Émilie du Châtelet commissioned a drawing, 'The Apotheosis of Voltaire' from Charles Natoire in the mid-1700s. A good idea if you're a grand lady with privileges at Versailles and he's a condemned writer who's done more than one stretch in the Bastille prison? No. But Émilie was never one to bow to prejudice. Besides, Voltaire had honoured her extravagantly in the frontispiece to his Elements of Newton. I tried to share the 'Apotheosis' with you but it kept coming in upside down. So for once there's no image for this episode.
Nicholas Gentile and I have written an opera about Émilie and Voltaire and were invited to speak about it to Sydney's Queen's Club, at the invitation of Elizabeth Hemphill. I'd like to give you my speech in several episodes, starting here. They give you a picture of Émilie up to 1738, when our opera takes place.
'Nicholas and I are very grateful to be welcomed here today and we’re delighted to take you behind the scenes of our opera in progress, Émilie & Voltaire. The opera shows us one day in 1738, in the life of a real person, Émilie du Châtelet. Émilie’s is a woman’s story that every woman should know, so I’d like to begin by introducing her to you as a young girl. I invite you back in time, to 1714, when we find ourselves south of the Loire valley in France, at a country chateau called Preuilly.
'It’s evening and dusk is falling, and we’re in a salon that has something of the comfortable atmosphere of this one, though the chairs and sofas are not as well cushioned, and instead of looking out over Hyde Park we can see the little river Claise, gleaming through trees. The count and countess de Breteuil, whose country home this is, have gathered their guests together after a lovely summer day, to meet the Breteuils’ eight-year-old daughter, brought downstairs as a special treat to mingle with the company before supper.
'She walks around and answers questions politely, and at a kind lady’s prompting she plays a piece on the harpsichord. Gabrielle-Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil is a dark-haired, tallish, dark-eyed child, who is receiving a very thorough education. Her father is proud of her cleverness and he’s hired tutors for her in mathematics and natural philosophy (or science as we know it) alongside the usual Latin and literature. Her mother, however, insists on music and dancing lessons but disapproves of all the rest.
'Émilie’s father shamelessly shows off her talents, and to everyone’s astonishment she multiplies six-figure numbers together in her head and joins in discussions on the scientific authors of the day.
'In a corner is a tall, lean young man who looks rather bemused by this precocious eight-year-old. Finally he steps forward when the company are speculating about the possibility of life on other planets. He gives Émilie a teasing smile and says, "Mademoiselle, could there be human beings on Mercury? Reflect: if they do live there, they’re twice as close to the sun as we are, so their brains must surely be fried. The sun is nine times bigger for them than it is for us—what does that do to their idea of the universe? Could anyone in that situation think like us at all?"
Join me for the next episode and more insights into this extraordinary scientist of the Enlightenment.