Breezy treatment of the intellectually fecund romance between the Enlightenment’s most notorious man of letters and an aristocratic French scientist.
Bodanis has proved himself terrifically adept at rendering complex subjects in language palatable to the non-scholar with such works as E=mc2 (2000), and here he amicably develops one of history’s more remarkable and significant marriages of the minds. Freethinking Voltaire, whose early forced exile to England helped instill his Enlightenment ideals, met the charming young and married Emilie du Châtelet in 1733, just as he was putting together his incendiary Letters on England. They quickly became inseparable lovers. Châtelet was no trifling mistress, but an accomplished, well-educated mathematician and scientist whose early admiration for Descartes goaded her to explore further the mysterious forces that moved the universe, specifically the theory of gravity propounded by Sir Isaac Newton. Constantly in trouble for his writing, and two steps ahead of the irate king’s officials bearing lettres de cachet for his imprisonment in the Bastille, Voltaire needed a safe house. He and Châtelet ensconced themselves with her children and servants at Cirey, a crumbling old château 150 miles east of Paris, in the Champagne region that belonged to her husband’s obliging family. Châtelet was ecstatic to find a refuge from the strictures of being a wife and mother, a place where she could undertake serious research and finally be encouraged and recognized in her intellectual pursuits. Voltaire drew on her brilliance to hone his own ideas; Zadig emerged from this period. Bodanis draws on reams of correspondence in portraying an idyllic partnership that smoldered over a decade and proved the enduring love of both their lives: “One writes verse in his corner,” observed one visitor to Cirey, “the other triangles in hers.”
The result is a charming tale that will prompt interested readers to pursue Châtelet’s contributions to scientific thought.