Voltaire Residence

This page shows people who were in the life of Emilie du Châtelet.

The Duc de Richelieu by Alexandre Roslin
Duc de Richelieu
The Duc de Richelieu had an affair with Emilie several years before she met Voltaire. At the time, Emilie was 24 and the Duc was ten years older.

Louis François Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu (1696-1788) was the grand nephew of Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who as Prime Minister during the reign of Louis XIII, had helped France to become the leading power in Europe.

It was in 1729, following his return from a diplomatic mission in Vienna, that Richelieu met Emilie. It was likely that their paths would cross socially as a brother of Emilie's husband had married Richelieu's sister.

Richelieu was known as the champion adulterer of the 18th century in France. A dozen-titled ladies fell in turn into his bed, drawn by his rank, wealth, reputation, and personal charm.

Richelieu's success with women lay in his ability to understand a mistress and to help her realize her ideals. When more than a physical attraction was involved, as was the case with Emilie, he developed a true interest in the personality and problems of his companion.

Prior to her affair with Richelieu, Emilie was extremely self-indulgent, theatrical, and undisciplined. She credited Richelieu with bringing order to her life and giving her a sense of direction.

Emilie enjoyed knowledge for its own sake and Richelieu taught her to focus on those subjects that were of primary interest to her. With the Duc's encouragement, she began advanced studies with professors of physics and mathematics from the Sorbonne, whom she hired as tutors, and who came to her home for several hours of instruction and discussion each week. She also started her first serious translations of poetry from ancient Latin into French. This was the groundwork for the goal that she set for herself to become a translator.

The affair with Richelieu lasted for eighteen months, and it was rare for Richelieu to show such fidelity to any mistress. Though most men felt overpowered by Emilie's intelligence, Richelieu was fascinated by her mind. In letters to his friends, he often referred to her talents for sharp, concise debate. In discussions about literature, he could be the winner of a conversation, but he was not able to beat her in discussions of philosophy and metaphysics.

When the affair ended, Richelieu and Emilie carried on a correspondence and friendship until the time of Emilie's death -- a time period of sixteen years. Emilie's letters were a minimum of twenty pages and the Duc's letters were somewhat shorter. Voltaire often wondered about this lengthy correspondence, though letter-writing was an integral part of the life of an educated man and woman of the time. For his own protection, Voltaire steamed open the incoming and outgoing mail between these two. He found nothing that indicated anything other than a friendship.

What was the reason for this long friendship? The Duc was the rake of his time and had affairs with women all his life. All of the women in his life were beautiful, and some were intelligent, but none were Emilie's intellectual equal. Richelieu also lived a life of court intrigues, and it is likely that he truly valued Emilie's friendship.
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