Feminine intellectual who baited Bonaparte

Madame de Staël
December 2, 2005

Germaine de Staël was one of the most brilliant intellectuals of her time. She was the only daughter of one of the most eminent (and one of the wealthiest) political figures of pre-revolutionary France, Jacques Necker, and she inherited his estate on the shores of Lake Geneva. She was a European celebrity whose political and literary works were read across the Continent and whose presence was feted by elites wherever she went - notably in Germany, Russia and Britain.

And yet, as Maria Fairweather's sensitive and erudite biography shows, her life was constantly fraught with torment. Her precociousness made for an unhappy childhood and a singularly unhealthy relationship with her parents: an adoration bordering on incestuous love for her father and repeated clashes with a jealous, obsessive and reproving mother. Her looks were, in the delicate expression of Madame de la Tour du Pin, "unfortunate". That they did not match her remarkable intelligence was a constant source of anguish to her, as was her ambition to exercise political influence in a masculine world.

Above all, Madame de Staël was a moderate in an age of extremes, seeking to champion the values of individual liberty, tolerance and humanism at a time when dominant winds were blowing in the opposite direction. Under the Terror, she braved the guillotine to remain in Paris for several months, helping some of her friends escape certain death. Her glittering salon later proved so irksome to Napoleon's autocratic rule that he had her exiled from Paris, and then from France altogether.

This delightful book offers a vivid portrait of France at one of its most turbulent modern periods, the years between 1780 and 1815, which saw the end of the ancien régime , the rise and fall of the Revolutionary order and the emergence and eventual collapse of Napoleon's empire. Through de Sta l's numerous encounters with the philosophical and literary giants of her generation, the book also provides evocative vignettes of Europe's intellectual elite, many of whom became regular members of the discussion group she established at her Swiss residence, the "Coppet circle". Above all, by charting de Staël's passionate and often dramatic relationship with Benjamin Constant, Fairweather presents important insights into the formation of modern French liberal political thought. De Staël's philosophical writings inspired later generations of moderate thinkers, most notably the conservative liberal Doctrinaires. One of the leading figures of this group, Victor de Broglie, married her daughter, Albertine.

Fairweather's sympathy for her heroine is always manifest, and the book draws out de Sta l's numerous qualities: her radiant intelligence, her warmth, her passion, her generosity, her capacity for forgiveness. Upon hearing that royalists might be on their way to assassinate Napoleon on Elba island in 1814, de Staël offered to travel there immediately to warn the man who had persecuted her for the previous decade. Although not a feminist in the strict sense, her refusal to follow the conventional roles thought appropriate for women - she could not help dominating conversations - caused much irritation and made her many enemies.

She could also be very demanding, as a lover and as a companion. Even her occasional hosts were often left bewildered by her explosive, torrential force and her habit of subjecting her interlocutors to sustained questioning. After she left Weimar in 1804, Schiller wrote to Goethe: "I feel as if I have just recovered from a severe illness."

One of the most fascinating aspects of de Staël's life was the breakdown of her relationship with Napoleon. The rupture was unavoidable: under the Consulate, Bonaparte became suspicious of her independent spirit and her insistence on a political regime that sought to reconcile order with liberty; for her part, she could not tolerate his growing despotism and penchant for war.

Yet Fairweather sometimes loses her analytical poise here. To describe Napoleon as a "provincial southerner with vendetta in his psychology" is not only unhelpfully stereotypical, but also a fundamental error of appreciation. What invariably drove the emperor, notably in the case of de Staël's banishment, was cold calculation and self-interest, not passion.

The error here lies in Fairweather's uncritical adoption of her heroine's perspective; this is also evident when she approvingly quotes de Staël's claim that Napoleon had "perverted republican liberty in France". A good case can be made for the very opposite conclusion, namely that Bonaparte's assumption of supreme power in fact preserved the key principles of the 1789 Revolution.

More broadly, Fairweather's spirited defence of de Staël cannot conceal the fact that her elitist politics were no longer suited to the emerging democratic order of post-revolutionary France. Committed to the enlightened paternalism of a constitutional monarchy, and to the genteel and socially exclusive politics of the salon, she represented a liberal political current that was repeatedly defeated during the 19th century, largely because of its inability to reconcile itself to the principle of popular sovereignty.

And yet, despite all this, it is difficult not to be touched by this extraordinary person and her many contradictions - not just because they symbolised the inner struggles of a profoundly moral being, or because they anticipated the Sturm und Drang of the Romantic Age , but also (and alas) because her fate reminds us how little France has changed in some respects.

When Segolene Royal, one of the rising stars in the French Socialist Party, recently declared that she might consider standing for the next presidential elections, one of her party colleagues remarked: "Good, but who will watch over the children?" Come back, Germaine, all is forgiven.

Sudhir Hazareesingh is fellow and tutor in politics, Balliol College, Oxford.

Madame de Staël

Author - Maria Fairweather
Publisher - Constable and Robinson
Pages - 522
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 84119 816 1

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments