Desolation and Despair
by ALEX CARNEVALE
My courage fails me and I think I ought to stop working, live in the country and devote myself to gardening. But I am held by a thousand bonds. Nor do I know whether, even by writing scientific books, I could live without the laboratory.
In her fifth month of pregnancy, at the end of 1903's hot and long summer, Marie Sklodowska Curie had a miscarriage. She was devastated. She wrote to her friend, "I am in such consternation over this accident that I have not the courage to write to anybody. I had grown so accustomed to the idea of the child that I am absolutely desperate and cannot be controlled." She assigned her dedication to her work as the cause; she worried she had exposed herself to too much radiation in the lab.
In mid-November she, along with her husband Pierre, won the Nobel Prize. Though the work had been shared equally between them, the media tended to paint Marie as the inspirer, and Pierre as the man of accomplishment in the matter. Another interpretation of their discoveries involved them falling in love and copulating somewhere among their experiments. Cetainly both were happy at the financial and academic gains that accompanied such an award, but the attention that came with it was not at all to either's liking.
By May of the following year, Marie was pregnant again. To ensure nothing would complicate the birth, Pierre and Marie selected a farm a short train ride from Paris in St.-Remy-les-Chevreuse. Their daughter Eve was born at the beginning of December, pleasing her mother, who wrote to her friend, "Don't you find it delicious to have a little tiny being to love?"
The assistance of Pierre's father, as well as a nanny, a maid and occasionally a cook helped her return to her scientific endeavors. Pierre was frustrated in his work, and St. Remy represented a welcome retreat. The family loved the beach, where Pierre pocketed all the seashells his daughters collected for him there. Just as they were beginning to find a new equilibrium, and Pierre had begun to recover from his many illnesses, his skull was crushed by a wagon wheel in a freak accident when two horses panicked on a Paris avenue. He had never paid much attention to where he walked. Pierre Curie was just 46.
Marie wrote in her journal:
I enter the room. Someone says: 'He is dead.' Can one comprehend such words? Pierre is dead, he who I had seen leave looking fine this morning, he who I expected to press in my arms this evening. I will only see him dead and it's over forever. I repeat your name again and always, 'Pierre, Pierre, Pierre, my Pierre,' alas that doesn't make him come back, he is gone forever, leaving me nothing but desolation and despair.
Much later in life, she would write, that on April 19, 1906, "I lost my beloved Pierre, and with him all hope and all support for the rest of my life." Returning to their laboratory was difficult. At work she was named Pierre's replacement in his teaching position at the Sorbonne. She wrote, "There are some imbeciles who have even congratulated me." She was the first woman ever to teach there.
A year later, she wrote, "It has been a year. I live, for your children, for your old father. The grief is mute but still there. The burden is heavy on my shoulders. How sweet it would be to go to sleep and not wake up. How young my dear ones are. How tired I feel!" She could never bring herself to say his name again.
Paul Langevin was a scientist in a deeply unhappy marriage. His wife Jeanne was four years his junior, and interference from her family complicated their arrangement from the very first. His mother-in-law and sister-in-law kept letters he had written to his own mother that expressed doubts about the relationship. This was in order to blackmail him in case of divorce. Her closest family members also stole from him and would even strike him when angry. Because of their young children, he did not go through with the idea of divorcing Jeanne.
Langevin had been a student of Pierre Curie, and it was to his widow and friend that he confided his life's troubles. It was when Jeanne Langevin struck her husband with a glass bottle that Marie Curie's consolation turned intimate. They rented an apartment near the Sorbonne for their liasions. When Jeanne found out, she told Marie Curie to leave France and threatened to kill her for fucking her husband.
Still, Marie was hopeful. She wrote to Paul, saying,
It would be so good to gain the freedom to see each other as much as our various occupations permit, to work together, to walk or to travel together, when conditions lend themselves. There are very deep affinities between us which only need a favorable life situation to develop. We had some presentiment of it in the past, but it didn't come into full consciousness until we found ourselves face to face, me in mourning for the beautiful life I had made for myself and which collapsed in such a disaster, you with your feeling that, in spite of your good will and your efforts, you had completely missed out on this family life which you had wished to be so abundant in joy.
Marie went on to even specify the various methods by which Paul Langevin could extricate himself from his marriage, which we can all now view as very generous indeed. Her letter describing these possibilities is more properly described as a lab report.
It took another year before the situation with the Langevins yielded to its inevitable conclusion. Paul left his home with his sons, and his wife filed an injunction declaring he had abandoned her. In the trial that followed, the relationship between Marie and Paul Langevin became abruptly public. As this unfolded, Marie won her second Nobel Prize, in 1911.
French tabloids savaged her, and excerpts from her letters to Paul even appeared in newspapers. Friends in the academic community came to her defense. Albert Einstein wrote to her, saying, "I feel the need to tell you how much I have come to admire your spirit, your energy and your honesty... I will always be grateful that we have among us people like you — as well as Langevin — genuine human beings, in whose company one can rejoice. If the rabble continues to be occupied with you, simply stop reading that drivel. Leave it to the vipers it was fabricated for."
She would never have the kind of relationship she desired with Langevin. He felt so guilty about dragging her into the matter that he left money in his will for her daughters. Eventually he even reconciled with his wife, taking a more acceptable woman for his mistress — a secretary. For her part, Marie's disappointment with all that had transpired was inevitable, but she had already lost far more precious things.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about Jane Campion's Top of the Lake.
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