In a 1740 letter to an English friend, Voltaire expressed his regret at being unable to visit him, as he could not live without, even for a short period, “that lady whom I look upon as a great man and as a most solid and respectable friend. She understands Newton; she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.” The famous French poet, playwright, and polemicist was then midway through his extraordinary fifteen-year love affair with the Marquise du Châtelet, a liaison that would produce works of genius from both their pens.
Émilie du Châtelet was a mathematician, physicist, and philosopher who loved to bedeck herself in diamonds, attend salons and soirées, show off at court, and indulge in amorous adventures. Émilie was born into French aristocracy and showed an early aptitude for learning. Her father hired the best Parisian tutors to educate her. When she was nineteen, he arranged her marriage to the Marquis du Châtelet, a man who adored his young wife, appreciated her talents, and never interfered with her indefatigable pursuit of intellectual excellence.
At twenty-six Émilie resolved, after giving birth to her third child, to turn to the serious study of mathematics. At a dinner party in Paris, she encountered Voltaire. He was thirty-nine and after an exile in England — his controversial compositions frequently forced him to flee France — he had returned steeped in Newton’s scientific discoveries and the philosophy of Locke. He couldn’t, however, arouse in French academics — devoted Cartesians — any intellectual curiosity, much less enthusiasm, for these new ideas from across the Channel. Émilie became ignited mind and body by Voltaire and his ability to clearly express complex notions about the natural world. For his part, Voltaire found in the Marquise someone whose scientific intelligence enhanced, challenged, and eventually surpassed his own.
Their uncommon relationship drives Nancy Mitford’s remarkable 1957 book Voltaire in Love, reissued by The New York Review Books in November 2012. In zestful prose, itself dripping with Voltarian wit, Mitford spins an account of the lovers’ incessant shenanigans, both highbrow and bawdy, and in so doing paints a flamboyant, down-and-dirty tableau of the French Enlightenment. Mitford offers hilarious and astonishing reports of the lovers’ quarrels, betrayals, and sexual appetites; their embroilments with the nobility at Versailles; Émilie’s destructive gambling habit (to repay her staggering debts she developed a financing arrangement similar to modern derivatives); Voltaire’s endless fights with fellow writers and banishments by the royal censor; the ménage at Cirey, Émilie’s husband’s country estate in Champagne where the lovers transformed a crumbling chateau into a resplendent laboratory and high-powered think tank; the myriad productions, both failures and successes, of Voltaire’s plays, many featuring Émilie as leading lady; Émilie’s desperate push to finish her masterpiece, an annotated translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, after discovering at age forty-two that she was pregnant by her young lover (by then she and Voltaire no longer shared a bed) and unlikely to survive the birth, which she did not.
Adam Gopnik, in his introduction to the new edition of Mitford’s book, calls it “a small-scale masterpiece of antiheroic history.” Mitford’s work is an amuse-bouche for at least three subsequent full-scale biographies of the Marquise: The Divine Mistress (1970) by Samuel Edwards; Émilie du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment (2006) by Judith Zinsser; and David Bodanis’s Passionate Minds: Émilie du Châtelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment (2006), which details how fundamental du Châtelet’s work was to scientific development.
Read on at Bookslut
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