Ninon de Lenclos’ home in the Rue des Tournelles was home to one of the great salons of 17th century Paris. She, aged 90, met Voltaire, aged 12 and left him a thousand livres in her will. Voltaire in turn, fifty years later, wrote up her life and re-invented her for the 18th century. The re-inventions continued, through the 19th and 20th centuries. So who is she now?

Charles de Saint-Evremond lived for the entire second half of his life in exile (1661-1703), almost all of it in London. He and Ninon had been lovers before he left and remained friends right to the end. Their correspondence, and particularly what they had to say about friendship, feels to me particularly relevant just now. This book is published today. It is my response to the election of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party.

Ninon & Saint-Evremond: Paris, London & Friendship

Molière Reading Tartuffe at Ninon de Lenclos, painted by Nicolas Monciau, hangs in the library of the Comédie-Française, France’s national theatre. Tartuffe scandalised the pious on its first appearance, prompting the religious authorities to threaten with excommunication anyone who publicly performed it. The picture shows the author declaiming his play at the Rue des Tournelles, where Anne de Lenclos, (‘Ninon’, shown seated in the middle), held her salon.

Nicolas André Monsiau (1754-1837) - Molière lisant sa comédie du Tartuffe chez Ninon de Lenclos

But were Ninon and Molière friends? Did they ever even meet? The private reading of Tartuffe at her home is only one of the un-verified stories which attached themselves to Ninon’s name. Between her and Molière sits Charles de Saint-Evremond, certainly a life-long friend of hers but already an exile in London when Tartuffe was published. So why is he in this picture at all? And what might the profound friendship they cultivated have to teach us now?

Published by Erewhon Books

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