This long pursuit, p.14
This Long Pursuit, p.14Richard Holmes
Madame de Staël
She was the only daughter of a Swiss banker, and one of the richest and cleverest young women of her generation in Europe. She wrote, among much else, one celebrated novel – Corinne, or Italy (1807) – which invented a new heroine for her times, outsold even the works of Walter Scott, and has never been out of print since. She personally saved at least a dozen people from the French Revolutionary guillotine. She reinvented Parisian millinery with her astonishing multi-coloured turbans. She dramatically dismissed Jane Austen as ‘vulgaire’. She snubbed Napoleon at a reception. She inspired Byron’s famous chauvinist couplet, ‘Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart/’Tis woman’s whole existence.’ And she once completely out-talked Coleridge at a soirée in Mayfair. For these things alone she should be remembered.
Though married to the handsome Swedish ambassador (or possibly because she was so married) she took numerous lovers, and had four children, the most brilliant of whom – a girl, Albertine – was certainly illegitimate. She had a running and highly personal vendetta with Bonaparte, who hated bluestockings and once leaned over and remarked leeringly on her plunging cleavage: ‘No doubt, Madame, you breast-fed your children.’ He followed this up by censoring her books for being anti-French, actually pulping one of them in mid-printing (On Germany), and exiling her from France on at least three separate occasions between 1803 and 1812.
Yet her lifelong opposition to the Napoleonic tyranny remained undaunted, and conceived in the largest terms. Towards the end of her last exile, in November 1812, she wrote from Russia to Thomas Jefferson in New York, begging for American intervention with a plea that echoes to this day: ‘You will tell me that America has nothing to do with the European continent, but has it nothing to do with the human race? Can you be indifferent to the cause of free nations, you, the most republican of all?’
Despite these alarums and excursions, for twenty years she turned her beautiful château at Coppet, on the banks of Lake Léman, into an intellectual powerhouse and an asylum for displaced writers and thinkers, the equivalent of Voltaire’s Ferney. Then she died at the early age of fifty-one, having just married her second husband, an astonishingly handsome Hussar officer, young enough to be her son, whose love she described poignantly as ‘nothing but a little Scottish melody in my life’.
Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (née Necker) was altogether quite a girl. She was also quite a difficult one. Now known to history succinctly as Madame de Staël (1766–1817) – a name pronounced ‘style’, and a life containing a superabundance of that glamorous quality – she presents a formidable problem to any biographer trying to get, and keep, her life in any sort of order or perspective.
Her lovers found the same thing: ‘I have never known a woman who was more continuously exacting … Everybody’s entire existence, every hour, every minute, for years on end, must be at her disposition, or else there is an explosion like all thunderstorms and earthquakes put together.’ That from novelist, diarist and political writer Benjamin Constant (the father of de Staël’s daughter Albertine), who managed – unlike any other man in her life – to live with her for over a decade.
The term mouvementée seems perfectly designed for Madame de Staël. She led her whole existence, at least after her ultra-fashionable nervous breakdown in Paris aged twelve (she said she was in love with her father), in a turbulent, restless, hyperactive fashion that was exhausting simply to witness. When she visited England at the age of twenty-six – the first of her many exiles – she stayed at Juniper Hall deep in rural Surrey, and completely wore out her kindly provincial hosts by her ceaseless article-writing, endless coffee-drinking, and unstoppable high-volume late-night talk. A stunned young English country doctor noted:
This Staël is a genius, an extraordinary eccentric woman in everything she says or does. She sleeps only a few hours, and for the rest of the time she is uninterruptedly and fearfully busy … While her hair is being done, while she breakfasts, in fact for a third of the day, she just writes … and has not sufficient time even to look over what she has written …
He was too polite to mention her inconvenient and inexplicable timetable of surreptitious lovers arriving unannounced from the Continent. Nor her peculiar Parisian version of salon fox-hunting: the pursuit of her great friend and rival, the highly respectable novelist Fanny Burney, who was trying to live peacefully nearby.
Though this was the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, de Staël managed to visit (and write about) most of the states of Europe – France, England, Italy, Germany, Poland and Russia. She only just missed a much-planned visit to the fledgling United States, where she had wisely invested much of her inherited millions. Her arrival in Moscow, incidentally, anticipated – by a satisfactory few days – Napoleon’s arrival with his Grande Armée in 1812. Hers was considerably more of a social success.
Her network of friendships embraced (often the mot juste) an amazing roll-call of political and literary celebrities, among whom were Talleyrand, Gibbon, Fanny Burney, Marie Antoinette, Constant, Goethe, Schiller, Byron, A.W. Schlegel, Sismondi, Châteaubriand, Juliette Récamier, and even (on her deathbed) the Duke of Wellington. But this was far more than the traditional salon network of the ancien 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. Much of it depended on her astonishingly fluent letters, scrawled at immense speed and formidable length, allegro con amore. Eleven volumes of her Correspondence Générale I788–1809 have been published (Paris, 1962–93). Alas! she also exhausted her faithful modern editor Béatrice Jasinski, who died with at least eight years of letters to go.
There are many ways to attempt to make sense of de Staël’s colourful, courageous, and frequently outrageous story. It clearly has many possible dimensions: literary, political, feminist, erotic, sartorial – and even spiritual. One of her most moving works, dated 1811 and now little read, is her Reflections on Suicide, which opens with this heart-stopping sentence, like a sigh: ‘C’est pour les malheureux qu’il faut écrire …’ It was perhaps her answer to the British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who twice tried to kill herself.
Indeed, de Staël’s own life, for all its social and moneyed privilege, all its Romantic razzamatazz, has deep tragic elements of frustration and brooding loss. Much of this is prophesied in her novel Delphine (1802), whose heroine does indeed commit suicide. Far too long to appeal to modern readers, it nevertheless contains many haunting self-contained fragments, such as the five-page tale subtitled ‘The Reasons why Leontine de Ternan decided to become a Nun’. This opens: ‘I was once a very beautiful woman, and I am now fifty years old. These two absolutely ordinary facts have been the cause of everything I have ever felt in my life.’
One could do worse than begin with her most extrovert and flamboyant style signature – her famous turban. Madame de Staël adopted it as her brand mark, instantly recognisable in a crowd or in a picture. Created out of vividly coloured silks, often topped with declamatory ostrich or peacock feathers, it created both sensation and ridicule wherever she went. When she visited Germany, for example, the young poet Heinrich Heine gazed at her in amazement:
She had an enormous turban on her head, and now wanted to present herself as the Sultana of Thought … She asked our intellectuals, ‘How old are you? What have you written? Are you a Kantian or a Fichtean?’ and suchlike things, hardly waiting for an answer.
As Mary Wollstonecraft herself once said during her own Scandinavian travels: she shocked them because she asked ‘men’s questions’.
The turban features significantly in Madame de Staël’s masterpiece, Corinne. It appears in a picture she finds at the Palazzo Borghese in Rome: the beautiful, passionate southern Cumaean Sibyl painted by Domenichino (circa 1620), with whom she immediately identifies. The Sibyl – intens
The turban may also be playful, seductive and teasing. De Staël’s beloved father, the banker Jacques Necker, invented a thrilling and consciously naughty childhood game with his daughter, which ‘Minette’ (his pet name for her) never forgot. It involved chasing each other round and round the dining table at Coppet, with shrieks of excitement ‘like red Indians’. For this they always wore heavy starched napkins twisted around their heads – like turbans. It was a noisy, provoking game between father and daughter that Madame Necker (like Napoleon) was always trying to ban.
De Staël often and openly said that she had always been in love with her father, and if he had been younger, would have married him. Her most intimate and perhaps most revealing book is the brief, passionate study published at the end of her life (now long out of print), On the Character of Monsieur Necker and his Private Life. ‘Sometimes it was a cruel situation to be in,’ she wrote, ‘loving so much a man older than yourself … breaking your soul against this barrier …’
At the height of her fame, in 1814, the French memoir writer Madame de Chastenay summed up de Staël’s life in a single epigram. There were, she wrote, three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe: ‘England, Russia, and Madame de Staël’. A generation later Sainte-Beuve also praised her as ‘a great Athenian orator’ on behalf of freedom, but chose to emphasise the inward-looking poetic intensity of her circle at Coppet. In a mischievous phrase, he described her as self-entranced by ‘la raquette magique du discours’. La raquette was actually a form of shuttlecock and battledore, but the phrase might be best rendered as ‘the magic ping-pong of their endless talk’.
These two interpretations – the historical and the psychological – were cunningly reconciled some hundred years later by the Czech-American scholar J. Christopher Herold, who steered carefully between them to produce his fine study Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Staël. It rightly won the National Book Award in 1958, and now reads like a classic, immensely scholarly in its detailing but quite unstuffy in manner, with a wonderful touch of flamboyance. Herold found the trick of somehow elevating de Staël in the very act of dethroning her: ‘Thus Germaine ruled over Coppet, like Venus over the damned souls in the Venusberg, like Calypso over shipwrecked travellers, like Circe over her menagerie.’
After that, increasing biographical interest has focused on the exact nature of de Staël’s stormy fifteen-year affair with Benjamin Constant. It began dramatically enough in that ‘chance encounter’ on the road to Coppet, so fatal to Madame de Charrière’s happiness. De Staël was already married and a published author of twenty-eight, with political connections and a roster of lovers. Constant was the gifted but disillusioned son of a Swiss army officer, still in thrall to the formidable but much older Dutch writer. Thus Madame de Charrière was in many ways doomed to be de Staël’s avatar, rather than her rival.
The historian Sismondi declared: ‘You have not known Madame de Staël at all if you have not seen her with Benjamin Constant.’ Yet the correspondence between them is mainly lost or destroyed, and it is therefore impossible to recover the tenor of their conversational raquette (or indeed their sexual game-play). There remains of course Constant’s obsessive diary-writing (the famous Cahier Rouge), and de Staël’s alarming but lifelong habit of recounting her last lover’s failings to her next prospective one. The combination produces a general air of opéra comique, and a curious lack of intimacy. By contrast, de Staël later idealised the affair in her novel Delphine, in which she described it as a ‘union of souls, in perfect amity and companionship’.
Some modern biographers (like Renée Weingarten, 2011) believe de Staël was suffering from bipolar disorder, ‘which made her virtually impossible to live with at Coppet’. In the circumstances, the long-suffering loyalty of the thin, pale, stooping, nail-biting, red-headed Constant has a kind of neurotic male heroism about it. Few among de Staël’s other ‘menagerie’ of faithless and unsuitable lovers endured beyond six months. Nevertheless, the salon at Coppet became a beacon among European intellectuals, first as a centre of resistance against Napoleonic tyranny, and later as a symbol of female independence and political liberalism. Its reputation eventually attracted admirers as diverse as George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe. But it was de Staël’s novel Corinne (1807) that first made Coppet famous.
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. The book also creates a new kind of heroine for the age. In the figure of the self-dramatising, flamboyant poet and improvisatore Corinne, de Staël invented a fictional character who became an international symbol of Romanticism, quite as much as Goethe’s Werther or Byron’s Corsair. Beautiful, imperious, highly strung, she is simultaneously the independent woman artist, the lovelorn female victim of romance, and the hot-blooded irrepressible seductress of the warm South. It has also been suggested that the steamy affair between Corinne and the handsome, melancholy Scot Oswald Lord Nelvil (a name truly redolent of damp tweed) has a specific historical inspiration, being partly based on the notorious romance between Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson in Naples.
Corinne’s histrionic instincts are developed in a lavish series of set-pieces. She gives a devastating public performance of her poetry in Rome; she visits the erupting Vesuvius at night, where the paws of red-hot lava stealthily advance ‘like royal tigers’; and she wanders dreamily through the voluptuous backstreets of Naples. On visiting Verona, she goes to ‘Juliet’s balcony’ (preserved for tourists to this day), where she analyses Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in brilliant dialectical terms that anticipate – or perhaps borrow from – Schlegel’s literary criticism. (Schlegel accompanied de Staël through Italy, having written her a letter of total, slavish, hot-making devotion.) Finally she herself acts out a melodramatic performance as Juliet in front of the enraptured Lord Nelvil. In a memorable dénouement, this reduces him to a swooning wreck of emotions – his ‘moans answered her cries’ – and he has to be helped from the theatre.
The novel’s timely appeal is marked by the large number of young women who began consciously to model themselves on Corinne after 1807, and refer to her in their letters and diaries. Among contemporaries these included Byron’s Italian mistress Teresa Guiccioli; the restless Scottish wife of the scientist Humphry Davy, Jane Apreece; and rather surprisingly the patriotic British poet Felicia Hemans, author of ‘Casabianca’ (‘The boy stood on the burning deck …’). Hemans rapturously exclaimed: ‘some passages seem to give me back my own thoughts and feelings, my whole inner being, with a mirror more true than ever friend could hold up’. She even wrote a heady poem inspired by the Roman scenes in the novel, ‘Corinne at the Capitol’. Later, in America, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the journalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller became known as ‘the Yankee Corinne’, and led a trail of female disciples in her wake.
If de Staël made her literary name with Corinne’s fictional visit to Italy, she secured her intellectual reputation with a strictly non-fiction visit to Germany. The resulting book, plainly entitled On Germany (1811), was deliberately and significantly written in propria persona. It is difficult to think of any other woman of her time who would have risked such an undertaking and such self-exposure. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written from Scandinavia (1796), delightful as it is, hardly bears comparison for scope and ambition. In fact the nearest comparable work, though much more sociological in intent, is probably Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835–40).
De Staël’s greatest intellectual achievement was first banned in France through Napoleon’s good offices, and then tr
Much of her material was gathered by what was, in effect, an early form of journalistic interviewing, a relatively novel technique partly pioneered by James Boswell when he visited Rousseau in 1764. The American traveller George Ticknor gave a memorably funny picture of de Staël working over the philosopher Fichte, and sorting out his entire metaphysical system in less than ‘fifteen minutes or so’. This piece of intellectual ping-pong ends with de Staël delivering a convincing smash: ‘Ah! c’est assez, je comprends parfaitement Monsieur Fichté. Your system is perfectly illustrated by a story in Baron Munchausen’s travels.’
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