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Voltaire's Story Revealed in 'Passionate Minds'


He was a revolutionary philosopher and writer, she was a brilliant young aristocrat - and their love affair would capture the spirit of the Enlightenment. What could be the plot for a period drama, actually played out in real life.


Born in 1706, Emilie du Chatelet was a bookworm when the king's own daughters were illiterate. She was a math whiz. And when she was sent to Versailles to find a suitable husband, which she eventually did, Bodanis writes that the 16- year-old hit on a way to fend off lascivious courtiers - she challenged one to a duel.

DAVID BODANIS: They went to one of the big buildings at Versailles, and she started taking her clothes off - not all of them, but just down to the equivalent of the petticoat layer. And it turned out she'd been a little bit of a tomboy as a child, and her father had given her fencing lessons and horse riding, and she'd been allowed to climb trees and stuff. So she didn't win the sword fight; she didn't kill the guy, but she didn't lose either. It was sort of a draw. And after that, she put down her sword, lifted up Descartes' "Analytic Geometry," walked back outside and the guys left her alone.

MONTAGNE: That sounds apocryphal. That sounds almost impossible to be true.

BODANIS: I would've - when I first came across it, I thought, could that really be the case? But the person who recorded that was a fellow named Richelieu who really did not have positive views about many women. This wasn't the famous Cardinal; this was his grandnephew.

MONTAGNE: The sword fight was, what, one way of showing that she was a serious person and take me the way I am or don't take me at all?

BODANIS: Yeah, a little bit. Emilie knew that at some point she had to get married, but usually by that time, you weren't really on the shelf until like 18 or 19. So she had a while and she just wanted to expand her mind.

MONTAGNE: So Emilie was 27 and Voltaire was almost 40 when they met. She was married but more or less free to do what she wanted. Remind us of who Voltaire was when they met - what he was in the world, in France.

BODANIS: Sure. It turns out when Voltaire was 40, if he had died at that point, we never would have heard of him today. He was a really quick wit, but he didn't do much with it. As an example of his quick wit, one time somebody who he didn't like came up to him and said, Oh, Mr. Voltaire, I've written a poem. I call it an Ode to Posterity. What do you think? And Voltaire looked at him and said, I wouldn't count on it reaching its destination. So he had that sort of quick wit.


BODANIS: Wasn't that wonderful?

MONTAGNE: The two of them ended up, some time later, setting up housekeeping, really, at a chateau outside Paris. And really outside Paris in those days, I mean, it would take, I would guess, days to get there. What, 150 miles away?

BODANIS: One time they had a visitor from Italy and Emilie, in a few weeks, learned good Italian. They would often speak English to each other - Emilie and Voltaire - to keep the servants from listening in too much. Or they put on plays in the evening there. People have rediscovered, in that real chateau, the attic theater where Voltaire would write these original performances and he and Emilie would act it out. Even more, within that chateau, they had great science discoveries.

MONTAGNE: Now, her great project was translating Isaac Newton's "Principia."

BODANIS: Mm-hmm. She worked on not just the translation of Isaac Newton, but she developed it as a commentary, and again, helped develop some of the key notions in what's called the conservation of energy. The notion that the total amount of energy in the world, although can distribute and move around, there's a total amount that always stays the same. It was a massive work. Nobody was doing it. Unfortunately, she got pregnant right near - when she was not quite finished with it. Not from Voltaire - they had already broken up - but from a French poet named Saint-Lambert, a truly despicable human being.

MONTAGNE: That is a very sad story. She was early 40s, became pregnant by a younger lover who she really did love...

BODANIS: And Voltaire said she wasn't angry; she was just very sad to know she had to leave before she was ready. And she'd always work late at night, and now she started working even later. And she would always dress properly with nice dresses and Watteau's watercolors behind her, and diamonds, and she'd have the candles lit - and just scribble til 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. And she actually finished it. She finished it just about one day before she went into labor.

MONTAGNE: And when she went into labor that led, very shortly, to her death...

BODANIS: Yes, there was bleeding...

MONTAGNE: ...and the death of the baby.


MONTAGNE: Voltaire was there at the end of her life, no longer lovers, but they were very close. He never forgot her.

BODANIS: She was a great optimist. In fact, the word optimism was coined about the time she was writing. Whether behind all the vicissitudes of human life that we see, whether there's a deeper plan that some people can bring out, she thought that there really, really was. Voltaire wasn't quite sure. And when she died, he spent years battling with that in his literature and in his poems.


MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

BODANIS: Thank you.


MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

YDSTIE: And I'm John Ydstie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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