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Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise Du Châtelet wrote her last lover, the younger army officer Jean François de Saint-Lambert, this self-confident statement (" 'My exterior is always the image of my heart.' ") about herself. In Judith P. Zinsser's biography of this extraordinary eighteenth-century woman, the marquise does appear to have lived her high-born, offbeat, and accomplished forty-two years very much that way.
Judith P. Zinsser's softcover Emilie Du Châtelet : Daring Genius of the Enlightenment (previously published in hardcover with the title La Dame d'Esprit) is a meticulously researched biography that traces Du Châtelet's "unorthodox intellectual pursuits" as well as her family life, her life in the courts of French and Polish kings and queens, and her too public (and often mocked and derided) extramarital life, mainly with the reknown Voltaire.
The exact nature of Du Châtelet's early education isn't known, but after her marriage and several children (of whom only two survived into adulthood), the marquise sought tutors for herself. They, and a great deal of reading taught her geometry, physics, even calculus. Living with Voltaire provided her with cerebral stimulation, some early guidance and the opportunity to collaborate on literary pieces and, to her greater interest, scientific papers.
As time went on, Du Châtelet became more and more independent of opinion; Voltaire, edgily teasing, called her " 'Emilia Neutonia'" in part because of one of their disagreements about physics: whether Newton's definition of "force, the modern concept of 'momentum'," was correct. Du Châtelet favored Leibniz's formula (basically, kinetic energy) instead, and she wrote as much in her Institutions de physique (Lessons in Physics), a book in which she tackled, among other big topics: space, time, and matter. This book was published`in 1740, when she was thirty-four. She wrote other scientific works, often considered derivative by her contemporaries and future generations, but which contained her own unique syntheses and conclusions. Her greatest project, on which she labored mightily during her final pregnancy but which was not published until years after her death, was a translation of Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. It remains the only French language translation in use.
Zinsser sedulously recreates the life and times of Du Châtelet with a historian's scruples. Often direct documentation of Du Châtelet's particulars aren't in the record. For example, no letters between Du Châtelet and Voltaire have survived -- at least none known. And there are precious few personal facts of Du Châtelet's childhood. So, Zinsser makes due with phrases such as "she may have" and "perhaps she." The reader garners a great deal of knowledge about the conventions, the styles, the economic realities, and the class structure, but the threadbare sections in Du Châtelet's personal history cannot be denied. As a result, Emilie Du Châtelet : Daring Genius of the Enlightenment contains a sense of detachment and uncertainty that a biography would rather not have to bear. However, as a vigilant historian, Zinsser wisely simply acknowledges the gaps in the evidence and discusses possibilities.
The marquise's lingering reputation marked her as a woman given to flightiness, airs, and too-public sexual freedom...perhaps because she -- as she said -- lived so her exterior reflected her heart. Her intellectual prowess got tamped down in the silts of time. Perhaps now, Du Châtelet's legacy can be evaluated in a more balanced manner. Perhaps now, her contributions of the mind can be truly appreciated.