Staël, Germaine de: General Commentary
GERMAINE DE STAËL: GENERAL COMMENTARY
ELLEN MOERS (ESSAY DATE SPRING 1975)
SOURCE: Moers, Ellen. "Mme de Staël and the Woman of Genius." The American Scholar 44, no. 2 (spring 1975): 225-41.
In the following essay, Moers maintains that Corinne is as much a guidebook to Italy as it is a guide to the woman of genius.
I am not used to Hope—It might intrude upon—Its sweet parade—blaspheme the place—Ordained to Suffering—
It might be easier To fail—with Land in Sight—Than gain—My Blue Peninsula—To perish—of Delight— —EMILY DICKINSON
Of all the books that have had a special meaning for gifted women, Mme de Staël's Corinne ou l'Italie is the most important. There is ample testimony from George Eliot, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Sand, Kate Chopin, and many others to the place Mme de Staël's myth of the woman of genius held in their own adolescent unfolding. I cannot imagine a revival of the myth of Corinne in modern times, any more than I can imagine a revival of Manfred or Childe Harold. But that Mme de Staël did for women what Byron did for men—dramatized the romantic ego in all its extravagance, pain, and glory—was quite clear to her nineteenth-century readers, including Byron. Thanks to Lady Blessington, we have a hilarious record of the debate between Mme de Staël and Byron over which of them had done more harm to their generation with their heroic creations.
Published in 1807, Corinne of course preceded the Byronic myth and in at least one way affected it. The farewell to Rome that Mme de Staël's heroine pays in reckless and dramatic fashion by visiting the Colosseum by moonlight became a locus romanticus for Byron, then for Lamartine, then for Italian tourists in general. Appropriately enough, the most famous literary reworking of the scene dramatizes the independence of the American girl on tour in Italy. "Well, I have seen the Coliseum by moonlight!" cries Daisy Miller. "That's one good thing."
Corinne is not, properly speaking, a feminist work. Like most people of genius, Mme de Staël was concerned more with demonstrating the pride and penalty of the elite, the special case, than with widening the options or diminishing the inhibitions that affect the average woman. Her Corinne is superspecial: the super-heroine of genius who writes poetry, improvises, sings, paints, lectures, dances, acts, has a wider range of talents and a wider audience for their display than any woman before or after her. The public component of her genius, what Mme de Staël called la gloire, is the nub of the myth of Corinne; for the achievement of wide public fame, which in a man's story (at least in fiction) is normally rewarded by private happiness in the form of a woman's adoration, in a woman's story makes equivalent happiness difficult or impossible. Corinne is a very old-fashioned, in some ways a very silly novel; but from what I see around me, and from what I read, modern times have still not resolved the woman's dilemma of reconciling enormous public success with private romance.
Corinne first appears to the reader at her moment of greatest public triumph. Through the ringing of bells and the cannonades, through processions and ceremonies, through the odes of poets and the shouts of the populace, she is carried in a chariot drawn by four white horses to the Capitoline Hill, there to be crowned with the laurel wreath of genius. This fantasy of a woman's glory, which no writer has ever surpassed in extravagance, is filtered to the reader through the eyes of a British tourist, Oswald Lord Nelvil, who is surprised, shocked, fascinated, then transfixed by love for the woman of genius. He proves to be a serious, earnest, and adoring lover; but finally, out of the highest motives, and to no one's surprise, he leaves her for another.
All the critical discussion I have seen about Corinne's love story centers on its sources in the life of Mme de Staël (a biographical approach particularly common when the writer is a woman). Certainly Mme de Staël did tour Italy—she was then a widow with two children—shortly before she wrote Corinne, and she did, while traveling, suffer the joys and sorrows of an affaire du cœur—but which affair? Various biographers, for a hundred years or more, have been certain that Oswald is a portrait of a Portuguese nobleman, or a Swiss diplomat, or an Irish soldier of fortune. I myself can find no compelling biographical reason not to identify Mme de Staël's Lord Nelvil—who is little more than a pattern of an English nobleman constructed to make an ideal husband (for someone other than Corinne)—with the great original pattern of such a figure, Samuel Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, who was much in Mme de Staël's mind. I rather suspect that she intended to retell Richardson's story: that of an Englishman who loves an Italian woman, but finally exchanges her—out of the noblest motives—for an English bride. But Mme de Staël retold the story from the Italian woman's point of view—and made the woman a Corinne.
One of the oddest things about Corinne is that it is as much a guidebook to Italy as it is a guide to the woman of genius. Mme de Staël called the novel Corinne; or, Italy to signify its double usefulness, and there is a puzzle about her priorities. Did she plot the movement of her love story across the map of Italy in such a way as to cover the principal monuments—the catacombs, St. Peter's, Pompeii, Vesuvius, the Bay of Naples, the canals of Venice? Or did her idea of Italian culture evoke the spirit, and shape the destiny, of her mythic heroine?
And why Italy? Mme de Staël was Genevaborn and utterly French. She had written extensively about England and France in De la Littérature (1800), the work for which she was known around the world. She had traveled to Germany in 1803, and was already at work on De l'Allemagne. She interrupted her ambitious, epoch-making study of German culture to tour Italy in the winter of 1804-1805 with the definite intention of finding the materials for a novel. Why Italy? may seem a foolish question, for what northern European needs an excuse to go south in search of sun—to know the land of Mignonslied where lemons grow? But this question, like so many others, poses itself differently for a literary woman (like Mme de Staël) than for a literary man (like J. W. von Goethe). If Corinne did at least as much as Wilhelm Meister to arouse the passion for Italy among the English Romantics, and if Corinne played as large a role in the making of Victorian Italophilia as would appear from the writings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Margaret Fuller, who were deeply affected by Mme de Staël's ideas about Italy as the place for the woman of genius, then Richardson's share in the making of those ideas would indeed be remarkable.
Richardson never set foot in Italy. The "data" on which he drew for the sizable Italian sections of Sir Charles Grandison consisted of the fact that it was a Catholic country, that Ariosto's marvels took place there, and that people there were somehow different from the norm. He divided his huge cast of characters into "Men—Women—and Italians." Grandison's Clementina, met on his Grand Tour, is a romance heroine of the highest social and moral class; she seems Italian only in that she grows a bit more hysterical, has a few more mad scenes, and altogether suffers more dramatically from the griefs of love than would her English equivalent. Clementina is no Corinne, except in her passionate attachment to her Italian homeland and her Catholic faith, which are the grounds for her rejection of Grandison's proposal of marriage. Neither, though, is a barrier to Grandison, who proposes that she spend half her years in Italy, half in England, and that their male issue be raised as Protestant Englishmen, while their girls may be Catholics. Nothing could be fairer—and it appears that Richardson was animated primarily by a spirit of toleration (a religious toleration unusual for his age) when he introduced the Italian matter into the novel. Richardson keeps Sir Charles Grandison going through thousands of pages of epistolary sensibility by fanning Grandison's scruples, and by sending him on journeys to Italy to try to change Clementina's mind and allay any suspicion among his English friends that he has merely trifled with a lady of foreign fascination encountered on his travels.
That such suspicions were both natural and commonplace Corinne herself points out. "Listen to me," she says to Lord Nelvil on the eve of his departure from Italy:
When you get to London they will tell you, the men about town, that promises of love do not engage a man's honor; that all the Englishmen who have ever lived have fallen in love with Italian women met on their travels and forgotten upon their return; that a few months of happiness tie down neither the woman who bestows, nor the man who enjoys it; and that, at your age, the whole future course of your life cannot be determined by whatever delight you have found, for a brief period, in the society of a foreign woman. And they will appear to be right, right as the world sees it; but you, you who have known this heart, known how it loves you, will you find the sophisms to excuse,…
Oswald protests his troth in all sincerity, for he is not a mere man of the world—an homme léger—but a Grandison; that is why Corinne loves him in preference to all the brilliant Italian and witty French noblemen who surround and court her. It is, however, Oswald's British morality that parts him from Corinne, with a cultural irrevocability that makes their final separation an affair of state.
The story of Oswald's past—which he divulges to Corinne halfway up the slope of Mount Vesuvius, where "all that has life disappears, you enter the empire of death, and only ashes shift beneath uncertain feet"—centers on his worship of his dead father, repository of the wisdom of his native land and faith. Detained in revolutionary France during his father's last illness by an entanglement with a scheming Frenchwoman, Oswald had hastened his father's death through grief over his son's unwise love and apparent disloyalty to his native land—France and England then being enemies. Now a guilty and melancholy man, Oswald is resolved to fulfill every wish of the dead man, especially in regard to his own marriage; and he knows that his father wished him to marry Lucile Edgermond, the young daughter of an old family friend, and did not want him to marry Corinne. The reasons for this preference are far more interesting to Mme de Staël (and to us) than are the tricks of plot whereby Corinne is enmeshed in Nelvil-Edgermond family affairs, without ever having met Oswald until the day she is crowned on the Capitoline as the most celebrated of Italian women. It seems that Corinne is only half-Italian; that her father was the same Lord Edgermond, by his first (Italian) wife; that she is a half-sister of Lucile and a rejected first choice by Oswald's father for his son's bride.
"Will you forgive me, my friend," the senior Lord Nelvil had written to Lord Edgermond (in a letter that Oswald travels home from Italy to read)
if I propose a change in our plan for a union between our two families? My son is eighteen months younger than your older daughter; it would be better to make his destined bride Lucile, your second daughter, who is twelve years younger than her sister. But since I knew the age of Miss Edgermond when I asked her hand for Oswald, I owe to our friendship a frank statement of my reasons for wishing that their marriage not take place.…
Your daughter is charming, but I seem to perceive in her one of those beautiful Greek women who enchanted and subjugated the world. Don't be offended—of course your daughter has been brought up to possess only the purest of feelings and principles; but she needs to please, to captivate, to impress.
She has more talent than she has self-love; but talents of so rare a kind necessarily inspire the desire to develop them; and I do not know what stage can contain that activity of mind, that impetuous imagination, that ardent character which one senses in every word she speaks. She would of course take my son away from England, for such a woman cannot be happy here. Only Italy would suit her.
Why Italy? Because Italy is a country (I am now following the cultural analysis Mme de Staël spreads through the novel) where one lives openly, in the open air and the sun, and where the populace is always at hand to cheer artistic genius. The Italian past was glorious, the Italian future may be so as well, but "in the present condition of the Italians, artistic glory is the only kind they are permitted"—one of numerous offhand social commentaries to infuriate Napoleon, whose empire had included most of Italy since 1804. Life in Italy is free in a way unknown to more advanced, more politically liberated nations, and therefore most suited to women of artistic talent. For in Italy there is no hypocrisy about morals, as in England, no malicious gossip as in France, no false modesty or artifice, no obsession with rank or convention, but only spontaneity in love and art. If a woman can give delight with her dancing or reciting, she does so at once, without being begged, without simpering; if a woman loves a man, she can tell him she does so—"a terrible fault in England, but so pardonable in Italy." For married happiness and domestic virtues, England is undoubtedly the place, but for love outside marriage, go to Italy.
There is simply no way to "compromise" a woman's reputation in Italian society, as Corinne tells a nervous Oswald: women are expected always to be in love in Italy, always to speak of love and their lovers. "Thus, in this country, where no one thinks of anything but love, there isn't a single novel, because love is so rapid here, so public, that it doesn't lend itself to any kind of development; to give a true account of love Italian style, you would have to begin and end on the first page."
The result of these special conditions of Italian society, as far as Corinne is concerned, is not the possibility of attaining perfect happiness in love (no heroine ever felt herself more doomed to suffering through her heart) but that of leading an independent life as a woman of genius, and developing all her talents to the full with the open encouragement, rather than the shocked disapproval, of society. And in fact, beneath all her ranting and posing, her lyre strumming and drapery shaking, Corinne does illustrate a way of life for women of such novel fascination (perhaps even today?) that it turned the heads of young women from Paris to Yorkshire to New England, and gave them "a wild desire for an existence of lonely independence," as Fanny Kemble put it, along with "a passionate desire to go to Italy."
Corinne lives alone on her own money; she maintains her own establishment, is waited on by her own servants. She uses her own name, an invented one, and never refers to her family or even her true nationality. She goes into society without protector or escort; she has friends and lovers of her own free choosing. She does her own work—publishes, exhibits, performs—and is famous in her own right. She travels everywhere, alone or with a man as she chooses; she guides her own life.
So does George Sand's Lélia, and so, more remarkably, does Aurora Leigh. The scenes in Mrs. Browning's novel-poem which present Aurora's life in a London flat, writing and publishing her own poems and enjoying her own social existence in the best circles, are among the most delightful, the most modern, and apparently the most realistic (though how far they were from real experience, anyone who knows Elizabeth Barrett's life with father up to the age of forty will quickly recognize). Swinburne, whose passion for Aurora Leigh almost equaled Virginia Woolf's, assumed that its heroine was "in all essentials a conscious and intentional portrait of the author by herself," and protested against this fantasy material. "The career of Aurora in London," he wrote (in 1898!), "is rather too eccentric a vision to impose itself upon the most juvenile credulity: a young lady of family who lodges by herself in Grub Street, preserves her reputation, lives on her pen, and dines out in Mayfair, is hardly a figure for serious fiction."
"Genius cannot do everything," Swinburne apologized for Mrs. Browning in conclusion; but female genius very much wanted to act out that fantasy of the independent woman's life called Corinne which Mme de Staël first located in an Italy of dreamland, the feminine Somewhere-else, where people were Men, Women, and Italians. For Emily Dickinson that land was simply "My Blue Peninsula" of hope and dreamed delight, one of several images which (as Rebecca Patterson has convincingly demonstrated) she derived from Mrs. Browning's Italy in Aurora Leigh.
As far as Mme de Staël was concerned, neither Geneva nor Paris, the places of her young womanhood, was any sort of Italy. In spite of the drama and independence of her mature life (greater than any woman had achieved before), she knew perfectly well what it was like to be Germaine Necker: that is, to be raised as a proper young lady in a strict Protestant family, to be laughed at and criticized in society for her mannerisms, and to be married off, at the age of nineteen, to a man chosen by her family for his title (from the very restricted field of available Protestant aristocrats). She carried her heroine's story back to childhood, and I believe this was another important originality of her novel; for when, before Corinne, had the sufferings of the gifted girl been told in fiction? The young Corinne more distinctly fore-shadows the young Maggie Tulliver than does Fanny Burney's Evelina.
Corinne postpones the revelation of her early life to Oswald until she can give him the full tour of Naples and its environs, and pose with lyre in hand on Cape Misena (see the Vigée-Lebrun portrait of Mme de Staël). There, inspired by the nearby tomb of Vergil, Corinne makes one of her famous improvisations. The poets, the heroes, the women of Greece and Italy come to her mind, those whose genius flowered and whose suffering climaxed on these storied shores. O Fate! she cries, why has it always pursued the exalted spirits, the poets whose imagination derives from their power to love and to suffer? Cruel Destiny, of which the ancients spoke with such terror, means nothing to ordinary people ("les êtres vulgaires") who simply follow the course of the seasons in the habitual round of their peaceful lives. But the elite (le petit nombre des élus) are of another sphere, removed from the influence of the Universal Good; some unknown force drives genius toward misery. Protect us, O Sublime Creator: we hear a music of the spheres not caught by ordinary mortals, we feel stronger passions, think higher thoughts, are doomed to greater suffering, et cetera, et cetera. This is the extravagant prelude to Corinne's story, a tale of childhood wholly recognizable to middle-class Victorian women.
She was born in Italy, her mother a Roman, her father an Englishman, Lord Edgermond of Northumberland—a province as close to the edge-of-the-world as Mme de Staël could imagine and to which he was deeply attached. There he returned when his wife died, leaving Corinne behind in Florence with memories of a mother who "spoke of nothing from my infancy but the misfortune of not living in Italy." Until the age of fifteen, Corinne was raised by an Italian aunt who kept warning her that she would be damned if she lived in a Protestant country, and reminding her that "it was the fear of leaving her native land that had made her mother die of grief." Nevertheless, Corinne did have to leave Italy, and, "avec un sentiment de tristesse inexprimable," she went to England to live for the next six years—explanation of the mystery that most puzzles Oswald in the first half of the novel—Corinne's faultless English accent.
Corinne was right to grieve. Her father had married again, and the second Lady Edgermond, a dignified, cold woman, cared for nothing but English provincial life and domestic virtue, and hated nothing so much as the Italian spirit, and language, and style of womanhood represented by Corinne. In spite of the single gleam of happiness provided by her darling little three-year-old stepsister Lucile, Corinne suffered terribly in rainy and gloomy England, full of teacups and boring neighbors. These last much resemble, when due allowance is made for Jane Austen's genius, the good ladies of Highbury in Emma.
Corinne's conversation is censored and silenced; her Italian expansiveness and spontaneity are simply squelched. One night at a gloomy formal dinner she attempts to enliven the atmosphere by quoting a few lines of Italian poetry which refer, in all delicacy, to the subject of love. So shocked is her stepmother that she enforces much earlier than usual that dreadful English custom, the after-dinner separation of women from men. (Mme de Staël's contemporaries saw in this material only a reflection of her discomfort when in exile in England in 1793; but Victorian women clearly perceived, what today we know to be the fact, that Lady Edgermond is a version of Mme de Staël's own extremely strict mother.)
All of Corinne's nascent talents—for music, recitation, literature—are repressed and despised, not through active malice or cruelty but because her stepmother adheres to a cultural standard different from her own. When Corinne spends more and more time by herself, in her own room, studying and developing her native gifts, Lady Edgermond protests:
"What is the good of all that?" she asked: "will it make you happy?"—and the question plunged me into despair. For what is happiness, I asked myself, if not the development of our faculties? Is not mental suicide as bad as physical? And if I must repress my mind and my spirit, what's the use of preserving the miserable rest of my life, which begins to drive me wild?
But there was no use saying these things to my step-mother. I once tried to, and she had answered that a woman was created to take care of her husband's household and her children's health; all other ambitions led only to trouble, and I should conceal any that I had. And these words, in all their commonness, left me absolutely speechless; for emulation and enthusiasm, those motive forces of genius, require encouragement, or they fade like withered flowers beneath a cold grey sky.…
… Narrow spirits and mediocre people attempt in the name of Duty to impose silence on talent, to get rid of enthusiasm, of genius, in short, of all their enemies.…But is it true that Duty prescribes the same rules for all? … Every woman, just like every man, must forge her own path according to her character and her talents.
Little wonder that Harriet Beecher "felt an intense sympathy" for Corinne. "But in America," she wrote, "feelings vehement and absorbing like hers become still more deep, morbid, and impassioned by the constant forms of self-government which the rigid forms of our society demand. They are repressed, and they burn inward till they burn the very soul."
And little wonder that Elizabeth Barrett invented for Aurora Leigh a Florentine mother, an English father, and an Italian homeland to mourn throughout her years of oppressive upbringing in England by her spinster aunt.
I broke the copious curls upon my head
In braids, because she liked smooth-ordered hair.
I left off saying my sweet Tuscan words.…
For the Corinne that we first encounter riding to the Capitol behind four white horses was not to triumph born, but to the sufferings of the gifted girl in a strict home and a conventional society. Italy was in her soul—a quality of spirit more than an actual heritage; to Italy she dreamed of going, there to live the independent life of the woman of genius. And Corinne in fact runs away—from home, stepmother, neighbors, England. What happens between her flight to Italy and her crowning on the Capitoline, Mme de Staël does not tell us, except that in some marvelous way it all works out in Italy—the training, developing, publishing, applauding of the woman of genius. For "Italy," as Mrs. Browning wrote in Aurora Leigh, "Italy / Is one thing, England one."
It will be noticed that Harriet Beecher's reaction to Corinne led her to comment on "the rigid forms of our society," not on the strict New England stepmother who, in actual fact, had soured her own childhood. (And Miss Ophelia in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the New England spinster whose efforts to tame, without love, the wild black spirit of Topsy, provides a subtle criticism of New England values, and a comedy, rather than a running sore of remembered childhood pain.) In the same way, Miss Leigh, the spinster aunt in Mrs. Browning's novel-poem, is drawn with witty malice but no bitterness to represent English cultural attitudes toward the raising of women:
She liked a woman to be womanly,
And English women, she thanked God and sighed
(Some people always sigh in thanking God),
Were models to the universe.
Among Mme de Staël's legacies to literary women was the ability to generalize social value and cultural law from domestic fact.
The curious split in form, part novel and part guidebook, that puzzles readers of Corinne suggests on a small scale the problem that all students of Mme de Staël must face when attempting to fix her place in the history of thought. Her principal contribution was the extension of the central point of Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois—that political systems grow out of, and are inseparable from, social custom and national tradition—to other fields than politics, and most of all to literature. In the history of literature and its study, Mme de Staël's influence has in fact been enormous. Her analysis of European literature as made up of two separate but equal cultural traditions, the northern Anglo-Germanic and the southern Franco-classical, made way for Romanticism, a term she was the first to use. She introduced German Romanticism not only to France but to England, for it was the reading of De l'Allemagne that led Carlyle to study German and to pay a most uncharacteristic tribute to intellectual womanhood: Mme de Staël, he said, had "the loftiest soul of any female of her time."
Irving Babbitt later saluted her as founder of the study of comparative literature, and in our own time no less a critic of the novel than Ian Watt has honored her as a precursor. But "Madame de Staël was not really a belle-lettrist or a literary critic, nor even a literary historian," as Morroe Berger observes; "today … we should call her a social scientist, since she sought to find in social institutions the influences that shaped the ideas and forms of literary expression."
Mme de Staël does not argue as a feminist; Corinne is hardly propaganda for an adjustment of marriage to female requirements. Instead, Mme de Staël's point is to demonstrate that regional or national, or what we call cultural, values determine the female's destiny even more rigidly, even more inescapably than the male's. For as women are the makers and transmitters of those minute local and domestic customs upon which rest all the great public affairs of civilization (that perception, as Susan Tenenbaum makes clear, had been in Montesquieu), so women suffer more than men in their daily and developing lives from the influences of nationality, geography, climate, language, political attitudes, and social forms.
Oswald's father is quite right. Corinne really is not a proper wife for a Lord Nelvil, or for anyone else. She belongs on the open, sunlit stage of Italy, and he in the retired domestic privacy of rainy England. Corinne is a wild spirit, and England, as Mrs. Browning puts it, is a tame place:
All the fields
Are tied up fast with hedges, nosegay like;
The hills are crumpled plains, the plains parterres,
The trees, round, woolly, ready to be clipped,
And if you seek for any wilderness,
You find, at best, a park. A nature tamed
And grown domestic like a barn-door fowl
—and like the clucking, strutting, pecking, barnyard women who are as much a part of the English landscape as are Aunt Pullet and Aunt Glegg in The Mill on the Floss.
George Eliot, in her scrupulous attention to the domestic habits of rural England; Charlotte Brontë in Villette, a novel which in its title, as in its every scene and event, is concerned with the power of place; Harriet Beecher Stowe, in the wide geographical and socioeconomic sweep of her novel on slavery; George Sand, in her thousand brilliant pages on the clashing values transmitted by the women of her own family; Willa Cather in "Old Mrs. Harris," the most delicate cultural study that we have in fiction of the ages of women—all are worthy descendants of the tradition of Corinne.
I hesitate to name in this connection the distinguished women anthropologists, for fear of suggesting, as I definitely am not, that anthropology is a woman's field. The reason for Ruth Benedict's and Margaret Mead's success in the new profession, which clearly emerges from their memoirs, was economic opportunity: there were jobs for women in anthropology in the 1920s because half the field work, that half concerned with investigation of female customs in remote societies, simply had to be done by women. (If such assignments had not come their way, both Mead and Benedict might have gone on writing the poetry and fiction that they wrote in college.)
Nor will I affirm the cliché that the delicate sensibility of women to the little ways of home makes them preservers and, in their literature, celebrants of conservative and local values. In some writings by some women, of course, just as in some writings by some men, there can indeed be found conservative views and regional affections, but these are hardly the hallmark of the tradition of Corinne. For what Mme de Staël passed on to her disciples was a heady sense of cutting loose from custom, an intoxicating awareness of the possibility of otherness in the human condition, resting on a thoroughly unsentimental perception of its various forms in varying societies. As in anthropological writing at its cautious best, Corinne provides no easy choices, no simple prescriptions for ideal happiness under the blue sky of Italian culture.
Indeed one of the most remarkable things about the novel, and the one that most justly infuriated Napoleon, is Mme de Staël's enthusiasm for England, the enemy nation of women as well as of France. For the kind of literary treason that in our barbarous times means imprisonment or death, Napoleon punished her by forbidding her residence in Paris. "'I leave you the universe to exploit'," the Emperor remembered telling Mme de Staël. "'I abandon the rest of the earth to you and reserve only Paris for myself'—but Paris was all she wanted." Paris, its salons and its enlightenment, was her center and the source of all her own values: her personal culture as well as the historical and geographical cultures that were being undermined, as Mme de Staël well knew, by the north European and romantic values that sift through the pages of Corinne.
In the person of Oswald, Corinne herself worships the English ideal of home, a word Mme de Staël used without translating (there is no French equivalent for what is more a value than a place). And for such an ideal of life and of manhood, the ideal woman is in fact not Corinne but her blond rival—ideal of English womanhood, English culture, and English Romanticism. Lucile is young, pale, innocent, and silent. She has no personality, no education, no talent, no society but her mother, no thought but for Oswald; but her very nullity as a person is the source of her charm—a mysterious and subtle charm that Corinne, with all her demonstrative brilliance, does not provide. Lucile is Oswald's princesse lointaine à la tour abolie, his "still unravish'd bride of quietness," as Mme de Staël had neither the poetry nor the romantic sensibility to say. But she did turn her remarkable analytic powers on Oswald's reflections:
Lucile was on her knees beside her mother, and it was Lucile who was reading first a chapter of the Bible and then a prayer adapted to domestic and rural life.…Tears fell from her eyes … she covered her face…but Oswald saw them.… He studied that air of youth which is so close to infancy, that glance which seems to preserve a recent memory of heaven.… Lord Nelvil reflected upon her austere and retired life, without pleasures, without the homage of the world.… Corinne delighted the imagination in a thousand ways, but there was nevertheless a species of thought [un genre d'idées] and, if one can use the expression, a musical sound which went only with Lucile. Images of domestic happiness were more easily combined with her Northumberland retreat than with Corinne's triumphal chariot.…
He fell asleep thinking of Italy; yet during his sleep he thought he saw Lucile passing gently before him in the form of an angel.…
Patterns of contrast fill the conclusion of the novel. Lucile is pale and blond, with white plumes in her hat; Corinne is dark, and covers herself with the black Venetian domino. Lucile is the quintessential virgin; Corinne, in spite of Mme de Staël's sporadic efforts to clean up her past and order her present, is clearly a woman who has lived. Lucile in her extreme youth "presents the innocent image of the springtime of life"; and Corinne, while not precisely the spirit of autumn—for Mme de Staël was only a woman—is very ripe.
Lucile has no existence apart from her family, and Corinne has no family. Lucile is a Protestant who prays at home, and Corinne honors all the public rituals and ceremonies of the Catholic church. Corinne is open, spontaneous, talkative, bold, talented, famous; Lucile is silent and shy—a girl for a man to dream of, for a man to worship, for a man to marry. Corinne is the city and civilization, is art and joy; Lucile is melancholy, country retirement, and boredom. For as the epilogue points out—Mme de Staël was only human—Oswald is dreadfully bored by his marriage to Lucile, which, the reader feels, is just what he deserves. As for Corinne, much as she grieves for Oswald, much as she yearns for domestic happiness, all she gets is what she deserves—Italy.
I rather like the way Mme de Staël ties up the novel without attempting to resolve any of the cultural dilemmas that face the woman of genius. On the arm of a frivolous French count, who turns out to be a good sort of chap to have around in time of trouble, Corinne staggers back from Scotland to Italy, after managing to release Oswald from his troth to herself and free him for marriage to Lucile. In Italy she finds that love has destroyed her talents as well as her happiness, and she retreats from the public eye. Years later, Oswald and Lucile, now man and wife, make a trip to Florence and search out Corinne. She stages a final public triumph in the Academy, and then expires (finding time, however, to coach their little daughter to be a Corinne of the future and a terrible handful, one assumes, for her strict mama).
All this takes place in northern Italy, the one region of the country not already covered, guidebook style, by the novel. Perhaps Mme de Staël felt that Florence was the only possible locale for the finale of the woman of genius. What she actually drew upon in the last chapters, as we know from her letters, were memories of the start of her own Italian tour. The surprise and disappointment that she then felt, travelers from the north, both before her time and after, have shared. For northern Italy is cold, cold as the rest of Europe, "and winter displeases more there than anywhere else, because the imagination is not prepared for it." The skies are leaden and grey; the snow falls, the fog thickens, the rivers flood; even the architecture (at least of the Cathedral of Milan) is Gothic. One might as well have stayed at home.
"Où donc est votre belle Italie?" Lucile asks her husband. "'So where is your beautiful Italy?' 'I don't know,' Lord Nelvil sadly answered, 'when I shall ever find it again'."
"Staël, Germaine de: General Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/stael-germaine-de-general-commentary
"Staël, Germaine de: General Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Retrieved September 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/stael-germaine-de-general-commentary
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