Émilie du Châtelet
Laying Foundations for Modern Science
Doing it All, 18th-Century Style
Emilie, a bright and energetic girl, was unique in gaining an education that surpassed even that of her brothers. She had access to their tutors and books, and learned three languages in addition to French (Latin, Greek and German), mathematics, science, and the spinet (an early piano). She learned quickly, and, it soon became clear her mastery beat that of her tutors.
Her father, who worked in the Court of Louis XIV, lost his job when the Sun King died. Without an income, the family could no longer afford these luxuries, but Emilie's hunger for knowledge continued. A convent school was out of the question—Emilie was too passionate and rebellious for the quiet life of the religious orders. And a husband would expect her to follow society's conventions for women... not for her!
So Emilie learned to duel and gamble—even besting the duel master at the court of Louis XV—to earn money for books. While this raised eyebrows in a society with rigid rules for women, it also enabled her to meet the most learned and interesting men at court and in Paris society, including the playwright and philosopher Voltaire, who would later become her partner and collaborator.
Life in the Court of King Louis XV
Eighteenth century France under King Louis XV was a highly stratified society—royalty or noblemen (princes and princesses, dukes, duchesses, marquis or marquise) would not associate with the "peasant" classes, except in the role of servants or tradesmen. Girls growing up in these protected classes would likely never encounter people of lower classes.
This was before the industrial revolution transformed the economy to lead to a rise in the middle class. While boys would be apprenticed to learn a craft or trade, girls outside of the noble classes would have likely been illiterate, and had no access to formal education.
Roles of Women Back in Émilie's Day
Girls whose families held high rank in the nobility would have been expected to marry "well"—into another noble family—marry rich, and marry early. To achieve that goal, they were taught the "wifely" arts—reading, needlework, proper etiquette (manners and morals), dancing, singing or a musical instrument and—to marry well, the ultimate prize— the art of flirtation. Women who weren't—or couldn't be—married off to a husband would be sent to a convent school.