Second Chance Reads: Voltaire in Love (According to Nancy Mitford)


Welcome to Second Chance Reads! This is going to be a regular feature on the blog where I bring back a book that I tried and gave up on or flat out actively refused to read to begin with. In keeping with the theme of this blog, this is another way to expand your reading by giving another chance to books that never seem to make it to the top of your to-read pile. The first book in this series is Voltaire in Love, by Nancy Mitford.

Time on to-read list: Two –and-a-half-years

Reason still lurking on to-read:

  1. Read Too Many By This Author In A Row (The Burnout Excuse)
  2. Attempted In Wrong Mood Excuse (Hence the Second Chance)

Motivation for Picking Up: Time Passes

The Verdict:

I’ve written before about why I love Nancy Mitford’s biographies so much. First off, she writes exactly the sort of narrative history that floats my boat: history that treats the past as, first and foremost, an endless, rich vein of gold to be mined for storytelling yarn, fascinating characters and plots so good that you need the excuse of Hey-It-Actually-Happened to get people to suspend their disbelief.* Secondly, her writing has just the right touch for the upper class social histories she chooses to cover: a light, witty tone and a focus on the day-to-day human foibles of the rich and powerful she covers. She’s more than able to achieve this due to my absolute favorite thing about her: She’s an ultimate Insider. A Gossip Girl in a timewarp back to the eighteenth century: at times a welcoming, warm Serena, and sometimes, deliciously, a cutting Blair at her worst.

Mitford is able to offer a somewhat unique understanding of her biographies’ subjects precisely because she, unlike so many other historians, refuses to put her subjects on any sort of pedestal. Having been brought up an aristocrat herself, knee-deep in history and family and traditions up to her eyeballs, she treats courts, celebrities, great nobles and great historical personages with absolutely no deference whatsoever- unless, for her own reasons, she feels that they have earned it. (Louis XIV gets a grudging and not-entirely-complete pass, but only because he created her personal dream heaven come to earth- Versailles. Seriously, lady needs the Tardis to land on her doorstep, STAT. I can’t even imagine the unholy sums she would have paid to be a part of that Madame de Pompadour episode.) She has no self-consciousness and no hesitation in pronouncing with authority on the way that X lady of the court handled a rival, or how Y lord of the realm should have responded to the traitorous actions of a friend. (My favorite example comes from this book when she takes the actions of a barely-tolerated visitor of Voltaire and Madame du Chatelet as an excuse to give well-bred parasites who live off a career of constantly visiting their richer, country-house owning friends a piece of her mind.) Their characters are drawn, cut up and pronounced Good For Nothing or quite the best fellow who ever lived without the slightest hint of the temporizing and presentation of both sides that professional historians think appropriate- all without ever descending into any sort of Victorian moralizing. Oh no, her verdicts are of a very practical, no-nonsense, English sort. This person understands how things are done and that one does not. One of her biggest pet peeves with the female consorts of powerful men is when they just do not understand how to properly manage them in order to keep their high-status companions at their side and grateful to be there. (La Pompadour, a personal hero of hers, earns plaudits for her savvy when she personally sets up and manages a whorehouse for the king after the sexual aspect of their relationship grows cold.) The manors, townhouses, courts and palaces of these eighteenth century folk are where she lives, mentally, if not physically. These biographies are written, often, like Richelieu, Madame Pompadour and Louis XIV are her personally known contemporaries whose various episodes she dissects with perfect, witty, dry detachment.

Voltaire in Love is another great example of this trend. Mitford had written biting, ironic asides about Voltaire before (“apt to bite the hand that fed him” is the one I remember being repeated), another example of those side characters you could tell she’d really rather write about that I wrote about in my review of The Sun King. So it wasn’t surprising to find that she’d chosen him as a subject.

What was interesting is that she chose, rather than making herself responsible for doing a biography for his whole life, to focus on only the part of his life that interested her: His nearly twenty year-long love affair with Emilie, the Marquise du Châtelet. I really liked that she did that- it let her talk about all the stuff she loves (illustrious, vaunted men and women creating their great works…. and committing very human acts of folly along the way), without giving herself the obligation to follow through with the conventions of biography if she doesn’t want to. Voltaire’s early life is got through rather quickly, with only the fun highlights to give us the broad brushes of his character and the atmosphere he grew up in. It’s clear that Arouet (his name before he gave himself the name of Voltaire) was an irresponsible, narcissistic sort, who thought rather a lot of himself- a leader of the pack in the schoolyard and beyond. Selfish, disinclined to work, thoughtless- the once tried to elope with a girl after he’d been packed off to The Hague in order for him to NOT cause any more scandals-the sort of boy nobody wanted their sons to hang out with. And the sort who dished it out, but had a problem taking it back (something that would be a problem all his life and get him in trouble with the law repeatedly. Nancy does not approve of this, which makes sense- it does not fit her code of what the Right Sort Does). But smart, talented, perceptive, determined- a fan of the Enlightenment, logic and scientific advance. He was a great proponent of Newton in France- something quite controversial, provocative, in those Cartesian times. He repeatedly got into fights with other writers and critics, was easily offended, and went in and out of jail all of his life.

Similarly, Emilie is delivered to us in a brief blur of color before we open. Interestingly, what Mitford spends the most time concerned with initially is making sure that we know that she is pretty. She defends her from historical charges of ugliness repeatedly accusing the women who wrote that about her of being jealous or stupid (“Madame du Deffand, who never forgave her for carrying off the greatest entertainer of the age, has left a description of her which is certainly too catty…” “Elegance, for women, demands undivided attention: Emilie was an intellectual- she had not endless hours to waste with hairdresers and dressmakers”), and showing that men, obviously of more value in their opinions, thought she was simply lovely (“Cideville, who like most of Voltaire’s men friends, was attracted by Emilie, speaks of her beautiful big soft eyes….”). So suck it, green-faced ladies! Emilie is a perfectly suited heroine that it is appropriate to root for!** Beyond that, we get that she was born of aristocrats who had risen from the lower classes and she was educated unbelievably well for a woman of her time, able to read several languages, including the classical ones only men generally learned. She read voraciously and loved the intellectual life. She was married at nineteen to a super well-connected, noble soldier, the Marquis du Chatelet, who was ten years older than her, who was proud of, but had no interest in, her intellect. It would be easy to make him the villain, but he is in fact repeatedly pictured as the most sweet, blameless Average Joe in the world- he wants food, sleep, horses and to tell his tiresome war stories over dinner and he’s pretty much happy with life. After she’d had the obligatory two kids, he kind of went away and left her to do whatever she wanted- and what she wanted to do was sleep around. A lot. She bagged the Duc de Richelieu and then managed to remain friends with him afterwards (for which you better believe Mitford gives her due applause). When she wasn’t doing that, she spent most of her time studying advanced mathematics. She hired tutors and famous men to teach her science and philosophy and ended up producing a very highly regarded translation of Newton. (So highly regarded, people said it must have been written by a man.)

Then we can really get into the good stuff. Mitford brings a pretty clear eye to their affair. As much as she clearly loves both people involved, she never gives into the temptation to depict this as a Great Love that Defied Time and Space. Instead, these are very real people who fuck up quite a bit- the affair almost didn’t happen, actually. Just before he gets it on with Emilie, for example, Voltaire was living off of an old lady, pretending to be her lover because he needed the money. The old lady just happened to die right before he met her. And even then, he had just told everyone, right before meeting Emilie: “I feel it is ridiculous for me to be in love,” on which Mitford opines, “A man who has had this feeling is incapable of passion such as Emilie would have liked to inspire.” It just makes sense that at the beginning of their affair, Emilie actually had a bigger crush on another dude who she was actively trying to sleep with and writing long passionate letters to. She and Voltaire got along, they debated and argued and educated each other- Voltaire was super impressed by her and loved spending time with her. But even so, “the love affair, after its flourishing start, really seemed in danger of being submerged by the various distractions which beset the lovers.” I mean, not tragedies, not unavoidable life circumstances, “distractions.” Their affair had a ton of blemishes on it throughout the whole thing, too- Emilie has some increasingly public and desperate affairs that Voltaire basically just asks her to be a little more considerate with so she doesn’t embarrass him so much (and she doesn’t listen to him), Voltaire falls passionately in love with his niece and starts having sex with her long after he told Emilie he was too old to be interested in it (for which Mitford tries to excuse him by noting “that it must be borne in mind that an affair with a niece is not regarded as incestuous in a Latin country. To this day Frenchmen of the very best society marry their nieces with a Papal dispensation.” Yeah, that’s right. It’s cool because they’re “Latins” with quaint customs, and also the Pope said so). By the end of their relationship, Mitford notes that Emilie is basically “saddled with two husbands,” not a very romantic image for a pair of lovers. She has her taking a lover in order to escape the tedium of that situation. Voltaire shacks up with his niece almost immediately after Emilie dies. I mean, this is no Tristan and Isolde and there’s really no way to spin it so that you can make it that way.

But. She can come pretty close. As much as she carefully points out all the faults in their relationship (and sometimes enjoys doing so), she also is passionately for damn sure going to show you the best part of them as well. Because there was one, and sometimes, like most people, they lived up to it. For example, Emilie and Voltaire had a long, lovely interlude at one of her country estates, Cirey. They went there initially because the social climate got a bit unpleasant for Voltaire in Paris (another petty argument), but they ended up staying for years with very little interruption. But they got there and it sounds like it was quite wonderful for a time. Voltaire improved the house extensively, using his own money, and proceeded to set up a beautiful, paradisical sounding routine for themselves. They spent the majority of their days studying and writing, separately, each in their own suite of rooms. They would take breaks of a few hours each and meet in the middle for meals, discussing and debating their work, as well as blowing off steam with jokes and stories. They put on amateur theatricals, sometimes using Voltaire’s own plays that he wrote, involving members of the local gentry as part of the cast and crew. Voltaire wrote admiringly of Emilie to his friends, whether he expected her to read the letter or not. He was proud of her learning and frequently said so. His correspondence with Frederick the Great, who was a great admirer of his, started here. Frederick desperately wanted him to come to Germany… but without Emilie (who, it is intimated, he was pretty jealous of). Voltaire refused him for years, preferring to remain with Emilie. She helped him when he was exiled or under threat by the police, they travelled together when it was expedient for him to leave the country. He defended her indignantly when other people suggested that her Newton translation might have been written by the man tutoring her, rather than her. Even after the sexual aspect of their relationship died, there was absolutely no suggestion that either of them would leave the other. Voltaire, even when deeply in love with his niece (sorry to bring that up again) never once suggested that he would leave Emilie for her. Even when Emilie got pregnant by some guy she was desperately in love with, who she had repeatedly embarrassed Voltaire with, and tons of people were laughing at her, he supported her. He helped her plan to seduce her husband and get her child legitimate (which, the way it is presented by Mitford, just ends up looking like it’s unbelievably sweet of him) and stayed with her until the child was born. If Voltaire was a second husband by the end, he was a basically loyal, supportive and incredibly understanding one. No matter what happened, these two people were irresistibly drawn back towards each other. They understood each other, wanted each other to be happy and, perhaps most importantly, and supported each other’s work to the end.

The other thing I really loved about this, beyond the everyday, dirty picture of these two great people in love was Mitford’s passionate relationship with Emilie, her main female subject. Mitford tends to take passionately for or against almost every woman she writes about, like she has to choose whether they are going to be her friends or not. Even minor characters get this treatment. But the best is when she loves them. Because she never does so unconditionally. Though her instinct is to defend them, when possible, she doesn’t let them get away with everything. She’ll drop them permanently if they do something that really sucks (as was the case with one of Louis XIV’s mistresses), or simply distance herself from them for a time, and then visibly welcome them back with open arms when they’ve gotten themselves together. It’s almost like she’s living this alongside them, taking the proper social positions appropriate to their actions. Emilie goes from being “Emilie” to “Madame du Chatelet” when she’s mad at her, like she’s denying all friendship with her. She returns to “Emilie” again when she does something good, or when Nancy feels bad for her. Emilie makes a crap ton of bad decisions in this book, too. But what I super love is that Nancy doesn’t drop her as often as you would think- she makes an effort to extend understanding to her when possible, and dismisses some of her failings as minor, things that hardly matter next to her genius and the amazing life she lead. Like Voltaire getting excused for sleeping with his neice, Mitford will bold face overlook anything she can in order to support her friend. I always get the feeling like Nancy would have been a kickass BFF to have- the sort of person who would stand up for you when people were gossiping about you behind your back, and the kind who’d never leave you out of an invitation. It always left me wanting to spend more time with her.

So, once again, as awesome as the characters in the book are (and they are), Nancy Mitford shines them all down. This is a great story, and you should definitely read it because of that. But you should also read it if you, like me, love hanging out with Nancy as much as I do. She suffuses this book with her amazing personality and brings these people alive in a way that she just couldn’t do if she stayed more detached. Her work may not be the most professional, and I wouldn’t cite it for a research paper, but I absolutely would and will hand it out to everyone I know that tells me that history is boring. Read Nancy Mitford and then say that shit again. I will bet you whatever you like that you can’t do it once the book is over. Go on, I dare you.

Next Mitford read in line? The last of her biographies. Kind of like this book, the last of her biographies is another spinoff, focusing on a major secondary player in this piece, Frederick the Great. Based on how she talks about him here, I look forward to many an elegant takedown and sarcastic grenade lobbed at that fine gentlemen.

I cannot freaking wait. See you all back here for the next Mitford story hour quite soon now! Mark your calendars and don’t forget to bring the popcorn!

*Fun Fact: You know who I just discovered agrees with me about this? Oh, you know, just Rudyard Kipling: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

** I know. I know. But like, let’s remember that this was written more than fifty years ago, okay? By a woman whose head was pretty permanently stuck in two hundred years before that. And I think she thought she was doing her homegirl a favor, you know? It was personal to Nancy.

Next Reviews:

-Walk the Blue Fields

-Cloud Atlas

Currently Reading:

-Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust

-The Blazing World, Hustvedt