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Staël, Germaine de: Introduction


Although for many years her reputation rested largely on her critical works, de Staël has, since the 1970s, been viewed by feminist scholars as an important novelist. As a critic, de Staël is credited with inculcating the theories of Romanticism into French literary and political thought. Her belief that critical judgment is relative and based on a sense of history sharply altered the French literary attitudes of her time. In her De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800; A Treatise on Ancient and Modern Literature), she delineated the distinction between the classical literature of southern Europe and northern Europe's Romantic literature. Feminist scholars have focused on de Staël's depiction of the oppressive effects of patriarchal hegemony. De Staël's novels Corinne; ou, L'Italie (1807; Corinne; or, Italy) and Delphine (1802) in particular have been praised by feminist scholars as perceptive explorations of female subjugation.


De Staël, born Anne Louise Germaine Necker in Paris on April 22, 1766, was the daughter of the French politician Jacques Necker, Louis XVI's minister of finance. Her literary interests were encouraged by her parents, and as a girl she was exposed to the intellectual salon that her mother hosted in her house, which included such notables as Edward Gibbon, Denis Diderot, and Friedrich Grimm. In 1786 de Staël married Baron de Staël-Holstein, the Swedish ambassador to Paris. Although initially sympathetic to the cause of the French Revolution, she turned away from its ideals. During the Revolution, her husband's political immunity enabled de Staël to remain in France and arrange the escape of numerous refugees. Ultimately, however, she was forced to flee to Switzerland in 1792. When she returned to France in 1797, she established her own salon as a center of progressive political and intellectual discussions. She separated amicably from her husband and became intimately associated with the French painter and author Benjamin Constant, and for the rest of her life she enjoyed a series of unconventional romantic attachments. In 1803 the publication of de Staël's Delphine angered Napoleon Bonaparte and resulted in her exile from Paris. She retired to her estate at Coppet on the Lake of Geneva, where she once again attracted a circle of well-known intellectuals. She fled France again in 1810 after Napoleon took issue with her historical-critical work De l'Allemagne (Germany; 1810) and criticized it as "un-French." She returned to Paris in 1813 and attempted to establish another literary salon, but she died within a few years.


De Staël became known as a theorist with the publication of Letters sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (1788; Letters on the Works and Character of J. J. Rousseau). Published just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, the book advocated liberal thinking and the ideas of the Enlightenment as antidotes to the then current political crisis. Upon her return to Paris, de Staël began what many critics consider to be the most brilliant segment of her career. She published several important political and literary essays, notably De l'influence des passions (1796; A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and Nations), a document of European Romanticism. By 1800, her political and literary concepts had become more defined, as evidenced in A Treatise on Ancient and Modern Literature. The book holds that a literary work must reflect the moral and historical reality, or Zeitgeist, of the country in which it is created. De Staël's other famous work of historical criticism, Germany, a study of the Sturm und Drang movement (a movement that dealt with the individual's revolt against society), introduced German Romanticism in France and inspired new modes of thought and expression. De Staël idealized Germany and saw its culture as a model for French intellectual development, a position that Napoleon found subversive and intolerable, and he ordered the work's proof sheets to be destroyed before exiling the author.

The novels Delphine and Corinne have been viewed by some critics as limited illustrations of de Staël's literary concepts. Corinne centers on a love affair between the Englishman Oswald, Lord Nelvil, and a beautiful Italian poetess, a woman of genius. It is also an homage to the landscape, literature and art of Italy. In the epistolary novel Delphine, a woman fights the social codes of France—in particular, codes regarding divorce and social disdain for older, unmarried women—in an attempt to gain individual freedom.


Contemporary critics of de Staël praised her as a powerful literary figure and a champion of liberal ideas. Her unconventional life and views about women garnered negative attention from conservative critics, but many acknowledged the importance of her literary theories and her role in awakening her native France to an interest in foreign literature. For more than a century de Staël's reputation rested solely on her critical and historical work, but feminist critics have revisited her novels as important works for their portrayal of female characters and their use of a distinctly female narrative voice. Scholars note in her novels depictions of the fallen woman, and an over-arching view of the challenges that talented, intellectual women faced. Her anonymously published 1793 essay on the trial of Marie Antoinette, Réflexions sur le procés de la Reine, par une Femme (Reflections on the Trial of a Queen, by a Woman), has also been of interest to feminist scholars because of its political attitudes and representation of the female self.

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