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The Great de Staël

In consequence the biography has much sparkle and scandal, much midnight Sturm und Drang, and a general air of opéra comique. Yet there is a curious lack of intimacy. Winegarten develops a faintly novelettish style to cover the gaps in her sources. They are “Germaine and Benjamin” throughout. Frequently their own fictions have to stand in for anything more authentic:

Germaine needed him, and Benjamin no longer needed her. She expressed her ideal of harmony between lovers through Léonce’s words in Delphine.… Léonce is not describing mad passion but the union of souls, perfect amity and companionship…. They come alive when they are together, as eyewitnesses remarked after observing Germaine and Benjamin engaged in their brilliant conversational jousts.

But it is precisely those jousts that we miss.

Francine du Plessix Gray is a more feisty biographer, a longtime writer for The New Yorker and especially remembered for her At Home with the Marquis de Sade, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. She has bravely decided to bundle de Staël into a brisk, bouncing carriage of some two hundred pages. Crisp judgments, smart anecdotes, and a cracking pace carry us along. Gray uses a witty, sardonic narrative, at times worthy of Lytton Strachey at his most feline. One might even wonder if her rather solemn subtitle, “The First Modern Woman,” was intended ironically. She admires de Staël for her literary intelligence, yet finds “truly amazing” her capacity for self-delusion with regard to Napoleon and most other males.

As the book progresses she becomes more and more impatient with her high-handed and wayward heroine, and finally diagnoses de Staël as suffering from “bipolar disorder,” which made her virtually impossible to live with. In the circumstances, she respects Constant’s long-suffering loyalty, and draws an odd but affectionate portrait of him: “gangling, stooped, very pale, with red-rimmed eyes and a head of startling carrot-hued hair.” But she mocks de Staël’s other “menagerie” of faithless and unsuitable lovers, noting scornfully that few endured beyond “an average of six months,” and bidding farewell to the last with a frank authorial aside: “might some readers join the author in a sigh of relief?”

Nevertheless, Gray recognizes that the salon at Coppet had genuine significance among European intellectuals. Most of all, citing George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, she respects Corinne for its impact on women readers outside France, “offering a utopia of female independence that they dearly wished to emulate.” She mischievously adjusts this uplifting note, by immediately adding that “the Marquis de Sade was as great a fan as Germaine had.”

Angelica Goodden, a Fellow of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, is an academic expert in eighteenth-century women’s writing and painting, having already published studies of the artists Angelica Kauffman and Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (who executed a famous portrait of de Staël as Corinne with Her Lyre in 1807). In consequence, Madame de Staël: The Dangerous Exile is by far the most scholarly and demanding of the three recent books. She chooses to explore de Staël’s story in a largely thematic way, developing a complex and subtle notion of her whole life as “an exile”—in both geographical and gender terms. There is a strong feminist leitmotif, but also a sense of fairness and compassion for those who had to cope with de Staël. Goodden has neither Winegarten’s dizzy charm nor Gray’s arch and teasing wit, but she writes thoughtfully and well. Above all, she pays attention to de Staël’s literary achievement.


Benjamin Constant shrewdly described Corinne, or Italy as simultaneously a new kind of novel about the female heart and a new kind of travel guide to the Mediterranean. It is also a new kind of Romantic mythmaking. In the figure of the beautiful, flamboyant poet and improvisatore Corinne, de Staël created a fictional character who became an international symbol of Romanticism, quite as much as Goethe’s Werther or Byron’s Corsair. Goodden explains all this admirably.

Corinne—beautiful, imperious, highly strung, and yet emotionally vulnerable—was simultaneously the independent woman artist, the lovelorn female victim of romance, and the hot-blooded irrepressible seductress of the warm South. It has also been suggested that the steamy romance between her and the dour melancholy Scot Oswald Lord Nelvil (a name truly redolent of damp tweed) was partly based on the romance between Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson in Naples.

Certainly a huge number of young women consciously modeled themselves on Corinne after 1807. They included Byron’s Italian mistress Teresa Guiccioli; the footloose Scottish wife of the scientist Humphry Davy, Jane Apreece; the British poet Felicia Hemans; and Margaret Fuller, “the Yankee Corinne.”3

Corinne’s histrionic instincts are developed in a lavish series of set pieces. She gives a devastating public performance of her poetry at Rome; she visits the erupting Vesuvius at night, where the paws of red-hot lava stealthily advance like a “royal tiger with measured tread”; and she wanders dreamily through the voluptuous backstreets of Naples.

On visiting Verona, she goes to “Juliet’s balcony” (preserved for tourists to this day), where she analyzes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in brilliant intellectual terms that anticipate—or perhaps borrow from—Schlegel’s literary criticism. (Schlegel accompanied de Staël through Italy, having written her a letter of total, slavish, hot-making devotion.) Finally she herself acts out a melodramatic performance as Juliet in front of the enraptured Lord Nelvil. In a memorable denouement, this reduces him to a swooning wreck of emotions—his “moans answered her cries”—and he has to be helped out of the theater.

If de Staël made her literary name with Corinne’s fictional visit to Italy, she secured her intellectual reputation with a strictly nonfiction visit to Germany. The resulting book, plainly entitled On Germany (1813), was deliberately and significantly written in propria persona. It is difficult to think of any other woman of her time who would have risked such an undertaking and such self-exposure. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written from Scandinavia (1796), delightful as it is, hardly bears comparison for scope and ambition. In fact the nearest comparable work, though much more sociological in intent, is probably Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835).

De Staël’s greatest intellectual achievement was first banned in France through Napoleon’s good offices, and then triumphantly published, like Byron’s poetry, by John Murray in London. He paid her 1,500 guineas for the privilege, an enormous sum at the time. It circulated throughout Europe, quickly reaching America. Extending to three hefty volumes, it contains besides much else a disquisition on the darkness of German forests; a memorable portrait of Goethe; a historic distinction between Romantic and classical poetry; an intelligible account of Kant’s philosophy (which compares very favorably to Coleridge’s in the Biographia ); a powerful series of reflections on “The Romantic Disposition in Affairs of the Heart”; and finally—“a summary of my whole book”—a passionate plea for energy and “enthusiasm” in all human relations.

She distinguished this quality carefully from “fanaticism”:

The sense of this word, from the Greeks, was the noblest one: enthusiasm signifies God in us. In effect, when the existence of man is expansive, it contains something of the divine.

Germany, being the dark, fertile birthplace of the new Romanticism, sprouted enthusiasts like fir trees, “it being the truly distinctive quality of the German nation.” Strangely prophetic work.

Much of her material was gathered by what was, in effect, an early form of journalistic interviewing, a relatively novel technique partly pioneered by James Boswell when he visited Rousseau. The American traveler George Ticknor gave a memorably funny picture of her working over the philosopher Fichte, and sorting out his entire metaphysical system in less than “fifteen minutes or so.” Goodden characteristically quotes at length this piece of intellectual ping-pong, which de Staël ends with a convincing smash:

Ah! c’est assez, je comprends parfaitement Monsieur Fichté. Your system is perfectly illustrated by a story in Baron Munchausen’s travels.

But de Staël was also an excellent travel writer, who could seize the “spirit of place” from a single moment. It is Gray who shrewdly picks out this brief but brilliantly evocative passage:

I had stopped at an inn, in a small town, where I heard the piano being played beautifully in a room which was full of steam from woollen clothes drying on an iron stove: That seems to be true of everything here: there is poetry in their soul but no elegance of form.


One way of assessing Madame de Staël is by placing her alongside Lord Byron. They first met in London in 1813, and then again at Coppet in 1816. Byron’s first impressions were of de Staël’s absurd combination of the formidable, the hysterical, and the voluble. She “writes octavos, and talks folios.” Her appearance (by now somewhat stout and rouged) was “frightful as a precipice.” But to his publisher Murray he wrote: “I have read all of her books and like all of them—and delight in the last [ On Germany ].” He added:

I do not love Madame de Staël but depend upon it—she beats all your natives hollow as an Authoress—in my opinion—and I would not say this if I could help it.

By the time he was invited to Coppet in July–August 1816, Byron had gone through the mill himself: married, separated, and driven by scandal into exile. Accordingly he found her more engaging and far more sympathetic. She “ventured to protect me when all London was crying out against me.” De Staël had suffered similarly from the publication of Benjamin Constant’s revelatory novel Adolphe (1816), which treacherously projected her as a dark, stormy dominatrix. By the time Byron leaves Coppet, de Staël is “the best creature in the world.”

It is interesting to see how differently each of our biographers handles these historic Staël–Byron encounters. Gray speeds over them in a few elegant but well-chosen paragraphs (“his sharp-tongued tone…changing…to playful affection”). Winegarten gives them even shorter shrift, exclaiming “How mistaken Byron was!” to doubt de Staël’s persecution by Napoleon; and rather innocently supposing that Byron agreed with Constant’s view of “the childlike element” in de Staël’s nature.

By contrast, Goodden dedicates a whole and highly perceptive chapter to the series of confrontations, entitled “Lionized in London.” She also cites Byron’s noble “Sonnet to Lake Leman,” written a year before de Staël’s death, which places her monumentally and in the highest company:

Rousseau—Voltaire—our Gibbon and de Staël
Leman! These names are worthy of thy shore.


But the question remains: Why isn’t Madame de Staël better remembered today? Immediately after her death, Lord Byron called her “the first female writer of this, or perhaps any age.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published an obituary in December 1818 that stated:

The sciences have always owed their origin to some great spirit. [Adam] Smith created political economy; Linnaeus, botany; Lavoisier, chemistry; and Madame de Staël has, in like manner, created the art of analysing the spirit of nations and the springs which move them.

The great French nineteenth-century Biographie Universelle called her ” le Voltaire féminin.” Given the comparative obscurity of de Staël’s current reputation (despite even the turbans), these surprising judgments merit further explanation.

Of these three biographies, perhaps none gives sufficient weight to the question of why she is not better known. Each achieves a vivid (though sometimes stifling) impression of Madame de Staël’s immediate personal impact on those around her. Yet her longer-term literary influence, its waxing and waning, remains mysterious. What about, for example, the influence of Corinne on Mary Shelley’s novels, or on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, or on British woman travel writers, or (for that matter) on American country and western singers? Equally, no one raises the uneasy question of why On Germany has long fallen out of fashion.

For all that, taken together, these lively biographies might suggest that Madame de Staël’s time is gradually coming around again. What they do magnificently confirm is that she was a truly extraordinary woman who courageously created a new role in society, one even larger than that of her irrepressible heroine Corinne. This role was that of the independent, freelance, female intellectual in Europe.

Around her crowd the shades of a noble company: Madame de Charrière, Madame du Châtelet, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madame Lavoisier, Sophie Germain, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, George Sand…. Her biography is slowly becoming part of a broader, more generous social history.

Even so, it is sad to think that we may never quite greet Madame de Staël with the intense “enthusiasm” she once aroused. “Immense crowds gathered to see her…. The first ladies of the kingdom stood on their chairs to catch a glimpse of that dark and brilliant physiognomy.” Or dance with her around the dinner table, wearing napkins on our heads.

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    According to Emerson. The amazing tale of Corinne’s extraliterary life and wanderings, both through Europe and across America, can be followed in Ellen Moers’s essay “Performing Heroinism: The Myth of Corinne” in Literary Women (Doubleday, 1976); and in Angela Leighton’s Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (University of Virginia Press, 1992). De Staël’s formidable French champion, the editor of the Cahiers Staëliens Simone Balayé, also has much to say on the subject and the global influence of the “Coppet group” in her wide-ranging essays in Madame de Staël: Écrire, Lutter, Vivre (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1994).

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