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July 31, 2006 | by  | in Books |
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Passionate Minds – The Great Enlightenment Love Affair

VERY FEW works of non-fiction can boast “frantic galloping across France, swordfights in front of besieged German fortresses, a wild affair with a gallant pirate’s son, and a deadly burning of books by the public executioner at the base of the grand stairwell of the Palais de Justice in Paris.” This book is one of the few, thanks to its exciting subject – the perilous affair between poet/playwright, Voltaire, and scientist/society lady, Emilie du Chatelet.

From the first sentence, Bodanis’ enthusiasm is obvious and understandable; not many biographers have such good heroes and heroines thrown to them, fully formed. Emilie’s good looks, unusually quick wit, scandalous family secret and ground breaking scientific research has until now hardly been touched upon by other biographers. Voltaire, fleeing warrants for his arrest, attending idolatry performances of his plays and giving in to his chronic hypochondria, also has the attributes of a good fictional character. To top it off, both were compulsive letter writers – Emilie is said to have written up to four letters a day – and letter keepers; Bodanis had only to visit the ground-floor recesses of the University of London Science Library, to find ten years’ correspondence between the lovers.

Fortunately, Bodanis covers more than the ten years in which the two were together. He goes back to Emilie’s childhood, in order to explain how a young girl, in a country which at the time rarely taught its women to read, was able to develop such an interest in Newtonian laws of physics. I won’t give the story away here – all I will say is that I can see it being made into a film, possibly with Kate Winslet playing the lead.

And, Emilie really is this lead in this story (I say story, rather than ‘work of non-fiction’ because that is how it reads – as a detailed and fascinating novel), with Voltaire being mentioned so much merely because he was one of the largest parts of her adult life (perhaps second only to science). Bodanis portrays Emilie as shrewd, hard-working, imaginative, sexy and hugely talented in solving complex equations in her head. She was, for this reason, a very successful gambler. As the book progresses, Bodanis’ affection for Emilie becomes more apparent. So too does his disdain for Voltaire, who (according to Bodanis) becomes increasingly petty, sulky, malingering and jealous during the last few years of his relationship with Emilie.

This fairly unambiguous portrayal of Emilie and Voltaire makes Passionate Minds an easy, exciting (and possibly not entirely honest) read. Bodanis evidently wants his readers to either want, or want to be like, his heroine. He is championing an underdog whose text, Principes Mathematiques de la Philosophie Naturelle, published several years after her untimely death, was dismissed merely because it was written by a woman. Immanuel Kant wrote, at the time, that to imagine Emilie as a great thinker was “as preposterous as imagining a woman to possess a beard.”

As Bodanis mentions in his preface, it is a good time to resurrect Emilie du Chatelet, to allow to her stand among other recently discovered 18th century female thinkers and get the credit she deserves for her influence on scientific discovery during the enlightenment. If, on the way, Voltaire is made to look, occasionally, like a childish and ignorant ninny, then I think it’s worth it. Plenty has already been written about his brilliance – it’s high time his magnificent girlfriend had her turn.


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