So begun the drama-filled relation of Voltaire and Émilie as described in his memoirs of a relationship that would define the most productive years of his life. The most famous man in Europe had met his match: the twenty-seven-year-old mathematical prodigy Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet. Sounds like a classic romantic story right? Well without the love-triangle and weird living situation that was to follow, the story might have ended up to be one worthy of a relationship goals hashtag.
Let’s get back to the beginning of this page-turning, humans getting involved in extramarital affairs story. François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), known as Voltaire was a french enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit, his criticism of Christianity—especially the Roman Catholic Church—as well as his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state. Voltaire’s works span every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, histories, and scientific expositions. He was one of the first authors to become renowned and commercially successful internationally.
At the top of his career, Voltaire met Émilie du Châtelet in 1733. According to Michelle Legro of, the pairing was dynamic and productive — together, they would achieve some of the most important Enlightenment writing on science, physics, and philosophy. But as Nancy Mitford explains in her fantastic 1957 biography of the intellectual power couple, Voltaire in Love (public library), they were devoted not just as intellectuals, but as lovers as well as friends. Their bond was anything but ordinary and their affair lasted for nearly sixteen years. However, their love was not without drama and controversy as Émilie was a married mother of three, who was 12 years his junior at the time. Through an arranged marriage, she had become the wife of an army man named Marquis Florent-Claude du Châstellet-Lomont. Her husband was frequently absent and considered dull, formal, and cold whereas in comparison Voltaire was dramatically passionate.
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.” Émilie credited her education to her father who helped water her desire for education. She studied Latin, English, Italian, and Greek, translated the Aeneid, read Homer and Cicero, and, most importantly, excelled at math. She was less successful at the feminine arts, and at the height of her fame would be chastised for having poor teeth, unkempt hair, and messy clothes. One person who provided a less than flattering description of her was Madame du Deffand, a French hostess and patron of the arts. She claimed the Marquise had “fat arms and legs, enormous feet and a very small head with a pointed nose and a shapeless mouth containing few teeth and those decayed.” In contrast, Mitford wrote: Elegance, for women, demands undivided attention; Émilie was an intellectual, she had not endless hours to waste with hairdressers and dressmakers.
Émilie instilled awe and jealousy among the aristocratic ladies as she had snagged the most charming man in Paris. Their relationship soon resulted in Parisians doing a lot of tongue-wagging due to the twosome’s public display of an inappropriate affair. Voltaire and Emilie did not care and went to various social events together including the opera, dined at the most respectable inns, and appeared together in the audience chamber of the King.
So just how did the lovebirds and Émilie’s husband end up living under one roof? As odd as it may seem, the arrangement had been agreed to by all parties involved. It was an open secret that Emilie and her husband led separate lives, as such when Voltaire’s writing got him in trouble with the French government, Emilie suggested that he hideout on one of her husband’s many estates. Putting the cherry on the cake, Voltaire agreed to pay to renovate the place. This included such luxuries as a bathtub, a kitchen, and a 20,000-book library. Émilie husband gained a home in the country where he could hunt, and Voltaire paid for Émilie’s extravagant spending. Everyone was happy, and Voltaire and Emilie lived on the property for many years before cordially parting ways. It was possibly the most functional extramarital relationship in history.