Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Robyn Arianrhod's "Seduced by Logic"

Robyn Arianrhod is an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Monash University. She is the author of Einstein's Heroes.

Here Arianrhod shares some ideas for casting a cinematic adaptation of her new book, Seduced by Logic: Émilie Du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution:
Seduced by Logic blends biography, history and science in a story that covers two centuries of scientific history. So I guess there are two movies here, one for each of the book’s two heroines: Émilie, marquise du Châtelet, the wonderfully outrageous French aristocrat, mathematician, and muse/lover of Voltaire; and Mary Somerville, a shy, illiterate, Scottish country girl who transformed herself into the nineteenth century’s celebrated ‘Queen of Science’.

At first, I found it surprisingly difficult to imagine ‘strangers’ playing these women onscreen, because Émilie and Mary were so multifaceted that they are uniquely ‘themselves’ to me: I’ve ‘lived’ with them, in my mind, for years, and I feel I know them intimately, through their own writings, and through my empathy with them as a female mathematician myself. But I do love movies – and films are, of course, things in themselves, separate from books, and from real lives – so here are some tentative thoughts on how ‘my’ Émilie and Mary could appear (or have appeared) on the big screen.

Jeanne Moreau could be fabulously feisty, seductive, and intense, all in that very French way. She could have portrayed, effortlessly, Émilie’s mix of imperious aristocratic confidence and fun-loving radiance, her ability to be self-contained, disciplined, and ambitious, and, by contrast, her ability to abandon herself to the moment – singing operas all night long, or staking everything for love. A more contemporary actress, and a very different one, is Tilda Swinton (especially as she was in Orlando). Like Émilie, she is tall and striking, and I can imagine Tilda/Émilie galloping her favourite horse, or dressed up for an eighteenth-century ball, or gambling astutely at cards with the Queen. I can imagine her exuding an intelligence that fills up the screen regardless of whether she is debating with others on behalf of Newton and Leibniz, or whether she is alone, dressed in her old work clothes, poring over mathematical equations by candlelight.

Geoffrey Rush ten years or so ago would have made a consummate Voltaire: he’s marvellous at portraying characters who are masters of wit and irony, and he could easily add the requisite doses of hubris and hypochondria, along with a touch of emotional cruelty to temper the extraordinary love and loyalty Voltaire generally felt for Émilie. Of course, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt come to mind as an Émilie-and-Voltaire double act. Apart from the fact that Voltaire was 12 years older than Émilie, Angelina and Brad at their best each could play these demanding roles brilliantly. (As for the interminable gossip about the couple’s private lives, three centuries ago there was similar fascination and gossip about Émilie’s and Voltaire’s glamorous and sometimes stormy relationship.)

Mary Somerville shared Émilie’s unusual ambition, and she, too, suffered because of the taboo against intellectual women. But this is where the similarity between the two women ends, and a number of readers have told me they prefer the quieter, ‘nicer’ Mary to the flamboyant Émilie. (I love them equally!) In many ways, Mary is like a Jane Austen heroine: she came of age at about the same time – and in the same constrained, provincial circumstances – as Jane Austen herself. Emma Thompson made a brilliant Elinor in the movie of Sense and Sensibility, and she could easily add the ambition and intellectual drive that lifted Mary way beyond Elinor, along with the endearing touch of vanity, and the natural, guileless charm that seduced everyone who knew her. Kate Winslet would also make a memorable and subtly charismatic Mary.
Learn more about Seduced by Logic at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Seduced by Logic.

--Marshal Zeringue