Madame du Châtelet: Gambling, Cheats, and Voltaire

The famous French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher Voltaire had a long-time intimate relationship with Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, known as Madame du Châtelet. She  was highly dept at learning languages, and fiercely passionate about studying mathematics. She also had a great weakness for cards and gambling. In fact, as a teenager, she used her mathematical skills to devise some successful strategies for gambling.

Madame du Châtelet

Madame du Chátalet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Her fondness for gambling was demonstrated in October of 1746. She and Voltaire traveled to the picturesque Palace of Fontainebleau for some relaxation. While there Madame du Châtelet was privileged enough to be invited to sit at the Queen’s table and unlucky enough to be cheated at cards.

Before the game, Madame du Châtelet had gathered her own cash. She also asked for more money from her servants and supposedly even “squeezed M. Lacroix her steward as dry as a chip.”[1] Thus, with 400 gold pieces and lots of enthusiasm, she set off to win a fortune, only to find herself quickly relieved of her gold.

Her loss did little to deter her enthusiasm. Upon returning home, she sent a dispatch to Paris to raise fresh money. She also borrowed another 200 pieces from Voltaire. Of course, wherever Madame du Châtelet went, so too did Voltaire, and they set off a second time to visit the tables at Fontainebleau.

Chateau Fontainebleau. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Madame du Châtelet thought she might have some luck at cards this time, but her loss was inevitable, as was the third time, having borrowed 380 louis at high interest from her steward. However, Mme du Châtelet was not one to give up so easily. With no money left, she offered her word as collateral and adamantly refused to give up until she owed the outrageous sum of 4,000 pounds sterling!

By now Voltaire was frightened. He knew the value of money. He hinted to her in English that her love for cards had blinded her to the fact she was playing with exalted rogues and cheats. Madame du Châtelet was stunned and looked around the table. She then realized some of her gambling acquaintances understood Voltaire’s words and were making threatening movements. The pair then withdrew quietly, terrified of a violent outcome.

Voltaire insisted they seek safety in Paris at once. Unfortunately, in their haste to flee, a carriage wheel broke at Essonne. A smith made the necessary repairs but neither Madame du Châtelet, nor Voltaire, the coachman, the chambermaid, nor the steward had a sou to pay the bill, as Madame du Châtelet had exhausted everyone’s funds. The smith protested, refused to let them leave, and insisted he receive his due. Luckily, at that moment, an acquaintance heading to Fontainebleau approached and extricated the travelers from their monetary predicament.

Voltaire, Courtesy of Galllica at Bibliothèque nationale de France

Voltaire. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

They were back on their way, but near Paris, Voltaire who remained terrified and concerned for his safety, wrote to a friend. In his letter he detailed Mme du Châtelet’s losses. He also reported the terror he found himself in because of his rash denunciation of the exalted cheats and begged for help. In response, the friend sent a servant, who packed up Voltaire and drove him to safety at the country house known as Sceaux and that is where Voltaire voluntarily secreted himself from the world for two months.

As for Madame du Châtelet, she abstained from gambling for six weeks. In addition:

“Emilie’s first job, when she got back, was to start repaying her enormous debts. There was no way she could earn the money in time through investments, or even by remortgaging her family’s various properties. But she knew that Voltaire had a made a fortune after his return from England by ingeniously seeing a flaw in the Paris lottery. Emilie now took a leaf from that and began using her imagination to search out other financial opportunities that no one had recognized.”[2]

Madame du Châtelet -

Madame du Châtelet. Author’s collection.

The opportunity she recognized involved the collection of taxes. Those who collected taxes needed to organize and often needed money to acquire the “private bureaucracies” necessary. So, she came up with a plan.

“[She] offered to pay them for the right to get some of the money they’d earn in the future. Since hardly anyone was aware of the opportunity, she could buy what they’d be earning in the future at a low price. Once she had the tax collectors signed up, she could then tell the court gamblers … that she’d pay them back by giving them some of the future money when it arrived.”[3]

Madame du Châtelet also did not forget the frightened Voltaire, who would later be modeled by Madame Tussaud and put on display as a wax figure. To ensure Voltaire’s safety, Madame du Châtelet mollified the exalted cheats he had offended, and when assured all danger had passed, she proceeded to Sceaux. There a celebration ensued: Eight full days of balls, fireworks, and comedies with Madame du Châtelet filling the role of innocent chambermaids or distressed country damsels. 


  • [1] The Living Age, Volume 194, 1866, p. 91.
  • [2] Bodanis, David, Passionate Minds, 2006, p. 217.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 218.

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