LA DAME d'ESPRIT: A Biography of the Marquise Du Chatelet by Judith
Publisher Viking, December 2006
Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise Du Châtelet, might be
best known for her unorthodox fifteen-year liaison with Voltaire, but she
was much more than the patron, mistress, and intellectual companion of
France's most famous poet and playwright. In the first decades of the French
Enlightenment, although barred because of her sex from even the most
informal gatherings of learned men, in the course of her brief life, she
wrote on the ideas of English moral philosophers and deists and on the
nature of fire and of the cosmos itself. Her Institutions de physique
[Foundations of physics] was translated into German and Italian and gained
her recognition as a genius from the members of Europe’s Republic of
Letters. Her translation of Isaac Newton's Principia remains the
authoritative French version to this day.
However, she never allowed her intellectual pursuits to interfere with her
duties as an aristocrat. At eighteen, she followed the traditions of her
class and married a marquis, bore him three children and saw to the
promotion of her military husband's career, her son’s education and her
daughter’s marriage. Nor did she deny herself the pleasures of the
courtier's life: dressing elaborately, attending the theater in Paris,
gambling with the Queen's inner circle at Versailles, and taking a younger
man—the soldier-poet, Jean-François de Saint-Lambert-- as her lover. It was
the birth of their child that led to her tragic death at forty-two.
Set against the panorama of Louis XV's France, La Dame d'Esprit is the
compelling story of a woman who strove to balance the expectations of
society, the needs of the people she loved, and a rich intellectual
existence. Based on over a decade of original research, this sparkling
biography brings this daring, unorthodox woman to life with style and wit
and demonstrates once and for all, that there was indeed a great woman
philosophe of the Enlightenment.
Judith P. Zinsser, past president of The World History Association, has
become the "Du Châtelet expert" with scholars worldwide.
It was while co-authoring the enormously successful two-volume book project
A History of Their Own, a narrative of European women’s history, that
Judith P. Zinsser first came into contact with the Du Châtelet story. At a
recent major Du Châtelet exhibition in Paris, Zinsser was recognized as an
important international expert, asked not only to consult on the exhibition,
but to write the concluding chapter of the show’s catalogue.
She currently is on the faculty of Miami University in Ohio.