This long pursuit, p.15
This Long Pursuit, p.15Richard Holmes
But de Staël was also an excellent, atmospheric travel writer, who could seize the ‘spirit of place’ from a single moment. Here is one brief but brilliantly evocative passage:
I had stopped at an inn, in a small town, where I heard the piano being played beautifully in a room which was full of steam from woollen clothes drying on an iron stove. That seems to be true of everything here: there is poetry in their soul but no elegance of form.
One way of assessing Madame de Staël is by placing her alongside Lord Byron. They first met in London in 1813, and then again at Coppet in 1816. Byron’s first impressions were of de Staël’s absurd combination of the formidable, the hysterical and the voluble: ‘She writes octavos, and talks folios.’ Her appearance (by now somewhat stout and rouged) was ‘frightful as a precipice’. But to his publisher Murray he wrote: ‘I have read all of her books and like all of them – and delight in the last [On Germany].’ He added: ‘I do not love Madame de Staël but depend upon it – she beats all your natives hollow as an Authoress – in my opinion – and I would not say this if I could help it.’
By the time he was invited to Coppet in July–August 1816, Byron had gone through the mill himself: married, separated, and driven by scandal into exile. Accordingly he found de Staël more engaging and far more sympathetic – she ‘ventured to protect me when all London was crying out against me’. De Staël had suffered similarly from the publication of Constant’s revelatory novel Adolphe (1816), which treacherously projected her as a dark, stormy dominatrix. By the time Byron left Coppet, de Staël had become ‘the best creature in the world’. Later he placed her in the highest literary company, in a clumsy yet oddly touching ‘Sonnet to Lake Leman’, written a year before de Staël’s death. In it he proclaims that four great names would be forever associated with Geneva’s lake and shoreline. He nostalgically recalls his own boating over the lake’s ‘crystal sea’ (with Shelley), the ‘wild glow’ of past events, and the sense that de Staël at least will be one of the ‘heirs of immortality’.
Rousseau – Voltaire – our Gibbon – and de Staël –
Leman! These names are worthy of thy shore,
Thy shore of names like these! wert thou no more,
Their memory thy remembrance would recall …
How much more, Lake of Beauty! do we feel,
In sweetly gliding o’er thy crystal sea,
The wild glow of that not ungentle zeal,
Which of the heirs of immortality
Is proud, and makes the breath of glory real!
But did her ‘breath of glory’ really endure? Why isn’t Madame de Staël better remembered today? Immediately after her death, Byron again called her ‘the first female writer of this, or perhaps any age’. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published an obituary in December 1818 that stated:
The sciences have always owed their origin to some great spirit. [Adam] Smith created political economy; Linnaeus, botany; Lavoisier, chemistry; and Madame de Staël has, in like manner, created the art of analysing the spirit of nations and the springs which move them.
The great French nineteenth-century Biographie Universelle called her ‘le Voltaire féminin’. Given the comparative obscurity of de Staël’s current reputation (despite even the turbans), these surprising judgements merit further explanation.
It is clear that de Staël’s immediate personal impact on those around her was formidable and lasting, if not necessarily favourable, and she was long remembered as a female life-force by her immediate contemporaries. Both Corinne and On Germany were regarded as historic landmarks. Yet there were no immediate biographies, no collection of letters, no vivid or scandalous memoirs. Perhaps this was simply because she was a woman; but perhaps also because her whole story became modulated and eventually absorbed by that of Benjamin Constant.
Her longer-term literary influence, its waxing and waning, remains mysterious. What about, for example, the influence of Corinne on Mary Shelley’s novels, or on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, or on British woman travel writers, or (for that matter) on American country and western singers? A classic version of the early blues song ‘Corinna, Corinna’ was recorded by Robert Johnson in 1937, and later by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton, among many others. Equally, no one raises the uneasy question of why On Germany has long fallen out of fashion.
For all that, a new crop of lively biographical studies (Weingarten, Francine du Plessix Gray, Angelica Gooden) might suggest that Madame de Staël’s time is gradually coming around again. What they do magnificently confirm is that she was a truly extraordinary woman who courageously created a new role in society, one even larger than that of her irrepressible heroine Corinne. This role was that of the independent, freelance, female intellectual in Europe.
Around her crowd the shades of a noble company: Zélide, Madame du Châtelet, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madame Lavoisier, Sophie Germain, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir (who also adopted the turban). Her biography is slowly becoming part of a broader, more generous social history.
Even so, it is sad to think we may never quite greet Madame de Staël with the intense ‘enthusiasm’ she always championed, and once aroused. ‘Immense crowds gathered to see her … The first ladies of the kingdom stood on their chairs to catch a glimpse of that dark and brilliant physiognomy.’ Or dance with her around the dinner table, wearing napkins on our heads.
It is often said that William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman of 1798 destroyed Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation for over a hundred years. If that is true, it must count as one of the most dramatic, as well as the most damaging, works of biography ever published.
At the time of her death in London on 10 September 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft was certainly well-known and widely admired as an educational writer and champion of women’s rights. She was renowned not only in Britain, but also in France, Germany and Scandinavia (where her books had been translated), and in newly independent America. Although only thirty-eight years old, she was already one of the literary celebrities of her generation.
The Gentleman’s Magazine, a solid, large-circulation journal of record with a conservative political outlook, printed the following obituary in October 1797, with an admiring – if guarded – summary of her career and an unreservedly favourable estimate of her character:
In childbed, Mrs Godwin, wife of Mr. William Godwin of Somers-town; a woman of uncommon talents and considerable knowledge, and well-known throughout Europe by her literary works, under her original name of Wollstonecraft, and particularly by her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, octavo.
Her first publication was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787 … her second, The Rights of Man, 1791, against Mr. Burke on the French Revolution, of the rise and progress of which she gave an Historical and Moral View, in 1794 … her third, Elements of Morality for the Use of Children, translated from the German, 1791 … her fourth, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792 … her fifth, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, 1796.
Her manners were gentle, easy and elegant; her conversation intelligent and amusing, without the least trait of literary pride; or the apparent consciousness of powers above the level of her sex; and for soundness of understanding, and sensibility of heart, she was perhaps, never equalled. Her practical skill in education was even superior to her speculations upon that subject; nor is it possible to express the misfortune sustained, in that respect, by her children. This tribute we readily pay to her character, however adverse we may be to the system she supported in politicks and morals, both by her writing and practice.
Many other favourable articles appeared, such as her friend Mary Hays’s combative obituary in the Monthly Magazine, which lauded her ‘ardent, in
William Godwin, her husband, was devastated. They had been lovers for little over a year, and married for only six months. At forty-one he also was a literary celebrity, but of a different kind from Mary. A shy, modest and intensely intellectual man, he was known paradoxically as a firebrand philosopher, the dangerous radical author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and the political thriller-novel Caleb Williams (1794). His views were even more revolutionary than hers. He proposed republican, atheist and anarchist ideas, attacking many established institutions, such as private property, the Church, the monarchy and (ironically) marriage itself – ‘that most odious of monopolies’. Indeed he was notorious for his defence of ‘free love’, and their marriage in March 1797 had been the cause of much mirth in the press. Yet Godwin believed passionately in the rational power of truth, and the value of absolute frankness and sincerity in human dealings.
He was in a state of profound shock. He wrote bleakly to his oldest friend and confidant, the playwright Thomas Holcroft, on 10 September 1797, the very evening of her death: ‘My wife is now dead. She died this morning at eight o’clock … I firmly believe that there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again. When you come to town, look at me, talk to me, but do not – if you can help it – exhort me, or console me.’
Another of Godwin’s friends, Elizabeth Fenwick, wrote two days later to Mary’s younger sister, Everina Wollstonecraft, in Dublin: ‘I was with [Mary] at the time of her delivery, and with very little intermission until the moment of her death. Every skilful effort that medical knowledge of the highest class could make, was exerted to save her. It is not possible to describe the unremitting and devoted attentions of her husband … No woman was ever more happy in marriage than Mrs. Godwin. Whoever endured more anguish than Mr. Godwin endures? Her description of him, in the very last moments of her recollection was, “He is the kindest, best man in the world.”’ Mrs Fenwick added thoughtfully, and perhaps tactfully: ‘I know of no consolation for myself, but in remembering how happy she had lately been, and how much she was admired, and almost idolized, by some of the most eminent and best of human beings.’
To take advantage of this surge of interest and sympathy across the literary world, Wollstonecraft’s lifelong friend and publisher, Joseph Johnson, proposed to Godwin an immediate edition of her most recent writings. This was to include her long, but unfinished, novel Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, which had a strong autobiographical subtext. It was a shrewd idea to provide a fictional follow-up to Mary’s most famous work of five years previously, The Rights of Woman. The two titles cleverly called attention to each other: ‘The Rights’ reinforced by ‘The Wrongs’.
Though unfinished, The Wrongs of Woman: A Fragment in Two Volumes contained a celebration of true Romantic friendships, and a blistering attack on conventional marriage. The narrator Maria’s husband has had her committed to a lunatic asylum, having first brought her to court on a (false) charge of adultery. The judge’s summary of Maria’s case, which comes where the manuscript breaks off, ironically encapsulates many of the male prejudices that Mary Wollstonecraft had fought against all her life:
The judge, in summing up the evidence, alluded to the fallacy of letting women plead their feelings, as an excuse for the violation of the marriage-vow. For his part, he had always determined to oppose all innovation, and the new-fangled notions that encroached on the good old rules of conduct. We did not want French principles in public or private life – and, if women were allowed to plead their feelings, as an excuse or palliation of infidelity, it was opening a flood-gate for immorality. What virtuous woman thought of her feelings? – it was her duty to love and obey the man chosen by her parents and relations …
Johnson also suggested that Godwin should include some biographical materials. The idea for a short memorial essay by Mary’s husband was mooted, as was the convention in such circumstances; and possibly a small selection from her letters.
Battling against his grief, Godwin determined to do justice to his wife by editing her Posthumous Works. Immediately after the funeral on 15 September he moved into Mary’s own study at number 29 Polygon Square, surrounded himself with all her books and papers, and hung her portrait by John Opie above his desk for inspiration. He hired a housekeeper, Louisa Jones, to look after the two children who were now his responsibility: the little motherless baby Mary (the future Mary Shelley); and four-year-old Fanny, who was Wollstonecraft’s earlier love child by an American, Gilbert Imlay.
Both as a father and as an author, Godwin regarded himself as fulfilling a sacred trust, and wrote: ‘It has always appeared to me, that to give the public some account of a person of eminent merit deceased, is a duty incumbent on survivors … The justice which is thus done to the illustrious dead, converts into the fairest source of animation and encouragement to those who would follow them in the same career.’
Godwin immersed himself in papers and memories for the next three months, and writing at speed, soon found that the short essay was expanding into a full Life. He turned all his cool, scholarly methods on the supremely emotional task in hand. He reread all Mary’s printed works, sorted her unpublished manuscripts, and established a precise chronology of her life from birth. He dated and meticulously numbered the 160 letters they had exchanged. He interviewed her friends in London like Johnson, and wrote to others abroad, like Hugh Skeys in Ireland. He sent diplomatic messages to her estranged sister Everina in Dublin, requesting family letters and reminiscences. He assembled his own journal notes of their intimate conversations, and lovingly reconstructed others, such as the long September day spent walking round the garden where she had grown up near Barking, in Essex. Here Mary had suddenly begun reminiscing about her childhood.
Godwin recalled the moment tenderly, but with characteristic exactitude:
In September 1796, I accompanied my wife in a visit to this spot. No person reviewed with greater sensibility, the scenes of her childhood. We found the house uninhabited, and the garden in a wild and ruinous state. She renewed her acquaintance with the market-place, the streets, and the wharf, the latter of which we found crowded with activity.
Godwin determined to tell each phase of Mary’s short but turbulent life with astonishing openness. This was a decision that stemmed directly from the philosophy of rational enquiry and sincerity enshrined in Political Justice. He would use a plain narrative style and a frank psychological appraisal of her character and temperament. He would avoid no episode, however controversial.
He would write about the cruelty of her father (still living); the strange passionate friendship with Fanny Blood; the overbearing demands of her siblings; her endless struggles for financial independence; her writer’s blocks and difficulties with authorship; her enigmatic relationship with the painter Henry Fuseli; her painful affair with the American Gilbert Imlay in Paris; her illegitimate child Fanny; her two suicide attempts; and finally their own love affair in London, and Mary’s agonising death. This would be a revolutionary kind of intimate biography: it would tell the truth about the human condition, and particularly the truth about women’s lives.
As the biography expanded, Godwin’s contacts and advisers began to grow increasingly uneasy. Everina Wollstonecraft wrote anxiously from Dublin, expressing reservations. She had been delighted at her clever elder sister’s literary success, and been helped financially by it. But it now emerge
When Eliza and I first learnt your intention of publishing immediately my sister Mary’s Life, we concluded that you only meant a sketch … We thought your application to us rather premature, and had no intention of satisfying your demands till we found that [Hugh] Skeys had proffered our assistance without our knowledge … At a future date we would willingly have given whatever information was necessary; and even now we would not have shrunk from the task, however anxious we may be to avoid reviving the recollections it would raise, or loath to fall into the pain of thoughts it must lead to, did we suppose it possible to accomplish the work you have undertaken in the time you specify.
Everina concluded that a detailed Life was highly undesirable, and that it was impossible for Godwin to be ‘even tolerably accurate’ without her help. On reflection, Godwin decided to ignore these family objections. He judged them to be inspired partly by sibling jealousy, partly by the sisters’ desire to control the biography for themselves, but mostly by unreasonable fear of the simple truth.
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