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A Love Story
Voltaire and Emilie

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Left: Voltaire (age 41) by Maurice Quentin de La Tour
Right: Madame du Châtelet (late 20's) by Marianne Loir

A Love Story

Voltaire and Emilie Meet
In 1733, Voltaire was 39 years old and a successful playwright, poet and businessman when he met Emilie. She was 28, and lived the life of an upper class Parisian woman of society. When they met, they felt an instant attraction to each other.

The two certainly knew of each other before their first meeting because they had mutual friends and acquaintances. Emilie had read Voltaire's work, attended his plays and was fond of the theater. The Duc de Richelieu and Voltaire were close personal friends. Emilie had had an affair with Richelieu, and wrote to him saying, "Why did you never tell me that M. de Voltaire is the paragon of Men?"

Voltaire wrote to a friend about Emilie: "Everything about her is noble, her countenance, her tastes, the style of her letters, her discourses, her politeness. … her conversation is agreeable and interesting." They had a lot to say to each other - this was a meeting of the minds.

Rules Are for Other People
Voltaire and Emilie went to the opera, dined at the most respectable inns, and appeared together in the audience chamber of the King. This public display of an affair was considered inappropriate and all of Paris society was shocked at how they ignored the rules of acceptable conduct. But Voltaire and Emilie didn't care. Rules were for other people, and they were in love.

Police Looking for Voltaire
In May of 1734, Voltaire and Emilie attended the wedding of the Duc de Richelieu. Several days after the ceremony, Voltaire received a message from the office of one of the king's ministers that said: the author of the "English Letters" would do well to "absent himself." This was a warning from a friend that the police were looking for him. He didn't know why, but quickly left the country to escape arrest.

Voltaire learned later that a printer wanted to make some fast money by printing and selling his work without him knowing about it. Voltaire's book, the "English Letters" (Lettres Philosophiques) praised political and religious freedom in England. Government censors viewed this as criticism of the King and the Church in France. The printer was in the Bastille. A lettre de cachet had been issued for Voltaire's arrest and the police were looking for him.

For two months, Voltaire hid out staying with people he knew along the French border. He also stopped at the Chateau de Cirey, the ancestral estate of Emilie's husband, and found it was in great need of repair.

Decide to Live at Cirey
It may appear strange that Voltaire and Emilie devised a plan to live at the Chateau de Cirey and that Emilie's husband agreed to this. Voltaire loaned the Marquis 40,000 francs at low interest to pay for the renovation. The Marquis gained a home in the country where he could hunt, and Voltaire paid for Emilie's extravagant spending. This arrangement made sense to Emilie's husband.

Voltaire had always wanted a home in the country where he could write. Renovation of the chateau began in August and Voltaire and Emilie made the chateau into a comfortable home. Voltaire was a wealthy man; they wanted for nothing, and lived in luxury.

The Love Relationship
Those who knew Voltaire and Emilie were interested in their romantic relationship, and stories about what transpired between them at Cirey. Madame de Graffigny, a guest for three months at the Chateau de Cirey, wrote to her friends that Emilie had a lot of jewelry which was likely gifts from Voltaire, and that the couple spoke in English when they had arguments. It was details like this that people found most interesting.

Madame de Graffigny also wrote that visitors were only entertained in the evening. Voltaire and Emilie worked during the day, frequently sent notes to each other and often met to discuss their work. Guests were expected to stay in their rooms, read a book, or entertain themselves. Thus, few people understood the intellectual world in which this couple lived.

Intellectual Relationship
Both Voltaire and Emilie had a desire to discover the "truth" and to write about their findings. They both wanted to make an impact on the world. The bond the couple had for each other was greatly due to the work they were doing, both jointly and separately, and how they supported each other to achieve their goals.

The Search for the Truth
Voltaire and Emilie collected a library of 21,000 books, which was the equivalent of a university library of the 1700's. The library included the work of writers from ancient times up to their present day. Time was spent reading, analyzing, and discussing the work of many writers to determine what they believed was the truth on many subjects.

What were the subjects that were of greatest interest to them, and about which they wrote?

Metaphysics: This is a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality that is outside of what can be perceived with the senses. Voltaire and Emilie were seeking answers to questions that have been asked for centuries and are still asked today, such as: Is there proof that there is a God?, What is the soul and is it immortal?, Does man have free-will?, What is the origin of evil?, and Where do our thoughts come from?

Moral philosophy: Of special concern to them were problems such as: What is happiness?, the nature of pleasure, social good and evil, rewards and punishments, equality, and the relationship between passion and reason.

Physics (also referred to as natural science in the 1700's): Both Voltaire and Emilie were interested in the work of Isaac Newton and in the sciences.

History: Emilie's expressed a lack of interest in history because it was just a recording of wars and conquests. This led Voltaire to include in his historical writing the accomplishments of the great men that contributed to the advancement of civilization.

Critical deism (criticism of the Bible): Voltaire and Emilie did a detailed analysis of the Bible to form their own opinion on whether this document was a valid basis for religion.

Much of the results of their research, discussion and analysis on the above topics are the subject matter of Voltaire's writing. Some samples of Voltaire's work are included on this web site.

Collaboration and Critique
In the Introduction to the "Elements of the Philosophy of Newton" published in 1737, Voltaire states that he and Emilie collaborated in the writing of this book. They both believed that bringing Newton's work that explained principles of gravity, optics, and light into the French language was a work of major importance. After this joint project, Emilie continued her study of mathematics and completed her translation of Newton's "Principia" which Voltaire had published after her death.

Voltaire's original manuscripts have comments in the margins written by Emilie; and Emilie's manuscripts have comments in the margins written by Voltaire. They read each other's work and made suggestions for improvement. Voltaire frequently praised Emilie's intelligence, saying she was a genius, and dedicated almost all of his work to her during their fifteen-year relationship. Possibly Voltaire's dedications to Emilie are a recognition for some degree of input that she made to his work.

Voltaire and Emilie had similar values and supported each other's intellectual goals and achievements. This was the part of their relationship that others did not see and helps to explain the high regard, devotion, and bond that they had for each other.

Voltaire wrote to a friend shortly after Emilie's death in 1749, "It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made."

Lost Correspondence
During their fifteen-year relationship, Emilie saved all the correspondence that Voltaire sent to her. She had his letters bound into eight books with red morocco leather covers. This correspondence has never been found.

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