Just got time to squeeze in one more author for Women in Translation Month and it’s the effervescent, smart, charming and loyal Emilie du Chatelet, who deserves to be far better known as a scientist in her own right rather than merely as Voltaire’s great love. Her slender volume Discours sur le bonheur (Essay on Happiness) has not been translated in its entirety in English yet, but there are extracts to be found in the biography by Esther Ehrman in Berg Women’s Series.
It was a bit of a fashion to write about happiness and how to acquire it in the 18th century. However, Mme du Chatelet’s essay stands out for its fearsome honesty. It was not written for publication and so is remarkably clear-eyed and candid, at a time when the author had laid to rest the sadness over ending her relationship with Voltaire (or at least the physical part of their love affair, for they remained good friends until the end of her life). She had not yet met the playboy Saint-Lambert, who was to upset the last couple of years of her life and (indirectly) cause her death. She was apparently serene and content at the time, and certainly had not lost any of her idealism. [All the quotes below are my translations, so apologies for any inaccuracies.]
In order to be happy, you need to strip yourself of any prejudice, be virtuous and healthy, have your tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions, because we owe a great part of our pleasures to illusions, so woe the person who loses them! Far be it from us to kill off our illusions through the torch of reason and remove the varnish they put on most things…
She distinguishes between male and female happiness, subtly pointing out how women’s subordinate position limits their capacity for attaining full satisfaction and happiness.
Love of learning is less essential for the happiness of men than for that of women. Men have endless other resources for happiness, which women lack. They have other means to attain glory, and it’s almost certain that the satisfactions of rendering service to one’s country through one’s talents, or serving one’s fellow citizens through the art of war or government or negotiations are vastly superior to the satisfactions of learning alone… but chasing after glory is nothing but an illusion…
Women are often encouraged, of course, to find their solace in love rather than glory, and Emilie admits that there is no greater joy if you are lucky enough to find that twin soul, that marriage of true minds, which she admits she did find with Voltaire, but such loves are rare, she warns, perhaps one a century. However, the careful reader (or one prone to melancholia) will detect certain notes of regret and wistfulness. All was not perfect even in this most envy-inducing of relationships:
I don’t know if love has ever featured two people so much made for each other that they never experienced boredom or the coolness that comes from security, nor the indolence and tepidness that seems conjoined with ease of access and continuity of passion, in both good and bad times… For ten years I was happy, in the love of the man who subjugated my soul and I passed those ten years, alone with him, without a moment of doubt or boredom… I have now lost that happy state, and it cost me endless tears. It takes an earthquake to break such ties and the wound in my heart bled for a long time. I felt sorry for myself but I have forgiven everything now. I think I now understand that my heart alone has got that constancy which defies time…
The official version of their break-up was that Voltaire (who was far more advanced in age) was no longer able to satisfy his mistress physically, but his dalliances with actresses and particularly with his widowed niece, who later went to live with him as his housekeeper and mistress in Ferney, would demonstrate that this was not quite the case. For a fascinating insight into this complicated relationship, I would recommend David Bodanis’ book Passionate Minds, although it left me feeling that poor Emilie was forever being let down by her male companions (although her father and her husband were surprisingly enlightened and understanding for their time).
This is more a personal memoir than a self-help manual, but there are echoes of the latter in the way Emilie muses about the importance of setting goals or, as she calls it, deciding the path you want to take in life, ‘what you want to be and what you want to do’, otherwise you are perpetually swimming in a sea of uncertainty and vagueness, full of regrets.
This feeling of regret is one of the most useless and disagreeable that a human soul is capable of.
So… echoes of the famous Piaf chanson, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Perhaps this is the greatest wisdom I can learn from this admirable woman: I need not feel sorry for her, she led a good life and enjoyed it to the full. And, in the end, she made her mark in the world without the help of any famous male companions. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and her theoretical work on the nature of light paved the way to the great discoveries in physics in the next two centuries.
I leave you with this touching scene described by Voltaire’s secretary Longchamp (and quoted in the Bodanis book). It’s February 1749 (Emilie was to die in on September 8th of that year). Emilie has found out that she is pregnant at what was then a dangerous age of 42. She becomes convinced that this will be her death knell and she fears not being able to finish her scientific work. She sets off for Paris (where her scientific papers are) with Voltaire in a carriage, but the rear axle breaks and they have to wait for hours in the cold and snow for help to arrive. Covered in furs and blankets, instead of despairing, the remarkable couple lay back beneath the stars and enjoy their last truly peaceful moment together.
Despite the extreme froideur, Madame and Monsieur admired the beauty of the sky. It was serene, and stars were burning with a most vivid brightness… Ravished by this magnificent spectacle spread above and around them, they discoursed – while shivering, I should point out – on the nature and paths of the stars, and on the destiny of so many immense globes spread in space.
For a modern-day interpretation of Mme du Chatelet and her proto-feminism, see the notes for this play. For a review of her scientific work, see Stanford University’s biographical entry. For a French take on it (and a much better translation than mine), here is Emma’s review.