Let me summarize the opening chapter of Mme de Staël’s Corinne: or Italy, which was published in 1807 and became one of the most celebrated novels of the earlier nineteenth century. In this chapter we are introduced to Oswald, Lord Nelvil, a peer of Scotland who, late in the year 1794, has taken ship for Italy for reasons of health. He is a noble and beautiful young man with an independent fortune, but is borne down by a secret sorrow, caused by his father’s recent death and the remorse and some “delicate scruples”1 connected with it. His regrets have robbed him of all enjoyment of life. No one could be more prompt to serve his friends, but even beneficence gives him no pleasure, and he half reproaches himself for leaving his native Scotland: for perhaps ghosts, like his father’s, are only permitted to roam in the places where their ashes lie. Once or twice, as they cross the North Sea, the weather grows stormy, whereupon Lord Nelvil gives helpful advice to the sailors, calms the fears of the other passengers, and eventually takes over the handling of the ship himself—all his actions exhibiting a skill and vigor “which should not be considered simply the effect of suppleness and agility of body, for the soul also plays its part in these things.” As he leaves the ship, the sailors, as one man, cry “My dear Sir, would that you were more happy!”
This exordium, one has to say, is marvelously, is inexpressibly, absurd. Nor have we heard the last of Lord Oswald’s presence of mind and generous thought for others. For upon reaching Ancona he wakes up to find the city on fire and single-handedly extinguishes the conflagration, shaming the nerveless Italians, who do no more than cower in the street covering their heads with their cloaks. After his exertions, the local women crowd round him, crying—“with that imagination which is the almost universal gift of the common people”—“You must be Saint Michael, the patron saint of our town. Spread your wings, but do not desert us.” Certain truths are reserved for a later age, and one of them is (surely?) that, wonderful as Germaine de Staël is to read about, her novels simply won’t do.
Nevertheless, the reason why they won’t do is well worth studying, and we can do this just as easily with the earlier of her two novels, Delphine, which was published in 1802 and now appears in a new and admirable translation based on the edition by Simone Balayé and Lucia Omacini published in 1987. The translator, Avriel Goldberger, is a noted Staël scholar and has provided an extremely well-informed introduction. The trouble is, she speaks of Delphine as a great novel, “the first great novel of nineteenth-century France,” and also as “a political and a feminist novel as much for our time as for its own.” There seems nothing to do but to disagree: to say, indeed, that it is an absurd novel,…
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