Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet-Laumont (1706-1749)

"Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. it may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one."
Mme du Châtelet to Frederick the Great of Prussia; The Divine Mistress, (Edwards, 1970, p. 1)

The birth of Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet-Laumont, came on 17 December, 1706. As her long formal name suggests she was born into an elite aristocracy, a French woman, for whom marriage was the only way one could find a secure place in society. Her father, Louis-Nicolas, Baron de Breteuil, owned land in Touraine and an extravagant house in Paris. Louis-Nicolas was a favorite of the court, from which he retired upon the death of Louis XIV, in 1751. Gabrielle Émilie was nine years old when her father settled down and they lived in the large house in Paris overlooking the Tuileries, the year was 1697. Emilie was a bright youngster, enough so that her father took notice and by the age of twelve she was being tutored in Latin, Italian, and English. Her cousins account recorded in Mme du Châtelet (Ehrman, 1986, p. 18) states, she stood out as an awkward teenager. "She was a colossus in all her limbs-- a marvel of strength and a prodigy of clumsiness. She had terrible feet and formidable limbs." Émilie was studious and disciplined, rash and spontaneous, attributes which led to her recieving a much more serious education than most females of her time. She took to mathematics and the sciences, being exposed to distinguished guests of her parents at l' Hotel Breteuil, such as Fontenelle and Voltaire, the latter with whom she will cultivate a life long relationship.

On 20 June 1725, at the age of 19, Gabrielle Émilie was married to Florent Claude Chastellet (the spelling Châtelet was introduced by Voltaire) (p. 18). Florent Claude was a military man, his ancestors could be traced to Charlemagne and the like. The couple inherited the estates of Cirey from Florent Claudes mother, an estate which would eventually house Émilie and Voltaire. This is where they would cultivate some of their finest works. The Marquis, Florent Claude, and the Marquise Gabrielle Émilie were also given the government of Semur-en Auxiois in Burgundy, where the Marquis was a frequent visitor.

Gabrielle gave birth to a daughter and a son in 1726 and 1727 respectively. She also gave birth to a third child in 1733. The Marquis was frequently absent in military duty and the Marquise consequently lived in his townhouse in Paris where she engulfed herself in an extravagant social life. Popular intellectual life centered around cafe's and salons where she would meet and discuss various topics with popular 'thinkers' of the time. Émilie took much interest in opera, theater and gambling, which became an expensive habit for her. During this period Gabrielle Émile had an affaire with the Comte de Guébriant.

Still, Madame du Châtelet was evidently more interested in preserving the marriage than her husband, and it is said when he wanted to end it she actually faked a suicide though apparently no harm was done. They separated and she then surrounded herself with many men, though it was their intellectual stature that ultimately mattered to her. These men included the Duc de Richelieu, Maupetuis and Voltaire. Of these, it was only her relationship with Voltaire which was to endure and blossom for the remainder of her life. The Marquise spent most of the time with Voltaire at Cirey. This is where all of the experiments that led to her Newtonian works were conducted. They studied day and night. Toward the end of her life she had even ceased to be the social enthusiast she once was and her studies were non-stop. In January 1749 Mme du Châtelet told Voltaire she was pregnant. Though the pregnancy was by Saint-Lambert with whom in her later years she had fallen in love, Mme du Châtelet, Saint-Lambert and Voltaire plotted to make it appear as if the Marquis du Châtelet was the father. It worked. On September 4 she gave birth to a daughter. Six days later she died and soon after so did the child.

Êmilie and the Philosophers

The philosophy of Descartes during the seventeenth century set up a certain resistance to the establishment in terms of religion, government, literature and science. The main fuel for this fire came in the way of 'reason' . This new light fashioned itself in the contemplation of the established ideas in all these areas and often rejected dominant thought in these areas. These intellectuals were called les philosophes. Many intellectuals of the time were members of this school of thought, including the royal Prince Frederick of Prussia, though when he became King, he put none of it into practice. This is where Gabrielle Émilie stood and she associated herself with others of this school. This opposition to the established thought of her time would prove a difficult task especially given the general exclusion of women from the intellectual realm noted by both Madame du Châtelet herself and Mary Wollstonecraft in her critique of Rousseau's Sophie.

Chatelet Time Line

1706 Birth of Gabrielle-Émilie de Breteuil
1710Significant writings of Leibniz are written, Essai de Theodicee sur la bonte de Dieu, la liberte de l'homme et lorigine du mal, which would influence Mme du Chatelet enormously.
1715Death of Louis XIV, the family moves to Paris.
1716Death of Leibniz, though Émilie is only ten young years old the writings of this now deceased metaphysician would greatly influence her life.
1725Émilie marries Florent-Claude Chastelet.
1726 Birth of a daughter.
1727 Birth of a son. Death of Newton, a man who again would greatly influence her life and to whom she would dedicate much of her life by producing a translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica.
1728Death of Mme du Châtelet's father. Voltaire publishes La Henriade.
1730Voltaire writes Brutus.
1731Voltaire writes Historie de Charles XII
1733 Beginning of a lasting friendship with Voltaire. Voltaire's Lettres anglaises published in England.
1734 Lettres anglaises ou Lettres philosophiques condemned and Mme du Châtelet and Voltaire go to live in Cirey.
1735Mme du Châtelet begins the translation of Mandeville's Fable of the Bees.
1736Mme du Châtelet works on Grammaire raisonnée along with Voltaire and Le Monddain.
1737Mme. du Châtelet submits essay 'Sur la Nature du fue' to Academie des Sciences; works on Examen de la Genese (1737-42). Voltaire writes Elements de la philosophie de Newton; works on Traite de metaphisique (1734-8).
1739 Mme du Châtelet writes Institutions de Physique
1742-45Voltaire, Mahomet and Merope write Le Poeme de Fontenoy.
1746Mme du Châtelet works on Discours sur le Bonheur. (1746-8).
1749Mme du Châtelet completes translation and commentary on Newton's Principia Mathematica.
Mme du Châtelet dies on September 10th.

Chatelet Time Line Sources

Internet Resources