Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 19, 2006


The Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment, Featuring the Scientist Emilie du Châtelet, the Poet Voltaire, Sword Fights, Book Burnings, Assorted Kings, Seditious Verse, and the Birth of the Modern World

By David Bodanis

Crown. 373 pp. $24.95

P assionate Minds is a highly entertaining account of the 15-year love affair and intellectual partnership between the writer Voltaire and the mathematician and scientist Emilie du Châtelet. It is very well researched, with fascinating endnotes and a guide to further reading that shouldn't be missed. Unfortunately, much of this excellent scholarship is undercut by the book's principal fault -- its tendency to melodramatic flourish and exaggeration. That lengthy gosh-wow subtitle tells the story, in more ways than one.

David Bodanis, best known as a science journalist ( The Secret House, E=mc²), writes as if he were scripting a television series, making sure that each of his short chapters centers on some colorful incident, which he milks for all its possible drama before closing with a cliff-hanger. Voltaire in the Bastille! Emilie losing thousands at the gaming tables! The Chateau de Cirey as an international think tank! Chapter One concludes with the corny sentence, "She was eighteen years old, and surrounded by crowds again, but she was still alone"; Chapter 23 ends, "But the note to Catherine wasn't sealed. Emilie couldn't resist, and opened it." Stay tuned for Chapter 24! At times this dual biography actually resembles what the French call a vie romancée-- that is, a romanticized biography. Full of sexual anecdote and salacious detail, it presumes that readers will be lying in bed rather than sitting at a desk with a pencil and notebook.

This tendency to the over-emphatic starts with Bodanis's preface. There he proclaims that Emilie du Châtelet was an important thinker, especially in mathematics and physics, but that the world has largely judged her as just a "sexy mistress." In fact, every serious account of Voltaire's early years that I know of speaks admiringly of Châtelet's intellectual accomplishments and credits her as a crucial influence on her lover's thinking. For example, Peter Gay, in the introduction to his 1962 translation of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, describes their relationship thus:

"The lovers worked hard, kept rigorous hours, and collaborated in studying mathematics, making scientific experiments, and doing research in theology. Madame du Châtelet was a bluestocking, but she was not a dilettante. She translated difficult English works with more than average competence, learned languages faster than Voltaire, knew her classical philosophy, studied Newton and Leibniz with evident comprehension, and took a professional interest in the major philosophical and theological questions then agitating educated men all over Europe. She read hard and wrote much; some of the finest mathematicians of the century, like Maupertuis, improved her algebra and warmed her bed."

Gay later claims that the "robust, intelligent shade of Madame du Châtelet" stands behind the very book he has translated, Voltaire's Enlightenment masterpiece, the Philosophical Dictionary.

Still, Emilie du Châtelet is hardly a household name, and so one welcomes a good popular account of her short life and the mutually enriching relationship she enjoyed with the cleverest man in France. But the world already has such a biography: Nancy Mitford's Voltaire in Love (1957). In his preface, however, Bodanis casually dismisses this book as focusing on dashing adventures rather than on hard science. Which is true enough, though Mitford writes with a profound sympathy for the 17th and 18th century, and Voltaire in Love caps her career as the nonpareil popular biographer of that era. By contrast, Bodanis insists, Passionate Minds will embrace his heroine's contributions to mathematics, theology, astronomy and physics.

In fact, it does and it doesn't.

Emilie -- as Bodanis calls her -- published an entire book devoted to Biblical exegesis, but we never learn its title and, aside from a brief paragraph of generalities, we aren't given any passages from it nor any real sense of its structure or importance. Bodanis constantly speaks about Emilie's devotion to Newton and Leibniz, her interest in astronomy and her fascination with the power of gravity, but his accounts of her studies and experiments are little more than brief outlines. Sometimes he relegates greater detail to his endnotes, but I doubt that anyone would regard Passionate Minds as a serious scientific biography. The book just won't slow its pace, preferring the titillations of aristocratic intrigue, whether erotic or political, to the possible tedium of extended discussion of ideas, experiments and influence. In short, Passionate Minds too often merely asserts rather than proves Emilie's importance as an original thinker.

And yet, despite its disappointments as a work of scholarship, Passionate Minds is extremely enjoyable if one approaches it as historical entertainment. For example, Bodanis tells us the aristocrat's rules for marital infidelity: One should preserve the forms of Catholic marriage, refrain from holding hands in public, and avoid "staying the night at someone else's home while you were in the same city as your spouse." He goes on that "with one's husband, formal sex in the missionary position was all that should be offered, but with a lover, the woman could be more inventive. Indeed, one aristocratic young woman had reported that she only engaged in sex in the female-superior position when she was with her lover: she respected her husband so much that if he asked her if she'd let another mount her while he was away, she wanted to be able to reply truthfully that she certainly had not."

Bodanis also usefully reminds us of just how much Voltaire was essentially an establishment figure, not only the schoolboy friend of the rakish Duc de Richelieu and immensely wealthy from his own financial wheelings and dealings, but also for a time the resident poet and adviser at Versailles. Yes, he became the great champion of tolerance and the sworn enemy of injustice, but Voltaire still liked his luxury, those little flatteries and attentions of the eminent, as well as an income that allowed him to buy whatever books, scientific instruments and estates he might need. While Rousseau had actually been a servant, Voltaire couldn't live without them. He was the original limousine liberal.

It's also clear that Emilie du Châtelet truly was a remarkable woman, by turns intellectual, splendidly reckless (she once lost the equivalent of a million dollars while gambling in one night) and unequivocally sensual, if not insatiable. Like a modern professional woman, she was going to have it all, and did -- until she got pregnant (by a marquis 12 years her junior) and died just after childbirth at the age of 42. During her last months she worked furiously to finish her Mathematical Principles of the Natural Philosophy of Newton. It rendered Newton's Principia, written in Latin, into French, while also reworking some of its proofs in more modern and convenient notation. Her book proved influential on theoretical physics in France during the 19th century.

In his acknowledgments Bodanis mentions that his first complete version of this book was nearly twice as long, full of "too much textual analysis and historical background, and too much elaboration of science and the biographer's evidence. I was slipping away from the central story." But wasn't his goal to show us the importance of Emilie du Châtelet as a sadly neglected thinker and scientist? Without that "elaboration," he settled for a high-brow soap opera in period costume, full of color and gusto. Some of what we've lost can, in fact, be detected in his substantial annotated "Guide to Further Reading." As it stands, Passionate Minds is fun to read but hardly the work of important revisionist history it might well have been. Still, there might be a mini-series in it. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. He conducts a weekly book discussion on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. at washingtonpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company