Mar 312017

It seems to me that if you were going to the theatre in the Eighteenth Century, you probably wouldn’t want to take your wife with you! This view is reinforced by an interesting Rowlandson print, shown courtesy of the British Museum, entitled “The Lobby Loungers” showing people gathered in the foyer at Covent Garden theatre. The year: 1786.

AN00949544_001In the centre, the notorious lecher George Hanger is busy negotiating terms with a pair of prostitutes.

AN00949544_001 - Copy

AN00949544_001 - CopyThe girl next to him has a sexy, laced-up bodice and a daring amount of cleavage. She wears a polonaise gown and a fine feathered hat, and the point of her fan is directed towards the “lunch box” of Naughty Georgie, who was no doubt hoping to “Buy One – Get one Free.”

AN00949544_001 - CopyOn the right, there is a scene of misunderstanding and consternation, with a man, quizzing glass in hand, seeking to importune a “respectable lady” – well, she may or may not have been respectable, but she was already spoken for and has a much younger companion to her side.

AN00949544_001 - CopyOn the left is another chatting-up scene, with a bawd, basket in hand, hoping to negotiate a price for the young girl, sitting down.

Who then was George Hanger? A bit of a lad really, often featured by Gillray in his caricatures. Hanger was the third of seven children born to an M.P. in Gloucester. Never likely to inherit his father’s estates, he followed the well-worn route for third sons i.e. into the Army. Indeed he bought a commission and served with Tarleton in the American Revolutionary War. When Tarleton was indisposed due to illness, he led the British troops in an attack on Charlotte (North Carolina) but was ambushed, and his men took something of a  a mauling. Hanger was injured, but not seriously.George Hanger 4th_Baron_Coleraine

When he returned to England he became a close friend of the Prince of Wales, being made Equerry in 1791. He was great company, a great gambler and womaniser, and eventually succeeded to his father’s title having outlived both his elder brothers to become 4th Baron Coleraine. Women seemed to slip through his fingers – he reputedly married once, to a gypsy girl, but she ran off with a passing tinker….some you win, some you lose!

Gillray, in one of twenty etchings featuring Hanger held by the National Portrait Gallery, showed him riding a horse down Grosvenor Street, in “Georgey a’ Cockhorse”:

NPG D12584; George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine ('Georgey a' cock-horse') by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey
















He also features in one of the best-known Gillray prints, “The Royal Joke – or Black Jack’s Delight” shown courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. The scene is at the home of the Prince of Wales (Carlton House). In the foreground The Prince of Wales holds the rather stout Mrs. Sawbridge across his knees and prepares to spank her; she holds out her arms imploringly. Her husband is shown enthusiastically playing a fiddle and dancing. On the left Lady Archer, dressed in her usual red riding habit, holds a driving-whip, and points angrily at Mrs Sawbridge. Next to her a little girl, the daughter of Mrs Sawbridge, looks on in horror at the way her mother is being treated. Various onlookers are in the background, including Mrs Fitzherbert who seems to have  the politician Fox draped amorously around her. Next to Fox, George Hanger stands in profile, looking to the left and wearing his military uniform.

NPG D12996; 'The royal joke, - or - black jacks delight' by James Gillray, published by Samuel William Fores

One of the more curious aspects of his life was that when he got into serious financial difficulties – on account of his gambling – he showed that he was far from afraid to get his hands dirty. He became a coal merchant! Gillray shows him lugging a sack of coal in this caricature from 1800, entitled “Georgey in the coal-hole” and shown courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

NPG D12741; George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine ('Georgey in the coal-hole') by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey

Hanger died in 1824 at the age of 73 – the title died out with him. Speaking of his experiences in life, he apparently stated “I was early introduced into life, and often kept both good and bad company; associated with men both good and bad, and with lewd women, and women not lewd, wicked and not wicked; — in short, with men and women of every description, and of every rank, from the highest to the lowest, from St. James’s to St. Giles’s; in palaces and night cellars; from the drawing-room to the dust cart….Human nature is in general frail, and mine I confess has been wonderfully so.”


That’s all very well, but I still don’t think I will allow him to accompany my wife to the theatre….! He does however get a mention in my book “In bed with the Georgians: Sex, Scandal & Satire” as being one of those rakish, lovable, rogues who drifted in and out of the story of the Prince Regent. Farewell General George, the randiest coal merchant I have ever encountered!

Mar 282017

In mentioning 1787 Richard Hall notes in his diary “The first Committee formed in London for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”

Richard was of course writing this in the absence of any knowledge as to how the abolition movement would end – Parliament was not to approve abolition until six years after Richard’s death. Richard would have heard at first-hand about the plight of slaves because his first wife’s uncle (William Seward) raised money and went to America with George Whitfield (one of the founders of the Methodist movement) in order to buy land so that freed and escaped slaves could establish farms and be self-sufficient.

Throughout the last half of the eighteenth century there had been a growing ground-swell of opinion – Parliament did not lead the change, but reacted to the continual pressure from people like Thomas Clarkson, who was the real power-house for abolition. Thomas, along with two other Anglicans were founder members of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (´SEAST´). All the nine remaining founder members were Quakers, reflecting their driving force behind abolition. But Quakers were banned from entering Parliament and they therefore sought the support of William Wilberforce, MP for Kingston upon Hull. But if Wilberforce was the mouthpiece of the movement Clarkson was the engine, devoting years of his life to travelling tens of thousands of miles around the country obtaining evidence, canvassing, educating, and basically giving Wilberforce the bullets to fire in Parliament.

It had started for Clarkson when he was at Cambridge University. The 25 year old had entered an essay-writing competition (in Latin) on the question “Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?” The research for the essay was to change his life. It dawned on him that someone had to do something about the appalling degrading trade, and that the ´someone´ was going to be him.

The next year he translated his essay into English and it became widely circulated and acclaimed. He helped found SEAST and tirelessly toured the country on horseback organizing petitions and rallies. He pestered and cajoled William Wilberforce into promoting the abolitionist cause in Parliament. He even managed to get 11,000 signatures opposing slavery from Manchester – roughly a fifth of the entire population and this in a city built on commerce. How? By pointing out that the business of shipping slaves was not just morally repugnant but, in business terms, hopelessly wasteful. It is estimated than 20% of all slaves died in transit – of highly contagious diseases like dysentery. But the same statistic applied to the crews who manned the slave ships, since disease affected everyone, and that sort of loss was clearly “bad business practice”.

Clarkson collected and distributed stories of the hideous squalor on board the slave ships. He showed people his gruesome collection of torture implements (leg irons, thumb screws etc.) used to control the slaves. Above all he demonstrated that the slaves were human beings, and in Josiah Wedgwood´s pottery medallion bearing the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother?” he struck a chord which resonated throughout the kingdom. The medallion became a fashion item and as Clarkson himself wrote “ladies wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.”


Picture courtesy of the V & A




Undeterred by an earlier failure, Wilberforce tried to push his anti-slavery Bill through Parliament in 1791 – but was crushingly defeated. Soon, all attention was devoted to the war with France. The anti-slavery movement was obliged to ´hibernate´ until war was nearly over before re-doubling its efforts. In 1804 Clarkson again hit the road, criss-crossing the countryside whipping up support. Finally, the Slave Trade Act became law in 1807. The Act made it illegal to engage in the slave trade throughout the British colonies, but trafficking between the Caribbean islands continued, regardless, until 1811.

Two centuries on from this anniversary Wilberforce continues to be remembered and gets all the credit. His is a household name; Clarkson the forgotten hero. Clarkson died on 26th September 1846. Wilberforce is buried in Westminster Abbey near his political chum William Pitt; Clarkson is interred St Mary’s Church in the small Suffolk village of Playford.

Happy birthday, Thomas; you were one of the great social reformers of the Age – any Age. And for that reason Clarkson will have his own chapter in the book I am writing at present, about the Georgian Greats who lived in the shadow of Fame. Others – Wilberforce – basked in the full force of Fame’s spot-light, and Clarkson languished un-noticed by his side. Hopefully the book will be published by Pen & Sword next year. There’s a small matter of writing it first….


Mar 232017
Robert Dighton, self-portrait, 1787 © National Portrait Gallery

Robert Dighton, self-portrait, 1787 © National Portrait Gallery

Robert Dighton, born in London around 1752, was part of a whole tribe of Dighton’s who featured as artists, engravers and art sellers in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries. He was the son of John Dighton, printseller, and went on to spawn Robert (military portraits), Dennis (general military pictures) and Richard, who succeeded to his father’s business drawing portraits and selling them from his studio.

Robert Dighton senior flourished at a time when “drolls” were in fashion – gentle caricatures of mannerisms, fashion etc (as distinct from the more overtly critical and sometimes savage lampoons of say Gillray, or Cruickshank).

An example is his almost affectionate drawing called “Derby & Joan or the platonic lovers, a farce'” (showing the famous actress Elizabeth Farren, later to become Countess of Derby, and Edward Smith Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby). The relationship between the recently widowed Earl and the famous beauty had fascinated society. This is Dighton’s take, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, published in November 1795:

NPG D9306; 'Derby & Joan or the platonic lovers, a farce' (Elizabeth, Countess of Derby; Edward Smith Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby) by and published by Robert Dighton

And here is Gillray’s picture from 1796 of the same  couple, looking at paintings at a forthcoming auction at Christies:

Dighton v Gillray

Back to Dighton and his drolls, “A Fashionable Lady in Dress and Undress”

Dighton4As an illustration of his skill as an artist and engraver here are a couple of mezzotints courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library and which came out as part of  a whole series of ‘calendar girls’, one per month, in 1784/5. They were sold by Carington Bowles, a popular print publisher of the day.

First, “March or Mars”


Second, “October or Octobre”


I find the fashion  detail – fabrics, styles and so on, fascinating. Carington Bowles especially sold maps, and Dighton enjoyed doing comic maps to amuse the public under the heading of “Geography Bewitched”. Here, copyright of the British Museum, are Scotland:


and Ireland:

Dighton 3

The National Portrait Gallery gives us this 1801 print by Dighton from a book entitled ‘Descriptions of battles by sea & land, in two volumes, from the Kings Library’s at Greenwich & Chelsea’

Droll indeed, but by now the fifty year old Dighton was up to no good. He had opened a shop selling prints and artworks in Charing Cross. In 1806 it was discovered that he was in the habit of visiting the British Museum, chatting up one of the printroom curators by the name of  the Reverend William Beloe, and doing free portraits for him and his family. While the good reverend’s back was turned he would then lift the odd Rembrandt  print from the Museum collection and then calmly walk out with the stolen print hidden in his own portfolio of sketches. Simples! He would then flog them in his shop. When caught he confessed all, and was fortunate to avoid prosecution by agreeing to hand back the unsold items which he had lifted, and to help track down some of the ones he had already sold. The hapless curator was not so lucky and was sacked on the spot.

Dighton was forced to spent a few years lying low in Oxford and Bath, his reputaion in tatters, before returning to London in 1810 to re-open his shop which he ran jointly with his sons. He died in 1814.

To end with, his evocative “Windy Day” showing the outside of  (his?) printshop

Dighton windy day

and my favourite of his calendar girls, August, doing a spot of fishing:

Dighton August

Mar 212017

A couple of very nice reviews of my book In bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal and Satire The first appeared in the February edition of History of Royals which enthused:

In Bed with the Georgians“For many books detailing the passion of kings and paramours, it’s easy to be soft in the portrayal of their love lives. The ambiguity that follows, though, can almost mask true deviance by simply not delving deeper. It’s refreshing, then, that In Bed With the Georgians is more explicit, providing an authenticity that can often go amiss.
With graphic descriptions and plenty of satirical imagery referenced throughout, In Bed With The Georgians explores the celebrity courtesans of the era alongside the scandals in royal court, common lingo, the impact of newspapers, brothels, lower-class sex workers, sex crimes of the 18th century and more. Almost nothing escapes the sharp tongue of the author, with his sarcastic commentary on the ignorance and hedonism of Georgian men. His text, though humorous at times, focuses foremost on delivering a wide-ranging perspective for modern readers.”

Meanwhile I was delighted to see a review on Amazon giving the book five stars, under the title of ‘The Georgian underbelly exposed’:

“Well, this is a romp — a right rollicking ride through the 18th-century world of courtesans, harlots, bigamists, rapists, pimps, brothels, bagnios, profligates and narcissists. Along the way we meet myriad crooks and celebrities: Kitty Fisher, Lavinia Fenton, Nelly O’Brien, Casanova, Charteris, the Hanoverians and their hangers-on and many more.
Although he is excellent at weaving in historical context, Rendell has wisely focused on the stories and therefore allowed the human frailty of his subjects to show through. His easy-to-read style makes the book highly accessible; even those without a declared interest in history should find it interesting.
It’s clear that those at the top did what they wanted to do and those at the bottom did was they needed to do. Those in the middle tried to tell everyone else what to do. Perhaps nothing has changed. Rendell himself avoids imposing 21st-century moral values on lives lived 300 years ago.
This handsomely produced large format paperback has 69 colour illustrations — an appropriate number I would say.”
Thanks, “Nomester” whoever you are!
I am delighted that the book is now available through as well as via It is also available on Kindle – but I haven’t had the chance to check out how the images are integrated with the text. It is one of my great regrets that in printed format the colour images have to be confined to a plates section. I appreciate the cost implications, but I must admit, as a reader, I do like having the images next to the appropriate section of text. I am aware that some may find the images a tad smutty (one lady,  who bought the book after attending one of my talks on Royal Shenanigans, came up to me afterwards to say “My oh my, that book was not half as  sanitised as the talk” – and seemed surprised that a book about the sex trade and sex workers should have used explicit images). But that was the whole point of the book – to show how the Georgians looked at their world. To me, the satire, whether in the form of caricatures or the printed word, was just as important as the sex and the scandal. And I find it truly fascinating that whereas today the famous fashionistas (no names given….) dress like whores, 250 years ago it was the whores who dressed like famous fashionistas. I recall visiting an exhibition a couple of years ago at the Number One Royal Crescent Museum at Bath, curated by the excellent Hallie Rubenhold, consisting of prints and mezzotints of Georgian ladies – and realizing that it was impossible to tell the difference between the harlot and the aristocrat. Having said that, this one leaves little doubt about what is on her mind…. which is why I used her on the front cover of my book.
Love at 300dpi
Moving on, I have just submitted my manuscript of “Petticoat Pioneers” to Pen and Sword books – a look at some really fascinating women of the Eighteenth Century who ‘made a difference’ and who succeeded in a man’s world. More on that later….
Mar 202017

TG1Sad to see that some nutter with a screw-driver has slashed the canvas painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1785, generally known as ‘The Morning Walk’. The other title is ‘Mr and Mrs Hallett’ – slightly inaccurately, as the couple had not, at the time of the painting, celebrated their nuptials. The National Gallery describe the painting as representing  “an elegant young couple strolling through a woodland landscape, an attentive dog at the lady’s heel. William Hallett and Elizabeth Stephen were … due to be married in the summer of 1785, shortly after the painting was completed.”

The site continues “William is in a black, silk velvet frock-suit. His apparent carelessness is actually a studied pose. The undone jacket and with one hand tucked into it is a stance seen in many fashionable 18th-centry informal portraits (known as conversation pieces).

If the report in the Daily Mail is anything to go by, the portrait is famous because it features in the background to the scene in Skyfall, where  James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, sits on a bench in Room 34 at the National Gallery. Funny that, I always thought that it had been famous for  many years before James Bond came along…Room 34

Anyway, as a fan of Gainsborough I am saddened to see that the painting has been damaged and hope it will not be long before the necessary repairs can be effected. The painting has had a fairly chequered history – it was bought by Sir N M Rothschild (later Lord Rothschild) in 1884. A subsequent Lord Rothschild then flogged it to the National Gallery in 1954  for the sum of £30,000 with the purchase being aided by a grant from the Art Fund. Nowadays I imagine that it is worth many millions…..

I have always liked the painting, and can do no better than repeat the description on a site known as the Web Gallery of Art:  ” It was surely Gainsborough’s inclination to interpret a formal marriage portrait, for which the sitters probably sat separately, as a parkland promenade. William Hallett was 21 and his wife Elizabeth, née Stephen, 20 when they solemnly linked arms to walk in step together through life. A Spitz dog paces at their side, right foot forward like theirs, as pale and fluffy as Mrs Hallet is pale and gauzy. Being only a dog with no sense of occasion he pants joyfully hoping for attention. The parkland is a painted backdrop, like those of Victorian photographers, yet it provides a pretext for depicting urban sitters in urban finery as if in the dappled light of a world fresh with dew. ”


Mar 172017

The diary entry of my ancestor Richard Hall, for March 1800, reads: “The Queen Charlotte Man of War took fire and blew up – it is feared not less than 700 lives are lost.” It was typical of many such diary entries of my ancestor, who seemed to get more and more agitated in his old age about accidents and calamities around the world.

The destruction by fire of the British warship HMS Queen Charlotte on 17 March 1800 was one of the most disastrous naval accidents of the era. The flagship of Admiral Lord Keith was anchored off the Italian port of Livorno (otherwise known as Leghorn) in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It had been intended that the ship would sail to capture the island of Cabrona from the French; but the Admiral and a number of the ship’s officers had gone ashore for the night. At about six in the morning a match, which had been kept alight to fire a signal gun, accidentally set ablaze some hay left on the half-deck. There were some 900 men on board and for five hours they struggled to get the blaze under control. In vain they flooded water into the lower decks to stop the fire spreading. Equally in vain, they tried to hurl buckets of water up into the blazing sails and rigging.

At about 11 in the morning the fire reached the massive gunpowder store and blew the ship to smithereens. 673 of the officers and crew on board perished, with only 165 survivors being picked up. The British Register ‘State of Public Affairs’ for April 1800 recounts the story:

We have the painful duty to state the loss of his majesty’s ship Queen Charlotte, of 100 guns, captain Todd, which was burnt off Leghorn on the 17th of March, when the commander and nearly 800 of the crew perished by the explosion. Vice admiral Lord Keith, whose flag was flying on board of her, was, at the time, with some of the officers, providentially on shore. Twenty commissioned and warrant officers, two servants, and 141 seamen, were the whole of the persons who escaped destruction. The particulars are detailed by Mr John Braid, carpenter of the Queen Charlotte: as he was dressing himself about six o’clock, he heard throughout the ship a general cry of ” Fire.” He then states the particulars until half past ten o’clock, when, finding all efforts to extinguish the flames impossible, lie jumped from the jib boom, and swam to an American boat approaching the ship, by which he was picked up and put into a Tartan, then in the charge of lieutenant Stewart, who had come off to the assistance of the ship.

On the morning of the accident. Lord Keith being, as above stated, on shore at Leghorn, had the mortification of discovering the Queen Charlotte on fire four or five leagues at sea. This sight rendered Lord Keith almost frantic – he immediately gave orders for all the vessels and boats to put off, and every assistance to be given; and in this service he was zealously seconded by the Austrian General, and all ranks in Leghorn. They came to an anchor, as the wind blew strongly off the land, but the flames were so rapid that very little hopes could be entertained of saving her. Between eight and nine o’clock the masts and rigging caught fire, and made a most awful blaze; the crew, however, cut the masts by the board ; and, going over the ship, they no longer threatened mischief; but the fire had taken strong hold of the body of the vessel, and continued to rage. The guns began to go off, and the people in the boats and other vessels, who had gone from Leghorn, were much alarmed for fear of the shot, that they would not approach the ship.

It was an ignominious end to a ship named after the wife of George III, and built in 1790 only ten years earlier. In 1796 she had been Admiral Howe’s victorious flagship at the Battle of the Glorious Ist of June, and it is shown here guns blazing away at two French ships of the line. Six were captured and one was sunk.

The Glorious First of June was the first major fleet battle of the French Revolutionary War, 1793-1801. Fast forward to 1800 and it must have been a most appalling experience for Admiral Keith to have to watch as his pride and joy went to its watery grave in a ball of flame.

On the left: a carving of Queen Charlotte in full regalia, in miniature. It was probably made before the full-size carving for the figurehead was commissioned, and would have been used to obtain Royal approval to the design.

Mar 112017


Today’s blog first appeared five years ago – long before I started writing “Petticoat Pioneers – the Story of Women in the 18th Century who succeeded in a Man’s World” * but in practice I never used her story because she was French and had no real connection with Georgian England. Nevertheless she is a most remarkable woman, so here is a repeat of the earlier blog:


Writing a post on Emilie du Châtelet (who was born in 1706,  and who died in 1749) is a real joy: here was a woman who not only believed in ‘carpe diem’ (seize the day) but seized the night as well! She certainly lived life to the full, and in doing also exhibited one of the sharpest brains of her century.

She was born into a wealthy family who lived near the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, in a house with 30 rooms and 17 servants. There was nothing remarkable about her siblings, but Emilie was special. Perhaps over-indulged by her father, most unusually she was coached in Latin, Greek, German and English as well as being taught fencing, riding and gymnastics. She was a good dancer, sang opera and could play the spinet. And she had a particular aptitude for mathematics and the sciences. As a youngster she would spend hours at her studies, often debating physics with the leading scientists of the age over the dinner table. Her incredible aptitude for figures enabled her to gamble at cards with considerable success (she could apparently add up a staggering number of permutations in her head). She then used her winnings to buy more books. Because, as a woman, she was unable to attend university she instead used family money to buy-in the best tutors, in particular the country’s most renowned mathematician Pierre de Maupertuis.

It was his custom to habituate Gradot’s coffee house in Paris, but women were banned from coffee houses. Emilie simply turned up at Gradot’s wearing a man’s suit. The proprietors pretended not to notice they were serving a woman — they didn’t want to lose their scholarly clientele. Emilie became a “regular” at Gradot’s and always arrived fashionably dressed — as a man.

Miniature of Emilie du Châtelet by Marianne Loir

Small wonder that her mother appears to have objected to Emilie’s education – and even her own father remarked “My youngest flaunts her mind, and frightens away the suitors.” Not for long it didn’t…

At the age of 16 she was introduced to the Court at Versailles and became the immediate focus of male attention. The story goes that she was pursued by a man whose advances were unwelcome, so she challenged him to a duel – and won. When she was 19 she agreed to marry a soldier by the name of the Marquis du Chastellet, who had the advantage of being away frequently on military campaigns, or on garrison duty. He was stationed in Semur-en-Auxois in Burgundy; while she spent most of her time in Paris. She did her duty by him, bearing him three children, and then felt free to pursue her other interests of an amorous nature. She had at least two lovers before she started an eighteen month affair with the Duc de Richelieu (when she was 23 years old).

Voltaire and du Châtelet

At 27, possibly at the occasion of the Duc de Richelieu’s marriage, she linked up with the writer Voltaire, who was over ten years her senior. It was Voltaire who changed her surname from ‘du Chastellet’ to ‘du Châtelet’ and it is by that name that she is now known. It was a mutual and instant attraction and they had a passionate affair which was to last fifteen years. Above all it was an incredible meeting of minds, with the pair of them sparking ideas off each other. Voltaire had just spent some time in England and was unpopular with the French authorities because of his pro-English stance. To begin with, they flaunted their affair, scandalizing society by attending the opera and being seen in public places, quite oblivious to the outrage being caused. Then a rumour was started that Voltaire was likely to be arrested because of his English sympathies and at Emilie’s suggestion he decided to keep a low profile by staying with the du Châtelet family at their country home at Cirey-sur-Blaise in North Eastern France. Apparently Monsieur du Châtelet was not unhappy with the arrangement, and it worked well for many years.


Voltaire was to write “I found in 1733 a young lady who felt more or less as I did, and who resolved to spend several years in the country to cultivate her mind, far from the tumult of the world. It was the Marquise du Châtelet, the woman who in all France had the greatest disposition for all the sciences. … Seldom has so fine a mind and so much taste been united with so much ardour for learning; but she also loved the world and all the amusements of her age and sex. Nevertheless she left all this to go and bury herself in a dilapidated house on the frontiers of Champagne and Lorraine, where the land was very fertile and very ugly. She beautified the house, to which she added pleasant gardens. I built a gallery, in which I created a very fine collection of scientific instruments. We had a large library.”

Large indeed – the library actually ran to some 21,000 volumes – a bigger collection than was boasted by many universities – and the laboratory which they established in one of the wings of Cirey was equipped with the finest scientific instruments money could buy, so that the establishment rivalled the Academy of Science in Paris. The two of them collaborated on a succession of experiments. Remember, this was a time when it was quite impossible for a woman to publish a scientific paper in her own name, so it was Voltaire who did the writing, while Emilie was the one who explained to him the underlying theories in physics.

By 1736 Voltaire and du Châtelet were jointly working on the book, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton. The book was published in 1738 under Voltaire’s name, but in the preface he makes it clear that the book was a collaborative process with Emilie. The engraving shows Newton, sitting on High, with Emilie holding a mirror to reflect the truth of his Wisdom, so that Voltaire, the scribe, could render the wisdom into words.

Emilie was no mere assistant to the older Voltaire – she was by far the better physicist and mathematician. In time she embarked on her own translation of Newton´s Principia Mathematica. But it was no mere literal translation: where Newton was obscure she was clear; where Newton glossed over things she explained in detail; and where Newton omitted mathematical evidence to support his theories, she did the calculations and came up with the proof. Her detailed commentaries and explanations brought the masterpiece before a far wider (French) audience than was previously possible – and indeed her translation is still in use today. The book was published by Voltaire after Emilie’s death, but in her own name.

One of the contentious issues of the day was: what is energy? Conventional wisdom (and even Newton subscribed to this) was that energy was the force achieved by multiplying mass by velocity. In mathematical terms, e = mv. But du Châtelet was not happy with this: she was aware of the theories of the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Liebniz – but they were just that, theories. Emilie heard of the experiments by a Dutch researcher called William Gravesande, who dropped brass cylinders of a known weight into soft clay, and then measured the depth to which the object sank. On Newton’s principle, doubling the weight should double the depth – but it didn’t, it trebled. Emilie realized that energy was equal to an object’s mass times its velocity squared (E = mv2). 150 years later a young scientist, named Albert Einstein would use this discovery as one of the keys that would unlock his theory of relativity, E = mc2.

Some of the anecdotes about Emilie are lovely: she moved her bath into the parlour so that she could bathe while holding forth on weighty and learned matters, surrounded by men sitting around the bath while she wallowed in luxury. Drinks and canapes were served while the learned conversations ebbed and flowed around her! Even the male servants commented that it was her practice to appear naked in front of them when preparing for her ablutions. Here was a woman who was indeed comfortable in her own skin!

Age did not dampen her penchant for younger men. At the age of 40 she took a new lover, a man variously described as a poet and a soldier (or perhaps he was both). When she got pregnant she wrote to Voltaire (April 1749) confiding in him her fears at carrying a child at her age – fears which were to prove to be well founded. She wrote “I am pregnant and you can imagine … how much I fear for my health, even for my life … giving birth at the age of forty.” She added that she was sad at the idea of leaving before she was ready.

Apparently, throughout their fifteen years together Emilie and Voltaire had been regular letter writers – even on days when they were working together. Emilie had bound up Voltaire’s letters in eight red-bound volumes, but tantalisingly these have never been found.

In practice she survived the birth itself, but infection set in, and within a week she died. Voltaire was beside himself: “I have lost the half of myself—a soul for which mine was made.” Her young child, a girl, was to die eighteen months later.

Emilie was a remarkable woman, a scientist of towering intellect, a beacon of her times. She wrote treatises on the Meaning of Happiness and also a critical analysis of The Bible. She proved that women were the intellectual equals of men, and did so not by being a harpy but by being herself, a woman. But to my mind for her eulogy you cannot do better than quote her own words:

“Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. It may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.”

* “Petticoat Pioneers – the Story of Women in the 18th Century who succeeded in a Man’s World” is due to be published at the end of this year, by Pen & Sword Books.