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.
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.
|1706||Birth of Gabrielle-Émilie de Breteuil|
|1710||Significant 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.|
|1715||Death of Louis XIV, the family moves to Paris.|
|1716||Death of Leibniz, though Émilie is only ten young years old the writings of this now deceased metaphysician would greatly influence her life.|
|1725||Émilie 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.|
|1728||Death of Mme du Châtelet's father. Voltaire publishes La Henriade.|
|1730||Voltaire writes Brutus.|
|1731||Voltaire 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.|
|1735||Mme du Châtelet begins the translation of Mandeville's Fable of the Bees.|
|1736||Mme du Châtelet works on Grammaire raisonnée along with Voltaire and Le Monddain.|
|1737||Mme. 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|
|1742-45||Voltaire, Mahomet and Merope write Le Poeme de Fontenoy.|
|1746||Mme du Châtelet works on Discours sur le Bonheur. (1746-8).|
|1749||Mme du Châtelet completes translation
and commentary on Newton's Principia Mathematica. |
Mme du Châtelet dies on September 10th.
"I feel the full weight of the prejudice which so universally excludes us from the sciences; it is one of the contradictions in life that has always amazed me, seeing that the law allows us to determine the fate of great nations, but that there is no p lace where we are trained to think...Let the reader ponder why, at no time in the course of so many centuries, a good tragedy, a good poem, a respected tale, a fine painting, a good book on physics has ever been produced by women. Why these creatures who se understanding appears in every way similar to that of men, seem to be stopped by some irresistible force, this side of a barrier. Let the people give a reason, but until they do, women will have reason to protest against their education...If I were king...I would redress an abuse which cuts back, as it were, one half of human kind. I would have women participate in all human rights, especially those of the mind. It would seem as if they were born only to deceive -- this being the only intellectual exercise allowed them. The new education would greatly benefit the human race. Women would be worth more and men would gain something new to emulate...I am convinced that either many women are unaware of their talents by reason of the fault in their edu cation or that bury them on account of prejudice for want of intellectual courage. My own experience confirms this. Chance made me aquatinted with men of letters who extended the hand of friendship to me...I then began to believe that I was a being with a mind..." (p. 61)
This is a perfect example of the extent to which her dedication to quality, in regards to science, but more dramatically to intellectual works of women in general.