Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why I Love Emilie du Châtelet by Laurel Corona

It comes as a bit of a surprise to me that I have written a novel about Enlightenment France. I avoided the era in both my undergraduate and graduate programs in literature and history. I slogged with great resistance through every assigned poem, memoir, or essay, wishing time would speed up so we could get to the Romantics and ditch those stuffy men in wigs, and women in corsets and ridiculous skirts the width of a tennis court.
In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that I fell in love with Emilie du Châtelet, I would never have considered setting a novel in this era at all, but Emilie seduced me, as she did so many others, literally and figuratively.

I love her brain. I’ve always admired people who understand math and science, because I struggled so much with both in school. Though I could spot a grammatical or spelling error in those nasty “word problems” in math, I was clueless about what formulas would solve them. Taking science classes for non-majors to fulfill breadth requirements at the University of California at Davis, I was amazed that this was the watered down and simplified version of things I could barely comprehend.

Emilie du Chatelet

Emilie was a natural. Anecdotes from her early life have her sitting at the dinner table with Bernard de Fontanelle, one of the great names in letters and science in his time, discussing the nature of the universe and how its laws could be determined. She spent hours studying physics with her indulgent father, and she used winnings from card games to purchase the latest books of math and science. She could do unbelievably long calculations in her head. Because as a woman she could not attend university classes or sit in cafes where men met to discuss the latest scientific thinking, she used money from her patrimony to hire illustrious scientists as tutors, including the outstanding mathematician of his day, Pierre de Maupertuis. At one point, she rescued herself from a huge gambling debt (one of the royals was cheating, and she could say nothing) by coming up with the concept of derivatives.

She studied for the love of it. Early in her life, she did not think of making a contribution to science herself--women did not publish scientific work, and aristocrats had many social duties that kept them occupied. Only when she took up with Voltaire and became his lover did she begin seriously pursuing experimental science. Voltaire was not nearly the physicist he thought himself to be, and it was through their arguments that Emilie gained the confidence to begin writing scientific papers and books herself.

Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica is her masterpiece. Presumably French scientists could read Latin as well as she could--Latin was the lingua franca of publication--but Newton’s thinking was so complex (and his writing so odd) that few could understand him. Emilie understood thoroughly, and did not merely translate but rather rewrote Newton’s masterpiece into French that her compatriots could understand. She then supplied commentaries to clarify and elaborate on Newton’s ideas. Finally, where Newton had not provided mathematical proofs, Emilie figured out what these would be and supplied them. He translation is still the standard one used in France.

I suppose it should be obvious that Emilie du Châtelet was unconventional, and this is the second thing I love about her. She defeated a young nobleman in a fencing match as a way of warding off his unwanted advances. She took lovers whenever it suited her. She home-schooled her son because she didn’t want him exposed to religious or scientific nonsense. She lived with Voltaire for fifteen years at her husband’s ancestral home at Cirey (he approved of the relationship), amassing a library rivaling any university’s, and setting up a state-of-the-art physics lab in one of the wings.
One feature of the Chateau de Cirey serves as probably the best symbol of Emilie’s irrepressible spirit and unconventionality. In the parlor of her apartment in the chateau, she arranged chairs and tables around a beautiful claw-footed bathtub, where she lounged in only a thin chemise rendered transparent by the water. Her guests sipped wine or coffee (the new rage) and nibbled on pastries while Emilie sloshed to her heart’s content. What a fantastic idea!
The third thing I love about Emile is her courage. She was one of the first women scientists to publish (although anonymously in her lifetime). She stood up to the greatest man of letters in France, her own lover, when she though he was wrong in his thinking about the nature of fire, heat, and light. She championed Newton over Descartes in the latter’s home country, to scientists who were not prepared to abandon a great French scientist for an English one, despite evidence of flaws in Descartes’ thinking.

I’m not sure Emilie would call her last love affair an act of courage, but I think it was. She fell madly in love with a dashing young soldier-poet and became pregnant at the unheard of age of forty-three. She could have ended the pregnancy, but that was not her way. She safely delivered the baby, a daughter, in September 1749, but died six days later of an embolism. It is that daughter’s search for information about her dead mother that drives the story of FINDING EMILIE.

Imagine Emilie today. Head of her own lab and member of every important academy of science, she is trotting off to Vegas for a meeting of top physicists, where, dripping with bling, she will party in the hot tub and gamble the night away. Emilie, I’m sorry you lived too soon.


  1. Brava for an intriguing post about a fascinating woman!

  2. Sorry to slide this in here off topic, but where's the Historical Fiction Challenge post for April? Did I miss it?

  3. I can't wait to to get my hands on Finding Emilie and reading more about Emilie du Châtelet. Great post!

  4. Thank you for this post. I have found your blog during researching Emilie du Châtelet for a project. I am pleased to have found your blog. Cheers.