Sunday, April 26, 2015

Courage, controversy, and love in the Enlightenment: The Philosopher's Kiss

In our day, authors and editors of reference books aren't considered to be especially dangerous.  Dedicated and scholarly, perhaps, but not overly controversial.  In addition, the print editions of multi-volume reference sets also becoming a thing of the past.  The Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, ceased hard copy publication in 2012 in favor of the more versatile and popular e-version.

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.


  1. Peter Prange is new to me and I am grateful to learn of his status as a bestselling author in Germany. Sophie (Louise-Henriette), the young woman at the heart of this novel, as a significant participant in the intellectual discourses among the noted Frenchmen, sounds appealing. As to the translated title, I couldn't agree more ... c'est dommage. How much better The Lady Philosopher would have been ...

    In your additional reading, have there been any clues as to happened to Sophie's letters?

    1. The French title is "Sophie, la libertine." Which makes the English one seem not quite so bad.

      What happened to Sophie's long-lost letters appears to be a longtime literary mystery. I did find reference to an article from the literature journal MLN (Modern Language Notes) whose author purported to have located and presented a few of them, but as I discovered soon after, the re-creation of the letters was done as a literary exercise (fiction, in other words). It either fooled or confused some scholars, so the author was asked to write a clarification/explanation of her article afterward.

  2. I guess that was "letter-ary fiction"! Thanks for the added info, Sarah. That French title is even more disappointing than the English one, without a doubt.