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A Short and Slightly Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife

By Amber Sparks From Issue No. 5

Lavoisier’s wife was a chemist; or rather, Lavoisier’s wife was a chimiste: from the Latin alchimista; see also, alchemy.

Lavoiser’s wife was a chimiste, a term first used cattily, contemptuously—a term first linked with palmistry, sophistry, casuistry. The OED seems to be telling us, wink wink nod, that chemistry once held hands with charlatanism. But! Lavoisier’s wife! Was, in fact, a mover and shaker in chemistry’s side business of buying respect. (R.E.S.P.E.C.T, find out what it means to ions and she!)

Lavoisier’s wife is buried in Pere la Chaise Cemetery, in Paris, alongside her husband. Did You Know: Pere la Chaise was the very first modern cemetery in Europe! Not the kind chained to the church, with the best bodies piled up under the altar, and everybody else scattered skeletons in the yard—but the smooth green lawn, Elysian Fields-ish kind a respectably diverse, even irreligious citizenry might be interred in?

Lavoisier’s wife was rather modern, in a century where modernity and superstition were two ends of a long, tattered rope bridge.

Lavoisier’s wife—not time, not contemporaries—secured his place in history. (As is, must we point out, so often the case?)

Lavoisier’s wife, once upon a time, went out to lunch and when she came back her husband and her father had both been eaten by a savage, starving wolf.

Lavoisier’s wife was a woman, yes, and a character of courage, yes. And as such, was undaunted by the state-sanctioned murders of her husband and her father, and by the seizure of her husband’s papers during the Reign of Terror. And by some other threats made at her and towards her by Friends of Marat.

Lavoisier’s wife said, screw these revolutionary assholes.

Lavoisier’s wife held up a glass to show us not everything about the French Revolution, or indeed any Revolution, was enlightened.

Lavoisier’s wife knew that reactionaries are often, well, reactionary.

Lavoisier’s wife wrote a preface. The preface was to accompany his final work and memoirs, and was basically a middle finger to his contemporaries, who she blamed for his death.

Lavoisier’s wife was like, do you see me over here writing this preface?

Lavoisier’s wife was like, do you see me over here demanding the return of my husband’s papers?

Lavoisier’s wife was like, what are you going to do to me? Which was quite brave, because she certainly knew exactly what they could do to her.

Lavoisier’s wife had no more fucks to give.

Lavoisier’s wife was called Marie-Anne, and in full Marie-Anne Pierrette Lavoisier, nee Paulze, but for the purposes of this narrative she shall be known as Lavoisier’s wife. This is not intended to strip her of her humanity or personhood, as a woman; rather, it is meant to focus a tight and somewhat ironic spotlight on the role she will play in her husband’s drama, and to signal (wink wink nod, as the OED would do) her eventual and historical erasure from it.

Lavoisier’s wife eventually married a second time, a man named Benjamin Thompson. Or if you want to get fancy, call him Count Rumford. But whatever you call him, know that this is not the end of one love story and the beginning of another. (And indeed, life rarely is.)

Lavoisier’s wife remained Lavoisier’s wife, that is to say, she did not change her old married name to match her new husband’s. Interesting, as polite society said.

Lavoisier’s wife apparently really pissed off Count Rumford, what with her refusal to take his name and also her general absolute devotion to her first husband’s work and memory.

Lavoisier’s wife apparently liked like tell stories – sooooooooo many stories, as Rummy would say—about her dead husband and the good times they had together, doing chemistry stuff. Sure, it was probably kind of annoying. But you know, when someone’s husband gets decapitated in a revolution, you make allowances for them. Not Mr. Thompson, aka fancy-pants Count Rumford. Nope. He complained, like an asshole. And this did not go over well.

Lavoisier’s wife probably said something like, Oh, Mr. Thompson, didst thou discover phlogistan? Doest thou even know what phlogistan is? Yeah, prithee I did not think so.

Lavoisier’s wife probably didn’t say exactly those words, but you know, we want to give the sense here that we are waist deep in the past. At least ankle deep. At least getting-our-shoes-damp deep.

Lavoisier’s wife, for instance, probably didn’t say, Oh, Mr. Thompson, are you a world famous chemist like my previous dude was, I didn’t think so, yeah, bite me.

Lavoisier’s wife is an important historical personage and in restoring her reputation, we did not want to give the impression that she was a contemporary woman. Understandably, that would be false. Lavoisier’s wife was without doubt a helpmeet, or would consider herself so. And though she was an accomplished woman in her own right, it was her husband she would help make famous.

Lavoisier’s wife did not sound like a sitcom character, of course. We are sorry to have previously given that impression. History does not record any extraordinary level of sassiness on her part.

Lavoisier’s wife, perhaps, may have sounded more like her rough contemporary, Charlotte Corday. Corday, though a bit younger, was also from a good family, convent-educated, broad-minded.

John-Paul Marat, who Corday stabbed in the bath, was a common enemy of both. Perhaps then they could have been friends, had Corday not been, you know, guillotined on the Place de Revolution. Maybe they could have started a ‘zine, could have conducted their own chemical experiments, wink wink nod, you know? Perhaps they could have discussed the practical problems of being broad-minded women when women were basically just broads. Perhaps they could have at least had coffee and croissants and bitched about the nuns.

Lavoisier’s wife, though – back to Lavoisier’s wife.

Lavoisier’s wife was an accomplished woman in her own right, as we almost certainly implied before.

Lavoisier’s wife studied with Jacques-Louis David, the famous painter, the better to draw and sketch her husband’s methods and apparatuses.

Lavoisier’s wife was a very accomplished helpmeet. Nowadays you would refer to her as a lab assistant.

Lavoisier’s wife, not to brag, but yeah, she spoke more languages than Lavoisier, and used to translate whole books into French just so he could read them.

Lavoisier’s wife, let us repeat, translated a shitload of science books into another language just so her husband, audience of one, could understand what they said.

Lavoisier’s wife, in fact, upon further research, was probably more of an equal, a co-collaborator, than a helpmeet. Isn’t that the most dreadful word, helpmeet? Should we look up the etymology, because that’s what one does in these sorts of faux-scholarly pieces? Oh, would you look at this, helpmeet: “from the Biblical, Genesis 2:18, 20, where Adam’s future wife is discussed as “an help meet for him.””

Lavoisier’s wife surely could have used a barf emoji, had she ever looked up the origin of “helpmeet” and shared it with Charlotte Corday.

Lavoisier’s wife’s text: Can you even fucking believe this shit? (barf emoji here)

Lavoisier’s wife’s text back from bff Corday: OMG OF COURSE GENESIS, WTF

Lavoisier’s wife considered herself a scholar, and owned her own large library with hundred of books. We consider her a scholar, too.

Lavoisier’s wife received her formal education in a convent, where she was placed after her mother died.

Lavoisier’s wife’s mother died when she was young. Just like a character in a fairy tale, her mother disappeared early along the path. Lavoisier’s wife was just three.

Lavoisier’s wife did not exactly live, though, in a fairy tale. Did we mention she was married off at 13?

Lavoisier’s wife was a child bride, basically. Talk about making the best of a bad situation. Does this sound too much like a joke? A punchline? We are not, though, joking. Or at least, if we are joking, we are making the sort of joke that’s referred to as whistling in the dark. We are crying in the aisle of this drugstore. We are buying lotion and lipstick and thinking about a woman who’s never had a name, down all the corridors of history, doomed to smudged margins and funny little footnotes.

Lavoisier’s wife had an internal life, even at three, even at 13. Do you believe in it?

Lavoisier’s wife is buried in Pere la Chaise. Her tombstone says, Here lies the remains of Madame Marie-Anne Pierrette Lavoisier Paulze, Countess Rumford.

What is living history, anyway, if not the chance to rewrite the dead?

About Amber Sparks More From Issue No. 5