And here goes, part II…
“At last Narbonne is Minister of War…What a triumph for Mme de Staël, what a pleasure to have all the army at her disposal!” – Marie-Antoinette
My obsession with Germiane de Staël began early in the year, when I discovered Francine du Plessix Gray’s new book, Madame de Stael: The First Modern Woman, on English Muse. Since then, I think I have read the book three times plus anything else I could find online, next came Corinne, or Italy and because I began to feel like I new nothing of French history, I read Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb. You have to love any book that can send you down a rabbit hole like that.
Besides her major contributions to liberal theory, fiction, travel, feminist, and cultural writing; her portrait hangs in the Louvre, and everyone from Talleyrand, Edward Gibbon, Fanny Burney, Marie Antoinette, Benjamin Constant, Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Lord Byron, A.W. Schlegel, Sismondi, Chateaubriand, Juliette Récamier, the Duke of Wellington and anyone who was anyone around the turn of 19th century Paris was bewildered by her, if not called her friend. She personally saved several brilliant figures from execution throughout the Reign of Terror (including a plot to help Louis and Marie-Antoinette escape the Palace.) She was banished from France by Napoleon on at least 3 separate occasions; and of course, held, at le Châteaux de Coppet, one of the most infamous salons in history, “but this was far more than the traditional salon network of the ancient 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.” Yet, before this year, I had never even heard of the name Germaine de Staël [pronounced Style]. I wonder, had I been born in Paris, would Staël be a known name to me, and since I wasn’t, have I completely sensationalized her ghost because of my new found obsession? Would the Parisian version of me be laughing at my uncultured current self? (I think this might be the real reason it has taken me so long to write this post…)
[On the art of discourse] “The feeling of satisfaction that characterizes an animated conversation does not much rely on its subject matter – neither the ideas nor the knowledge that may emerge are the primary interest. Rather, it relies on the sense of …reciprocally and rapidly giving one another pleasure; of speaking just as quickly as one thinks; of spontaneously enjoying oneself; of displaying one’s wit through all of the nuances of accent, gesture, and glance, in order to produce at will a sort of electricity that causes sparks to fly, and that relieves some people of the burden of their excess vivacity and awakens others from a state of painful apathy….”
Anne Louise Germaine Necker (1766 – 1817) was born on April 22, 1766 in Paris, France and was the daughter of two noteworthy but polarizing people. Her father was the prominent Swiss statesman Jacques Necker, who was the Director of Finance under King Louis XVI of France, (and whose financial reform and personal loans played a large part in late 18th century French history) and her mother was Suzanne Curchod, known first as the early love of Edward Gibbon to whom, she wasn’t suited to marry him because of her poor place in society. Ironically, as the wife of Necker, she became the mistress of one of the most popular salons of Paris. Mme Necker, despite her beauty, talents, and place in society, was cold, reserved and tyrannical with Germaine’s studious upbringing. This caused Germaine to have a breakdown of epic proportion at the age of 12 (they moved out of Paris to the countryside), and for her to have an obsession with her father, whom should would later proclaim being in love with.
When I as a child, my father used to tell people that I “was born 40.” Partially because I was the most responsible one in the household, but mostly because I was able to converse with adults at a very young age. ”It has to be seen how Mlle Necker listens! Her eyes followed the movements of those who were speaking and seemed to anticipate their thoughts.” I think that this was my instant connection to Staël.
As Germaine grew older, she was quickly married to Swedish nobleman, Eric Magnus de Staël Holstein, whom she said, “is sterile and inert. He will not make me unhappy for the simple reason that cannot contribute to my happiness.” Her marriage never kept her from finding romance through arduous and somewhat public affairs. She also had several different children, by at least three different men. Her affairs, however were much less fascinating than her general ability to seduce most people she encountered.
“Her tactics of seduction were far more complex than those of flattery and might be summoned in the following manner: Once she had discovered a vulnerable area in a man’s sensibility—a particular field of interest, say, or a cherished avocation—she played to it with such adroitness that her victim was beguiled into sensing she might be the greatest confidante, the greatest muse he could ever find. And since her choice invariably fell upon men of great sensitivity, their sensuality was stimulated to a pitch that mere physical attractiveness never could have incited. In sum, like many a seductive belle laide, she had a genius for sensing what any one man needed to hear for convincing him that he could not live without her, and for generally making him feel great.” p34
And it wasn’t just men who loved her…
“She is an astonishing woman. The feelings to which she gives rise are different from those which any other woman can inspire. Such words as sweetness, gracefulness, modesty, desire to please, deportment, manners, cannot be used when speaking of her; but one is carried away, subjugated by the force of her genius. It follows a new path; it is a fire that lights you up, that sometimes blinds you, but cannot leave you cold and indifferent…It is astonishing to find in this singular woman a kind of childlike good humor which saves her from appearing in the least pedantic.” p56
Of all of the different topics that Madame de Staël wrote about, my favorite (and Francine du Plessix Gray dedicated a section to it) is enthusiasm. In general, I think that I have always been an enthusiastic person, but especially as of late, I have been trying to eradicate things in my life that I can’t garner this emotion for. Because if you can’t get enthused about something, then really, what is the point?
Enthusiasm is also the ultimate defense against frivolity, and the most lasting of passions: “If enthusiasm does not defend our heart and spirit, they are overtaken by that denigration of beauty which blends insolence and gaiety.” Enthusiasm is the emotion that offers us the greatest happiness, the only one that offers it to us, the only one able to sustain human destiny in whatever situation destiny places us.
Perhaps the most succinct summation of Madame de Staël came from Madame de Chastenay in 1814, at the height of Germain’s fame, “There were three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe: England, Russia, and Madame de Staël.” Germaine’s inability to not speak her mind, curiosity and exploration of other cultures, and insatiable desire to please Napoleon (the one man she could never seduce, in any way, shape or form) ironically caused her to be exiled from France on at least three different occasions, for varying degrees of time. Despite Napoleon’s grip on France, she was always able to weasel her way back in, but during the long periods of exile she was so distraught being torn from Paris, her first love, that each time she came back weaker. It’s astonishing that she managed to get through life without being executed…
“Why did Bonaparte not persecute Germaine even more brutally than he did, seeing the antipathy she expressed to him in her writings from 1800 on? It is because he was greatly beholden to certain individuals and ideological groups within Germaine, the champion networker, had powerful friends and protectors. They included his own two brothers, most of his marshals, his foreign ministry, Talleyrand, influential bankers and industrialists, her brother-in-law, his principle military leaders and above all, minister of police, Joseph Fouchè.“
Not surprisingly, it was during these exiles that she wrote two of her most successful works: the fiction, Corinne, or Italy and the three volume, nonfiction, On Germany. 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. Madame de Staël created a fictional character who became an international symbol of Romanticism…and certainly a huge number of young women consciously modeled themselves on Corinne after 1807.* Both of which, of course, were banned in France by Napoleon.
Lastly, and certainly not her greatest accomplishment, I always have to love and admire a woman who makes a bold fashion statement, and Madame de Staël did such with her notorious turbans. She was rarely seen public without the Asiatic headpiece, having adopted it as her brand mark, which made her 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.* :)
Quotes that I <3
“Love is the whole history of a woman’s life, it is an episode in a man’s.”
“We cease loving ourselves if no one loves us.”
“Sow good services: sweet remembrances will grow from them.”
“Search for the truth is the noblest occupation of man; its publication is a duty.”
“Men do not change; they unmask themselves.”
“Frivolity, under whatever form it appears, deprives attention of its power, thought of its originality, and sentiment of its depth.”
“Genius is essentially creative; it bears the stamp of the individual who possesses it.”
“Love is the emblem of eternity; it confounds all notion of time; effaces all memory of a beginning, all fear of an end…”
“A religious life is a struggle and not a hymn.”
“To be totally understanding makes one very indulgent.”
“Innocence in genius, and candor in power, are both noble qualities.”
“Wit lies in recognizing the resemblance among things which differ and the difference between things which are alike.”
“The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it.”
“The sense of this word among the Greeks affords the noblest definition of it; enthusiasm signifies God in us.”
It’s hard to put my finger on the exact reason that I am so drawn to Madame de Staël because there is so much to take in. I can easily attest that her ghost has seduced me. I cannot believe that I have been to Switzerland twice this year and didn’t think to travel to Coppet!! Sigh, next time.
Thank you Francine du Plessix Gray, for introducing me to such a wonderful world; you can buy a copy of her book here.
Let’s move to Paris, shall we?
(This is the second in a series of posts on woman that I love and think deserve more attention. You can read the first part, on Rebecca West, here.)
*From a fabulous New York Book Review, The Great de Stael.