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Staël, Germaine de: Primary Sources

GERMAINE DE STAËL: PRIMARY SOURCES

GERMAINE DE STAËL (ESSAY DATE 1810)

SOURCE: de Staël, Germaine. "Of the Women." In Germany, pp. 43-45. New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1859.

In the following excerpt from her nonfiction work Germany, originally published in 1810, de Staël offers an analysis of the character of the German woman, who she says is distinguished by her perfect loyalty.

Nature and society give to women a habit of endurance; and I think it can hardly be denied that, in our days, they are generally worthier of moral esteem than the men. At an epoch when selfishness is the prevailing evil, the men, to whom all positive interests are related, must necessarily have less generosity, less sensibility, than the women. These last are attached to life only by the ties of the heart; and even when they lose themselves, it is by sentiment that they are led away: their selfishness is extended to a double object, while that of man has himself only for its end. Homage is rendered to them according to the affections which they inspire; but those which they bestow are almost always sacrifices. The most beautiful of virtues, self-devotion, is their enjoyment and their destiny; no happiness can exist for them but by the reflection of another's glory and prosperity; in short, to live independently of self, whether by ideas or by sentiments, or, above all, by virtues, gives to the soul an habitual feeling of elevation.

In those countries where men are called upon by political institutions to the exercise of all the military and civil virtues which are inspired by patriotism, they recover the superiority which belongs to them; they reassume with dignity their rights, as masters of the world; but when they are condemned, in whatever measure, to idleness or to slavery, they fall so much the lower as they ought to rise more high. The destiny of women always remains the same; it is their soul alone which creates it; political circumstances have no influence upon it. When men are ignorant or unable to employ their lives worthily and nobly, Nature revenges herself upon them for the very gifts which they have received from her; the activity of the body contributes only to the sloth of the mind; the strength of soul degenerates into coarseness; the day is consumed in vulgar sports and exercises, horses, the chase, or entertainments which might be suitable enough in the way of relaxation, but brutalize as occupations. Women, the while, cultivate their understanding; and sentiment and reflection preserve in their souls the image of all that is noble and beautiful.

The German women have a charm exclusively their own—a touching voice, fair hair, a dazzling complexion; they are modest, but less timid than Englishwomen; one sees that they have been less accustomed to meet with their superiors among men, and that they have besides less to apprehend from the severe censures of the public. They endeavor to please by their sensibility, to interest by their imagination; the language of poetry and the fine arts are familiar to them; they coquet with enthusiasm, as they do in France with wit and pleasantry. That perfect loyalty, which distinguishes the German character, renders love less dangerous for the happiness of women; and, perhaps, they admit the advances of this sentiment with the more confidence, because it is invested with romantic colors, and disdain and infidelity are less to be dreaded there than elsewhere.

Love is a religion in Germany, but a poetical religion, which tolerates too easily all that sensibility can excuse. It cannot be denied, that the facility of divorce in the Protestant States is prejudicial to the sacredness of marriage. They change husbands with as little difficulty as if they were arranging the incidents of a drama; the good-nature common both to men and women is the reason that so little bitterness of spirit ever accompanies these easy ruptures; and, as the Germans are endowed with more imagination than real passion, the most extravagant events take place with singular tranquillity; nevertheless, it is thus that manners and character lose every thing like consistency; the spirit of paradox shakes the most sacred institutions, and there are no fixed rules upon any subject.

One may fairly laugh at the ridiculous airs of some German women, who are continually exalting themselves even to a pitch of affectation, and who sacrifice to their pretty softnesses of expression, all that is marked and striking in mind and character; they are not open, even though they are not false; they only see and judge of nothing correctly, and real events pass like a phantasmagoria before their eyes. Even when they take it into their heads to be light and capricious, they still retain a tincture of that sentimentality which is held in so high honor in their country. A German woman said one day, with a melancholy expression, "I know not wherefore, but those who are absent pass away from my soul." A French woman would have rendered this idea with more gayety, but it would have been fundamentally the same.

Notwithstanding these affectations, which form only the exception, there are among the women of Germany numbers whose sentiments are true and manners simple. Their careful education, and the purity of soul which is natural to them, render the dominion which they exercise gentle and abiding; they inspire you from day to day with a stronger interest for all that is great and generous, with more of confidence in all noble hopes, and they know how to repel that desolating irony which breathes a death-chill over all the enjoyments of the heart. Nevertheless, we seldom find among them that quickness of apprehension, which animates conversation, and sets every idea in motion; this sort of pleasure is scarcely to be met with anywhere out of the most lively and the most witty societies of Paris. The chosen company of a French metropolis can alone confer this rare delight; elsewhere, we generally find only eloquence in public, or tranquil pleasure in familiar life. Conversation, as a talent, exists in France alone; in all other countries it answers the purposes of politeness, of argument, or of friendly intercourse. In France, it is an art to which the imagination and the soul are no doubt very necessary, but which possesses, besides these, certain secrets, where, by the absence of both may be supplied.

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