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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)

1.

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.”

2.

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 disposition, or else there is an explosion like all thunderstorms and earthquakes put together.

That from novelist, diarist, and political writer Benjamin Constant (the father of Albertine), who managed—unlike any other man in her life—to live with her for over a decade.

The term mouvementée seems perfectly designed for Madame de Staël. She led her whole existence, at least after her ultra-fashionable nervous breakdown in Paris aged twelve—she said she was in love with her father—in an incredibly turbulent, restless, hyperactive fashion. When she visited England at the age of twenty-six—the first of her many exiles—a stunned and sleepy young country doctor noted:

This Staël is a genius, an extraordinary eccentric woman in everything she says or does. She sleeps only a few hours, and for the rest of the time she is uninterruptedly and fearfully busy…. Whilst her hair is being done, while she breakfasts, in fact for a third of the day, she writes. She has not sufficient quiet to look over what she has written….1

Though this was the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, she managed to visit (and write about) most of the states of Europe—France, England, Italy, Germany, Poland, and Russia. She only just missed a much-planned visit to the fledgling United States, where she had wisely invested much of her inherited millions. Her arrival in Moscow, incidentally, anticipated—by a satisfactory few days—Napoleon’s arrival with his Grande Armée in 1812. Hers was considerably more of a social success.

Her network of friendships embraced (often the mot juste) an amazing roll-call of political and literary celebrities, among whom were Talley-rand, Edward Gibbon, Fanny Burney, Marie Antoinette, Benjamin Constant, Goethe, Schiller, Byron, A.W. Schlegel, Sismondi, Chateaubriand, Juliette Récamier, and even (on her deathbed) the Duke of Wellington. But this was far more than the traditional salon network of the ancien régime. It was also a new kind of intellectual network, and Madame de Staël launched a tradition of French female intellos that eventually stretched to Simone de Beauvoir and beyond.2

There are many ways to attempt to makes sense of her colorful and courageous—and indeed frequently outrageous—story. It clearly has many possible dimensions: literary, political, feminist, erotic, sartorial—or even spiritual. One of her most moving works, dated 1811 and now little read, is her Reflections on Suicide, which opens with this heart-stopping sentence like a sigh: ” C’est pour les malheureux qu’il faut écrire…. ” It is perhaps her answer to the British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who twice tried to commit suicide.

Indeed de Staël’s own life, for all its social and moneyed privilege, all its Romantic razzamatazz, has deep tragic elements of frustration and brooding loss. Much of this is prophesied in her earlier and now little-read novel Delphine (1802), whose heroine does indeed commit suicide. Far too long to appeal to modern readers, it nevertheless contains many haunting self-contained fragments, such as the five-page tale subtitled “The Reasons Why Léontine de Ternan Decided to Become a Nun.” This opens:

I was once a very beautiful woman, and I am now fifty years old. These two absolutely ordinary facts have been the cause of everything I have ever felt in life.

3.

Yet one could do worse than begin with her most extrovert and flamboyant style signature—her famous turban. Madame de Staël adopted it as her brand mark, instantly recognizable in a crowd or in a picture. Created out of vividly colored silks, often topped with declamatory ostrich or peacock feathers, it created both sensation and ridicule wherever she went. When she visited Germany, for example, the young poet Heinrich Heine gazed at her in amazement:

She had an enormous turban on her head, and now wanted to present herself as the Sultana of Thought…. She asked our intellectuals, “How old are you? What have you written? Are you a Kantian or a Fichtean?” and suchlike things, hardly waiting for an answer.

As Mary Wollstonecraft herself once said during her own Scandinavian travels: she shocked them because she asked ” men’s questions.”

The turban features significantly in Madame de Staël’s masterpiece, Corinne. It appears in a picture she finds at the Palazzo Borghese in Rome: the beautiful, passionate southern Cumaean Sibyl painted by Domenichino (circa 1620) with whom she immediately identifies. The Sibyl—intense, voluptuous, swathed in silks and manuscripts—of course wears a truly magnificent turban. De Staël suggests she is the incarnation of her alter ego. (Domenichino’s picture is shrewdly placed on the cover of the present World’s Classics edition.)

Yet the turban may also be playful, seductive, and teasing. De Staël’s beloved father, the banker Jacques Necker, invented a thrilling and consciously naughty childhood game with his daughter, which “Minette” (his pet name) never forgot. It involved chasing each other around and around the dining table at Coppet, with shrieks of excitement “like red Indians.” For this they always wore heavy starched napkins twisted around their heads—like turbans. It was a noisy, provoking game between father and daughter that Madame Necker (like Napoleon) was always trying to ban.

De Staël often and openly said that she had always been in love with her father, and if he had been younger, would have married him. Her most intimate and perhaps most revealing book was the brief, passionate study published at the end of her life (and also long out of print), On the Character of Monsieur Necker and His Private Life. “Sometimes it was a cruel situation to be in,” she wrote, “loving so much a man older than yourself…breaking your soul against this barrier….”

4.

At the height of de Staël’s fame in 1814, the French memoir writer Madame de Chastenay summed up her life in a single epigram. There were, she wrote, three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe: “England, Russia, and Madame de Staël.” A generation later, Sainte-Beuve praised her as “a great Athenian orator” for freedom, but now emphasized the inward-looking poetic intensity of the Coppet circle, self-entranced by ” la raquette magique du discours ” ( Portraits de Femmes, 1845).

These two interpretations were cunningly reconciled some hundred years later by the Czech-American scholar J. Christopher Herold. He steered carefully between them to produce his fine study, Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Staël. It rightly won the National Book Award in 1958, and now reads like a classic, immensely scholarly in its detailing but quite unstuffy in manner, with a wonderful touch of flamboyance. Herold found the trick of somehow elevating de Staël in the very act of dethroning her:

Thus Germaine ruled over Coppet, like Venus over the damned souls in the Venusberg, like Calypso over shipwrecked travelers, like Circe over her menagerie.

Renee Winegarten has evidently been fascinated by Madame de Staël for many years. A first brief and highly romantic study by her appeared in the Berg women’s series in 1985. The present book is a “dual biography” concentrating on her stormy seventeen-year affair with Benjamin Constant. It begins dramatically when they first meet on the road to Coppet, “A Chance Encounter,” in September 1794. De Staël is already a married and published author of twenty-eight, with political connections and a roster of lovers. Constant is the gifted but disillusioned son of a Swiss army officer, who has spent too much time with prostitutes. He has also had a long Platonic affair with the formidable and much older Dutch writer Madame de Charrière, who in many ways is de Staël’s avatar. Much needs to be explained in ingenious flashbacks.

The historian Sismondi declared, “You have not known Madame de Staël at all if you have not seen her with Benjamin Constant.” Yet according to Winegarten the correspondence between them is “mainly lost or destroyed,” and it is therefore impossible to recover “the tenor of their conversational encounters” (or indeed their sexual ones). There is of course Constant’s obsessive diary-writing (the famous Cahier Rouge ), and de Staël’s alarming but lifelong habit of recounting her last lover’s failings to her next prospective one.

  1. 1

    There is a short, scintillating study of young de Staël, her lovers, and her shocked friend Fanny Burney in Surrey of all places: Linda Kelly, Juniper Hall: An English Refuge from the French Revolution (Weidenfeld, 1991).

  2. 2

    Much of it depended on her astonishingly fulsome letters, scrawled at immense speed and interminable length, allegro con amore. Eleven volumes of her Correspondance générale, 1777–1809 have been published (Paris: Pauvert, 1962–1993), although—alas!—she also exhausted her faithful modern editor Béatrice Jasinski, who died with at least eight years of letters to go. But there is a useful Selected Correspondence, translated by Kathleen Jameson-Cemper (Kluwer, 2000), and an invaluable Selected Writings, translated by Vivian Folkenflik (Columbia University Press, 1987).

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