Germaine de Staël
"Madame de Staël" by Marie-Éléonore Godefroid (1813)
Anne-Louise Germaine Necker
22 April 1766
|Died||14 July 1817 (aged 51)|
Paris, Bourbon Restoration
Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (French: [an lwiz ʒɛʁmɛn də stal ɔlstajn]; née Necker; 22 April 1766 – 14 July 1817), commonly known as Madame de Staël (/ / də STAHL, French: [madam də stal]), was a woman of letters and political theorist of Genevan origin who in her lifetime witnessed (1789–1815) at first-hand the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era up to the French Restoration. She was present at the Estates General of 1789 and at the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Her intellectual collaboration with Benjamin Constant between 1794 and 1810 made them one of the most celebrated intellectual couples of their time. She discovered sooner than others the tyrannical character and designs of Napoleon. For many years she lived as an exile – firstly during the Reign of Terror and later due to personal persecution by Napoleon.
In exile she became the fulcrum of the Coppet group with her unrivalled network of contacts across Europe. In 1814 one of her contemporaries observed that "there are three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe: England, Russia, and Madame de Staël". Known as a witty and brilliant conversationalist, often dressed in daring outfits, she stimulated the political and intellectual life of her times. Her works, whether novels, travel literature or polemics, emphasized individuality and passion made a lasting mark on European thought. De Staël spread the notion of Romanticism widely by its repeated use.
Germaine (or Minette, "kitty") was the only child of Suzanne Curchod, who hosted in Rue de la Chaussée-d'Antin one of the most popular salons of Paris and prominent banker and statesman Jacques Necker, who was the Director-General of Finance under King Louis XVI of France. Mme Necker wanted her daughter educated according to the principles of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and endow her with the intellectual education and Calvinist discipline instilled in her by her pastor father. On Fridays she regularly brought Germaine as a young child to sit at her feet in her salon, where the guests took pleasure in stimulating the brilliant child. At the age of 13, she read Montesquieu, Shakespeare, Rousseau and Dante. This exposure probably contributed to a nervous breakdown in adolescence, but the seeds of a literary vocation had been sown.
Her father "is remembered today for taking the unprecedented step in 1781 of making public the country’s budget, a novelty in an absolute monarchy where the state of the national finances had always been kept secret, leading to his dismissal in May of that year." The family eventually took up residence in 1784 at Château Coppet, an estate her father purchased on Lake Geneva. The family returned to the Paris region in 1785, and Mlle Necker continued to write miscellaneous works, including the three-act romantic drama Sophie (1786) and the five-act tragedy, Jeanne Grey (1787).
Aged 11, Germaine had suggested to her mother she marry Edward Gibbon, a visitor to her salon, whom she found most attractive. Then, she reasoned, he would always be around for her. In 1783, at seventeen, she was courted by William Pitt the Younger and by the fop Comte de Guibert, whose conversation, she thought, was the most far-ranging, spirited and fertile she had ever known. When she did not accept their offers Germaine's parents became impatient. In the event, a marriage was arranged with Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, a Protestant and attaché of the Swedish legation to France. It took place on 14 January 1786 in the Swedish embassy at 97, Rue du Bac; Germaine was 20, her husband 37. On the whole, the marriage seems to have been workable for both parties, although neither seems to have had any or little affection for the other. The baron, also a gambler, obtained great benefits from the match as he received 80,000 pounds and was confirmed as lifetime ambassador to Paris, although his wife was almost certainly the more effective envoy.
In 1788, de Staël published Letters on the works and character of J.J. Rousseau. In this panegyric, written initially for a limited number of friends (in which she considered his housekeeper Thérèse Levasseur as unfaithful), she demonstrated evident talent, but little critical discernment. De Staël was at this time enthusiastic about the mixture of Rousseau's ideas about love and Montesquieu's on politics.
In December 1788 her father persuaded the king to double the number of deputies at the Third Estate in order to gain enough support to raise taxes to defray the excessive costs of supporting the revolutionaries in America. This approach had serious repercussions on Necker's reputation; he appeared to consider the Estates-General as a facility designed to help the administration rather than to reform government. In an argument with the king, whose speech on 23 June he didn't attend, Necker was dismissed and exiled on 11 July. On Sunday, 12 July the news became public and an angry Camille Desmoulins suggested storming the Bastille. On 16 July he was reappointed; Necker entered Versailles in triumph. His efforts to clean up public finances were unsuccessful and his idea of a National Bank failed. Necker was attacked by Jean-Paul Marat and Count Mirabeau in the Constituante, when he did not agree with using assignats as legal tender. He resigned on 4 September 1790. Accompanied by their son-in-law, her parents left for Switzerland, without the two million livres, half of his fortune, loaned as an investment in the public treasury in 1778.
The increasing disturbances caused by the Revolution made her privileges as the consort of an ambassador an important safeguard. Germaine held a salon in the Swedish embassy, where she gave "coalition dinners", which were frequented by moderates such as Talleyrand and De Narbonne, monarchists (Feuillants) such as Antoine Barnave, Charles Lameth and his brothers Alexandre and Théodore, the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, Pierre Victor, baron Malouet, the poet Abbé Delille, Thomas Jefferson, the one-legged Minister Plenipotentiary to France Gouverneur Morris, Paul Barras, a Jacobin (from the Plain) and the Girondin Condorcets. "The issue of leadership, or rather lack of it, was central to de Staël's preoccupations at this stage of her political reflections. She experienced the death of Mirabeau, accused of royalism, as a sign of great political disorientation and uncertainty. He was the only man with the necessary charisma, energy, and prestige to keep the revolutionary movement on a path of constitutional reform."
Following the 1791 French legislative election, and after the French Constitution of 1791 was announced in the National Assembly, she resigned from a political career and decided not to stand for re-election. "Fine arts and letters will occupy my leisure." She did, however, play an important role in the succession of Comte de Montmorin the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and in the appointment of Narbonne as minister of War and continued to be centre stage behind the scenes. Marie Antoinette wrote to Hans Axel Fersen: "Count Louis de Narbonne is finally Minister of War, since yesterday; what a glory for Mme de Staël and what a joy for her to have the whole army, all to herself." In 1792 the French Legislative Assembly saw an unprecedented turnover of ministers, six ministers of the interior, seven ministers of foreign affairs, and nine ministers of war. On 10 August 1792 Clermont-Tonnere was thrown out of a window of the Louvre Palace and trampled to death. De Staël offered baron Malouet a plan of escape for the royal family. As there was no government, militant members of the Insurrectionary Commune, were given extensive police powers from the provisional, executive council, " to detain, interrogate and incarcerate suspects without anything resembling due process of law". She helped De Narbonne, dismissed for plotting, to hide under the altar in the chapel in the Swedish embassy, and lectured the sans-culottes from the section in the hall.
On Sunday 2 September, the day the Elections for the National Convention and the September massacres began, she fled herself in the garb of an ambassadress. Her carriage was stopped and the crowd forced her into the Paris town hall, where Robespierre presided. That same evening she was conveyed home, escorted by the procurator Louis Pierre Manuel. The next day the commissioner to the Commune of Paris Jean-Lambert Tallien arrived with a new passport and accompanied her to the edge of the barricade.
After her flight from Paris, Germaine moved to Rolle in Switzerland, where Albert was born. She was supported by de Montmorency and the Marquis de Jaucourt, whom she had previously supplied with Swedish passports. In January 1793, she made a four-month visit to England to be with her then lover, the Comte de Narbonne at Juniper Hall. (Since 1 February France and Great Britain were at war.) Within a few weeks she was pregnant; it was apparently one of the reasons for the scandal she caused in England. According to Fanny Burney, the result was that her father urged Fanny to avoid the company of de Staël and her circle of French Émigres in Surrey. De Staël met Horace Walpole, James Mackintosh, Lord Sheffield, a friend of Edward Gibbon, and Lord Loughborough, the new Lord Chancellor. She was not impressed with the condition of women in English society. Individual freedom was as important to her as were abstract political liberties.
In the summer of 1793, she returned to Switzerland probably because De Narbonne had cooled towards her. She published a defence of the character of Marie Antoinette, entitled, Réflexions sur le procès de la Reine, 1793 ("Reflections on the Queen's trial"). In de Staël's view France should have adapted from an absolute to a Constitutional monarchy as was the case in England. Living in Jouxtens-Mézery, farther away from the French border than Coppet, Germaine was visited by Adolph Ribbing. Count Ribbing was living in exile, after his conviction for taking part in a conspiracy to assassinate the Swedish king, Gustav III. In September 1794 the recently divorced Benjamin Constant visited her, wanting to meet her before he committed suicide.
In May 1795 she moved to Paris, now with Constant in tow, as her protégé and lover. De Staël rejected the idea of the right of resistance – which had been introduced into the never implemented French Constitution of 1793, but was removed from the Constitution of 1795. In 1796 she published Sur l'influence des passions, in which she praised suicide, a book which attracted the attention of the German writers Schiller and Goethe.
Still absorbed by French politics, Germaine reopened her salon. It was during these years that Mme de Staël arguably exerted most political influence. For a time she was still visible in the diverse and eccentric society of the mid-1790s. However, on the 13 Vendémiaire the Comité de salut public ordered her to leave Paris after accusations of politicking, and put Constant in detention for one night. Germaine spent that autumn in the spa of Forges-les-Eaux. She was considered a threat to political stability and mistrusted by both sides in the political conflict. The couple moved to Ormesson-sur-Marne where they stayed with Mathieu Montmorency. In Summer 1796 Constant founded the "Cercle constitutionnel" in Luzarches with de Staël's support. In May 1797 she was back in Paris and eight months pregnant. She succeeded in getting Talleyrand from the list of Émigrés and on his return from the United States to have him appointed minister of Foreign Affairs in July. From the coup of 18 Fructidor it was announced that anyone campaigning to restore the monarchy or the French Constitution of 1793 would be shot without trial. Germaine moved to Saint-Ouen, on her father's estate and became a close friend of the beautiful and wealthy Juliette Récamier to whom she sold her parents' house in the Rue de la Chaussée-d'Antin.
De Staël completed the initial part of her first most substantial contribution to political and constitutional theory, "Of present circumstances that can end the Revolution, and of the principles that must found the republic of France". On 6 December 1797 she had a first meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte in Talleyrand's office and again on 3 January 1798 during a ball. She made it clear to him she did not agree with his planned French invasion of Switzerland. He ignored her opinions and would not read her letters.
In January 1800 Napoleon appointed Benjamin Constant a member of the Tribunat but, not long after, Constant became the first consul's enemy. Two years later Napoleon forced him into exile on account of his speeches which he took to be actually written by Mme de Staël. in August 1802 Napoleon was elected first consul for life. This put de Staël into opposition to him both for personal and political reasons. In her view Napoleon had begun to resemble Machiavelli; while for Napoleon, Voltaire, J.J. Rousseau and their followers were the cause of the French Revolution. This view was cemented when Jacques Necker published his "Last Views on Politics and Finance" and his daughter, her "De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales". It was her first philosophical treatment of the Europe question: it dealt with such factors as nationality, history and social institutions. Napoleon started a campaign against her latest publication. He did not like her cultural determinism and generalizations, in which she stated that "an artist must be of his own time". In his opinion a woman should stick to knitting. He said about her, according to the Memoirs of Madame de Rémusat, that she "teaches people to think who had never thought before, or who had forgotten how to think". It became clear that the first man of France and de Staël were not likely ever to get along together.
De Staël published a provocative (anti-catholic) novel Delphine, in which the femme incomprise (misunderstood woman) living in Paris between 1789 and 1792, is confronted with conservative ideas about divorce after the Concordat of 1801. In this tragic novel, influenced by Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther and Rousseau's Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, she reflects on the legal and practical aspects on divorce, the arrests and the September Massacres, and the fate of the émigrés. The main characters have traits of the unstable Benjamin Constant, and Talleyrand is depicted as an old woman, herself as the heroine with the liberal view of the Italian aristocrat and politician Melzi d'Eril.
When Constant moved to Maffliers in September 1803 de Staël went to see him and let Napoleon know she would be wise and cautious. Thereupon her house immediately became popular again among her friends, but Napoleon, informed by Madame de Genlis, suspected a conspiracy. "Her extensive network of connections – which included foreign diplomats and known political opponents, as well as members of the government and of Bonaparte's own family – was in itself a source of suspicion and alarm for the government." Her protection of Jean Gabriel Peltier – who plotted the death of Napoleon – influenced his decision on 13 October 1803 to exile her without trial.
For ten years de Staël was not allowed to come within 40 leagues (almost 200 km) of Paris. She accused Napoleon of "persecuting a woman and her children". On 23 October she left for Germany "out of pride", in the hope of gaining support and to be able to return home as soon as possible.
With her children and Constant she stopped off in Metz and met Kant's French translator Charles de Villers. In mid-December, they arrived in Weimar, where she stayed for two and a half months at the court of the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and his mother Anna Amalia. Goethe who had become ill, hesitated about seeing her. After meeting her, Goethe went on to refer to her as an "extraordinary woman" in his private correspondence. Schiller complimented her intelligence and eloquence, but her frequent visits distracted him from completing William Tell. De Staël was constantly on the move, talking and asking questions. Constant decided to abandon her in Leipzig and return to Switzerland. De Staël travelled on to Berlin, where she made the acquaintance of August Schlegel who was lecturing there on literature. She appointed him on an enormous salary to tutor her children. On 18 April they all left Berlin when the news of her father's death reached her.
On 19 May she arrived in Coppet and found herself its wealthy and independent mistress, but her sorrow for her father was deep. She spent the summer at the chateau sorting through his writings and published an essay on his private life. In April 1804 Friedrich Schlegel married Dorothea Veit in the Swedish embassy. In July Constant wrote about her, "She exerts over everything around her a kind of inexplicable but real power. If only she could govern herself, she might have governed the world." In December 1804 she travelled to Italy, accompanied by her children, Schlegel and the historian Sismondi. There she met the poet Monti and the painter, Angelica Kauffman. "Her visit to Italy helped her to develop her theory of the difference between northern and southern societies..."
She returned to Coppet in June 1805, moved to Meulan (Château d'Acosta) and spent nearly a year writing her next book on Italy's culture and history. In Corinne, ou L'Italie (1807), her own impressions of a sentimental and intellectual journey, the heroine appears to have been inspired by the Italian poet Diodata Saluzzo Roero. She combined romance with travelogue, showed all of Italy's works of art still in place, rather than plundered by Napoleon and taken to France. The book's publication acted as a reminder of her existence, and Napoleon sent her back to Coppet. Her house became, according to Stendhal, "the general headquarters of European thought" and was a debating club hostile to Napoleon, "turning conquered Europe into a parody of a feudal empire, with his own relatives in the roles of vassal states". Madame Récamier, also banned by Napoleon, Prince Augustus of Prussia, Charles Victor de Bonstetten, and Chateaubriand all belonged to the "Coppet group". Each day the table was laid for about thirty guests. Talking seemed to be everybody's chief activity.
For a time she lived with Constant in Auxerre (1806), Rouen (1807), Aubergenville (1807). Then she met Friedrich Schlegel, whose wife Dorothea had translated Corinne into German. The use of the word Romanticism was invented by Schlegel, but spread more widely across France through its persistent use by Madame de Staël. Late in 1807 she set out for Vienna and visited Maurice O'Donnell. She was accompanied by her children and August Schlegel who gave his famous lectures there. In 1808 Benjamin Constant was afraid to admit to her that he had married Charlotte von Hardenberg in the meanwhile. "If men had the qualities of women", Staël wrote, "love would simply cease to be a problem." De Staël set to work on her book about Germany – in which she presented the idea of a state called "Germany" as a model of ethics and aesthetics and praised German literature and philosophy. The exchange of ideas and literary and philosophical conversations with Goethe, Schiller, and Wieland had inspired de Staël to write one of the most influential books of the nineteenth century on Germany.
Pretending she wanted to emigrate to the United States, de Staël was given permission to re-enter France. She moved first into the Château de Chaumont (1810), then relocated to Fossé and Vendôme. She was determined to publish De l'Allemagne in France, a book in which she called French political structures into question, so indirectly criticizing Napoleon. Constrained by censorship, she wrote to the emperor a letter of complaint. The minister of police Savary had emphatically forbidden her to publish her “un-French" book. In October 1810 de Staël was exiled again and had to leave France within three days. August Schlegel was also ordered to leave the Swiss Confederation as an enemy of French literature. She found consolation in a wounded veteran officer named Albert de Rocca, twenty-three years her junior, to whom she got privately engaged in 1811 but did not marry publicly until 1816.
The operations of the French imperial police in the case of Mme de Staël are rather obscure. She was at first left undisturbed, but by degrees, the chateau itself became a source of suspicion, and her visitors found themselves heavily persecuted. François-Emmanuel Guignard, De Montmorency and Mme Récamier were exiled for the crime of visiting her. She remained at home during the winter of 1811, planning to escape to England or Sweden with the manuscript. On 23 May 1812 she left Coppet under the pretext of a short outing, but journeyed through Bern, Innsbruck and Salzburg to Vienna, where she met Metternich. There after some trepidation and trouble, she received the necessary passports to go on to Russia.
During Napoleon's invasion of Russia de Staël, her two children and Schlegel, travelled through Galicia in the Habsburg empire from Brno to Łańcut where Rocca, having deserted the French army and having been searched by the French gendarmerie, was waiting for her. The journey continued to Lemberg. On 14 July 1812 they arrived in Volhynia. In the meantime, Napoleon, who took a more northern route, had crossed the Niemen River with his army. In Kiev, she met Miloradovich, governor of the city. De Staël hesitated to travel on to Odessa, Constantinople, and decided instead to go north. Perhaps she was informed about of the outbreak of plague in the Ottoman Empire. In Moscow, she was invited by the governor Fyodor Rostopchin. According to de Staël, it was Rostopchin who ordered to set his mansion on fire, which spread to the city with its 1,600 churches. She left only a few weeks before Napoleon arrived there. Until the end of September, her party stayed in Saint Petersburg. She met twice with the tsar Alexander I of Russia who "related to me also the lessons a la Machiavelli which Napoleon had thought proper to give him."
"You see," said he, "I am careful to keep my ministers and generals at variance among themselves, in order that each may reveal to me the faults of the other; I keep up a continual jealousy by the manner I treat those who are about me: one day one thinks himself the favourite, the next day another, so that no one is ever certain of my favour."
For de Staël that was a vulgar and vicious theory. General Kutuzov sent her letters from the Battle of Tarutino and before the end of that year he succeeded, aided by the extreme weather, in chasing the Grande Armée out of Russia.
After four months of travel, she arrived in Sweden. In Stockholm she began writing her "Ten Years' Exile", detailing her travels and encounters. She did not finish the manuscript and after eight months, she set out for England, without August Schlegel, who meanwhile had been appointed secretary to general Bernadotte. (She supported Bernadotte as new ruler of France, as she hoped he would introduce a constitutional monarchy.) In London she received a great welcome. She met Lord Byron and Sir Humphry Davy, the chemist and inventor. According to Byron, "She preached English politics to the first of our English Whig politicians ... preached politics no less to our Tory politicians the day after." Her stay was severely marred by the death of her son Albert, who as a member of the Swedish army had fallen in a duel with a Cossack officer in Doberan as a result of a gambling dispute. In October John Murray published De l'Allemagne both in French and in English translation, in which she reflected on nationalism and suggested a re-consideration on cultural rather than on natural boundaries. In May 1814, after Louis XVIII had been crowned (Bourbon Restoration) she returned to Paris. She wrote her Considérations sur la révolution française, based on Part One of "Ten Years' Exile". Again her salon became a major attraction both for Parisians and foreigners.
When news came of Napoleon's landing on the Côte d'Azur, between Cannes and Antibes, early in March 1815, she fled again to Coppet, and never forgave Constant for approving of Napoleon's return. Although she had no affection for the Bourbons she succeeded in obtaining restitution for the huge loan Necker had made to the French state in 1778 before the Revolution (see above). In October, after the Battle of Waterloo, she set out for Italy, not only for the sake of her own health but for that of her second husband, Rocca, who was suffering from tuberculosis. In May her 19-year-old daughter Albertine married Victor, 3rd duc de Broglie in Livorno.
The whole family returned to Coppet in June. Lord Byron, at that time in debt, left London in great trouble and frequently visited Mme. de Staël during July and August. For Byron, she was Europe's greatest living writer, but "with her pen behind her ears and her mouth full of ink". "Byron was particularly critical of de Staël's self-dramatizing tendencies". Byron was a supporter of Napoleon, but for de Staël Bonaparte "was not only a talented man but also one who represented a whole pernicious system of power", a system that "ought to be examined as a great political problem relevant to many generations." "Napoleon imposed standards of homogeneity on Europe that is, French taste in literature, art and the legal systems, all of which de Staël saw as inimical to her cosmopolitan point of view." Byron wrote she was "sometimes right and often wrong about Italy and England – but almost always true in delineating the heart, which is of but one nation of no country, or rather, of all."
Despite her increasing ill-health, she returned to Paris for the winter of 1816–17, living at 40, rue des Mathurins. Constant argued with de Staël, who had asked him to pay off his debts to her. A warm friendship sprang up between Madame de Staël and the Duke of Wellington, whom she had first met in 1814, and she used her influence with him to have the size of the Army of Occupation greatly reduced.
She had become confined to her house, paralyzed since 21 February 1817. She died on 14 July 1817. Her deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism, after reading Thomas à Kempis, was reported but is subject to some debate. Wellington remarked that, while he knew that she was greatly afraid of death, he had thought her incapable of believing in the afterlife. Wellington makes no mention of de Stael reading Thomas à Kempis in the quote found in Elizabeth Longford's biography of the Iron Duke. Furthermore, he reports hearsay, which may explain why two modern biographies of de Staël – Herold and Fairweather – discount the conversion entirely. Herold states that "her last deed in life was to reaffirm in her "Considerations, her faith in Enlightenment, freedom, and progress." Fairweather makes no mention of the conversion at all. Rocca survived her by little more than six months.
Beside two daughters, Gustava Sofia Magdalena (born July 1787) and Gustava Hedvig (died August 1789), who died in infancy, she had two sons, Ludwig August (1790–1827), Albert (November 1792 – July 1813), and a daughter, Albertine, baroness Staël von Holstein (June 1797 – 1838). It is believed Louis, Comte de Narbonne-Lara was the father of Ludvig August and Albert, and Benjamin Constant the father of red-haired Albertine. With Albert de Rocca, de Staël then aged 46, had one son, the disabled Louis-Alphonse de Rocca (April 1812 – 1842), who would marry Marie-Louise-Antoinette de Rambuteau, daughter of Claude-Philibert Barthelot de Rambuteau, and granddaughter of De Narbonne. Even as she gave birth, there were fifteen people in her bedroom.
After the death of her husband, Mathieu de Montmorency became the legal guardian of her children. Like August Schlegel he was one of her intimates until the end of her life.
Albertine Necker de Saussure, married to her cousin, wrote her biography in 1821, published as part of the collected works. Auguste Comte included Mme de Staël in his 1849 Calendar of Great Men. Her political legacy has been generally identified with a stout defence of "liberal" values: equality, individual freedom and the limitation of state power by constitutional rules. "Yet although she insisted to the Duke of Wellington that she needed politics in order to live, her attitude towards the propriety of female political engagement varied: at times she declared that women should simply be the guardians of domestic space for the opposite sex, while at others, that denying women access to the public sphere of activism and engagement was an abuse of human rights. This paradox partly explains the persona of the “homme-femme” she presented in society, and it remained unresolved throughout her life."
Comte's disciple Frederic Harrison wrote about de Staël that her novels "precede the works of Walter Scott, Byron, Mary Shelley, and partly those of Chateaubriand, their historical importance is great in the development of modern Romanticism, of the romance of the heart, the delight in nature, and in the arts, antiquities, and history of Europe."
Recent studies by historians, including feminists, have been assessing the specifically feminine dimension in de Staël's contributions both as an activist-theorist and as a writer about the tumultuous events of her time. She has been called a precursor of feminism.
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