In France in the mid-18th century, however, circumstances were far different. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, the principal editors of the noted Encyclopédie, risked life and liberty to produce the first work of its kind in the French language.
In their quest to provide comprehensive treatment of the arts, sciences, and trades via commissioned articles from notable contributors, their masterwork emphasized human thought and accomplishments over theology. The Church took offense, and government censors kept close watch on the project. The 28 volumes of the Encyclopédie appeared over the course of 21 years and were supported by the funding of an increasing number of eager subscribers. In the end, it stands as a tremendous accomplishment, and a brave testament to Enlightenment-era ideals.
The Philosopher's Kiss delves into the lives of the people involved in its conception and publication, from Diderot and his publisher, André le Breton, to the philosopher Rousseau, the statesman Malesherbes, and royal mistress Madame de Pompadour, who supported it and had her own ways of defending its purpose to the king, Louis XV.
Its main character, however, is Sophie Volland, a shadowy figure in French intellectual history who was Diderot's lover and longtime confidante. Over a hundred of his letters to her survive, but not the reverse. In the novel, she's a literate young woman, unusual for her day, who is torn between the religious obedience forced on her as a child, her pursuit of knowledge, and her need for love. She becomes involved with the Encyclopédie's development in a number of ways.
I find the English translation of the title (originally Die Philosophin in German, or "The Lady Philosopher") rather unfortunate because it emphasizes the romance aspects, which I found overblown, over the real meat and strength of the novel: the intellectual discourses among the free-thinkers of Paris, the cultural milieu, the religious controversies that resulted when long-held tenets of faith were challenged. C'est dommage.
Because little is known about Mlle Volland, Prange takes a number of liberties with her character for the story's sake, some of which can be considered inspired guesswork, others of which seem unlikely. An author's note at the end ("Fiction and Truth") sets forth details on the many actual historical events dramatized in the book. I've been reading up on the historical Sophie (whose birth name was apparently Louise-Henriette) ever since. I recommend the novel for its depiction of a transformative event, and also recommend that potential readers investigate the history on their own.
The Philosopher's Kiss was published in 2011 by Atria, and translated into English by Steven T. Murray. This was a personal copy I'd left sitting on my shelves for way too long. Prange is a bestselling author in Germany who wrote many other historicals, but this, unfortunately, is his only work in English translation.