Passionate Minds : Emilie du Chatelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment
It was 1733 when the poet and philosopher Voltaire met Emilie du Chatelet, a beguiling-and married-aristocrat who would one day popularize Newton's arcane ideas and pave the way for Einstein's theories. In an era when women were rarely permitted any serious schooling, this twenty-seven-year-old's nimble conversation and unusual brilliance led Voltaire, then in his late thirties, to wonder, "Why did you only reach me so late?" They fell immediately and passionately in love. Through the prism of their tumultuous fifteen-year relationship we see the crumbling of an ancient social order and the birth of the Enlightenment. Together the two lovers rebuilt a dilapidated and isolated rural chateau at Cirey where they conducted scientific experiments, entertained many of the leading thinkers of the burgeoning scientific revolution, and developed radical ideas about the monarchy, the nature of free will, the subordination of women, and the separation of church and state. But their time together was filled with far more than reading and intellectual conversation.
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September 30, 2007
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Excerpt from Passionate Minds by David Bodanis
1 Emilie Paris and Versailles, 1706–1725 Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, just ten years old, sitting at the grown-ups’ dinner table, her wavy hair pinned tight in yet another eVort to keep it in place, was straining to follow the words of the visitor her father had brought to their Paris mansion this Thursday night. His name was Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, and she’d heard he was a famous scientist. He was talking about the distant stars. He was explaining that they are huge suns like our own, with inhabited planets around them. That shouldn’t terrify her, he went on, for it means we no longer have to feel oppressed, pinned down on our one small planet. Instead, we should gaze outward and breathe freely. “Nothing is so beautiful to visualize as this prodigious number of [solar systems], each with a sun at its center making planets rotate around it.” Emilie listened, rapt. It was dark outside, and the light from more than a dozen candles Wlled the room; the servants worked quietly amidst the glasses and plates and silver serving trays. This was one of the Wrst times she had been allowed to stay up so late. Even better, Fontenelle was scarcely paying attention to anyone else. Emilie’s elderly father, Louis-Nicolas, looked on thoughtfully. He had arranged this evening, for he recognized that his daughter was diVerent from other children, badgering him with constant questions about history and the court and the stars and religion. But he also knew that Emilie’s excitement at learning didn’t Wnd favor with everyone. Her mother, Gabrielle-Anne, was also at the table—and she was distinctly not amused. Gabrielle-Anne was one of those once-beautiful women who forever remain unhappy in life, however wealthy they are. “I don’t think that anyone ever saw her smile,” a regular visitor remarked, “except in a weary, condescending way.” She’d been brought up in a convent, where the most important knowledge was how to maintain your social position, and the most intellectually complex instruction had been needlepoint. For years she’d tried to instill in Emilie the only kind of advice she felt a girl needed. The rules were legion: “Don’t ever blow your nose on your napkin—you might think I don’t have to tell you, but the Montesquieu brothers blow theirs on the tablecloths, and it’s disgusting. Break your bread rather than cut it (and break the bottom of your soft-boiled eggs when you’re done so that the servants won’t send them rolling off the plate onto you). . . . Never, ever comb your hair in church. You must be careful with the word monseigneur, it is pronounced diVerently for a prince of the Church and for a prince of the blood. And when a priest’s in the room, always give him the chair nearest the Wre and serve him Wrst at meals, even if he’s at the bottom of the table.” The mother had even tried sending Emilie to formal infant balls, where children arrived in miniature carriages and were supposed to remain for hours, showing oV their bouquets, remarking on the goblets and furnishings and each other’s clothes. But Emilie had been bored and showed it. Making it even worse at the Breteuil table this Thursday night was Emilie’s fourteen-year-old cousin Renée-Caroline. She was cross, for she wasn’t used to being ignored. In the past few months, since she’d moved into the Breteuil home, she’d been the favored girl. She was everything a mother could hope for: compliant, pretty, and always wearing the right clothes. For hours on end she would happily gossip with Gabrielle-Anne, talking about fashion and etiquette, and the