Sensommaren 2021 fick jag en förfrågan om att medverka i det första numret av Vogue Scandinavia. Uppdraget bestod i att skriva en längre text, gärna en berättelse, vilken skulle ackompanjeras av ett författarporträtt och en modefotografering (med professionella modeller, märk väl) på ett tema lyft ur texten. Jag funderade länge och väl på vad som skulle kunna passa in, och föreslog istället någonting annat: Tre stycken längre anekdoter som jag snubblat över under mina äventyr i upplysningstid i samband med efterforskningar av källmaterialet till mina böcker. Här följer min introduktion den första av dem – allt detta skrivet på engelska, helt enkelt för att det är det språk magasinet ifråga valt att hålla sig med.
If you’re serious about writing, you find yourself living a curious half-life. You’ll be a creature of two worlds, torn between the reality of the senses on one hand; on the other, the internal, shady realm of imagination, haunted by sirens who sing whenever they please, a day-dream of fearful continuity. If you’re a passionate reader already – and what other way to become a writer can there be? – you’ll be somewhat familiar with this cleft of consciousness. But there’s a difference: As you put aside the book you read, the moment where you parted ways will patiently wait until next you return to the page. If you’re writing that same book, the narrative never rests, but remains in a state of flux. As a form of escapism, I never dreamed reading could be improved upon. I was wrong.
Since about 2013, when I started to plan what was to become the novel 1793 (The Wolf and the Watchman) my internal life has been set largely in the 18th century. I had at that point no idea how to write historical fiction. The logical thing, it seemed to me, would be to familiarize myself with the source material until I could build an virtual model of Stockholm in my mind, life-like enough to allow me to walk the streets, see the people at work and leisure, smell, feel, think. Not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I embarked on the reading adventure of a lifetime, one that I suspect changed me more than I will ever truly know. For, as is known, if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.
These are three stories that has stayed with me in a particular manner, residue from the research. Together, they may serve as a compound picture of 18th century; of the glamour, the squalor, the madness, the ingenuity, the finery, the humanity and the repulsion. Two stem from France, the cultural giant of the age, and the final one is Swedish. Two I find funny, one is a mystery. I had no idea what to do with them, until this opportunity arose, one for which I am thankful. I pass them along with relish, hoping you’ll find them entertaining. And so, curtains up.
Voltaire in Love or
The Old Switcheroo
Culturally speaking, Voltaire was the man of the 18th century. He was a philosopher, playwright, author, man-about-town, historian, socialite, scientist, womanizer. If you wanted to rise in the social strata of mid-1700’s Paris, he could make or break you. Usually the latter. Jealously guarding his own position, he would dissect your poems, showing them for the banal, derivative drivel they are, until you wept tears of blood and prayed for mercy. On top of everything else, he had that quality so rare among intellectuals: He knew how to make money and to nurture his fortune. Not only did he remain a darling of the crown, the crowd and the critics, but he also grew immensely rich. He left behind a bibliography of around 2 000 works. Yes, that may sound like a lot, particularly compared to a guy in his forties who only has two books to his name – but legend also has it that Voltaire drank sixty cups of coffee a day. As much as I love both coffee and literature, that’s not a price I’m willing to pay.
Voltaire met the love of his life in 1733. He was thirty-nine, she was twenty-six. Her name was Émilie du Châtelet. Unfortunately, she was married, and already the mother of three. Nevertheless, the attraction was mutual, and Émilie invited Voltaire to stay as a house-guest at her country estate in Cirey, where we can assume their affair was first consummated. He stayed on, more or less, for the following sixteen years. This blatant extra-marital business was made possible by the fact that Émilie was hardly the typical woman of her age. She was a mathematical prodigy, whose talents quickly became so undeniable that her father payed for the finest tutelage: When, as a teenager, she needed more pocket money for books than daddy was willing to pay, she devised a numerical system to guarantee her winnings at the gambling tables. She was fluent in Latin, German, Italian and Greek; a competent amateur astronomer; a fencer, rider, and dancer; a harpsichord player, an opera singer. Her translation of Isaac Newton‘s Principia remains the standard in French to this day, and she improved somewhat on his conclusions in a commentary of her own. She was more than a match for Voltaire, intellectually. This gave them the excuse they needed to justify the time they spent together: They conducted research. Which they did, often in friendly disagreement, between trysts, while Émilie’s husband, a thick-headed marquis who had dutifully agreed to this arranged marriage, stayed busy on various military campaigns, and so was comfortably out of the way.
The years passed, and Émilie and Voltaire were happy together. Until another man took her fancy, a visiting poet by the name of Saint-Lambert. He did not have Voltaire’s flair with words, but he did have something that Voltaire could no longer claim: Youth and beauty. He was, incidentally, about as much younger than Émilie than Émilie was to Voltaire. She had no intention of losing Voltaire, but as long as he was kept unaware and decided to spend the night over a book instead of in her bed, where was the harm in her happiness?
The harm soon became apparent. Émilie found herself unexpectedly pregnant. She and Voltaire had always been careful to avoid this irrefutable proof of infidelity, but now she was forty-four, and perhaps she thought the danger of child-birth over and done with. Immediately, she called for Voltaire and came clean. Together, they summoned Saint-Lambert. In an estate such as Cirey, nothing could be hidden from the servants, and their recollections of this meeting are preserved: They expected the worst outcome. A duel between competing lovers Voltaire and Saint-Lambert, at the very least. Instead, they had to listen to loud laughter from the closed door to the chambers where the problem was being discussed. Voltaire could not begrudge Émilie without resorting to hypocrisy; he was mainly worried for her sake. Such a late pregnancy was a serious matter in this day and age. Nevertheless, the absurdity of the situation could not be denied, its farcical nature not lost on this literate threesome. How were they to proceed? The usual solution to such a conundrum would be for the ashamed woman to make herself unavailable for the required amount of time, under the pretext or some less incriminating ailment. But Émilie liked Cirey. She did not relish parting with her friends, or abandoning the library of some 21 000 volumes that she and Voltaire had amassed in a joint effort. And the child to be, what future would it face? Could no better solution be found? It seemed an impossible task. But these were not ordinary people.
The marquis du Châtelet suddenly received an unexpected letter from his wife at his army camp in nearby Dijon, asking if he could not join her in Cirey as soon as possible. His surprise was great. Émilie had not showed interest in him for years, and ever since their co-operation in producing heirs to the family name, their relationship had been platonic. He arrived almost immediately, and found that the surprises had only started. Never had he received such a warm welcome at Cirey. Old friends and neighbors had gathered, tenants of his land waited to show him their appreciation. He was cheered in the yard. The very next morning, his horse was already saddled for him to take a long-delayed survey of his fine lands, and when he returned satisfied and with an appetite there was a feast awaiting him, a supper worthy of the Paris court. His was the place of honor. Usually, he was never allowed to open his mouth in such company; Émilie and her illustrious friends spoke of things as far above his head as clouds over dirt, and had no interest whatsoever in hearing boorish tales of his manly deeds and military exploits. Not so this night, in this delightful upside-down paradise where he found himself.
He was questioned, encouraged, and his tales were met with perfect attention, astonishment and applause. Complicated maneuvers on battlefields of his remembrance were reenacted with forks and salt shakers to the benefit of a spellbound company. It even seemed that his stories roused something in his estranged wife, some womanly passion which he had not glimpsed for more than a decade. She blushed, fanned herself, swiftly refilled his wine glass. Time and time again he caught her admiring glances.
What a striking woman she was, this wife of his, in her finest dress and best jewelry, very low cut at the bosom, leaning ever closer, holding his arm tenderly. And he not such a bad man himself, handsome despite his advancing years and more eloquent than he realized, if worthy of the reverence of such company. When he had unburdened himself of every anecdote he could muster, Voltaire took the helm, addressing the marquis exclusively and with great respect, and employed all of the charm and wit that had won him the favors of kings and queens.
It must have been the best night of the marquis’ life. As the evening progressed, he finally leaned closer, and asked Émilie if he could not thank her by paying her the respect of a husband as well. Blood rushed to her face, all modesty, and she protested at first – oh, the very idea – but it was obvious to the marquis that his sentiments were reciprocated and that she could contain her joy only with difficulty. He pressed his advantage until he finally received an invitation to her bedroom. There, a strange kind of second honeymoon started. The married couple that had hardly exchanged words for years did not emerge from the tangled sheets of Émilie’s sleeping quarters until three full weeks had passed. Not long after, she gave her husband and the household the news that their union was to be blessed once again. The marquis glowed with pride, and indeed, was held in much awe. The ones entitled to familiarity shook his hand, obviously impressed by such a show of virility from a man in his sixtieth year.
And so, Émilie du Châtelet gave birth to a daughter, conceived out of wedlock but born within, to the joint adoration of her husband and her lovers.
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