A ROMANCE WITH RADIUM
Sunday 03 September 1995
To each of these phenomena Susan Quinn has addressed herself with an application and sensitivity that do justice to, and directly reflect, her subject's years of stirring tons of pitch blende to isolate minute amounts of glowing matter. Using papers translated for the first time from Polish and other previously unpublished material, Quinn has provided the Life deserved by the life. All the previous Lives, except that by Marie Curie's younger daughter, Eve, which has its own grace but is marred by a motive Quinn demonstrates, now seem flat and unshining.
The subtlest achievement of this book is its direct address to passions closed to many readers - a passion for scientific truth, a thirst for mathematical accuracy, a tender patriotism, passionate uxoriousness. In the way it allows a living picture of Marie Curie tentatively then forcefully to develop, Quinn's work reminds us of Marie Curie's own account of her walks after supper with her husband and scientific collaborator "for another survey of our domain. Our precious products, for which we had no shelter, were arranged on tables and boards; from all sides we could see their slightly luminous silhouettes, and these gleamings, which seemed suspended in the darkness, stirred us with ever new emotion and enchantment."
Susan Quinn's work allows her subject to come to life unlimited by the author's self, and gives due time to domesticity and tragedy, tricky areas both, but essential if we are to understand Marie Curie.
Maria Sklodowska was born in 1867 in Warsaw, the youngest child of five, to teachers with origins in the szlachta, declasse nobles, "proud elites available for new social roles". The Sklodowski children lived in the lodgings belonging to the school of which their mother was headmistress. In Russian-occupied Poland, Quinn points out, in one of many such slanting lights shed upon the fluctuating history of women's place, there was a paradoxical advantage to being a woman. Because women were not allowed to operate in the public sphere, they were less likely to study at Russian- dominated schools. Thus they could in private pass on an unadulterated education - in the all-important mother tongue.
The early death of their devout, revered, mother, from TB at the age of 42, was followed by the death of the eldest daughter, Zosia, of typhoid. The remaining family was bound by intense ideas of affection and a consciousness of nationality that pervaded their public and private selves. After four unhappy years as a governess in a family with whose eldest son there was some bruising dalliance, Maria went in 1891 to join her sister Bronia in Paris, in order to study chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne.
Renting a chambre de bonne, she set herself to work with such success that she came first in the licence es sciences exam and second in the licence es mathematiques. This during the Belle Epoque, when a woman could not spend her own earnings without the permission of her husband, when Mirbeau wrote, "Woman is not a brain, she is a sex, and that is much better."
"Women of genius are rare," Pierre Curie wrote in his diary at the age of 22, 13 years before he met Maria (now Marie) Sklodowska. His writings show a man of priestlike scrupulosity: "To drink, to sleep, to caress, to kiss, to love, that is to say to partake of the sweetest things in life and at the same time not succumb to them, it is necessary while doing all that to keep the anti-natural thoughts, to which I'm devoted, dominant and active on their impossible romance in my poor head; one must make life into a dream and make the dream into a reality."
When he met Marie, who wrote to a friend around this time, "work gives life the sweet taste of happiness", he knew very soon that he wanted to marry her. From his letters, Quinn shows Curie's tendency to "overthink" a problem, a habit that had already afforded him scientific insights, but which could cause him to spin on the spot intellectually, while Marie persisted forwards with extreme attentive determination.
In 1895, they married. There were "delicious peaches the size of oranges", and Madame Curie noted in her new household expenses book, which has been a fine source for Quinn, the purchase of two bicycles. The household records, baby books and account books of Marie Curie show a consistency of mind that embodies the scientific approach. Her logic in small things enabled her to see the symptoms of eccentricity in matter, and eventually, with her husband and co-worker, to track down polonium and radium and their habits.
Quinn places the quest for radium in its intellectual context, describing the work of other scientists such as Becquerel and Rutherford. Pierre Curie's horror of institutions and chauvinism, that led him twice to refuse the Legion of Honour, made him perceived as a prickly, even arrogant, man. It seems, rather, that he did not want to waste time. The birth of two daughters, Irene and Eve, the fuss caused by the joint Nobel Prize of 1903 and his own increasing physical frailty took up time, and there was little left.
Marie Curie was 38 when her husband was killed by a long load pulled by two Percherons, his head crushed by six thousand kilograms in a street in Paris, under driving rain. It was perhaps the umbrella that hid his fate from him. Quinn's telling of the death and the period around it are plain and fine - Marie Curie began at this time a journal, a letter to Pierre, which gives the lie to Einstein's later comment, "Madam Curie is very intelligent but she has the soul of a herring".
It's a brilliant comment and hard to forget. Certainly there was no frivolity in Marie Curie, and something of the cold fish perhaps in her abhorrence of social life for its own sake, but she reveals in this journal a depth and detail of love that is as humanly pathetic and affecting as the place at table of a beloved dead man, or his glove.
A little more than two years after this death that was a private and professional end to her, Marie Curie began a relationship that has not previously been written about, and which her daughter positively sought to expunge in her biography. The Curie daughters and the children of other scientist friends were educated all together by their parents. One of these fathers was an old colleague of Pierre Curie, Paul Langevin. He had a shrew for a wife. A loving friendship with Marie Curie began. A small flat - "our place" - was established, letters written, including a painfully controlled letter from Marie asking that Langevin not give in to his wife's tears nor share her bed for fear of blackmail by pregnancy. Since Mme Curie was of the wrong class to be a mistress, was foreign (though she had been notably French with the awarding of the Nobel Prize), and since her metier was the fatally mannish one of scientific research, she was pilloried in the "respectable" papers. The tide of prejudice, codswallop and vitriol is as attitudinising and inconsistent as anything in today's press. Marie Curie, as hated now as she had been sainted before, is portrayed as the enemy of the mothers of France, science as a wine with which a woman should "'dare to lightly intoxicate herself rather than to fortify herself". Five duels were fought over the scandal. Langevin was dubbed "le chopin de la Polonaise".
Marie Curie, sustained by her daughters, her work (she won the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry) and some friends, fell under the ingenuous protection of an American journalist named Missy Meloney who encouraged her to travel all over the States. Meloney's mawkish, glamorised articles contributed to the cosmeticised inspirational myth. Langevin went back to his wife and took a less unsuitable mistress - a secretary, a nobody, and therefore permitted a bodily life.
War came and the scandal sank. Marie and Irene Curie travelled everywhere, taking X-rays of ruined men and trying to reassemble them. Irene Curie took her exams at the Sorbonne at the same time. (With her husband she was later to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935.) When the guns sounded the signing of the Armistice, Marie Curie rushed from her lab to buy red white and blue cloth and sew it into flags. Normal life might resume, wrote the Alsatian physicist Fernand Holweck. "It is going to be so pleasant not to speak constantly of submarines, grenades and torpedos. Radioactive projectiles are much more sympathiques."
The fatally insinuating aspects of radioactivity almost certainly killed many workers in Marie Curie's laboratory, as they killed her by pernicious anaemia. This double legacy of radioactivity is suggested with decorum by Susan Quinn. After what Eve Curie called "the harrowing struggle which goes by the name of an easy death", Madame Curie was buried quietly close by her husband. Le Journal sniped at the simple ceremony, criticising "the supreme pride which takes the form of voluntary effacement, of refusal of honours, of excessive simplicity". It is the peeved voice of a writer deprived of a feast of easy cliches. Marie Curie always slipped away from each false incarnation made for her. In this book she is properly remade.
! 'Marie Curie: A Life' by Susan Quinn is published by Simon & Schuster at pounds 17.99
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