Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Voltaire in Love" - a scandal of the Enlightenment

NPR has a regular segment segment called, You Must Read This. Its latest pick is made by Stacy Schiff, the author of the new biography of Cleopatra. She picked "Voltaire in Love" - about an affair between Volatire and amateur physicist and mathematician Emilie du Chatelet. She translated Newton's work into French (published in 1749), and that may have played a role in later establishing Newton as the hero-figure of the French Enlightenment. But the affair itself is interesting, and it seems that this 1957 book paints a fascinating picture. Voltaire is a fascinating figure anyways, so I thought I'll pass this along:

Emilie du Chatelet and Voltaire met in 1733. He was 39, the great gadfly of the age, if one whom police chiefs begged to behave like a grownup, for the sake of public order. The bad boy of the Jesuits, he seemed, writes Mitford, "to be one of those people who would get into trouble even in a Trappist monastery." Emilie was 27, a married mother of three, an algebra-obsessed intellectual, as much at ease in Latin as in French, with Newton as with Virgil, a rash woman of great appetites. Or, put differently, Emilie always had about her "something of the whore." Mitford dispenses with the childhoods and years apart in 45 pages. And then she is off and running, delivering an affair as crackling in its intellectual high jinks as in its leap-off-the-page prose.
Voltaire and Madame du Chatelet's love was no cakewalk. He taught her English in three weeks. In an age of brilliant conversation, theirs set the gold standard. Both spent a great deal of time at their desks. And Emilie could be exhausting, inclined as she was to put in 12 hours at the gambling table, or, after midnight, spontaneously to deliver a full opera.
and then there is this the small matter of her husband:
Oh, yes, and then there was the husband. One of the beauties of Mitford's volume is the reminder that they did things differently in l8th-century France. The Marquis du Chatelet was highly accommodating. He was rarely on the scene, off with his regiment most of the time. Initially it was Emilie who had emotional rivals, in Frederick the Great and in a delicious young niece of Voltaire's. But ultimately Emilie, too, fell in love. Given as she was to excess, she essentially wound up with two husbands — the Marquis and Voltaire — as well as a lover. The third left her pregnant, at the age of 43.
Worth the price of admission is the account of how Voltaire and the lover conspire to lure the round-eyed Monsieur du Chatelet back to his wife's bed, so that an illegitimate child might be passed off as a lawful heir. The story does not end well — "How like the pretentious Madame du Chatelet to die in childbirth at her age," clucked the wags at Versailles — but it makes for a brainy romp, every bit as ardent and artful in Mitford's epigrammatic retelling as it must have been in the original.
Read the full story here.

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