Critical Overview

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Madame Curie was first published in 1937 and became one of the best-selling biographies ever. Eve Curie received a 1937 National Book Award for Madame Curie by the American Booksellers Association. It was also a selection in the Book-ofthe- Month Club. That this was an authoritative biography is evidenced by the fact that no other biography of Marie Curie was published until over thirty years later. Marie Curie (1974), by Robert Reid, added the historical hindsight of the implications of research on radioactivity during the World War II and Cold War eras to the story already told by Eve Curie.

Marie Curie: A Life (1995), by Susan Quinn, is based on new information from Marie Curie’s journals, which were released to researchers for the first time in 1990. In particular, Quinn reveals the unspecified scandal to which Eve Curie refers in only the vaguest of terms. Some time after the death of Pierre Curie, Marie Curie was revealed to be having an affair with Paul Langevin, a former student of Pierre’s, a married man with children. Although Marie, as a widow, was not out of bounds in starting a new relationship, the fact Langevin was married caused an enormous scandal in the French press, providing the opportunity for further criticism of Marie Curie as both a woman and a Pole, a foreigner.

Quinn explains that Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, written in a hurry, admittedly because she wanted to beat others to the punch, was intended as a defense of Marie Curie’s injured reputation. Because of this, Quinn observes, Madame Curie specifically presents Marie Curie as heroic, humble, and pure. While Quinn acknowledges Marie Curie certainly had these strengths, she argues that Eve Curie’s biography leaves out much of the important detail of her mother’s personal life and emotional struggles. Quinn describes Madame Curie as a biography that portrays a mythical, idealized, triumphal image of a woman whose emotional life was much more complex than her daughter let on. This image, Quinn notes, unrealistically portrays Marie Curie as ‘‘impervious’’ to the ‘‘defeats and humiliations’’ of scandal as well as both sexual and national prejudice. Thus, Madame Curie, some sixty years after its initial publication, remains a classic biography of a great woman in history; and yet can now be viewed in its own historical context as just one side of the story of Marie Curie’s life and work.

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