1.5 A clandestine marriage

Saturday, 8. August 2009


Diderot spent his first ten years in Paris being a bohemian before he met Anne-Toinette Champion, a poor seamstress. She was three years older than him and ‘beautiful as an angel’. Diderot confessed to her with all the violence of his passion that he was determined to marry her. She must have liked him too, because they decided that Diderot should visit his parents and ask for their consent.

At first the Langres visit went very well. Diderot’s strategy was to persuade his parents to settle an annuity upon him. Following that, he intended to broach the subject of his coming marriage. However, this declaration was poorly received, with the result that Diderot demanded in a fit of passion his share of the family heritance. This request was poorly received as well, whereupon Diderot threatened to have his father arrested. It must have been a tempestuous scene… Diderot’s father took steps of his own.

He put his son in ‘a safe place’, with the intention to keep him there until he would change his mind. As soon as possible Diderot escaped. He wrote to Anne-Toinette in Paris:

‘After having experienced unheard-of torments, here I am at liberty. Shall I tell you? my father carried his harshness to the point of having me shut up with some monks who have employed against me all that the most determined maliciousness could imagine. I flung myself out of the window the night of Sunday going on to Monday… I have come thirty leagues on foot in detestable weather… 

P.S. I forgot to mention that to prevent my running away, they took the useless precaution of cutting off half my hair’. 


On his return to Paris Diderot married his Anne-Toinette, without display, without carriages, without guests. The secret was well kept. Only six years later the old Didier Diderot heard a rumor that his son was married…

Hardly nine months after the celebration their daughter Angélique was born. Then, after six weeks, the little girl died. About a year later their second child was born, François-Jacques-Denis. However, shortly past his fourth birthday the boy died of a violent fever. Several months later a third child, Denis-Laurent, was born and duly carried to church for baptism. A careless woman allowed the infant to fall on the steps of this church. The baby died towards the end of the year. It was only three years later (1753) that a new baby was born: Marie-Angélique. This child stayed alive until 1824.

Their married years were to prove, abundantly and regrettably, that Denis Diderot and Anne-Toinette Champion were far from temperamentally congenial. She appeared to be hardheaded, skeptical and disconcertingly realistic; he had soon a mistress. There was a lack of money and their worlds were different. Diderot spent most of his time outdoors. He tried to earn his money in Grubstreet for want of something better.  


Hands up anyone who married the wrong person… 


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