Germaine de Staël

The French-Swiss woman of letters and novelist Germaine de Staël [full name Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne de Staël-Holstein, historically referred to as Madame de Staël] (1766-1817) greatly influenced European thought and literature with her enthusiasm for German romanticism.

Germaine de Staël was born Anne Louise Germaine Necker in Paris on April 22, 1766. Her father was Jacques Necker, a man of modest origins, who had risen to become Louis XVI's finance minister. Her mother Suzanne, though stiff and cold, entertained the leading intellectuals and politicians of the day in her famous salon. Staël's natural genius was thus nurtured from her infancy. The child adored her father—to the point of deploring that she was born too late to marry him—and he adored and pampered her. Madame Necker was intensely jealous of their mutual adoration; she and Staël bitterly resented one another. The three were bound together by a complex web of passions and hostilities, and their family life was characterized by emotional frenzy.

When she was 20 years old, Staël made a loveless marriage to the Swedish ambassador to France, Baron Erik Magnus de Staël-Holstein. Though he grew to love her, she lived with him only at strategic intervals when the origin of a child she was carrying might arouse suspicion. Only one of her five children was fathered by him.

Staël did, however, profit from her husband's diplomatic immunity by remaining in Paris during most of the French Revolution. Her salon became a center of political intrigue for those who favored a modern constitutional monarchy and a bicameral legislature. During the Terror she courageously arranged and financed the escape of numerous constitutionalist friends.

Although Staël was not considered a woman of traditional beauty, her brilliance and wit attracted some of the leading intellectuals and political figures of her day. Her love affairs were continuous, intense, and simultaneous. She never ended a love affair, and often as many as five lovers lived with her. She spent much of her life in exile, always surrounded by a small court of French émigrés and admirers. Her first lover was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, and another was August Wilhelm von Schlegel, the German scholar and poet. But it was Benjamin Constant, a French-Swiss writer, who became the passion and torment of her life. They lived together for 12 turbulent years. Constant's novel Adolphe examines their relationship.

In 1797 Staël welcomed Napoleon Bonaparte to Paris as France's deliverer; within a few years she grew to detest him. Napoleon resented both her interference in politics and her unorthodox views. He repeatedly confiscated her manuscripts and banished her from Paris.

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Her Works

Staël's first publication was Lettre sur Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It appeared in 1788, and in it she identified herself with enlightenment and reason. Her book De l'Influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations was issued in 1796. In it she expressed her belief in a system that considered the absolute liberty of the moral being the most essential element in his welfare and his most precious and inalienable right.

In 1800 Staël advanced her "theory of lights" in De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales. In this book she held the belief that there was a constant progression of literature toward the light of perfection. In 1802 she published a novel, Delphine. An immediate success, it related the life of a beautiful and intelligent woman who sought happiness through love. Napoleon was enraged by Delphine because it praised liberalism, divorce, the British, and Protestantism. He declared it immoral, antisocial, and anti-Catholic. Staël was banished from Paris. Making a trip to Germany, she immersed herself in the society and culture of that country.

Continuing her travels into Italy, Staël found inspiration for her second novel there, Corinne ou l'Italie, published in 1807. At once a love story and a guidebook to Italy, this novel's heroine, as in Delphine, was a beautiful and brilliant woman who became a victim of society.

The fruits of Staël's sojourn in Germany appeared in 1810. De l' Allemagne ranked as one of the seminal works of early romantic thought. In it she made a famous distinction between two types of literature: that of the north (Germany, England, and Scandinavia) she found romantic, original, and free; that of the south (France and Italy) she found classical, formal, and conventional. In De l'Allemagne Staël examined the history, culture, and national character of Germany. She encouraged the rise of German consciousness and held it up as a model for France. Her book ended with a plea for enthusiasm and sentiment, which she understood to be the original "fact" of the human soul.

Napoleon was incensed by this call for German nationalism. He labeled the book "anti-French," destroyed the first edition, and exiled Staël to her home, the Château Coppet on Lake Geneva. At Coppet her activities were closely watched, and her mail was intercepted.

Staël's only comfort in despair was a new romance. Her husband had died, and in 1811 she married a 24-year-old Italian lieutenant named Rocca. In 1812 she escaped from Coppet and traveled to Russia, Sweden, and England. In 1814, after the fall of Napoleon, she returned to Paris. The Restoration disappointed her. Opium and insomnia, too many years on the edge of hysteria, and unending "enthusiasm" had all taken their toll. On July 14, 1817, paralyzed from a stroke, Staël died in her sleep.

Literary historians and critics have traditionally characterized Staël's work as providing a transition between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, but recent scholarship has provided new insights into its originality and historical importance. Staël's novels have been reinterpreted as expressions of a uniquely female literary vision. Her work has also been viewed as the struggle of an exceptional intellect to transcend the social and creative constraints imposed on the women of her time.

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Further Reading on Germaine de Staël

See Vivian Folkenflik, An Extraordinary Woman: Selected Writings of Germaine de Staël Columbia University, 1995; Madelyn Gutwirth, Madame de Staël, Novelist: The Emergence of the Artist as Woman Books on Demand, 1994; John Isbell, The Birth of a European Romanticism: Truth and Propaganda in Staël's De L-Allemagne Cambridge University, 1994; Gretchen Besser, Germaine de Staël: Revisited Maxwell Macmillan, 1994; Charlotte Hogsett, The Literary Existence of Germaine de Staël Southern Illinois University, 1987; ed. Madelyn Gutwirth et. al., Germaine de Staël: Crossing the Borders Rutgers, 1991; and ed. Eva Sartori, French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, Greenwood, 1991. Maurice Levaillant's informed and readable The Passionate Exiles: Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier (1956; trans. 1958) gave a broad picture, while J. Christopher Herold, Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Staël (1958) described the author of Corinne with a just mixture of irony and compassion. Also useful were David G. Larg, Madame de Staël: Her Life as Revealed in Her Work 1766-1800 (1924; trans. 1926), a good if pedantic treatment, and Wayne Andrews, Germaine: A Portrait of Madame de Staël (1963).