The Great de Staël

Corinne, or Italy

by Madame de Staël, translated from the French by Sylvia Raphael
Oxford World’s Classics, 422 pp., $16.95 (paper)

She was the only daughter of a Swiss banker, and one of the richest and cleverest young women of her generation in Europe. She wrote among much else one celebrated novel— Corinne, or Italy (1807)—which invented a new heroine for her times, outsold even the works of Walter Scott, and has never been out of print since. She personally saved at least a dozen people from the French revolutionary guillotine. She reinvented Parisian millinery with her astonishing multicolored turbans. She dramatically dismissed Jane Austen as ” vulgaire.” She snubbed Napoleon at a reception. She inspired Byron’s famous chauvinist couplet, “Man’s love is of his life a thing apart,/’Tis woman’s whole existence.” And she once completely outtalked the poet Coleridge at a soirée in Mayfair. For these things alone she should be remembered.

Though married to the handsome Swedish ambassador (or possibly because she was so married), she took numerous lovers, and had four children, the most brilliant of whom—a girl, Albertine—was certainly illegitimate. She had a running and highly personal vendetta with Bonaparte, who hated bluestockings and once leaned over and remarked leeringly on her plunging cleavage: “No doubt, Madame, you breast-fed your children.” He followed this up by censoring her books for being anti-French, actually pulping one of them in mid-printing (On Germany), and exiling her from France on at least three separate occasions between 1803 and 1812.

Yet her lifelong opposition to the Napoleonic tyranny remained undaunted and conceived in the largest terms. Toward the end of her last exile, in November 1812, she wrote from Stockholm to Thomas Jefferson in New York, begging American intervention with a plea that echoes to this day:

You will tell me that America has nothing to do with the European continent, but has it nothing to do with the human race? Can you be indifferent to the cause of free nations, you, the most republican of all?

Despite these alarums and excursions, for twenty years she turned her beautiful château at Coppet, on the banks of Lake Leman, into an intellectual powerhouse and asylum for displaced writers and thinkers, the equivalent of Voltaire’s Ferney. Then she died at the early age of fifty-one, having just married an astonishingly handsome Hussar officer, young enough to be her son, whose love she described poignantly as “nothing but a little Scottish melody in my life.”

Anne-Louise-Germaine de Staël- Holstein (née Necker) was altogether quite a girl. She was also, as you might imagine, quite a difficult one. Now known to history succinctly as Madame de Staël (1766–1817)—a name pronounced “style,” and a life containing a superabundance of that glamorous quality—she presents a formidable problem to any biographer trying to get, and keep, her life in any sort of order or perspective.

Her lovers found the same thing:

I have never known a woman who was more continuously exacting…. Everybody’s entire existence, every hour, every minute, for years on end, must be at her …

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