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Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet

Quick Facts

Him: Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, French playwright and philosopher

Her: Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, wealthy and educated wife of the Marquise du Chastellet

Setting: France, mid-18th century


Background

History has been able to claim only a handful of truly remarkable couples in terms of academics, with Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet being one of them. He was brilliant with the pen, creating insightful and humorous plays famous across Europe. She was one of the few women of her era to have a formal education – and they set each other’s minds and hearts alight from the start.


Story

In the Age of Enlightenment, few figures stand quite as tall as Voltaire. Known for his magnificent observations on the nature of human relationships and his pointed commentary on the French government, he was a curious mind in search of ideas from all fields.

This insatiable hunger for new knowledge got him wrapped up in a passionate affair with Emilie du Chatelet, a married French noblewoman and accomplished scholar, despite prohibitions against the inclusion of women in academic circles. Taught by hired tutors, she would lay the groundwork for others to understand the impact of Sir Isaac Newton – and, some say, become the springboard for Albert Einstein.

Under threat for his life thanks to his seminal work Philosophical Letters, Voltaire counted on the charity of Emilie (or her husband, rather) when he moved into an abandoned chateau in Cirey. Close to the borders with Netherlands and Prussia, it would allow Voltaire to escape quickly if the authorities arrived and give he and Emilie plenty of time to themselves.


The relationship was passionate from the start: Emilie had a well-earned reputation for taking on lovers, a fact curiously ignored by her husband, and Voltaire was simply another in a long line of them. Despite a mutual appetite for physical intimacy, the two shared a deep passion for mathematics and science, as well as a fascination with the works of Sir Isaac Newton. (Emilie wrote two chapters in Voltaire’s Elements of Newton herself.)

Over the course of sixteen years, the pair would live together off and on, performing experiments in the great hall of the chateau at Cirey and attending the opera together. The two would eventually part, taking on new lovers and remaining close friends until her sudden death after giving birth to her fourth child in 1749.


Reputation

Though incredibly scandalous, the equality displayed in this relationship is what makes it one of the world’s most famous love stories. Burning with a desire to understand some of the more complex ideas of the time, Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet were a couple engaged with a shared passion – proof that common ground is the foundation for all great loves.

The story is remarkable for the fact that it existed in the open despite the conventions of Parisian society. Regardless of how much she did to ignore her vows, Emilie was married to a fairly high-ranking general from a well-known family. This did not stop her or Voltaire from writing long letters to each other for well over fifteen years, many of which have been lost to history due to a jealous lover by the name of Saint-Lambert.



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