Germaine de Staël

views updated May 09 2018

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.

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.

Further Reading

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). □

Staël, Germaine de

views updated May 21 2018


STAËL, GERMAINE DE (1766–1817), French writer.

Madame de Staël was one of the best known female writers and intellectuals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in France and across Europe. Born to Swiss Protestant parents in Paris on 22 April 1766 as Ann Louise Germaine Necker, she became a champion of the liberal revolutionary cause in France and later an ardent opponent of the Napoleonic regime. Her father was renowned French Finance Minister Jacques Necker, and through his service to the French monarchy and her mother Suzanne's salon in Paris, young Germaine Necker became intimately familiar from an early age with intellectual currents and political developments in France on the eve of the Revolution. In 1786, she was married to a Swedish diplomat living in Paris, Eric Staël von Holstein. Their relationship was not a particularly close one, and Germaine soon became involved in the types of amorous dalliances so characteristic of the contemporary European aristocracy.

At her own salon in Paris, Madame de Staël hosted many leading French thinkers and early revolutionaries, among them the abbé Sieyès, and her salon became a central hub of political discussion in the capital. During the Revolution, de Staël advocated a moderate liberal path for France, envisioning a constitutional monarchy adhering to the principle of equality under the law. Meanwhile, she attempted to advance the political career of her lover, Louis de Narbonne, who indeed became, albeit only briefly, the French Minister of War starting in December 1791.

Her moderate political position, her continued loyalty to the monarchy, and her status as a woman made Madame de Staël increasingly

vulnerable as the Revolution embarked upon its more radical course in the 1790s, and she left Paris in September 1792. Spending much of the next four years at Coppet, her parents' estate near Geneva, Germaine continued to write and discuss political matters. She criticized the excesses of the Reign of Terror and its neglect of civil liberties and freedoms. During these same years, her liaison with Narbonne came to an end, and she became romantically involved with Benjamin Constant. Their stormy relationship endured for well more than a decade.

The most turbulent and dangerous years for de Staël, however, were those of Napoleon Bonaparte (r. 1804–1814/15). The early nineteenth century would see her greatest literary successes as well, namely the novels Delphine (1802) and most notably Corinne, or Italy (1807), both of which hinge upon independent-minded heroines who meet with misfortune and suffering. Although her writings were not always overtly critical of the French government, the Napoleonic regime found much to dislike in these and other works by Germaine de Staël, for her writings displayed the shortcomings of authoritarianism, exalted the cause of liberty, and pointed to the inequities of contemporary society in matters such as marriage and divorce. In 1803, Madame de Staël was ordered to leave Paris. She spent the next decade largely in exile, but this allowed an opportunity to travel to places such as Germany, Italy, and Russia, where she was often well received by courts and aristocrats for her literary fame and her outspoken opposition to Napoleon. Her observations about the places she visited were recorded in such works as On Germany (1813) and the posthumously published Ten Years of Exile (1820). These years also proved full of change and upheaval in de Staël's personal life. Her husband died in 1802, but she took much harder the news of her beloved father's death in 1804. Her relationship with Benjamin Constant finally came to an end largely due to de Staël's relationship with a young Swiss, John Rocca, with whom she became romantically involved in 1810 and secretly married in 1816. Less than three years after returning to Paris in 1814, Germaine de Staël suffered a stroke in February 1817, and died on Bastille Day, 14 July 1817.

Madame de Staël's ideas were to have a profound impact on literary and political developments in the nineteenth century. Her ambitious and wide-ranging writings in many ways helped to usher in Romanticism in France, the modern study of comparative literature, and even the age of nationalism—in particular, Corinne helped to enliven the Italian unification movement. Additionally, her numerous writings relating to the French Revolution and her vision of a society of civil liberties and freedoms provided one of the foundations for French liberalism.

See alsoConstant, Benjamin; Feminism; France; Napoleon; Romanticism.


Primary Sources

Staël, Madame de. An Extraordinary Woman: Selected Writings of Germaine de Staël. Translated by Vivian Folkenflik. New York, 1987.

Secondary Sources

Balayé, Simone. Madame de Staël: écrire, lutter, vivre. Geneva, 1994.

Besser, Gretchen Rous. Germaine de Staël Revisited. New York, 1994.

Adam C. Stanley

Staël, Germaine de

views updated May 23 2018


(1766 - 1817)

(Born Anne Louis Germaine Necker; later Baronne de Staël-Holstein; also known as Madame de Staël) French critic, novelist, historian, and playwright.


About this article

Germaine de Stael

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic