1902 Encyclopedia > Anne Louise Germaine Staël-Holstein (Madame de Staël)

Anne Louise Germaine Staël-Holstein
(known as: Madame de Staël)
French author

MADAME DE STAËL (by her proper name and title ANNE LOUISE GERMAINE NECKER, BARONESS OF STAEL-HOLSTEIN), was born at Paris on April 22, 1766, and died there on July 14, 1817. Her father was the famous financier Necker, her mother Suzanne Curchod, who is almost equally famous as the early love of Gibbon, as the wife of Necker, as the mistress of one of the most popular salons of Paris, and as the mother of Madame de Stael. Between mother and daughter there was, however, little sympathy. Madame Necker, despite her talents, her beauty, and her fondness for philosophe society, was strictly decorous, somewhat reserved, and disposed to carry out in her daughter's case the rigorous discipline of her own childhood. The future Madame de Stael was from her earliest years a romp, a coquette, and passionately desirous of prominence and attention. There seems moreover to have been a sort of rivalry between mother and daughter for the chief place in Necker's affections, and it is not probable that the daughter's love for her mother was increased by the consciousness of her own inferiority in personal charms. Madame Necker, if her portraits as well as verbal descriptions may be trusted, was of a most refined though somewhat lackadaisical style of beauty, while her daughter was a plain child and a plainer woman, whose sole attractions were large and striking eyes and a buxom figure. She was, however, a child of unusual intellectual power, and she began very early to write though not to publish. She is said to have written her father a letter on his famous Compte-Rendu and other matters when she was not fifteen, and to have injured her health by excessive study and intellectual excitement. But in reading all the accounts of Madame de Stael's life which come from herself or her intimate friends it must be carefully remembered that she was the most dis-tinguished and characteristic product of the period of sensibilité—the singular fashion of ultra-sentiment which required that both men and women, but especially women, should be always palpitating with excitement, steeped in melancholy, or dissolved in tears. Still, there is no doubt that her father's dismissal from the ministry, which followed the presentation of the Compte, and the con-sequent removal of the family from the busy life of Paris, were beneficial to her. During part of the next few years they resided at Coppet, her father's estate on the Lake of Geneva, which she herself made famous. But other parts were spent in travelling about, chiefly in the south of France. They returned to Paris, or at least to its neigh-bourhood, in 1785, and Mademoiselle Necker resumed literary work of a miscellaneous kind, including two plays, Sophie and Jane Grey, which were printed sooner or later. It became, however, a question of marrying her. Her want of beauty was compensated by her fortune, for she was the only child of one of the richest bankers in Europe. But her parents are said to have objected to her marrying a Roman Catholic, which, in France, consider-ably limited her choice. There is a legend that William Pitt the younger thought of her ; the somewhat notorious lover of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, Guibert, a cold-hearted coxcomb of some talent, certainly paid her addresses. But she finally married Eric Magnus, Baron of Stael-Holstein, who was first an attaché of the Swedish legation, and then minister. For a great heiress and a very ambitious girl the marriage scarcely seemed brilliant, for Stael had no fortune and no very great personal dis-tinction. A singular series of negotiations, however, secured from the king of Sweden a promise of the ambassadorship for twelve years and a pension in case of its withdrawal, and the marriage took place on January 14, 1786. The husband was thirty-seven, the wife twenty. Madame de Stael was accused of extravagance, and latterly an amicable separation of goods had to be effected between the pair. But this was a mere legal formality, and on the whole the marriage seems to have met the views of both parties, neither of whom had any affection for the other. They had three children; there was no scandal between them; the baron obtained money and the lady obtained, as a guaranteed ambassadress of a foreign power of con-sideration, a much higher position at court and in society than she could have secured by marrying almost any Frenchman, without the inconveniences which might have been expected had she married a Frenchman superior to herself in rank. The particular fancy of Marie Antoinette for Sweden, caused by the fantastic devotion of Count Fersen and the king himself to her, secured moreover a reception which might have been otherwise difficult to gain. Madame de Stael was not a persona grata at court, but she seems to have played the part of ambassadress,' as she played most parts, in a rather noisy and exaggerated manner, but not ill. Then in 1788 she appeared as an author under her own name (Sophie had been already published, but anonymously) with some Lettres sur J. J. Rousseau, a fervid panegyric showing a good deal of talent but no power of criticism. She was at this time, and indeed generally, enthusiastic for a mixture of Rousseauism and constitutionalism in politics, and her father's restoration to power excited extravagant hopes in her, though Necker himself knew better. She exulted more than ever in the meeting of the states-general, and most of all when her father, after being driven to Brussels by a state intrigue, was once more recalled and triumphally escorted into Paris. Every one knows what followed. Her first child, a boy, was born the week before Necker finally left France in unpopularity and disgrace; and the increasing disturbances of the Revolution made her privileges as ambassadress no mere matters of ornamental distinction gratifying to vanity, but very important safeguards. She visited Coppet once or twice, but for the most part in the "Jarly days of the revolutionary period she was in Paris taking an interest and, as she thought, a part in the councils and efforts of the Moderates. At last, the day before the September massacres, she fled, befriended by Manuel and Tallien. Her own account of her escape is, as usual, so florid that it provokes the question whether she was really in any danger. Directly it does not seem that she was; but she had generously strained the privi-leges of the embassy to protect some threatened friends, and this was a serious matter.

She betook herself to Coppet, and there gathered round her a considerable number of friends and fellow-refugees, the beginning of the quasi-court which at inter-vals during the next five-and-twenty years made the place so famous. In 1793, however, she made a visit of some length to England, and established herself at Micklekam in Surrey as the centre of the Moderate Liberal emigrants, —Talleyrand, Narbonne, Jaucourt, Guibert, and others. There was not a little scandal about her relations with Narbonne; and it is very much to be doubted whether this can safely be set down, as her panegyrists usually set it, to the mere spite of the first or royalist emigrants, to whom she and her party were almost more obnoxious than the Jacobins. It is certain that this Mickleham sojourn (the details of which are known from, among other: sources, the letters of Fanny Burney) has never been altogether satisfactorily accounted for. In the summer she returned to Coppet and wrote a pamphlet on the queen's execution. The next year her mother died, and the fall of Bobespierre opened the way back to Paris, M. de Stael (whose mission had been in abeyance and himself in Holland for three years) was accredited to the French republic by the regent of Sweden ; his wife reopened her salon and for a time was conspicuous in the motley and eccentric society of the Directory. She also published several small works, the chief being an essay De l'Influence des Passions (1796), and another De la Littérature Considérée dans _ses Rapports avec les Institutions Sociales (1800). It was during these years that Madame de Stael was of chief political importance. Narbonne's place had been supplied by Benjamin Constant, who had a very great influence over her, as in return she had over him. During the Directory she had some real and more imaginary power as a politician, and both personal and political reasons threw her into opposition to Bonaparte. Her own preference for a moderate republic or a constitutional mon-archy was quite sincere, and, even if it had not been so, her own character and Napoleon's were too much alike in some points to admit of their getting on together. For some years, however, she was able to alternate between Coppet and Paris without difficulty, though not without knowing that the First Consul disliked her. In 1797 she, as above mentioned, separated formally from her husband. In 1799 he was recalled by the king of Sweden, and in 1802 he died duly attended by her. Besides the eldest son Auguste Louis, they had two other children,—a son Albert, and a daughter Albertine, who afterwards became the Duchesse de Broglie.

The exact date of the beginning of what Madame de Stael's admirers call her duel with Napoleon is not easy to determine. Judging from the title of her book Dix Années d'Exil, it should be put at 1804; judging from the time at which it became pretty clear that the first man in France and she who wished to be the first woman in France were not likely to get on together, it might be put several years earlier. The whole question of this duel, however (marked as it was by Napoleon's unscrupulous exercises of power, which reached a climax in the suppression of the De l'Allemagne after it had been carefully submitted to his censorship), requires consideration from the point of view of common sense. It dis-pleased Napoleon no doubt that Madame de Stael should show herself recalcitrant to his influence. But it prob-ably pleased Madame de Stael to quite an equal degree that Napoleon should apparently put forth his power to crush her and fail. Both personages had the curious touch of charlatanerie so common in the late 18th century, and "made believe" in a fashion bewildering and a little incredible to posterity. If Madame de Stael had really desired to take up her parable against Napoleon seriously, she need only have established herself in England at the peace of Amiens and have lived quietly there. She did nothing of the kind. She lingered on at Coppet, constantly hankering after Paris, and acknowledging the hankering quite honestly. In 1802 she published the first of her really noteworthy books, the novel of Delphine, in which the " femme incomprise " was in a manner introduced to French literature, and in which she herself and not a few of her intimates appeared in transparent disguise. In the autumn of 1803 she returned to Paris. Whether, if she had not displayed such extraordinary anxiety not to be exiled, Napoleon would have exiled her remains a question ; but, as she began at once appealing to all sorts of persons to protect her, he seems to have thought it better that she should not be protected. She was directed not to reside within forty leagues of Paris, and after considerable delay she determined to go to Germany. She journeyed by Metz and Frankfort to Weimar, and arrived there in December. There she stayed during the winter, and then went to Berlin, where she made the acquaintance of August Wilhelm Schlegel, who afterwards became one of her intimates at Coppet. Thence she travelled to Vienna, where, in April, the news of her father's dangerous illness and shortly of his death (April 8) reached her. She returned to Coppet, and found herself its wealthy and independent mistress, but her sorrow for her father was deep and certainly sincere. She spent the summer at the chateau with a brilliant company; in the autumn she journeyed to Italy accompanied by Schlegel and Sismondi, and there gathered the materials of her most famous work, Corinne. She returned in the summer of 1805, and spent nearly a year in writing Corinne; in 1806 she broke the decree of exile and lived for a time undisturbed near Paris. In 1807 Corinne, the first aesthetic romance not written in German, appeared. It is in fact, what it was described as being at the time of its appearance, " a picturesque tour couched in the form of a novel." The publication was taken as a reminder of her existence, and the police of the empire sent her back to Coppet. She stayed there as usual for the summer, and then set out once more for Germany, visiting Mainz, Frankfort, Berlin, and Vienna. She was again at Coppet in the summer of 1808, and set to work at her book De I'Allemagne. It took her nearly the whole of the next two years, during which she did not travel much or far from her own house. She had bought property in America and thought of moving thither, but chance or fatality made her determine to publish De l'Allemagne in Paris. The submission to censorship which this entailed was sufficiently inconsistent, and she wrote to the emperor one of the unfortunate letters, at once undignified and provoking, of which she had the secret. A man less tyrannical or less mean-spirited than Napoleon would of course have let her alone, but Napoleon was Napoleon, and she perfectly well knew him. The reply to her letter was the condemnation of the whole edition of her book (ten thousand copies) as " not French," and her own exile, not as before to a certain distance from Paris, but from France altogether. The act was unquestionably one of odious tyranny, but it is impossible not to ask why she had put herself within reach of it when her fortune enabled her to reside any-where and to publish what she pleased. She retired once more to Coppet, where she was not at first interfered with, and she found consolation in a young officer of Swiss origin named Rocca, twenty-three years her junior, whom she married privately in 1811. The intimacy of their relations could escape no one at Coppet, but the fact of the marriage was not certainly known till after her death.

The operations of the imperial police in regard to Madame de Stael are rather obscure. She was at first left undisturbed, but by degrees the chateau itself became taboo, and her visitors found themselves punished heavily. Mathieu de Montmorency and Madame Becamier were exiled for the crime of seeing her; and she at last began to think of doing what she ought to have done years before and withdrawing herself entirely from Napoleon's sphere. In the complete subjection of the Continent which preceded the Russian War this was not so easy as it would have been earlier, and she remained at home during the winter of 1811, writing and planning. On May 23 she left Coppet almost secretly, and journeyed by Bern, Innsbruck, and Salzburg to Vienna. There she obtained an Austrian passport to the frontier, and after some fears and trouble, receiving a Bussian passport in Galicia, she at last escaped from the dungeon of Napoleonic Europe, swearing never to return thither. It seemed likely that the proclamation of war between France and Russia, on June 22, would help her to keep the vow.

She journeyed slowly though Russia and Finland to Sweden, making some stay at St Petersburg, spent the winter in Stockholm, and then set out for England. Here she received a brilliant reception and was much lionized during the season of 1813. She published De l'Allemagne (a book much more really remarkable than Corinne) in the autumn, was saddened by the death of her second son Albert, who had entered the Swedish army and fell in a duel brought on by gambling, undertook her Considérations sur la Révolution Française, and when Louis XVIII. had been restored returned to Paris. Both in the summer and in the winter of 1814 she visited Coppet, and was meanwhile a prominent figure in Parisian society. She was in Paris when the news of Napoleon's landing arrived and at once fled to Coppet, but a singular story, much discussed, is current of her having approved Napoleon's return. There is no direct evidence of it, but the conduct of her close ally Constant may be quoted in its support, and it is certain that she had no affection for the Bourbons. In October, after Waterloo, she set out for Italy, not only for the advantage of her own health but for that of her second husband, Rocca, who was dying of consumption. Her daughter married Duke Victor de Broglie on February 20, 1816, at Pisa, and became the wife and mother of French statesmen of distinction. The whole family returned to Coppet in June, and Byron now frequently visited Madame de Stael there. He had quizzed her a good deal in London, but liked her better in her own house, though even there he noticed her constant straining to be something different from herself. Despite her increasing ill-health she returned to Paris for the winter of 1816-17, and her salon was much frequented. But in March she is spoken of as "dying," and she had already become confined to her room, if not to her bed. She died on the 14th of July, and Rocca survived her little more than six months. Nor was her eldest son long-lived. After editing a collected edition of his mother's works he died at the age of thirty-seven in 1827.

Madame de Stael occupies a singular position in French liter-ature. The men of her own time exalted her to the skies, and the most extravagant estimates of her (as " the greatest woman in literary history," as the "foundress of the romantic movement," as representing "ideas," while her contemporary Chateaubriand only represented words, colours, and images, and so forth) are to be found in those histories of literature which faithfully repeat second-hand and traditional opinions. On the other hand, it is acknowledged that she is now very little read. Sainte-Beuve, who professes a "culte" for her, and who has treated her at great length and with much indulgence; M. Scherer, a compatriot and co-religionist, who is strongly prejudiced in her favour; Doudan, a kind of literary retainer of her connexions,—all allow this, and anyone who speaks with an intimate knowledge of current French literature must agree that since they spoke neglect of her has increased. No writer of such eminence is so rarely quoted ; none is so entirely destitute of that tribute of new and splendid editions which France pays to her favourite classics more lavishly than any other nation; none is so seldom the subject of a literary causerie. The abundant documents in the hands of her descendants, the families of Broglie and Haussonville, have indeed furnished material for papers recently, but these are almost wholly on the social aspect of Madame de Stael, not on her literary merit. Nor when the life and works come to be examined independently is the neglect seen to be without excuse. An ugly coquette, an old woman who made a ridiculous marriage, a blue-stocking who spent much of her time in pestering men of genius, and drawing from them sarcastic comment behind her back,—these things are not attractive. Her books are seen to be in iarge part merely clever reflexions of other people's views, or views current at the time, and the famous "ideas" turn out to be chiefly the ideas of the books or the men with whom she was from time to time in contact. The sentimentality of her sentiment and the florid magniloquence of her style equally disgust the reader; and, when it is suggested to him that the revolution of taste and manners hurts novels more than anything else, he is tempted to reply that it has not hurt Don Quixote, or Gil Bias, or Robinson Crusoe, or Tom Jones, or Manon Lescaut,or The Antiquary, and that if it has hurt Corinne it is simply because these are great books and Corinne is not a great book. There is truth in this, but to state it alone would be in the highest degree unfair. Madame de Stael's faults are great; her style is of an age not for all time; her ideas are mostly second-hand and frequently superficial. But nothing save a very great talent could have shown itself so receptive. Take away her assiduous frequentation of society, from the later philosophe coteries to the age of Byron,—take away the influence of Constant and Schlegel and her other literary friends,—and probably little of her will remain. But to have caught from all sides in this manner the floating notions of society and of individuals, to reflect them with such vigour and clearness, to combine them with such not inconsiderable skill into connected books, is not anybody's task. Her two best books, Corinne and De l'Allemagne, are in all probability almost wholly unoriginal, a little sentiment in the first and a little constitutionalism in the second being all that she can claim. But Corinne is still a very remarkable exposition of a certain kind of sestheticism, and De l'Allemagne is still perhaps the most remarkable account of one country by a native and inhabitant of another which exists in literature. This praise, and it is very high praise, can be given to Madame de Stael. But the merits which it allows are not merits of the class which secure readers for ever. Neither in style nor in thought was she of the first class or perhaps of the second ; and besides thought and style nothing will save books.

Baron Auguste de Stael edited, as has been said, the complete works of his mother in seventeen volumes (Paris, 1820-1), and the edition was afterwards republished in a compacter form, and, supplemented by some Oeuvres Inédites, is still obtainable in 3 vols, large 8vo (Didot). The Considérations and the Dix Années d'Exil had been published after Madame de Stael's death. There is no recent reissue of the whole, and the minor works have not been reprinted, but Corinne, Delphine, and De l'Allemagne are easily accessible in cheap and separate forms. Of recent works on Madame de Stael, or rather on Coppet and its society, those of MM. Caro and Othenin d'Haussonville may he mentioned. In English there is an elaborate biography by A. Stevens (London, 1880), full of information, but unluckily not at all critical. (G. SA.)

The above article was written by: Goerge Saintsbury, M.A., author of Short History of French Literature.

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