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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.

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.

5.

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.

6.

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.

7.

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.

  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).

  3. 3

    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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