La Dame d'Esprit: A Biography of Marquise Du Chatelet

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9780670038008: La Dame d'Esprit: A Biography of Marquise Du Chatelet

The scintillating life of the most brilliant woman of the French Enlightenment, the lover of Voltaire and translator of Newton

Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil was born to the highest circles of the French aristocracy, married a marquis at the age of eighteen, and indulged in all the pleasures of her class. Then at twenty-seven, defying convention, she became the mistress of poet and playwright Voltaire, embarking on an extraordinary and transformative intellectual journey as his patroness, his lover, and his companion. In this sparkling life, Judith P. Zinsser vividly explores how the Marquise Du Châtelet transformed herself from courtier, wife, and mother into one of the leading intellects of the French Enlightenment.

Freed by her wealth and status to pursue a life of the mind, Du Châtelet developed swiftly into an accomplished mathematician, physicist, translator, and author of original works of philosophy and science. At the end of her life, pregnant by a young new lover, she raced to complete her translation and commentary on Newton’s Principia. The only woman of the Enlightenment to be recognized for her genius, Du Châtelet was centuries ahead of her time. By bringing this singular woman to life with style and wit, Zinsser at last gives this revolutionary her due.

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About the Author:

Judith P. Zinsser is the coauthor of the landmark two-volume history of European women, A History of Their Own. She teaches at Miami University in Ohio.

From Publishers Weekly:

The 300th birthday of the 18th-century French noblewoman, scientist, freethinker (she considered Jesus "a pious fraud") and paramour of Voltaire brings the second new biography. David Bodanis's Passionate Minds presents her life essentially as a romance novel. Historian Zinsser (A History of Their Own) says more about her subject's scientific work, which groped toward a modern conception of kinetic energy and included an influential recasting of Newton's work on the calculus. Du Châtelet (1706-1749) was certainly an emblematic, if not quite pivotal, figure in the ferment of 18th-century European science and philosophy, and her works could ground an illuminating and accessible intellectual history of the age, but they demand a more systematic treatment than Zinsser gives them. She has a surer footing on social and cultural history, as she surveys the ancien régime's caste system and court protocol at Versailles and regales readers with details of du Châtelet's luxurious wardrobe and household furnishings, as well as her struggle for acceptance by the male scientific establishment. All this makes for an enjoyable study of an unusual woman and feminist pioneer, but du Châtelet still awaits a biography that does full justice to her ideas. Photos. (Dec. 4)
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