Review: Emilie du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment by Judith P. Zinsser Emilie Du Chatelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment  (9780143112686): Zinsser, Judith P.: Books


Émilie du Châtelet is one of the many historical figures who deserve to be brought back from the obscurity they faded into. Her name mostly being mentioned as a lover of a more famous man is an injustice – admittedly, that’s how I first learned of her myself but…18th century woman scientist and philosopher? With such an interesting life? I had to know more, and this is probably not the last book about her I read.

A lot of this biography, especially the parts about her childhood, are speculative, with a lot of maybes since information is scarce and a lot had to be inferred, but Zinsser presents a convincing argument that Émilie only started learning mathematics and physics in her twenties. However, she still more than managed to make a name for herself (including acceptance to the Academy of Bologna, as the second woman) and take part in the so-called Republic of Letters. The explanations of her works and how she came to the conclusions she did were clear enough even for me (and I’ve never been much for physics), not to mention the insight into how 18th century science looked like was fascinating.

If this sounds dry – it’s very much not. 18th century France being what it was and Émilie enjoying a lively social life in addition to her studies, not to mention having to constantly help keep her reckless paramour out of trouble with authorities he again and again found himself in, there are a LOT of juicy anecdotes there too. Every few pages I had to pause and talk about whatever crazy thing happened, which made it slow, if enjoyable going. To give a taste:

[Mme de Tencin] made no secret of her distaste for his impiety, despite the irreligious acts of her own youth, including escape from a convent, numerous affairs, and an illegitimate son (who was raised by his father, given the name d’Alembert, and grew up to be a mathematician and editor of the Encyclopédie).

And of course, given that Émilie was 18th century French nobility, there are the affairs. After she was married and had children, her husband didn’t care much and was even on friendly terms with at least one of her boyfriends. Zinsser is quite negative of Émilie’s most well-remembered lover, which was fun, and the roasts (most of them well-deserved) never got old.

The ending is, as I knew it would be, quite sad – the slow decay of a long-term relationship, a new love, and the pregnancy which resulted in her death. I can’t help but wonder how much more could she have achieved if birth control back in her days was better.

As far as accuracy goes…as with all biographies there is always an element of subjectivity and conjecture, but it at least seems very well researched and sourced, and the author is a historian. All in all, highly recommended to anyone interested in scientist women, the enlightenment and the fascinating people involved.

Enjoyment: 5/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: fellow history nerds, those interested in physics and science, anyone who likes their biographies with spice and drama
Not recommended to: can’t really think of any super obvious drawbacks, maybe those who can’t stand a well-known man being occasionally called out…? Well, and Frederick the Great wouldn’t have liked it either, but that’s more of a feature than a bug.

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