On June 8, the Alliance Française de Chicago will re-create a “Salon parisien” inspired by a significant woman of her time Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet. Zoé Moore tells us more about it;
American women love French women, so much that they try to become them and understand their attitudes and lifestyles through books and movies. Ladies like Josephine Baker and Jean Seberg serve as a golden standard of Americans turned French. I can attest: it’s hard to live in France and not get caught up in the expat life, making a haphazard attempt at fitting in, becoming French. But with influential female figures like Simone de Beauvoir, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Jeanne D’Arc, Catherine Deneuve, Simone Veil, and even Anne Hidalgo, it is easy to want to become une femme française. Their strength, knowledge, elegance, and wit make them remarkable role models that stand the test of time and have managed to travel all the way across the ocean to the United States. They all have remarkable stories and wisdom that has been passed down to my own modern American life. So when I learned that we would be creating a Parisian Salon, a common social and intellectual gathering to inform and entertain in the 17th and 18th centuries, celebrating Emilie, la Marquise du Châtelet, I was definitely curious.
Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise Du Châtelet (1706-1749), or as I shall refer to her, Emilie, was an amazing woman who I knew absolutely nothing about one week ago. As a girl, Emilie attended her father’s salons with elite men and women, rapidly learning through discussions on science, philosophy, and literature in lavish Parisian hôtels particuliers. This introduction to le salon and academic life put her on a path to becoming one of the greatest minds of her time. Emilie’s short biography refers to her as a major contributor to physics and mathematics, having promoted and participated in the debate on vis viva, known today as kinetic energy, and as the translator of Isaac Newton’s Principia (her French translation is still standard today). She also published the scientific book Institutions de Physique / Foundations of Physics in 1740, which reaffirmed her grasp of the domain, sparked conversation, and gained popularity during her life. Many of her ideas were published posthumously in Denis Diderot’s well known Encyclopédie.
She is widely known as Voltaire’s lover. Emilie invited him to live and work with her in her home, the Château de Cirey, where they stayed and influenced one another intellectually throughout the 1730s. Despite this mutually productive relationship, Emilie is often left in Voltaire’s shadow. She died at the age of 42 due to childbirth complications, her pregnancy the result of an ardent affair with the captain and poet Saint-Lambert. The large strokes of Emilie’s life are enticing enough, but there is surely more to the story. To do this well-bred woman of le siècle des lumières justice, it was up to me to uncover her true nature and spirit. What was she like? How did this woman manage to make a name for herself as a reputable scientist in the 18th century?
Luckily, Emilie loved to write letters. Even more luckily, many of Emilie’s letters and works were published and are now in the public domain. I dove into reading her letters to M. de Maupertuis, a great man of science and one of Emilie’s tutors (and possibly lovers),
that date from the mid to late 1730s, during Emilie’s academic prime living in the Château de Cirey with Voltaire. They detail her life, her thoughts, her passions, and get down to who she is as a woman and scientist. She has a voice that is serious and funny, surprisingly modern and accessible. I have come to know a very witty, loving, and smart woman who teases and challenges her mentor amidst inviting him over to chat or keep her company.
Another one of Emilie’s publications is Discours sur le bonheur, or Discourse on Happiness. These kinds of ruminations were common for men of her era to publish, but not women. Emilie takes on what happiness means through female eyes (finally!). The takeaway is clear and much of it is still relevant today: be free of prejudices, be healthy, have tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions. It’s okay to have illusions? This last one jumped out at me, I didn’t quite understand where she was coming from, but I had to give some faith to my dear French sister.
To understand this theory that one must be “susceptible d’illusions” to be happy, we must turn to Emilie the lover. Women are known so often as the lover, the extra, the emotional, but Emilie brings fresh air and meaning to love and being passionate. She stipulates that love is one of the greatest illusions and yet it provides some of the grandest happiness; it is important to trust and believe in love or you have no chance of experiencing this ultimate happiness, even if you know that it is an illusion that will eventually dissipate. Emilie remarks that even if you connect with someone on every level, the time comes to let them go and move on. She explains that this is an extremely painful experience, but you must not lose faith that you can and will love again. If I were to translate some of her sentiments to modern day language, she advises us that if someone doesn’t want you, you are better off without them! Emilie’s letters to her last lover, Saint-Lambert, illustrate her willingness to give herself to this illusion and be happy, even after her intimate relationship Voltaire, and even if it means enduring sadness or misery.
One of the most moving lines she writes while quite pregnant in 1749:
« Quand je suis avec vous, je supporte mon état avec patience, je ne m’en aperçois souvent pas. Mais quand je vous ai perdu, je ne vois plus rien qu’en noir »
“When I am with you, I endure my state with patience, I often do not notice it. But when I have lost you, I see only the dark side of things.”
I would like to personally thank la Marquise for her contributions to science, philosophy, and the female legacy and let her know that she remains a role model for people around the world in the 21st century. I am thrilled to have met another amazing French woman and can’t wait to bring her words and thoughts to life in our Salon on June 8. It is going to be a truly amazing evening where we discuss her philosophy with Irina Ruvinsky, hear excerpts of her letters by Melisha Mitchell, and enjoy an incredible cello performance by Titilayo Ayangade, an all-female cast to create a salon that I think Emilie herself would have appreciated.
I hope to see you all then!
A bientôt !