Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Madame de Staël

Germaine de Staël makes a brief appearance in the novel Madame Royale, at Madame Recamier's salon. There were many rumors about Germaine; alas, they are mostly true. A woman of intellectual brilliance and easy virtue, Germaine could never seem to find tranquility or happiness. She was a gifted writer and political thinker. She has some poignant quotes, such as: “Love is the whole history of a woman's life, it is but an episode in a man's.”

Germaine wrote with great compassion about the trial of Marie-Antoinette, claiming that all motherhood had been outraged when the queen's son was taken from her. "The destiny of Marie-Antoinette contains everything that might touch your heart: if you are happy, she had happiness; if you suffer, for one year or longer, all the pains of her life have torn her apart." (Antonia Fraser's Marie-Antoinette: The Journey, p.425)

Here is an account of Madame de Staël's turbulent life:

French-Swiss writer, woman of letters, early champion of women's right, who was considered among Napoléon's major opponents, and spent much of her life in exile. However, Mme de Staël did not only gain fame with her books or her salon for leading intellectuals, but with her numerous affairs. Her lovers included Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, who was bishop of Autun, Count Louis de Narbonne (1788-93), with whom she had two sons, Benjamin Constant, a writer and influential politician, and Count Adolphe-Louis Ribbing, who masterminded the assassination of Gustavus III, the king of Sweden-Finland.

"The art of novel-writing does not have the reputation it deserves because of a throng of bad writers overwhelming us with their colorless productions; in this genre, perfection may require the greatest genius, but mediocrity is well within everyone's grasp. This infinite number of colorless novels has almost used up the passion portrayed in them; one is terrified of finding the slightest resemblance in one's own life to the situations they describe." (from 'Essay on Fictions', 1795)

Germaine Necker was born in Paris to Swiss Protestant parents. Her father, Jacques Necker, was an aristocratic, a banker, who was appointed Louis XVI's finance minister in 1777. His dismissal by the king was a link in the series of events which led to the storming of the Bastille. The young Germaine Necker studied privately at home, and grew up attending the salon of her mother, Suzanne (Curchod) Necker. In her childhood Germaine met such famous figures as Edward Gibbon, who had once courted her mother, Denis Diderot, and Jean d'Alembert. In 1786 Germaine married the Swedish ambassador, Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein (d. 1802), a penniless nobleman, who was 17 year older than she. Germaine never loved her husband and only her first child, Edwige-Gustavine, was fathered by her husband. Edwige-Gustavine died in 1789. Assured that she would never have to live in Sweden, she established herself as a leading figure in Parisian society. The marriage ended in 1797 in formal separation.

Like other educated, wealthy women, Mme de Staël opened her own salon, a closed circle in which writers, artists, and critics discussed about manners and good taste, and decided the fate of literature fashions. In England clubs and coffee-houses served similar purpose.

Mme de Staël was not a beauty. "I would gladly give half of the wit with which I am credited for half of the beauty you possess." she wrote in a letter to Madame Récamier. However, her talents attracted influential men. In a portrait painting by François Gérard, she looks somewhat plump, but she has a glittering, alert look in her eyes and she smiles cheerfully. "Men of wit are so astounded by the existence of women rivals that they cannot judge them with either an adversary's generosity or protector's indulgence. This is a new kind of combat, in which men follow the laws of neither kindness nor honor." (from On Literature Considered in Its Relationship to Social Institutions, 1800)

As a writer Mme de Staël made her breakthrough with Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J.-J. Rousseau (1788), which expressed her deep admiration of the great thinker. She supported Rousseau's idea that passionate love is natural to human beings and to yield oneself to love will not result in abandoning virtue. After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, she became involved with power struggles, and supported the moderate liberal policies of her father. Both revolutionary Jacobins and aristocratic émigrés viewed her with suspicion. Perhaps this prompted her to state: "In monarchies, women have ridicule to fear; in republic, hatred." Mme de Staël believed in progress - like Voltaire in his own way - and claimed that liberty and religious tolerance were essential preconditions for bringing literature to new heights. He also warned about the too enthusiastic military spirit which started to spread. The view did not gain much response among Napoleon's supporters.

Mme de Staël first lover was possibly Abbé de Talleyrand. In 1791 she helped her lover Louis de Narbonne to escape to England. She gave birth to his son, Albert, and in 1793 she fled from Paris to England and then settled to Coppet, Switzerland, where her family had an estate. During this period she had a brief love affair with Adolph von Ribbing. With her literary connections and skills as a conversationalist, she created a new meeting place for the leading Western intellectuals. At the end of the Reign of Terror in 1794, she returned to Paris.

In 1795 Mme de Staël started an affair with Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (1767-1830) and had one daughter, Albertine, probably fathered by him. This relationship lasted 15 years. Under his influence she started to read the work of brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich von Schlegel. In 1795-76 she was exiled by Napoléon. She published several political and literary essays, including De l'influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (1796). In De la littérature considérée das ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800) she stated that "an artist must be of his own time" - the literary text is the expression of the moral and historical reality (der zeitgeist) of the nation in which it is conceived. She juxtaposed German folk literature and and the classical tradition and saw that the Nordic and classical ideals, the differences between Ossianic songs and Homer, were basically opposed. Her essays were much in debt to Montesquieu's theory of climate and the idea of the influence of literature on religion, but she added to them a more dynamic vision and also dealt with such important factors as nationality, history, and social institutions.

Mme de Staël's Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807) were among the early examples of the Romantic style of writing. Delphine (1802), which earned her exile from Napoléon's Paris, was about a young woman, whose half-Platonic relationship with a married man leads her and her lover into ruin. Corinne became an immediate success. It was based on her travels in Italy and Germany. In the story Oswald Lord Nevil travels through France and Italy. He meets the beautiful and independent Corinne, who is a celebrated poet. She gives her a guided tour of her homeland and becomes his mistress, but he eventually abandons her for a less complex partner.

After Napoléon became the first consul and the de facto leader of France, Constant joined the opposition. He was a member of the Tribunate, the council that debated proposed laws, and made speeches that Napoléon Bonaparte thought were written by Mme de Staël. Perhaps it did not flatter Constant who was also a writer. His famous novel Adolphe (1816), was a partly autobiographical story, in which a young man fells in love with an elder woman, but soon becomes tires of her. Not only Constant but also Mme de Staël started to annoy Napoleon and his minister for security, Joseph Fouché: her salon was a place which supported new ideas, and in 1803 she was ordered to move 150 miles from Paris.

Mme de Staël went to Weimar, where Schiller and Goethe tried in vain avoid her company - she talked too much and in aesthetic questions they considered her taste bourgeois. When her father died she returned to Coppet, which became an anti-Bonapartist headquarters. Corinne was written after a journey in Italy. In 1807 she traveled in Germany where she interviewed Goethe, Schiller, the brothers Schlegel, Fichte and other leading intellectuals of the country. Doors to literary circles opened easily because she was guided by A.W. von Schlegel, whom she had met earlier and whom she treated like a dog. Schlegel influenced her views on literature, and was tutor of her children. The hospitality she received did not hinder her from recognizing that the individual freedom of the German poets was nothing more than a compensation for their exclusion from active political life. De l'Allemagne, a study of German culture, appeared in 1810. Although the censors did not see much harm in it, the minister of police banned the book as an anti-French work. The French edition, 10 000 copies, was seized and destroyed. Some copies escaped the police and came out in fresh edition in England. De l'Allemagne described the German people as musical and more interested in ideas than action. Her image of Germans and the Romantic generation offered an alternative view of the country. Mme de Staël advocated the idea, which became a cliché, that the classical was descended from the Pagan Roman past, dominant in southern Europe, and the romantic from the knightly and Christian world of the North.

In 1811 Mme de Saël married secretly Jean Rocca, a young officer and nearly half of her age, and again publicly five years later; their only son was was retarded. Increasingly persecuted by Napoléon's police, Mme de Staël spent eight weeks in Russia in 1812, swearing that she would never live in any country under Napoleon's rule. Because of the French invasion of Russia, she had to travel to St. Petersburg via Kiev, Moscow and Novgorod. From Finland she continued to Stockholm, and finally to London, where she had a triumphant reception and met among others Byron.

After Waterloo in 1814 Mme de Staël returned to Paris. Despite her poor health she enthusiastically joined the political struggle. She opposed the reactionary tendencies of the Bourbon regime and worked for the abolition of the slave trade. Mme de Staël died after a stroke on July 14, 1817, in Paris. Dix Années d'exil (1821) was published posthumously. Jean Rocca died six months later in 1818. Only her daughter Albertine, who married the duc de Broglie, left descendants.


Catherine Delors said...

It always amuses me to read that some new survey or other has "proven" that men are not attracted to bright or educated women. Madame de Stael's life certainly disproves that.

Her memoirs are available online at Project Gutenberg: Very interesting read.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes! And Madame de Stael was not a great beauty either! Thank you for the link!

Anonymous said...

What an interesting personality. She'd make an excellent subject for a movie...I'd love to see how she'd be portrayed. I would imagine she'd be very charming and articulate, and maybe a tad "pushy"--but in a warm encouraging way. A very extroverted socialite type.

I will check out her memoirs which catherine posted above.

(whose daughter's name, "Mimi", is stuck on my profile....long story)