insisted I learn the instrument, that I read music and sing. Singing was his philosophy, I suppose, the beautiful noise coming from a person’s throat. Take pleasure in this, he’d say to me, take pleasure in everything. I learnt, I read books, I grew up. When I was fifteen years old, he left the earth… I’ll play on.

These memories are utterly at antipodes with the time when Anne of Austria, mad old bat, had me sent away to a convent for my lack of morals. I turn a page of music. I have morals, in fact, but not hers. And what good are her sort of morals anyway; they squelch the soul, and what will we have left when we die? What will we have profited from the potential joys of life? Thus, my just conclusion: the usefulness of ‘morality’ is but a noisome delusion.

That is what I try to teach the boys who come to me for their lessons in love. Some of them merely pay for my services, but they do not want to learn. Others are poor but willing students, on whom I take pity. And some I call my favorites. I try to impart to these last some of what I’ve discovered. Wisdom has entered me through every orifice. I have it in droves, in my body, in my blood -- I’ve been loved and surrounded by so many men of wit, after all. Love is a delicate art: I tell my boys, “It is much more difficult to be good at making love, than it is to be good at making war.” And if they’ve successfully explored all that I can teach them, then they will know the worthiness of my advice.

I won my own little war with Anne of Austria; I didn’t let the bleak, cold convent with its sour-faced occupants, make me become bleak, cold, and sour. One must strive to stay joyful. The joy of a spirit, I think, is the measure of its power. I turn another page of notes.

And I will stay joyful, despite the occasional looks I get from men -- and especially, most especially -- from women, who do not understand me, who think me a w***e and nothing more. They sit tightly encased in their rules. They forge their own chains, and bind themselves up forever, and never complain. But I…

Another page is turned. Soon my guests will be arriving, the salon will begin. We will talk about philosophy, about antiquity, about the events of the day. We will laugh and our laughter will be music filling the rooms, pouring out into the halls. The light of the candles will hardly match the brilliance of spirit of my most honored guests. Molière will be here soon, with his wit sharp as the silver knives we’ll use at supper, and he will be surrounded by philosophers and others spouting clever jokes. It is better here, than it was, even, when I paid a visit to my dear friend Queen Christine of Sweden.

People have begun to arrive. I will go down and greet them. I put my lute aside; I will keep it ready if they ask me to perform. But I doubt there will be pause in the conversation.

The other night, I had what you might call a vision. I was an old woman, and a young man with a mind burning bright, and a very ready wise word upon his lips, so enchanted me that I gladly gave what some would call a small fortune for him to buy books.

Later, when everyone has left, I’ll bring my latest student, Paul, to my bed, and we shall see what lesson we’ll have tonight. I love to think of the discussions coming soon, I love to think of what will happen later, in this room. I’ve never kept my beliefs quiet or concealed. It’s this which allows me to stroll the streets of Paris with as much confidence, and maybe even as much power, as many a man who’s come here to while away an idle hour.

© 2010 Alysa Salzberg

Author's Note

Alysa Salzberg
This piece is an homage to Ninon de Lenclos, one of my heroes. Many of the ideas here are paraphrased from Ninon's own writings. The picture is "Portrait of Ninon de Lenclos" by Louis Ferdinand Elle. I hope this short biographical sketch will inspire people to learn more about Ninon de Lenclos' amazing life.

My Review

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Excellent prose, touching, without a bogged down effect that most romanticism or sentimentalism has on the average reader. Enjoyed this!

Posted 11 Years Ago

I always find this very memorising and powerful, you bring such strength of character and beauty across.

Posted 13 Years Ago

Amazing. I will admit Ive never heard of them but this story has made me want more.

Posted 13 Years Ago

I'm not certain who Ninon de Lenlos is, however, I found this piece to be alive with feeling, intelligent, creative and captivating. I was instantly drawn into the story and my curiosity was asking for more. Very impressive! peace, balance and harmony

Posted 13 Years Ago

Wonderful word play
It grasped the readers mind into the story
Brings it to life in this readers mind
And inspires the reader
Excellent write!

Posted 13 Years Ago

A wonderful piece of work love! You bring the people involved to life, absolutely!
Excellent writing! You have intrigued me to read more lol

Posted 13 Years Ago

Nice work...to view back through the centuries and be inspired is to grasp a bit of ourselves...


Posted 13 Years Ago

A very nice display of her accomplishments.

Posted 13 Years Ago

Beautifully written. I would like to read more about this woman and her strong mind to choose her own way of life even when others think in immoral. Thanks for sharing.

Posted 13 Years Ago

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13 Reviews
Added on August 14, 2010
Last Updated on August 14, 2010
Tags: History, biography, courtesan, France, Age of Enlightenment, Philosophy


Alysa Salzberg
Alysa Salzberg

Paris, France

A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a good kid to be around if you don't like silence, a movie buff, a history buff, sometimes walks around the house in the buff, an ins.. more..


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