November Book Review: Passionate Minds

David Bodanis is the reason there is no toothpaste in our household – thanks to his book The Secret House (we use baking soda with just a touch of stevia instead). It may have been through that connection or by some other chance, but either way I was thrilled to discover this book: the tagline is

The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Chatelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world.

Impressively, Emilie du Chatelet, born in 1706, denied access to all formal education and scientific communities of the time, and all but forgotten now, did research that formed the foundation of the “squared” in E=mc2 and, separately, doing no research at all, theorized properties of light that wouldn’t be confirmed until 70 years later and form the basis of photography, among other things. This was a woman I needed to know more about.

The book is an easy and compelling read and good for a general overview of two remarkable and intersecting lives, but ultimately disappointing. Bodanis mentions in the preface that Voltaire and Emilie were together for ten years but that the relationship ended unsatisfactorily, leading to her early death and a certain bitterness in his later work. I would say that is a highly overdramatized way of summarizing the story as recorded in the main text, but my enjoyment of much of the book was spoiled as I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

More disappointingly, however, the book seems superficial. In the preface Bodanis contends that the pair, who corresponded with nearly every major thinker in Europe, were at the center of developing the up-and-coming Enlightenment. Yet in the main text their correspondences are referred to only passingly.

Even looking at it only as a story of their love, I have read biographies of entire lives (this skips most of Emilie’s growing-up years and picks up Voltaire intermittently from age 23, when he was already well-known, ending by quickly summarizing his last years) that aren’t much longer than this yet seem much more thorough. There are certainly books where this is unavoidable because the detail simply isn’t available. In this case, that isn’t true.

Du Chatelet had been an inveterate letter writer, sometimes sending four or five messages a day, and Voltaire wrote constantly too, so what I found about key events was often as dense as an email trail today. Thousands of those letters have survived, as have du Chatelet’s own half-dozen books and unprinted manuscripts (including beautiful, private autobiographical reflections). There are also letters from houseguests and neighbors and purchasing agents and scientists, as well as a vast thicket of police reports, complemented by a small layering of servants’ memories… The detail was so great that when, for example, I describe Voltaire smiling after being asked a question by a particular police spy in May 1717, his smiling is not a random guess, but appears in a report the spy wrote that very evening.

So why isn’t more of this included in the book?

There are certainly interesting passages. I had never realized that many of the things we take for granted today – like personalized signatures on letters, or the fact that we can never truly understand another person’s inner thoughts – were revolutionary at the time. Even the advent of cushioned armchairs was a result of a change in philosophical outlook. And I would never have guessed that it was Voltaire who – based on an interview with one of Newton’s relatives – first circulated the story about the apple falling from the tree.

(Of less general interest, but fascinating to me, was the fact that Voltaire and his friend Richelieu – nephew of the infamous Cardinal – were responsible for putting Jeanne Poisson into Louis XV’s bed, thus launching the career of Madame du Pompadour, who was another very smart cookie and about whom I wrote in In the Face of a Royal Pain.)

I’m glad I read the book, but mostly because it has pointed me to a couple of other biographies of Emilie that might actually give a full picture of the heroine.

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