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International Women’s Day: Émilie du Châtelet

Today on OUPblog we’re celebrating the 100th International Women’s Day with posts about inspirational women. In this post, Patricia Fara, author of Science: A Four Thousand Year History, writes about the 18th century mathematician and physicist Émilie du Châtelet.

Émilie du Châtelet, wrote Voltaire, ‘was a great man whose only fault was being a woman.’ Du Châtelet has paid the penalty for being a woman twice over. During her life, she was denied the educational opportunities and freedom that she craved. ‘Judge me for my own merits,’ she protested: ‘do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that renowned scholar’ – but since her death, she has been demoted to subsidiary status as Voltaire’s mistress and Isaac Newton’s translator.

Too often moulded into hackneyed stereotypes – the learned eccentric, the flamboyant lover, the devoted mother – du Châtelet deserves more realistic appraisals as a talented yet fallible woman trapped between overt discrimination and inner doubts about her worth. ‘I am in my own right a whole person,’ she insisted. I hope she would appreciate how I see her …

Émilie du Châtelet (1706-49) was tall and beautiful. Many intellectual women would object to an account starting with their looks, but du Châtelet took great care with her appearance. She spent a fortune on clothes and jewellery, acquiring the money from her husband, a succession of lovers, and her own skills at the gambling table (being mathematically gifted can bring unexpected rewards.) She brought the same intensity to her scientific work, plunging her hands in ice-cold water to keep herself awake as she wrote through the night. This whole-hearted enthusiasm for every activity she undertook explains why I admire her so much. The major goal of life, she believed, was to be happy – and for her that meant indulging but also balancing her passions for food, sex and learning.

Born into a wealthy family, du Châtelet benefited from an enlightened father who left her free to browse in his library and hired tutors to give her lessons more appropriate for boys than for marriageable girls. By the time she was twelve, du Châtelet could speak six languages, but it was not until her late twenties that she started to immerse herself in mathematics and Newtonian philosophy. By then, she was married to an elderly army officer, had two surviving children, and was developing intimate friendships with several clever young men who helped her acquire the education she was not allowed to gain at university.

When Voltaire’s radical politics provoked a warrant for his arrest, she concealed him in her husband’s run-down estate at Cirey and returned to Paris to restore his reputation. Over the next year, she oscillated between rural seclusion with Voltaire and partying in Paris, but after some prompting, she eventually made her choice and stuck to it. For fifteen years, they lived together at Cirey, happily embroiled in a private world of intense intellectual endeavour laced with romance, living in separate apartments linked by a secret passage and visited from time to time by her accommodating husband.

For decades, French scholars had been reluctant to abandon the ideas of their own national hero, René Descartes, and instead adopt those of his English rival, Newton. They are said to have been converted by a small book that appeared in 1738: Elements of Newtonian Philosophy. The only name on the title-page is Voltaire’s, but it is clear that this was a collaborative venture in which du Châtelet played a major role: as Voltaire told a friend, ‘Minerva [goddess of wisdom] dictated, and I wrote.’

During the next few years, while Voltaire dedicated himself to the plays and essays that made him famous, du Châtelet carried out scientific experiments and continued publishing in her own right. Like many multi-tasking women, she turned to translation, intellectual work that tolerates frequent interruptions and is vital for spreading scientific innovations. She may have studied intermittently, but she was definitely thorough. To meet her high standards, translating entailed not only converting the words into another language, but also interpreting and criticising the author’s original text. When du Châtelet set about producing a French version of Newton’s Principia, his great book on gravity and mechanics, she went back to his original Latin, explained the complex mathematics and added substantial commentaries.

As the months went by, an unexpected event forced her to work still harder – she discovered she was pregnant. Plagued by gloomy premonitions, she intensified her schedule, putting in eighteen hours a day to finish in time. Although she completed her translation with a couple of weeks to spare, her predictions proved correct, and she died a few days after giving birth. Voltaire was desolate – and du Châtelet’s manuscript mysteriously disappeared.

Ten years later, with perfect timing, du Châtelet’s Principes was published to coincide with the reappearance of Edmond Halley’s comet, which arrived on cue in the heavens as if to confirm that Newton’s calculations were right and Descartes’s were wrong. Du Châtelet was celebrated as France’s ‘illustrious female scholar’ – as indeed she was. But she also ran her husband’s legal affairs, catered for Voltaire’s emotional and editorial foibles, and obtained a military commission for her son. Crucially for me, pleasure did not get forgotten: she engaged in amateur theatricals, hosted lavish dinner parties, danced and gambled – and decorated her dog’s basket in blue and yellow to coordinate with the colour scheme of her bedroom.

Patricia Fara is a historian of science at Cambridge University. Her books include Science: A Four Thousand Year History, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Power and Science in the Enlightenment and Scientists Anonymous: Great Stories of Women in Science.

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