Voltaire in love

Nancy Mitford

Why I looked at this book

Emilie du Chatelet translated Newton's work into French, and I'm interested to see whether this book deals with the translation of a work like this, not just to a different language, but to a different culture. I'm also interested in finding out more about Voltaire (although I wasn't impressed with Candide) More generally I'm hoping this book will tell me something about the intellectual history of 18th Century France.

First impressions

The author described this work as 'a shriek from beginning to end'. I'm not sure that I'd use such an expression, but from what I've read so far it seems that Mitford has the right style for this sort of work - historically accurate, but going into what the feelings of the people involved must have been. So far I've read about Emilie's early life and have found it very readable, so shall certainly continue reading.

Main review

There wasn't that much about Emilie du Chatelet's translation of Newton, but this is a book about her love life, not her academic life. It seems that there were times when she and Voltaire would spend much of their days working on their respective intellectual pursuits. To some such a life would be ideal, two lovers, each financially independent (Voltaire was very much a financial wheeler-dealer), working on what interested them. But it wouldn't last long - Voltaire was not the sort of person to stay out of the limelight. He would right some inflammatory pamphlet, and although he supposedly tried to restrict who would see it, it would inevitably get around and he would be in trouble. Trying to deny authorship didn't help - his style was well known, although sometimes he got the blame for what others added to his work.

One thing I found interesting was the love-hate relationship between Voltaire and the French establishment. Voltaire was often threatened with arrest, which generally meant going away from Paris to stay at the du Chatelet household at Cirey for a while - if he was away from Paris people were less bothered by what he had said. Now Voltaire thought Britain superior to France in many ways, and Frederick the Great of Prussia put a great deal of effort into trying to attract Voltaire to his court. You might think that with such advantages, and constantly being in trouble in France, he would quickly have move abroad permanently. But he didn't - it seems that despite the problems, the French capital was the only place that really counted to him.

I felt that the book was worth reading, even if there wasn't so much of the couples' scientific work. Mitford's style carries the reader through large amounts of gossip which might have become a bit tedious in the hands of a less skilled biographer.

Reviews Elsewhere

The Amazon Reviews are rather mixed with some people thinking that Mitford gets bogged down too much. Goodreads reviews are more even with plenty of 4 star reviews. I also found the reviews by Stacy Schiff and Jenny McPhee interesting, as they go more in to du Chatelet's life as an intellectual woman in 18th Century France.