Emerging from Voltaire's shadow

How the Marquise du Chatelet exceeded the brilliance of her famous lover

Review biography

January 28, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

La Dame d'Esprit: A Biography of the Marquise du Chatelet

Judith P. Zinsser

Viking / 400 pages / $24.95

For the past six years, the Bush administration has been almost obsessively anti-science, causing many intellectuals as well as scientists to yearn for the focus on rationality and empiricism that was the keystone of the Enlightenment. There are few more thrilling periods than the Enlightenment and there were few more exciting places to be than France in the Age of Reason. Not since the Greeks had philosophy aspired to such a glorious apex. Intellectual life was compulsively, thrillingly expansive.

Americans owe a great deal to the Enlightenment, the ideas and ideals of which helped to spawn both the French and American revolutions. The Founding Fathers were influenced by the writings and philosophies of the Enlightenment, and the Bill of Rights evolved, in part, out of an American interpretation of those ideas.

After reading Judith P. Zinsser's enthralling biography of Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the Marquise du Chatelet, ten years in the making, one cannot fail to place the Marquise at the center of that exciting, monumental time. That she was a woman surrounded by brilliant, visionary men - and met and even exceeded their standard of brilliance - makes her story all the more compelling.

Born 300 years ago into French aristocracy, Emilie married at 18, becoming the young wife of the Marquis in an arranged, but comfortably amicable marriage. A footloose decade passed in which she became the quintessential party girl at the court while also bearing three children for her husband. Then the bored young housewife's life altered forever when she became the lover and patron of Voltaire.

What led the Marquise to reverse her intellectual and moral fortunes and plunge into a dramatically different world than the one she had known? What led her to divest herself of the celebrity court life and embrace a starkly different existence fueled by intellectual passion?

In a word, genius.

Zinsser never waivers in her presentation of the Marquise as one of the most startling intellects of 18th-century France. Zinsser previously co-authored a two-volume history of European women, A History of Their Own; her well-researched biography brings the Marquise and the entire era of the Enlightenment with its many complicated personalities to vivid, pulsing life. All the varied enticements of the era - intellectual and romantic - are revealed.

At the heart of the Enlightenment lies science, notably physics. Newton's theories propelled the thinkers of the period, particularly in France. The obverse of the current administration in Washington in which George Bush has eschewed and disregarded science in favor of evangelicalism, the tone of the Enlightenment was anti-religion, as represented by Voltaire's writings.

The church, inextricably bound to the state, was roundly criticized and even vilified by Enlightenment philosophers, including the Marquise. Thus, her involvement with Voltaire and financial backing of him constituted a radical political and social statement, particularly given her nobility. She was both iconoclast and outlaw.

Yet it was the Marquise's social status that allowed her to pursue all things intellectual, which she did. The party circuit may have been briefly intoxicating, but could not compare with the later thrill of her intellectual life. The Marquise transformed herself from the Paris Hilton of her day to a Renaissance woman: mathematician, physicist, translator, scientific theorist.

She translated Newton's Principia, among other singular achievements; her translation remains the quintessential French text of the work. The Marquise also wrote extensively about Newton's theories of calculus and kinetic energy. These scientific writings made her an immensely important author and visionary in her own right. At the age of 31, the Marquise wrote about her research into the science of fire. Her theories were the precursor to scientific theories of the nature of light and infrared radiation.

The Marquise would later evolve theories in physics on mass and energy that incorporated and expanded upon the ideas of Leibnitz. This writing on light velocity by the Marquise ultimately formed the foundation for Einstein's theory E=mc2.What is most stunning in Zinsser's biography is the sheer volume of work and the extent of its brilliance that the Marquise produced in her short life. (She died at 42, of an embolism, six days after the birth of her fourth child, a death she anticipated, working feverishly to finish the Newton translation before the birth.)

And yet despite her heralded achievements, the Marquise has remained a veritable cipher for centuries, her work not so much dismissed as ignored, except by scholars of the period who have tended to place her primarily in the context of Voltaire's mistress rather than as scientific genius. The Marquise, however, exceeded the brilliance of both her lover and Newton.

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