Passionate Minds

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in the Independent on Sunday


Passionate Minds
David Bodanis
Little, Brown, £17.99

The story of Voltaire’s love affair with Émilie du Châtelet has everything: money, passion, adultery, tragedy ­– even physics, because what bonded them was a shared interest in Newton. Perfect material, then, for an author well known for historically based works of popular science.

Émilie made a surprise appearance in Bodanis’s earlier book, E=mc2, where she was likened to “Geena Davis, Mensa member and onetime action-film star, trapped in the early eighteenth century”. Happily, in this new and fully fleshed-out account, there is nothing so cringe-inducing. Instead, Bodanis paints a lively and well researched picture of the famous couple that is touching and compelling, if at times questionable.

Take, for example, their first meeting. “They rode to an inn outside the city walls; they had chicken cooked in wine, there were candles everywhere…” Readers acquainted with standard Voltaire biographies (or even E=mc2) will scratch their heads here, because the usual story is that they met at the Opera. The endnotes supply the answer: “other accounts” opt for the Opera, but “the dating is inconclusive”. It’s good to learn that the standard version may be unreliable, but where did that chicken come from? Bodanis does not say, and although the notes he does provide suggest careful and considered reading of many sources, we are left wondering if the phantom bird may have hatched from his own imagination.

Similarly there is the story of how Voltaire, prior to meeting Émilie, became a millionaire. Following exile to England (where he became a fan of all things English, including Newton), the thirty-four year-old writer returned to Paris, well known as a poet and dramatist but hard up. A new lottery provided the answer. The government had rashly decided to subsidise the monthly prize money, so that anyone buying all the tickets would automatically make a huge profit. Voltaire joined a syndicate to do just that, and by the time the scam was exposed he had amassed enough wealth to live comfortably for the rest of his life.

The mathematician La Condamine usually gets credit for the plan, but Bodanis gives Voltaire equal if not greater billing. The same centre-staging extends to Louis XV’s affair with Madame de Pompadour, which Voltaire is here said to have instigated. Bodanis may well be correct in this, but some acknowledgment of his dissent from conventional wisdom would not go amiss.

Still, most readers will be happy enough to be whirled along by Bodanis’s engaging prose, which never suffers a dull moment. We certainly get a far better picture of Émilie here than previously, though by emphasising her virtues and playing down her less attractive aspects, Bodanis renders her a little less three-dimensional than the wily, egotistical Voltaire.

The two lived together in a country chateau with the acquiescence of Émilie’s absent husband, and Voltaire used his riches to create a sophisticated scientific laboratory in which to investigate the nature of fire. Émilie researched the problem too, but in secret, reaching conclusions different from Voltaire’s, and both published their results in the journal of the Academy of Sciences – the first time that either a woman or a poet had made it into print there. Emboldened by her success, Émilie went on to do the work for which she is most famous – the translation of Newton’s Principia into French.

Biographically-minded readers will probably feel that Émilie’s scientific achievements are sufficiently well covered in this book, but I was left wanting far more. Her ideas on energy which Bodanis discusses appear to be a repetition of what Leibniz had already discovered, and Bodanis takes a rather too simplistic view of the factional war between the followers of Leibniz and Newton, suggesting Émilie waged a one-woman campaign to unite the two approaches. In fact she had an ally in someone else who figures in this book, her other lover, the mathematician Maupertuis, mocked by Voltaire in Micromegas and Candide, who proved Newton’s predictions about the shape of the Earth but also revived Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds in his principle of least action – the basis of modern quantum theory.

It is no harsh criticism of a book, though, to say it leaves you wishing for more. Émilie’s story ended far too soon when, as her relationship with Voltaire crumbled, she looked elsewhere, became pregnant, and died soon after giving birth at the age of forty three. What we have here is a truly great story, told with the sincerity, exuberance and affection it deserves.