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Passionate Minds- Voltaire and Emilie Du Chatelet, by David Bodanis

Updated on March 30, 2012

A great biography is always a fabulous reading experience. When the subject is actually two biographies, and the characters are Voltaire and Emilie Du Chatelet, it becomes a truly transcendent experience.

Voltaire is one of my all-time favourite writers. I was actually hesitant to read his bio, for that reason. I love his writing for its ability to hit a point with a sledgehammer and a single hair at the same time. He didn’t disappoint me from the start, when I began this book. He’s as clever and as witty as his books.

Emilie Du Chatelet was that historically very unfashionable thing- A brilliant woman. She was the wife of a French aristocrat, another major handicap to intellectual expression of any kind. She was also Voltaire’s equal and his soul mate. She’s the only person, in fact, who really ever got through Voltaire’s ability to be simultaneously facile and devastating. Voltaire could kill with a few words, and very few people ever felt safe taking him on in his own territory, with good reason. Oscar Wilde could have taken lessons from him.

Emilie not only took him on, she had him truly fascinated. She could communicate with him, and actually challenged him. She and Voltaire entered separately into a scientific competition under pseudonyms, with Voltaire spending money like water and Emilie just using a prism and an upstairs window. They came in fifth and sixth in the competition.

Emilie also just happens to be the person who finally clarified Newton’s Law of Gravity and added the “squared”, which England’s erratic genius had left out of it. This equation is one of the ancestors of the Theory of Relativity. (Bodanis published a bestseller called E=mc2and knows the physics and maths history very well.) Emilie is now a semi-recognized giant of modern mathematics.

Passionate Minds is also great history, truly brought to life, not simply euphemized into coma. This isn’t a “theatrical” book with quaint anecdotes from the 17th century- It’s about two people, their relationship, and the fantastic, surreal world in which they lived. Pre-Revolutionary France is exposed in all its bizarre finery, with glitz, sleaze and stenches. The truly noble minds of the Enlightenment wade through the sewer of absurdities of a nation where the aristocracy were literally living in a different world.

There is no point whatsoever in giving a story outline. You need to read Bodanis’ background to understand even the basics and how the two met. Then you need to understand how they made the relationship work. Then you have to try to comprehend two very strong and certainly passionate minds living together. If you can put the book down, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. You may never forgive yourself.

Bodanis has done an incredible job of putting two highly elusive, hard to define and highly intelligent characters and a staggeringly convoluted, complex and multi-dimensional storyline into a comprehensible form. Writing this book cannot possibly have been easy.

If you’re looking for a thankless task as a writer, try piecing together someone else’s life, and with two people of this degree of difficulty as subjects the risk of mistakes and omissions is extremely high. It’s hard enough if the subject is alive, let alone hundreds of years later. You have to dig through virtual gold seams- If you can find the gold at all. I would think that the research was as fascinating as the book became. Not much else would explain the depth and sensitivity of the writing and the very well organized, excellent storyline approach.

(Writers please note- You could actually read this book as a benchmark standard in biographical writing. It really is exemplary.)

This is one of the very few books I’ve ever read which actually enters a very real and very different world, a world few even suspect existed. Expect an education as well as a fantastic book.


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