Cheryl Sawyer welcomes readers to her historical novels, blogs about discoveries in writing and research, and shares her experiences in the world of creative fiction. Cheryl has had a long career in book publishing, which she left in 2014, to write full-time. Her first historical novel was published by Random House in 1998 and her American debut in 2005 was acclaimed by Booklist as 'a grand and glorious delight'. More novels have been released in several languages by Penguin US, Bertelsmann, Mir Knigi, Via Magna, Domino, Reader's Digest and Endeavour Press UK. Cheryl Sawyer's work has been longlisted for awards by the Historical Novel Society and the American Library in Paris. She has recently completed an English Civil War trilogy with The Winter Prince, Farewell, Cavaliers and The King's Shadow. Peter James calls her work ‘historical fiction writing at its very best’.
Émilie to Maupertuis, September 1737
How Émilie would have loved texting! Distances can be so frustrating ...
So at last, monsieur, here you are back from the other world (because we can’t count Lapland as belonging to this one). I would have let you know how delighted I am before now, if I’d thought you would have time to read my letter. You have so many people asking you questions that I shan’t ask you a single one. My wish is that you’ve returned from your icicles in good health and with a little friendship for me …
I imagine you’re stuck in Paris on holiday. Which means we’ll be stuck here for ten years before we can see you again. Joking apart, if you were ready to snatch some time away from the gaping crowds and come to see a man who admires and loves you much more than they do, I’m offering to send a carriage for two, whenever you like, for you and Monsieur Clairault—because, despite his strictures [Clairault was a mathematical mentor for Émilie], I’d be enchanted to see him. I think if I want my compliments to be well received I should send them through you, so I’m asking you to say lots of nice things to him from me. While you, monsieur, know how genuine my friendship is for you, so I believe you’ll be happy for me to assure you of it once again, without the compliments.
The image is of Julie Lea Goodwin as Émilie and John Longmuir as Maupertuis during a break in the shooting of the concept film, Émilie & Voltaire.
Voltaire to the Crown Prince of Prussia, October 1737
In this first month of a new year I bring you the forty-first letter I’ve translated from the correspondence of Émilie du Châtelet and François-Marie de Voltaire. With these letters I aim to give you a picture of their lives together at Cirey, up until the amazing event in 1738 that sparks the action of the opera Émilie & Voltaire.
Monseigneur, I find it very hard that Cirey should be so far from the throne in Remusberg. The blessings and the commands that you send me take a long time to arrive. On 10 October I received a letter sent on 16 August, full of verses and excellent morality, and fine metaphysics, and grand sentiments, along with a goodness that enchants my heart. Ah, monseigneur—why are you a prince? Why couldn’t you be a man like any other, just for a year or so? Then we would have the happiness of seeing you—the only pleasure missing from my life since you deigned to write to me …
Our little paradise at Cirey sends its very humble respects to your empyrean heights, and the goddess Émilie bows before the god Frédéric. And so after a thousand detours I’ve received your beautiful letter, the ode, and the third folio of the metaphysics of [Christian] Wolff. Here is another instance of those benefits that other kings—those poor fellows who are only kings—are incapable of bestowing.
I must tell you that this piece of metaphysics—rather long, a little too full of commonplaces, but otherwise admirable, well put together and often most profound—I must tell you, monseigneur, that I understand not one iota of that simple being named Wolff. In an instant he transports me into an atmosphere in which I cannot breathe, onto ground where I cannot set foot, amongst people whose language I cannot understand. If I dared to think that I did understand it, I believe I might be brave enough to argue with Monsieur Wolff—with the greatest respect, of course …
The photo is of Rheinsberg Castle, then known in France as the Remusberg.
A strategic tenor
As an opera writer and reviewer I ask tenor John Longmuir, who plays Maupertuis in the concept film of Émilie & Voltaire, which classic opera role attracts him the most. He names Don Ottavio from Mozart's Don Giovanni and I am surprised, having always seen Ottavio as somewhat ineffectual. I also wonder whether Ottavio was really in love with his wronged fiancée. John coolly considers he 'probably' was, and gives me another vision of him, as strategist. Rather than wasting energy on futile challenges, Ottavio plans revenge on Don Giovanni by gathering aristocratic allies.
I suddenly see links between John's concept of Ottavio and the way he plays Maupertuis. Maupertuis is a man of action, but his tactics are calculating: when he sets out to woo Émilie to Paris he is full of praise for her scientific knowledge, not his own. His conversation is seductive and he implies that he's a more than worthy rival for Voltaire but he never actually says that he loves Émilie. Does he? Even I, having written his lines, cannot quite be sure, even as he delivers them.
Only once, when after a long pause he sings just her name, and pauses again, do I think that probably ...
From my filming diary: dressing the set
Brendan de la Hay was a wizard at enhancing the beauty of the set and it was his idea to fill the parterre pond with fresh rose petals. Brittanie Shipway, second AD, was keen to add crimson petals but it took a bit of persuasion. She, Brendan and I had to fish them all out of the pool again when we packed up on the third day!
'Among the props I brought for the desk in the library are ... four beautifully bound books; several sheets of paper with maths, French writing & geometrical diagrams, plus a blank sheet rolled up with red ribbon ... three "quills"; Émilie's essay; the letter from Maupertuis ...'
'I just got called away to create yet another scribbled-on piece of paper for Émilie ... It will be fascinating to see how all these things get handled and used. Ease and clarity of music take priority.'
'I thought the desk was a bit overloaded, the way Brendan wanted it, but it seems to work in the shot.'
'Rob is just singing "Magique scène" to himself in the corridor.'
Concept filming 1.01--the setting
Just received this image of Beth Daly and myself watching shots come together in the garden of Lindesay House, Sydney. Here are some of my notes about the setting of the concept film.
‘From the terrace one looks down across a formal garden that ends in a curve of foliage, beyond which one sees the harbour.’
‘There is an enormous, gorgeous plane tree dominating the parking circle … The tiles in the hallway here are black and white—so are the tiles (larger) in the sale d’entrée at Cirey! Also of course there are the beautiful plane trees on the bank of the Blaise at Cirey.’
‘The actors and director are completely immersed in the three-fold story. I love their interpretations, and it’s fascinating to get intense snatches of what will later be a seamless drama.’
‘Is there a spirit that infuses a film while everyone’s working? It occurs to me that this House does provide something by just being itself. A little consistent world in which this is all happening.’
The stills photographer is Reswin Bahas.
Émilie & Voltaire concept filming 1.01: calling the shots
The shot list was put together by cinematographer Aravind Shanavaz and executive producer Nicholas Gentile, who is the composer of the opera. In the three-day shoot he literally conducted every take. The process and the vocab were all new to me: thought you might like to hear some of it at random from my diary.
‘That was very fresh, wasn’t it?’
‘She walks slower, slower, then again here … Boom … Boom .. Turn around.
‘Are we good, are we good? One more for safety.
‘She’ll start singing, that’s fine. Just go for pretty, go for pretty, then you’ve got all of her line to get there.’
‘Rob, when you do this, can you find a reason to do eyes back in this direction?’
‘How many takes for this do we have time for after lunch?’ Firm answer from Demi Louise, producer: ‘None.'
The unseen demands of playing Voltaire
Robert McDougall as Voltaire, waiting to be ‘alone’ in the garden with Émilie—but in reality he’ll be surrounded by at least five of the film crew! How do actors do it?
From my filming diary: ‘The idea of these shots is to get Rob & Julie in happy, busy moments together. A lot of the smoothness of filming is to do with the talk in between takes. For the actors to be happy they also need to be interested and able to laugh. And they seem to like to listen, too, rather than engaging themselves. Nick is good in these situations because when he chats to them he’s not giving direction at all—that’s Beth’s job. He keeps it light and good-humoured.'
Later, in the library: ‘Rob spends a lot of time sitting on the corner of the desk. He seems to like it there :). Probably helps in giving a natural look … Rob and Julie, now left alone, are discussing the coming exchange together.’
Opera filming 1.01: words
These people and this film equipment are at Lindesay House on Day One for the sole reason that the composer and I wanted our music and words on film. I have total confidence in his music—but when it comes to the words, I realise they are under absolutely pitiless scrutiny. And the scrutiny is mine, because composer and everyone else have their own tough job to do.
As I hear the same phrases from the speaker, time after time after time after time for each shot, I feel the very bones of the work are relentlessly laid bare. Every word—every syllable—counts. If there were a phrase that expressed nothing about the character pronouncing it, or sought no response from another in exchange, or were unreasonably difficult to sing, there would be a fracture in the body of this work that would take prodigies of effort by other people to repair. Words matter. The very concept of this concept film was first given in words!
When shooting is over on Day Three, my fathomless sense of responsibility for those words is matched only by my awe of the artists and technicians who have made them live and breathe. I must simply thank Thalia, the muse of drama, for making me work so hard on the libretto of Émilie & Voltaire.
Shooting Émilie & Voltaire concept film: costume
Brendan de la Hay, designer for the concept film, looked after (and in some cases supplied) the costumes and ‘dressed’ the sets. Here are some thoughts about costume from different moments in my diary.
First, the dress in the opening scenes: 'Julie’s dress, being a pearly colour with open floral pattern (‘parsemée de fleurs!’) in pinks and light greens (+ pink trim at bosom) is not unlike the dress in the supposed portrait of É that we used in the brochure. Funny how things cluster together.'
Later: 'Brendan and Nick showed me a lovely night-dress combination & wondered if Émilie could be wandering around in it, with Voltaire—I said sure. Reminded them of that servant of V’s who published a risqué memoir in which he claimed he’d seen É stark naked ‘comme une statue de marbre’. Probably a lie but people believed it at the time … Why not give ourselves that freedom? It gives lovely variety to the film …
Later again: 'Julie is standing near the end of the sofa in a lovely pink nightie waiting to shoot outside and upset with Nick that they’ll be shooting in the heat of the day. The cranked-up music is deafening! Last shot for Rob. Doing it once more. After a certain amount of discussion about time.'
'Lovely' was obviously my word of the day! You can see that Julie was all smiles for the very sunny shoot in the garden.
Creating a character--a film diary
This week has been filming 1.01 for me. I've learned about the creative collaboration of actor and director, and how the energy of each person goes into the characterisation. Here are some direct quotes from my diary about the creation of Emilie by Julie Lea Goodwin and director Beth Daly.
'They just shot the last few lines of the film on the lawn, in full sunshine. A cluster of figures (and parasols) around the camera and Julie alone on the lawn. Starts with profile towards camera then walks down the garden, followed by camera. Turns slowly and spreads her arms, then delivers the line that brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it--and it did the same to me today even though I was about 30 metres away and the sound was coming from a handheld computer (Kailesh Reitmans). Wow ... Julie looks quite anguished doing the last aria. Real feeling. Beth got as much drama as poss into it and seems to have hit all the right spots.'
The photo shows Beth and Julie together, working up to a scene in the library.
Émilie & Voltaire concept film completes shooting
As the librettist on set I was a mere observer, fascinated to see how a film is shot. Here in the parterre garden at handsome Lindesay House in Darling Point, Sydney, I caught this moment after the camera had been following Émilie around the pebbled pathways as she sang her final aria. Here, as the sequence is played back on the tiny monitor, we see best boy Nathan Niguidila, focus puller Cayla Blanch, composer/executive producer Nicholas Gentile, director Beth Daly (partly obscured), and Émilie herself, Julie Lea Goodwin. In the background on the left is director of picture Aravind Shanavaz and assistant gaffer Steffanie Watson.
Starring with Julie Lea Goodwin in this short film are Rob McDougall as Voltaire and John Longmuir as Maupertuis.
I was overwhelmed by everyone's commitment. Working tirelessly alongside these troupers were producer Demi Louise, production designer Brendan de la Hay, second assistant director Britannie Shipway, gaffer Rupan Poudel, Hair and makeup team Nicola Beverly, Alysha Maree and Renee Matis, sound designer Kailesh Reitmans and stills photographer Reswin Bahas.
In the following blogs I'll share with you some of my notes from those three intense and momentous days.
Julie Lea is Émilie
A joyful day for me: I can share our delight that the wondrously gifted Julie Lea Goodwin embodies Émilie in the concept film Émilie & Voltaire, shooting next week! I've just been replaying her new recording of Émilie's final aria in the film--heart-rendingly beautiful. To introduce the character whom Julie portrays so seamlessly, here is an extract from my notes on the libretto.
In 1733, at the age of 27, the brilliant and beautiful Émilie du Châtelet met Voltaire—at the opera—and they became lovers. She was studying hard in mathematics and physics, and Voltaire paid for her to be tutored by a friend: Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, one of the foremost geometers in Europe. In 1734, disaster struck—a warrant was issued by King Louis XV for Voltaire’s arrest for the publication of a banned book, and he had to go into hiding. He might have fled abroad but instead Émilie offered him secret refuge at Cirey, the Châtelet mansion in the Champagne.
Voltaire decided to renovate Cirey at his own expense. He built a new wing on the building with funds that he politely designated as a ‘loan’ to the Marquis du Châtelet and got government and church permission to live as a ‘guest’ at Cirey, where he begged Émilie to join him. When she did so in June 1735, she wrote, ‘I’ve given up everything to live with the only person who has ever filled my heart and my mind.’
Rob McDougall, the voice of Voltaire
Composer Nicholas Gentile and I are thrilled that the amazing Robert McDougall brings his deeply expressive voice to the role of Voltaire in the concept film of Émilie & Voltaire, which is being shot next week! Voltaire was a beloved and highly experienced man of the theatre, and loved to act out the parts that he wrote for tragedy and comedy on the French stage, to give the actors ideas about interpreting his characters. I think we can be sure his voice was pleasing, flexible and full of expression. He was a passionate and amusing man and his emotions were intense. There is a warmth and depth of feeling in Rob's voice that to me bring the essence of Voltaire into this drama. Here's an extract from my character notes, prepared just after I finished writing the opera libretto in 2018.
Most people recognise Voltaire’s name today and know what he stood for—freedom of speech, tolerance, compassion and social justice. In the early eighteenth-century such notions were seen as subversive, and few of his books got past the royal Censor. Born François-Marie Arouet, he gave himself a fictitious aristocratic surname, ‘de Voltaire’ and became one of the most entertaining, moving and amusing writers of his time. He believed that knowledge and reason should lead people at all levels of society to uphold human rights, and that’s what made him a key figure of the Enlightenment—and a thorn in the side of the government.
When Voltaire met the brilliant and beautiful Émilie du Châtelet in 1733, she became his scientific inspiration. From Cirey, her country mansion where they both lived, Voltaire wrote to a friend: ‘I divide my time between learning about nature and studying history. Twenty-five years are quite long enough to devote to poetry; and to all those who’ve dedicated their springtime to that difficult and delightful art, I recommend that they consecrate the autumn and the winter of their lives to simpler things, which are no less seductive, and which it’s shameful not to know.’ Of course he continued to write superlative plays, poetry and fiction (such as Candide) to the end of his days, but his pursuit of universal truths was genuine.
Theirs was a ‘marriage’ of minds, but there were differences between them. She was a grand lady; he was bourgeois. The riches and luxuries that he lavished on her derived not from noble landholdings but from vulgar commerce. She was a lovely woman in the prime of life; at 44 he was twelve years older than her. And he could not forget the way she had delayed coming to Cirey for an entire year. In Paris and at Versailles she gambled at cards, attended the opera with friends and spent time with her mathematics tutor, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis. In a typical spirit of self-ridicule, Voltaire wrote to a friend, ‘I wait for her with the patience of a cuckold.’
In 1738, with the sudden appearance of Maupertuis at Cirey, it is natural for Voltaire to feel again the fears, misery and jealousy that assailed him during that long year when he lived and worked there alone, waiting for Émilie.
Voltaire to Willem ’s Gravesande, 1737
Voltaire is back at Cirey—what a relief for Émilie! Ah, but can their troubles really be over? Here, Voltaire is struggling to quash fake news following his association with ‘s Gravesande and other Dutch physicists. I usually give you extracts from his correspondence—but this is the whole urgent letter.
You remember, monsieur, the absurd calumny that was going the rounds during my stay in Holland. You know whether our supposed debates over Spinoza and matters of religion have the slightest foundation in fact. You were so indignant about this lie that you deigned to refute it in public: but the calumny has penetrated as far as the court of France, and your refutation has not. Evil has wings, while the good moves at tortoise pace. You wouldn’t believe how people have blackened my reputation to Cardinal de Fleury [the Chancellor] on paper and in person. Everything I possess is in France and I’m forced into demolishing a falsehood that in your country I would be content to despise, just as you have.
Please, beloved and respected philosopher, I beg you to instantly help me make the truth known. I haven’t yet written to the cardinal in my own justification. Nothing can be more humiliating than the position of a man who has to argue his own case; but he plays a fine role who takes up the defence of an innocent man. That worthy role is yours, and I suggest it to you as a man who has a heart worthy of his head. Write to the cardinal: I assure you that two words from you, and your name, will do a great deal—he will believe a man whose custom it is to demonstrate truths. I thank you and I will always remember those that you’ve taught me.
I have only one regret: that I can no longer study under you. However, while I cannot hear you, at least I can read you. Love and truth led me to Leyden; friendship alone tore me away. Wherever I am, I shall always retain the most tender attachment to you, and the most perfect esteem.
Introducing Maupertuis, powerfully performed by John Longmuir!
We will soon be shooting the concept film of our opera Émilie & Voltaire. Over the next three weeks I’d like to give you a glance at my character notes, beginning with the brilliant characterisation of Maupertuis by tenor John Longmuir. His magnificent voice and his gift for passionate operatic roles make him the perfect Maupertuis for the concept film.
1736-7 was the time of Maupertuis’s great expedition, when he became famous in France and throughout the scientific world as ‘the man who flattened the Earth’. He led a team beyond the Arctic Circle, under royal commission, to prove Isaac Newton’s theory that the Earth is relatively flatter at the Poles. In a letter to Émilie, he explained that when measuring the surface of an icy river, he drank cognac, because it was the only liquid that didn’t freeze!
Maupertuis is energetic, decisive, and dedicated to science for its own sake. He’s on a bit of a high when he arrives at Cirey, Émilie’s country mansion. As a member of the French Academy of Sciences, he knows the results of an essay competition that Voltaire and Émilie both entered—and he also knows Émilie’s secret before Voltaire hears of it.
He claims to be a great mate of Voltaire. And how does he feel about Émilie? When she was in Paris, they had a brief affair, but he didn’t let it become too intense because he knew she was extremely demanding. When she chose Voltaire over him, he thought the dangerous dalliance was over. But she has been begging him to visit Cirey—there’s just a chance that she’s tired of living with Voltaire in rural solitude!
Émilie to the Comte d’Argental, February 1737
Monsieur du Châtelet [her husband, the marquis] is pestering me to accompany him to the Lorraine for the princess’s wedding, but I don’t want to have anything to do with it: I’d be miserable at court [at Lunéville] and at a wedding. I can only live in the place where I last saw our friend. They claim in the Gazette d’Utrecht that Monsieur de Voltaire has taken advantage of the weather to go to Prussia. Alas! It might have been quite enough if he’d gone to Lunéville! However, as you say, I must forget about the past and think about snatching what peace I can from present misfortune. Adieu. You are my consolation; when will you be my saviour?
As you may know, when he left he planned to be away two months before his return—simply because he needed that amount of time. Therefore, you can’t say too much to persuade him otherwise; if he got it into his head to have the Philosophy printed, there’d be no end to it—I’d be dead before that.
On the day he passed through Brussels, they put on Alzire [a play that was a hit for the Comédie Française]. His crown of laurels follows him everywhere. But what will glory do for him? He’d be much better off happy and unremarked.
O vanas hominum mentes! O pectora caeca!
[Lucretius: Oh, the empty heads of men! Oh, blind hearts!]
Vale et me ama et ignosce.
[Farewell: love me and forget me.]
Voltaire to Nicolas-Claude Thiériot, from Holland, early 1737
Émilie du Châtelet’s favourite opera composer was Destouches, and Émilie loved to play and sing his Issé at the harpsichord. She often gave the whole opera for guests. It’s unlikely that she would have felt like singing, however, had she seen this letter written by Voltaire while she waited for him to return to France. It sounds as though Holland suits him much better than Cirey.
The Crown Prince has commanded Count Borck, ambassador for the King of Prussia in England, to offer me his house in London, should I wish to go there, as rumour has it at present; however I’m being treated here very much better than I deserve. The bookseller Ledet, who has earned a little by publishing my feeble works, and who is now bringing out a magnificent edition, shows his gratitude to me in much greater measure than Paris shows its ingratitude. He insists that I stay with him when I go to Amsterdam to see how Newtonian philosophy is faring. He has chosen to place the head of your friend Voltaire on his masthead. Due modesty prevents me from telling you in all sincerity what boundless consideration I’m shown in this country.
I don’t know what impertinent rag, wretched echo of the wretched news penned in Paris, took upon itself to say that I’ve fled abroad so I can publish without licence. I’ve denied this fabrication in the Gazette d’Amsterdam by disowning everything of the sort that’s been printed in my name, whether in France or abroad. I acknowledge as mine only works that have received a royal licence or official authorisation. I’ll confound my enemies by giving them no hold on me, and I’ll have the consolation that whoever wants to harm me will have to lie outright …
In the breaks allowed from philosophy I’ve been correcting all the poems I’ve written from ‘Oedipus’ to ‘The Temple of Friendship’. There will be several addressed to you: over these I’ll take greater care.
From Émilie to the Comte d’Argental, February 1737
On the day when we first recorded the soundtrack of the concept film, Émilie & Voltaire: left to right, Nicholas Gentile, moi, Julie Lea Goodwin, Robert McDougall.
Poor Émilie, she wasn't smiling when she wrote to their friend d'Argental in February 1737!
'I’ve received his letter written on the 10th. He drank some milk that made him ill; he wasn’t well when he wrote. He tells me it’s all over the press in Holland that: ‘The Dutch ambassador in Paris reckoned there was an order out to arrest Voltaire wherever he might be’; that he’s been in the news there for a month; and everyone wants to see him. He’s gone to Amsterdam: he’s in despair about all the above, and he’s right to be so. But he’s still determined to have his Philosophy printed in Holland: he says everyone will then know exactly where he is, if they don’t already; and at least it will be seen why he’s gone there, which can only be for the best. Here’s his address: write to Messieurs Ferrand and d’Arty, merchants, Amsterdam, and no other name: it’s a secure address.
'In the name of friendship, exhort him to issue the Philosophy in Paris first, and to cut out the chapter on Metaphysics. If he wants to have it printed in Holland, he must at least send the manuscript to Paris at the same time—then he won’t look as though he’s trying to bypass the Censor …
'A last thought … let alone France, I’m not even sure that he’s safe in Holland! I don’t know whether you have any reassurances for me on that point—you’ll think I’m mad, and I shortly will be. I’m like a miser whose whole fortune has been snatched away, terrified that at any moment it’ll be tossed into the sea.'
Voltaire to Nicolas-Claude Thiriot, from Leyden, early 1737
At last I have more of Voltaire's letters! This one comes while Émilie is tearing her hair out at Cirey, terrified that Voltaire will never return to France. Meanwhile he is writing from Holland to his friends. Does the last paragraph of this passage bode well for Émilie?
It’s true, my dear friend, that I’ve been very ill, but the liveliness of my temperament makes up for my lack of strength; my delicate nervous energy may send me to the grave, but it speedily snatches me out of it. I’ve come to Leyden to consult Doctor Boërhaave about my health, and s’Gravesande about the philosophy of Newton.
Prince Frederick of Prussia showers me every day with admiration and gratitude; he deigns to write to me as to a friend; he’s sent French verses to me that are the equal of those written at Versailles in the days of good taste and fine pleasures. It’s a pity that a prince like him has no rival.
I never forget to slip a few words about you into all my letters. If my tender friendship for you can be of any use, won’t I be all the happier? I live only for friendship: that is what kept me at Cirey for so long; that is what will take me back there, if I return to France.
Maupertuis: a threat to the paradise of Cirey?
Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis was a famous mathematician and physicist whose achievements are all familiar to scientists today. He is also part of a love triangle with Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet, in the opera Émilie & Voltaire that Nicholas Gentile is developing to my libretto and with the generous sponsorship of Fine Music Sydney, Andrew Su, the City of Melbourne and the major sponsor, Opera Australia. Maupertuis's role in the short opera film of the same name is played by brilliant tenor, John Longmuir. More in this blog when we have completed the film!
Maupertuis was born in the picturesque seaport of Saint-Malo in Brittany. His father was one of its important shipping merchants known as corsairs, who also practised as privateers against foreign vessels and even as pirates. The vast wealth that Monsieur Moreau earned from the sea passed to his son, and so did his noble name, de Maupertuis, granted to the family by King Louis XV not long before Pierre-Louis was born.
Maupertuis received an excellent education. Like many active young men of the nobility he became an army officer, but he soon discovered that his real interest was mathematics. Being rich, energetic and clever, he could make his own choices in life. He went to Basel, Switzerland, to study with the great mathematician, Daniel Bernoulli. Maupertuis proved to be an original thinker, his work was widely read and in 1723 he was admitted to the French Academy of Sciences.
Maupertuis was a Newtonian: that is, he believed with Englishman Isaac Newton that the movement of the spheres in the universe operates according to forces such as gravity, and that the laws of nature can all be expressed in the language of mathematics. This put Maupertuis in opposition to most of the Academy, who supported the theories of the Frenchman, Descartes.
Scientific debate was also fashionable in the Paris salons, where Maupertuis was a favourite because of his sparkling intelligence, his wit and his success with the ladies. In 1733, Voltaire began to take lessons from Maupertuis in mathematics, and they became friends. Voltaire, deeply in love with the beautiful and learned Émilie du Châtelet, hired Maupertuis as her mathematics tutor also. Rumour had it that Maupertuis briefly became her lover, though he played somewhat hard to get, and they parted when Émilie left Paris in 1735 to live with Voltaire at her Château de Cirey in the remote Champagne region.
Then came Maupertuis’s great expedition, which made him famous in France and throughout the scientific world as ‘the man who flattened the Earth’. In 1736 he led a team of scientists and surveyors to Lapland under royal commission, to prove Isaac Newton’s theory that the Earth is not a perfect sphere, but is relatively flatter at the Poles.
From Émilie to the Comte d’Argental, February 1737
Poor Émilie! Stuck at Cirey while Voltaire is in Holland having some of his most controversial works published--because they were refused by the French royal censor. Today I should be bringing you a letter from Voltaire (I'm alternating their letters between 1735-38, to give you the pattern of their lives) but at the moment, because of coronavirus lockdown, I have no access to V's letters in French. If you know where I can access them online, kindly send me a bulletin on my Contact page! Meanwhile I'm translating extracts from Émilie's letters, in chronological order, more or less weekly.
I’m not going to suggest that Voltaire returns just to put himself into hiding as the ministry requires. For as long as they want him to return incognito, and insist that no one must know where he is, he’s in danger. Now, if he’s to run any kind of risk, how can I possibly be the one to ask him to come back? Besides, it’s impossible to keep him hidden where absolutely no one can find him. Concealment is a humiliating procedure that he will never consent to: it makes him look guilty, plus he’s well known in these parts, and wherever he happens to live, he always draws attention.
There are priests and monks all around us; he’s adored by honest folk in the province but there are also bigots here, as everywhere. In short, if he’s to be genuinely safe, it can’t be known that he’s at Cirey—it’s useless even considering it.
I did suggest to you at one stage that we might get him back and make sure his return is not publicly known, but I’ve no confidence that it could be kept from the minister; and if he were discovered and ran risks in consequence, how we would reproach ourselves! Moreover, what a triumph it would be for our enemies, to know that he was trying to hide himself away! I repeat, it’s too humiliating and he’d never consent to it. What I wanted was for him to stay at Cirey without anyone being aware—that is, without his sending any letters, and without his return being bruited about Paris; but that was when I thought he might do so without any danger of being caught—I could never ask anyone to run that kind of risk.
I feel as though I’m going to lose him precisely because I want to save him, and thus die from grief. But I’m also appalled by the thought of his coming back solely for my sake—and I could never give him any advice that would make him sorry for having followed it! I prefer to see him free and happy in Holland than living the life of a criminal in his own country. I’d rather die of grief than tempt him into a false step.
From Émilie to the Comte d’Argental, Paris
Voltaire dedicated his Metaphysics to Émilie and sent a copy to her with this verse:
Of the author of Metaphysics, beware:
He’s on his knees before you.
He ought to be burnt in the town square
But he only burns for you.
While Voltaire is in Holland in early 1737, Émilie is beside herself about this very work. She writes to their friend d’Argental:
In his letter of the 8th he sends me a copy of his letter to the Crown Prince of Prussia, that is all very well and all very prudent, but look what I find: ‘I shall be bold enough to send Your Royal Highness a manuscript that I would only show to someone with a mind as free of prejudices as your own, and who, amongst all the praises one may bestow, are worthy of boundless trust.’
I know this manuscript: it’s his Metaphysics, so replete with reason that it would send him to the stake, a book that’s a thousand times more dangerous—and certainly more actionable—than La Pucelle [Voltaire’s risqué poem on Joan of Arc]. Imagine how it shook me; I still haven’t got over my astonishment—or, may I tell you, my anger. I sent him a furious letter; but it will take so long on the way that the manuscript may have gone off before it gets to him, or at least he’ll be able to claim it has—because sometimes we are carried away, and the demon called reputation (his view of which I do not share) never leaves us alone.
I must tell you I couldn’t help lamenting over my fate, when I saw how little the tranquillity of my life must mean to him. In future I shall be always fighting against him for his own good, but without being able to save him. In his absence, I’ll be either trembling for him or lamenting over his faults. But in the end, that is my destiny, and it’s dearer to me than the happiest of futures. You must help me to parry this latest blow, if it can be done, because sooner or later his imprudence will destroy him for ever. The Crown Prince can no more keep this particular secret than he can himself.
From Voltaire to Frederick, Crown Prince of Prussia
At the beginning of March, I posted a letter from Madame du Châtelet as part of the correspondence written by herself and Voltaire from 1735 to 1738, all of which I selected and translated. I am now in lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic and I have Émilie’s correspondence on my desk--but Voltaire's has been returned to storage at the Fisher Library at Sydney University. Online searches cannot restore it to me (he wrote 15,000 letters after all!). Here is my solution. I have access to a selection of his letters: Voltaire in His Letters by S.G. Tallentyre (G.P. Putnam Sons, 1919) and it is out of copyright. For now, why not bring you Tallentyre's translations from Voltaire's side and mine from Émilie’s?
The letter I posted in March was from Émilie to the Comte d'Argental in 1737, desperately lamenting Voltaire's departure to Holland. She was terrified that he would succumb to the blandishments of the 'philosopher prince', Frederick of Prussia (later Frederick the Great) and go to Potsdam. So it's Voltaire's turn: here is some of a letter to Frederick written at that time, with translation by Tallentyre.
I examine man. We must see if, of whatsoever materials he is composed, there is vice and virtue in them. That is the important point with regard to him—I do not say merely with regard to a certain society living under certain laws: but for the whole human race; for you, sir, who will one day sit on a throne, for the wood-cutter in your forest, for the Chinese doctor, and for the savage of America. Locke, the wisest metaphysician I know, while he very rightly attacks the theory of innate ideas, seems to think that there is no universal moral principle. I venture to doubt, or rather, to elucidate the great man's theory on this point. I agree with him that there is really no such thing as innate thought: whence it obviously follows that there is no principle of morality innate in our souls: but because we are not born with beards, is it just to say that we are not born (we, the inhabitants of this continent) to have beards at a certain age ?
We are not born able to walk: but everyone born with two feet will walk one day. Thus, no one is born with the idea he must be just: but God has so made us that, at a certain age, we all agree to this truth.
It seems clear to me that God designed us to live in society—just as He has given the bees the instincts and the powers to make honey: and as our social system could not subsist without the sense of justice and injustice, He has given us the power to acquire that sense. It is true that varying customs make us attach the idea of justice to different things. What is a crime in Europe will be a virtue in Asia, just as German dishes do not please French palates: but God has so made Germans and French that they both like good living. All societies, then, will not have the same laws, but no society will be without laws.
From Émilie to the Comte d’Argental, Paris, February 1737
I knew your prudence would suggest that Voltaire wouldn’t be safe from the minister [Chancellor de Fleury] if he returned to France [from Holland]. Even so, couldn’t he come to Cirey? It’s the Champagne country house where you’ll see the fewest people in the province, and it’s the most respectable place for me: if he were hidden elsewhere I’d be visiting him often and that would look odd and cause talk …
If he’s not at Cirey I won’t be able to monitor his conduct closely enough, and the kind of wisdom he needs at this stage of his fortunes can only be achieved by showing him the abyss that lies before him at every second …
I’ve just now received a letter that makes me terribly afraid he won’t return at all. I’m devastated. I have to confess that I’m very afraid he’s being as treacherous to me as he’s been towards the minister. Anyway, we’ll see if he comes back; but once again I don’t believe he will, and seriously I don’t possess the strength to survive the grief of it. I’ve done nothing wrong; the sad consolation is that I wasn’t born to be happy. I hardly dare to ask anything more of you, or else I’d beg you to make one last attempt to sway his heart. Tell him I’m very ill; that’s what I’m telling him myself—that he owes it to me to come back and save me from death. This is no lie; I’ve had a fever for two days and the violence of my imagination is sufficient to kill me in four …
If, as you say yourself, his happiness in life depends on the wisdom with which he acts at this point, we mustn’t lose sight of him for a moment. You wouldn’t blame me if you’d seen his last letter: he signed it and called me ‘Madame’. The difference was so shocking, I almost fainted with the pain. Write to him at Brussels!
From Voltaire to Frederick, Crown Prince of Prussia, 1 January 1737
Monseigneur, I shed tears of joy on reading the letter of 9 November with which Your Highness was good enough to honour me. In it I recognise a prince who will be the beloved of mankind. I am filled with amazement. You think like Trajan, you write like Pliny and you speak French like the best of our writers. What a difference between men! Louis XIV was a great king and I respect his memory, but he did not think with your humanity, Monseigneur, nor was he your equal in expression. I’ve seen some of his letters. He could not spell his own language. Under your auspices, Berlin will be the Athens of Germany and may become that of Europe.
Here I am in a town [Amsterdam] where two humble individuals, Mr Boerhaave on the one hand and Mr ’s-Gravezande on the other, attract four or five hundred foreigners [to hear their lectures on physics]. A prince like you ought to attract many more, and I want you to know that I would consider myself very unfortunate if I did not see the epitome of princes and the wonder of Germany before I die. I do not seek to flatter you, Monseigneur—that would be a crime. It would be like blowing poison on a flower, an act of which I am incapable. It is from my grateful heart that I speak to Your Royal Highness.
From Émilie to the Comte d’Argental, Paris, December 1736
Dear guardian angel of two unfortunates, at last I’ve received news of your friend from the border; he arrived without accident and is in good health [Voltaire fled France into Belgium on 22 December to escape outrage over a new, controversial poem, ‘The Man of the World’]. His fragile health doesn’t suffer so much when he’s travelling because he does less work. Nonetheless, when I look out at the ground covered in snow, at this dark and heavy weather, and when I think of the climate into which he’s headed, and his dreadful susceptibility to the cold, I’m ready to die of misery. I could endure his absence if I weren’t so worried about his health …
As soon as you receive this letter, write to him as Monsieur Revol, merchant, at Brussels. From there he goes to Amsterdam, where they’re to print a complete edition of his Works … but his main concern is that no one should know he’s in Holland. Everyone must be led to think he’s gone to Prussia …
I’m absolutely against his going to Prussia and I’m begging you on my knees—he would be lost in that country, he’d go for months without my getting any news of him; I’d die of anxiety before he could return. The climate there is terribly cold …
His affairs are not so desperate, and you’ve been encouraging me to think they’ll be settled within a few months, so why go so far? In spring I could see him again at the court of Madame de Lorraine [at the palace of Lunéville] or wherever she happens to be, or on the estate of a third party—because there are no orders out against him to prevent it. This hope keeps me alive; if you take it away, you’ll kill me.
Apologies for the poor quality of the portrait of d'Argental.
Voltaire to the Crown Prince of Prussia, 1 September 1736
Monseigneur, I would needs be insensible not to be infinitely touched by the letter with which Your Royal Highness has deigned to honour me. It has greatly flattered my sense of pride; but my love for mankind, which has always ruled my heart and which has also—dare I say it—formed my character, affords me a pleasure that is a thousand times purer when I realise that there exists in the world a prince who thinks like a man: a philosopher prince who will make man happier.
Allow me to tell you that there is not a being on earth who will not derive blessed benefits from the care that you take to cultivate sound philosophy in a soul born to command. Believe me, the only truly good kings have been those who, like you, began by acquiring knowledge, by getting to know mankind, by loving the truth and by detesting persecution and superstition. No prince who thinks like this can fail to create a golden age in his realm. Why do so few kings seek such advantages? You have sensed the reason, monseigneur, which is that almost all concern themselves more with royalty than with humanity—whilst you do precisely the contrary.
Be assured that, provided tumultuous affairs of state and human wickedness do not alter such a divine character, you will be adored by your peoples and treasured by the entire world. Philosophers worthy of the name will hasten to your domains and, just as famous artists flock to countries where their art is most appreciated, thinkers will come to gather around your throne …
The image is a detail from an engraving that purports to show Voltaire turning from his desk to converse with Frederick the Great (V did in later years accept the king's invitation to the Prussian royal court)
From Émilie to Maupertuis, August 1736
Can it be that I must still write to you at the Pole? … They say in the newspapers that you risked being eaten alive by mosquitoes: I’m very happy to learn they treated you with respect (possibly you owed this to the protection of Monsieur de Réamur), because it doesn’t look as though they valued you as highly as the Lapp women do …
We’ve become absolute natural philosophers. The companion of my solitude has written an ‘Introduction’ to his Elements of Newton, which he has addressed to me—I’m sending you the frontispiece. I trust you’ll find the verses worthy of the philosopher they celebrate, and of the poet who wrote them. If you’d been amongst us, we would have asked your advice. For a long time you’ve been wanting to make a natural philosopher out of the first of our poets, and you’ve succeeded: your advice has greatly influenced his determination to follow his bent towards scientific knowledge. As for me, you have some idea of what I’m able to perform in physics and mathematics. I benefit from a big advantage over the greatest philosophers, because I’ve been taught by you
While you’re changing the shape of the Earth, please leave Cirey just as it is and above all remember how much we love you here.
From Voltaire to Mademoiselle Quinault [of the Comédie Française], 24 August 1736
Ah, my God, delightful Thalia, you only needed to say and I couldn’t be happier—you want four lines of verse for the ending, and quick, quick, here they are.
No, they’re not here. You’ll find them at the end of my letter.
Far from perfect, I know, but still, you haven’t had to wait long for them; and then, delightful Thalia, you’re allowed to throw them in the fire …
Actually I have some hopes of this piece by Gresset. When with your artistry you spread a few comic touches over this cold Gresset, it will be greatly to his benefit. Given your touch, Gresset may succeed, but if he fails I give Gresset up completely and it will be all Gresset’s fault.
But when you do me the honour of writing to me, you never tell me we’ve played such and such a piece, or that our theatre is doing well. You tell me nothing about the republic of drama; do you consider me as a limb severed from the body?
While I’ve been writing to you, beautiful Thalia, and thinking that it’s you whom I address, I have to admit that the verses I just thought up at your request are not worth the devil. So here’s my second version:
MADAME DE PORKYBACK, to Pridefool
Oh, well said—in the end I’ll make him mine,
My president; I’ll bring him into line
For you. Come on, you pedant, get us wed:
Just get me married and we’ll shake the bed.
The above might be a bit limp but you be the judge; you’re the expert on what makes people laugh. I have no idea myself and don’t consider myself in the least funny …
Thalia, Thalia, if I were in Paris I’d work for you alone. You’d turn me into an amphibious animal, comic for six months of the year and tragic the other six. The trouble is, the world contains a devil called Newton who has discovered exactly how much the sun weighs and defined the colours of the rays that constitute light. This strange man has my head in a whirl; please write to me and bring me back to the muses.
I’m tenderly devoted to you for ever; don’t forget me …
I’m at your feet.
The painting by Nattier depicts Thalia, the muse of drama.
From Émilie to Count Algarotti [in London], May 1736
Do you have the translation of the Essay on Man? Apparently it’s a great success in Paris, translated by Prévost. The Abbé du Resnel is publishing his own translation in verse. All this is quite astonishing, when you think they burned [Voltaire’s] Philosophical Letters. The more I read Pope’s work, the more I like it. In the fourth Epistle, which you refused to read with me at Cirey, I found a line that I very much like: ‘An honest man’s the noblest work of God.’
Voltaire was shocked by these two lines: ‘All reason’s pleasure, all the joys of sense/lie in three words, health, peace, and competence.’ Here is his reply:
Pope, wise English poet, so exalted
For his Parnassian moral thought, decrees
That life’s sole blessings are: to work with ease,
Enjoy good health and rest. He’s to be faulted!
What? In treasures that the gods devise—
Man’s happiest gifts, sent from heaven above—
This sad Englishman does not count love?
Pity Pope; he’s neither gay nor wise.
Voltaire strives not to be wistful about the Académie Française
From Voltaire to Monsieur de la Chaussée, 2 May 1736
A week ago, monsieur, I searched out your residence in order to present Alzire [his latest play] to the man in France who best knows and cultivates the art of poetry, which so difficult to practise. I think just as you do, monsieur, about the art that all the world believes they know, and that so few know at all …
Of our exacting art, the only aim
Is to be even more precise than prose;
Thus for verse of genius we claim
That from the language of the gods it rose.
It must be said that you’re more worthy than anyone to justify this claim.
Today it was suggested to me that I might be elected to the Académie Française, but neither the circumstances in which I find myself, nor my health—nor my liberty, which I cherish above all—permit me to dare think of it. I replied that the place should be destined for you, and if your merits did not already secure you complete support I would be honoured to cede to you the few votes upon which I would have been able to rely [La Chaussée was subsequently elected to the French Academy].
The image is of the Institut de France, where the Académie Française meets. Voltaire was of course never elected to the Academy--too much of a firebrand.