On Goodreads when I reviewed this some years back I began with a cross rant, which I’m going to truncate here. It is a great pity that this book did not have competent editorial assistance – not one of OUP’s strong points (rolls eyes). Intensely irritating is that the author uses the word ‘recall’ incessantly and inappropriately. It would have been a simple matter for OUP to fix before publication. It’s by no means the only flaw and more on that later.
However, I really don’t want to put you off reading about two women whose impact on the science world of France and the UK lasted for hundreds of years.
As the author chose to write this in chronological order, this book has the misfortune of starting with the more interesting of the two stories it tells. The tale of Chatelet verges on the incredible, after which Somerville’s life palls in comparison. I can’t help thinking with some creativity applied, this history might have been presented in reverse chronological order to good effect. There might even have been some advantage in having done so, aside from making it more readable.
I bought this book because I discovered the influence that Mary Somerville had in England for a hundred years or so as the translator (and ‘improver’) of Laplace used in universities until the mid-nineteenth century, at least, and wished to find out more about the background to this. The first part of the book, however, tells the nicely complementary story of Emilie du Chatelet, who somewhat earlier translated Newton to French, standing the test of time so that even late in the twentieth century it was highly regarded. Chatelet, like Somerville, was forced to set about her own education as an adult, no easy thing despite being an aristocrat. Her life was spent looking after an estate, having at least some times to educate her children herself, it was spent in part with her husband – if only for form and friendliness – and in passion and intellect with Voltaire. It is evident from this book that Voltaire would have been greatly diminished in the absence of Chatelet. Although one could say this was a reciprocal relationship, it nonetheless was a relationship that made things harder in some respects for Chatelet as she put Voltaire first always. Thus her life also consisted of keeping him out of gaol, getting him out of gaol, getting him unexiled, keeping him out of trouble, and helping him with his scientific endeavours. This latter was particularly important since he really wasn’t up to it, whereas she was. Her own research, however, tended to be conducted in secret in the middle of the night, in her bedroom, using as equipment torn sheets and the like, so that it didn’t interfere with his work or make him jealous.
Indeed, maybe she underestimated him in this last regard, since it seems he was anything but jealous of her greater abilities, generous in his praise and loyal to –
Loyal to? How to finish that. Emilie was beautiful, extremely intelligent and men were loyal to her. Her husband put up with the fact that her relationship with Voltaire utterly broke the formal rules of extra-marital affairs in France: it was real and it was public. Voltaire, when Emilie was in her late thirties, told her he didn’t want to have sex with her any more. She was gutted but still stunning. After she found out by accident that Voltaire had moved on sexually, so did she. She became involved with a young man of society. Despite this Voltaire was utterly loyal in that he stayed with her, her husband stayed with her and Newton stayed with her. She was still desperately trying to finish her translation of Newton when the unthinkable happened. She felt pregnant to the young man. In her forties! I imagine that would be like being in your sixties and becoming pregnant now. Life expectancy can’t have been more than around that figure, I would have thought. So now she has the disgrace of this happening, she has Voltaire livid – somehow he seemed to think that she would remain celibate in memory of him?! – her husband is humiliated, the young man is confused…but she still has them all. They are all still with her, now a bub inside her too…AND Newton. I am truly in awe of the fact that in this state she was still working on Newton. Voltaire, somewhat losing patience, said to a friend
‘Madame du Chatelet has not yet delivered. She has more difficulty bringing into the world a baby than a book’.
Despite that, the baby did slip out with incredible ease, Emilie spent the next days making last changes to Principia…
And then? Suddenly one week after giving birth she died, just like that.
The husband, the ex-sexual-lover and still lover in other ways Voltaire, the young lover and father of the baby Saint-Lambert, were all utterly devastated. Of the latter it was said by a friend ‘I would never have believed him capable of such passion,’ his grief led to a breakdown from which he took a year to recover.
I can’t help thinking Humphrey Bogart would have said ‘This is some dame’. Boy, is she what.
Then, this heartbreaking footnote from some 40 years later in the 1790s when the churchyard in which she was buried was ransacked. One of her young admirers, now 83 years
watched a shocking desecration of Emilie’s grave, in which her bones were scattered and her jewellery and finery mocked and stolen by uncomprehending ‘citizens’ of the new republic. When the mob had gone, Devaux lovingly replaced Emilie’s remains in her grave. There was no inscription on her black, marble tombstone, but the old man regularly kept a silent vigil in honour of her memory, sitting by her grave and remembering the glory days of the philosophes – the days of hope, through faith in reason, before reason temporarily turned into madness.
This is the story that is unputdownable, it is impossible not to love Emilie and the author does a fair job of putting you in her shoes, at her dinner table, in her pained thoughts about her work. She also does a reasonable job of putting science as it was into the social and philosophical setting of the period. For me, she did not do a good job of making the science itself accessible, but aside from being a scientific imbecile, you will recall I was also irritated beyond endurance by the recall word and after a while skipped over the science. The author already has a reputation for pop maths/science, so I am prepared to take all the blame.
I’ve been discussing the whole issue of reviewing lately, being honest vs saying nice things and I’m rather torn on this one. It has large flaws, but nonetheless the subject matter is in my opinion so rarely dealt with, that it is worth endeavouring with this and most readers might not even notice some of the things that I have been picky about. Although the author herself was full of praise for the publishing assistance she received when she wrote to me in response to a query, I think she has been utterly let down by completely inadequate editorial process. I simply cannot understand at a point in time where real publishing houses should be stating loudly and clearly that there is genuine value and purpose to their role, why it is that we see instead something that quite simply fails the writer. The material was here to make a GREAT book, instead of which it is far far less than that.
Written during my reading…
Recommended for: all the male scientists and academics who think they have it tough.
I bought this to find out more about Mary Somerville, having discovered how influential her work was in the UK for a hundred years. What a bonus to discover the story of the scientist, mathematician and writer Emilie Du Chatelet.
The book is in chronological order and hence starts with an account of du Chatelet’s life and work. She has the advantage of being a wealthy aristocrat. Against that, however, all the disadvantages stand out, the consequence of being female. Even becoming educated as an adult was a great struggle.
The legacy of the crippling handicap of being female was that even when she overcame it to produce a translation of Newton which remains the standard French account (as well as the first), at the time there was the usual condemnation and presumption that it was the result of the work of the various men in her life. I understand it is only over the past forty years or so, as women are slowly being accepted as approximately ‘equal’ to men, that history is being rewritten to put Du Chatelet where she should be.
Arianrhod is a competent writer and mathematician and gives an account which is nicely dispassionate while occasionally finding it impossible not to express her emotion. You will understand why, if you read the book. You will read it with your heart in your mouth for Du Chatelet. You’ll be barracking for her all the way.
More on this book’s minusses.
- Hate the reference ‘system’. You guess when you are on a page if there will be any references and go to the back of the book to search for them.
- The author makes some attempt to explain the personal side of this venture, her own development in the field and how it drew her to her subjects. There is a brief discussion of the status of women in science at the time of writing. I don’t think any of this works. The author’s life is not an interesting addition to the story of the subjects and the discussion of ‘how things are now’ is simply way too cursory for it to have any point. Nor is is possible to see the soul mate connection: the author spent a bit of time in her life deliberately eschewing modern conveniences which is simply not anything like the difficulties under which these two were forced to labour.