Sunday, June 22, 2008

A New Dual Biography

Here is a Washington Post review of a new biography about Germaine de Staël and her friendship with Benjamin Constant. To quote:
Still, Germaine de Staël was more than just a writer. She was first of all a political animal, a defender of civil liberties and Napoleon's bête noire. Her public life was completely entangled with the French Revolution and its aftermath. During the Terror she secreted aristocratic friends in the Swedish embassy. During the early days of the republic she entertained movers and shakers at her salon, helping to launch, in particular, the career of Talleyrand, a name second only to that of Machiavelli in the pantheon of Realpolitik. (When asked what he did during the Revolution and Terror, Talleyrand is reported to have answered: "J'ai survécu" -- I survived.) But early on, this formidable woman's free-thinking and liberal ideas antagonized the ambitious General Bonaparte. By the time the First Consul crowned himself emperor in 1804, de Staël had been exiled from Paris.

But she did not repine. She traveled throughout Europe -- visiting Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, studying the art of Italy -- and she established a dazzling salon at her father's house in Coppet, Switzerland. There, one might find the historian Sismondi, the scholar-intellectuals (and brothers) Friedrich and August von Schlegel (the latter penned a letter in which he promised to be de Staël's slave for life), and the most beautiful woman of her era, Juliette Récamier. De Staël's best friend, Récamier remains legendary to this day because of the magnificent portrait by Jacque-Louis David showing the classically gowned beauty reclining on a chaise lounge. While the two women were both inveterately flirtatious, Récamier bestowed her favors on no one, not even her husband: She lived in a mariage blanc -- an unconsummated marriage -- with a man rumored to be her biological father. Her mother's onetime lover had married her during the Terror as a way of insuring that she would inherit his fortune if he were guillotined. Only at the age of 40 did Récamier enter into a passionate love affair with the most famous writer in France, Chateaubriand. But that's another story.


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