her views are naturally large, her career vast, her efforts vigorous – Irish woman of letters Lady Sydney Morgan on Madame de Staël (1817)
Germaine de Staël was, by all accounts, a larger-than-life figure. Born in Paris in 1766, she reached maturity during a time of huge revolutionary upheaval, and cut her teeth on the most pressing issues of the day. A forceful presence in the salons where she presided, she was not to everyone’s taste – the playwright and poet Friedrich Schiller said that, after she left him, he always felt like a man who was just getting over a serious illness – yet she gained fame and influence from her very divisiveness.
With high-flying parents in banker Jacques Necker, who became Louis XVI’s Director of Finance, and Suzanne Curchod, the hostess of one of the most popular salons in Paris, Germaine de Staël was always ambitious for great things. As a young woman, she declared, ‘I mean to know everything that anybody knows,’ and so she set about it, displaying a voracious interest in politics and the arts which was encouraged by her easy access to the circles of power. She would sit as a child with intellectuals in her mother’s salon, and aged 20 she married the 37-year-old Swedish ambassador Erik Magnus de Staël Holstein, whose station offered her a privileged position at court.
In the early days of the Revolution, Madame de Staël held a salon in the Rue du Bac, which attracted prominent thinkers and writers such as Talleyrand. After escaping Paris during the Terror, and helping many others to do the same, she began to engage not just with political theory but with politicians themselves. De Staël was notorious in her day for her feud with Napoleon Bonaparte, who initially held some charm as another powerful man for her to win over, but quickly unveiled himself as a pure egotist: ‘for him nothing exists but himself; all other creatures are ciphers’. For his part, Napoleon was repulsed by her garrulousness, her strong opinions and her refusal to exist for his viewing pleasure: in one notable exchange, he leered at her cleavage before commenting that she must have breast-fed her children.
After she encouraged her collaborator and sometime lover Benjamin Constant to speak against the Bonapartist regime, Napoleon had them both banished from Paris, and in 1803 de Staël set up headquarters at the family chateau of Coppet in Switzerland. When not entertaining members of her circle there, her extensive travels inspired a long treatise (On Germany) praising the spirit and emotion of northern European authors, and arguing that France would be richer for incorporating Romantic influences into its literature. Napoleon, taking this as anti-French, ordered the destruction of all 5,000 copies and the lead fonts used to print it.
Madame de Staël yearned for feeling and enthusiasm in intellectual discourse – qualities she regarded as singularly feminine – and saw the Enlightenment’s drive towards order and rationality as having drained the energy from the belles-lettres. Yet, despite celebrating femininity in an intellectual sense, she had no respect for the usual forms of decorum demanded of a woman. A memorable incident that would not look out of place in an American high school movie saw her fall on her face during her presentation at court to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Garrulous, graceless and promiscuous, she publicly threw herself at men who did not invite her affection and, although she had four children during her marriage to the Swedish ambassador, it was rumoured that none was by him. Byron wrote that she ‘would have made a great man’.
Her literary output was prodigious: as well as novels Delphine and Corinne, or Italy she wrote plays, Sophie and Jeanne Grey – all featuring richly painted female protagonists. Corinne’s eponymous heroine, a performer, was a woman of genius and rare emotional life; hardly surprising, therefore, that many women in the arts read themselves into her story. Felicia Hemans scrawled ‘c’est moi’ in her copy next to the segment describing Corinne’s death, while fellow English poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon based her own writing persona on Corinne and created a long poem out of the novel. At the time, Corinne outsold all of Walter Scott’s works, and has never since been out of print.
Madame de Staël died in 1817, still with her fingers in pies across Europe: even after the stroke that confined her to bed, she had persuaded her friend the Duke of Wellington, who was now in charge of the armies of occupation, to move Allied troops out of France. Although her conversational skills and her propagation of the cult of sentimentalism marked her out as a child of the eighteenth century, Madame de Staël’s ideas took France – and indeed the rest of Europe – well into the nineteenth. She revelled in her inability to divorce feeling from philosophy, and her work on the interplay between nations and cultures bridged the gap between Enlightenment cosmopolitanism and Romantic nationalism. If the fictional Marianne was the symbol of French republicanism, Liberty and Reason in 1792, the very real Madame de Staël was her jaded successor: an advocate of constitutional monarchy and a disciple of Feeling, with her breast bared in passion rather than in war.