Skip to main content

Staël, Germaine de: Title Commentary


Reflections of the Trial of a Queen, by a Woman

Reflections of the Trial of a Queen, by a Woman


SOURCE: Marso, Lori J. "Defending the Queen: Wollstonecraft and Staël on the Politics of Sensibility and Feminine Difference." The Eighteenth Century 43, no. 1 (spring 2002): 43-60.

In the following excerpt, Marso analyzes de Staël's Reflections on the Trial of a Queen, by a Woman discussing how she negotiates the politics of sense and sensibility and uses a masculine model to offer a notion of the female self.

I shall therefore only speak of that verdict, analyzing the political, in telling what I have seen, what I know of the queen, and in depicting the hideous circumstances which have led to her condemnation.1 GERMAINE DE STAËL, Reflections on the Trial of the Queen, by a Woman. August 1793

Staël's essay in defense of Marie Antoinette at the time of her trial was initially published anonymously as authored only "by a woman." Staël's identification of herself as a woman is significant. The Revolutionary Criminal Tribunal, consisting of a male jury and nine male judges, ultimately decided Marie Antoinette's fate, yet the lower-class women of Paris were among her most notorious and vicious enemies. Indeed, the first time that women organized politically was to march to Versailles in October 1789 to demand that the royal couple guarantee bread to the people and approve the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The direct confrontation between the Queen of France and the mostly lower-class Parisian women who marched to Versailles to capture the queen serves as a political moment peculiarly open to a variety of readings. In this essay, I am particularly interested in analyzing the readings of the two female political theorists who write about this event, Mary Wollstonecraft and Germaine de Staël.

As a feminist working in the field of political theory. I am drawn to specific historical moments and literary metaphors that function within theoretical texts as sites where ideas of femininity (as well as masculinity) are (re)produced and mediated. I have isolated the October 1789 Women's March to Versailles and the August 1793 trial of Marie Antoinette to be studied here because the status of femininity and women's role in politics are at the center of each event. The Women's March was the first moment in the Revolution that women came together as a group of women in order to act politically and make demands of their sovereigns.2 One of these sovereigns is a woman who herself will be slandered and executed for stepping outside the role of proper femininity. In the bill of indictment against Marie Antoinette at her trial, she is accused of squandering public monies, siphoning money to Austria, and most outrageously, of engaging in incest with her son. A host of contemporary feminist scholars have studied the ways in which Marie Antoinette's status as queen symbolized, for revolutionaries, the feminization and corruption of the Old Regime. Propaganda at the time painted Marie Antoinette as woman, foreigner, prostitute, adulteress, and coquette.3 And indeed, her trial and execution in August 1793 marks the moment after which all possibilities for women's formal participation in politics were closed off.

Thus, we see the interpretive and political perils of these historical events for writers who sought to advance women's potential role in the New Republic. Marie Antoinette, the female victim said to symbolize the feminine excess of the aristocracy, is attacked by lower-class market women testing and enacting their newly found political power. How was the woman writer to understand the potential role of women in politics and notions of the feminine when faced with such contradictory behavior of women and diverse meaning attached to the feminine? To attempt to analyze the role of "women" in these events, one becomes increasingly drawn into an eighteenth-century discursive dynamic that Gunther-Canada has called the "politics of sense and sensibility."4 Simply put, sensibility was identified with female virtues of sympathetic feeling, empathetic behavior, and romanticism; sense was associated with masculine rational discourse as exemplified in Enlightenment philosophy. Negotiating the gendered politics of sense and sensibility proved to be significant challenge for women who wished to see gender inequality alleviated. To continue to view women and define the feminine self through the lens of sensibility was to run the risk of identifying women with the very qualities that had been said to justify their exclusion from politics in the first place. To turn the tables and claim that women could indeed be associated with sense, just as well as men, was to risk reifying a masculine model of political discourse rendering sexual difference incompatible with democratic politics.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Germaine de Staël boldly entered into this debate. Wollstonecraft, a woman writer of the middle classes who wrote to earn her keep, firmly forged her allegiance with the common people in analyzing the conditions of the majority, claiming that women faced the most wretched circumstances of all. Wollstonecraft is most famous for two early political essays. Her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790)5 was written in defense of the principles of the French Revolution in response to Edmund Burke's attack on the Revolution; the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)6 was written to persuade Talleyrand, French Minister of Education at the time, that a national education program should include girls alongside boys. While these two essays were written from England, An Historical and Moral Overview of the French Revolution (1794)7 was authored by Wollstonecraft after she came to Paris to experience the Revolution for herself. She arrived in time to see Louis XVI being taken off to prison and to witness the beginning of the Terror. Yet, despite the increasing radicalization of the Revolution, until her death in 1797, Wollstonecraft remained committed to the view of the "French Revolution [as] part of the human destiny for improvement" and sought to secure the rights of her sex through democratic politics.8

In contrast, Germaine de Staël, daughter of Jacques Necker, Finance Minister on the eve of the Revolution, and Suzanne Necker, Parisian salonnière, [Staël] was an aristocrat by birth and initially sought to prepare herself to preside over a salon and "exert an influence in the manner appropriate to women of the aristocracy."9 Initially loyal to the idea of an enlightened constitutional monarchy, Staël became a committed republican. Geneviève Fraisse calls Staël "the most visible woman of her generation" (Fraisse 1994, 103). Swept up into the center of revolutionary events by her father's position, Staël remained fascinated by politics, and especially the role of women, throughout her life and put these concerns at the forefront of her work. Though the lives of women were central to almost everything Staël wrote, she was most interested in the lives of exceptional women and never explicitly made the case for politically empowering every woman. After the fall of the monarchy, Staël took refuge in Switzerland, returned to France in 1795, eventually became a forceful opponent of Napoleon and was exiled in 1803. Her three-volume treatise, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, 10 was left unfinished in 1817 upon her death and published one year later.…

While Wollstonecraft was authoring her Vindication of the Rights of Men and the Rights of Woman, both of which sought to "confound the rhetorical distinctions of sex in political writing" (Gunther-Canada 1996, 62), Germaine de Staël was busy appealing to her sex, to a distinctly feminine sensibility. Though employing very different political strategies, both women theorists were attempting to reverse the direction in which the Revolution was increasingly headed, towards defining "woman" and "citizen" as exclusive categories. Wollstonecraft sought to "deny men the authority of defining womanhood as difference" (Gunther-Canada 1996, 63) while Staël embraced that difference as a way to critique the violence, excess, and irrationality of revolutionary politics as peculiarly "male."

Staël's rhetorical stance, whereby she valorized many of the attributes of a stereotyped femininity in order to call for women's inclusion in revolutionary politics, was rooted in her burgeoning awareness that to be a woman was increasingly becoming a political fact, an attribute to which revolutionaries attached an overwhelming significance. For Staël, this becomes most clear when looking at the significance that Marie Antoinette took on as a public and visible woman, and in the way women's revolutionary activity and their desire to participate in revolutionary politics were viewed. In order to contrast Staël's analysis of gender in the Revolution with Wollstonecraft's, and use the two as a starting point for a broader discussion of the risks involved in defining "woman," I look to Staël's Reflections on the Trial of the Queen, by a Woman (1793), buttressed by her continuing analysis in the three-volume Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (1817). It is important to note that, though her three volume Considerations was written long after revolutionary events when Staël had the benefit of hindsight, in fact her Reflections on the Trial of the Queen, written in the midst of these political events, expresses similar sentiments and promotes the same primary focus, that of an emphasis on positive feminine traits and how we might understand these in terms of the potential role of women in politics. Though it was written much later, I consult the Considerations primarily because here she applies her analysis derived in Reflections on the Trial of a Queen as applied to the Women's March on Versailles.

In her account of the March, as in all her work, Staël emphasizes the many ways that emotion affects reason and credits women for the ability to bring that special quality into political situations that require good judgment. She appeals to the hearts of women in all situations that demand political and moral deliberation. Staël praises the group of "women and children, armed with pikes and scythes" (Considerations I, 340), whose "political rage became appeased" upon "seeing the queen, as a mother" (Considerations I, 343). Staël claims that "the populace, in a state of insurrection, are, in general, inaccessible to reasoning, and are to be acted on only by sensations rapid as electricity, and communicated in a similar manner" (Considerations I, 343). When the crowd saw the queen, "her hair disheveled, her countenance pale, but dignified" (Considerations I, 343) standing alongside her two children, "those, who that very night had perhaps wished to assassinate her, extolled her name to the skies" (Considerations I, 343).

When the Revolution takes its turn towards the Terror, Staël blames the zeal for violence and excess partially on the exclusion of women from the revolutionary process. In constructing a hypermasculinist conception of politics, the Revolution totally disregarded "truth" which is, according to Staël, made up of "every fact and every individual being."11 It is women who are able to discern this source of truth and keep it in sight as a goal. In contrast, revolutionary men (regardless of their political perspective) ran roughshod over individual lives and individual dreams. Staël argues that during the Terror, men lost their hearts, their ability to feel; political dogmas reigned, not men: "Robespierre had acquired the reputation of high democratical virtue, and was believed incapable of personal views" (Considerations II, 142). And much later, of her first meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte, Staël writes: "I had a vague feeling that no emotion of the heart could act upon him.…[H]e regards a human being as an action or a thing, not as a fellow creature.…[H]e does not hate nor does he love" (Considerations II, 197-198). During Napoleon's reign, "friendship and love … were frozen in every heart.…[M]ennolonger cared for one another" (Considerations II, 306). Staël emphasizes what she sees as women's special political talent of persuading men to act within a more compassionate model of reason, according to rules of engagement, generosity, and compassion:

It is the duty of us women at all times to aid individuals accused of political opinions of any kind whatsoever; for what are opinions in times of faction? Can we be certain that such and such events, such and such a situation, would not have changed our own views? and, if we except a few invariable sentiments, who knows how difference of situation might have acted on us

(Considerations II, 193, my emphasis).

This philosophy is the source of Staël's defense of Marie Antoinette, both at the time of the October Days and at the moment of Marie Antoinette's impending trial and execution. Staël had the remarkable foresight to realize what Wollstonecraft had not: Marie Antoinette was not simply a fallen queen. Her image was manipulated to represent a too-powerful and too-political woman. Staël worried that if women failed to defend the queen, the most prominent and visible woman in France, women's future in the Revolution might be forever compromised. As Lynn Hunt reminds us, Marie Antoinette was accused of crimes mostly on account of her sex. She writes, "Promiscuity, incest, poisoning of the heir to the throne, plots to replace the heir with a pliable substitute—all of these charges reflect a fundamental anxiety about queenship as the most extreme form of women invading the public sphere" (Hunt 1991, 123). Staël recognizes this anxiety and uses it to appeal, as she puts it, to "women of all nations, of all classes of society" to see that "the destiny of Marie Antoinette encompasses all which can possibly touch [women's] hearts" (Queen, 366). Staël attempts to erase divisions amongst women (particularly class divisions which initially drove the market women to descend on Versailles) in order to get women to see in Marie Antoinette what Staël believes all women have in common. See how Marie Antoinette is just like you—your destiny could be hers, she argues: "if you are sensitive, if you are mothers, she has loved with all of the same power of soul as you" (Queen, 366). Staël argues that as a woman, Marie Antoinette always put her family first; the crime of keeping her contacts with her family in Austria should be something we should praise her for: "her entire life has been proof of her respect for the ties of nature—but this virtue, far from frightening us, should set our minds at ease about all of the others" (Queen, 373). Moreover, according to Staël, in any acts she has done she has only been motivated by a love for her family:

You, who saw her look at her children, you who know that no danger could reconcile her to being separated from her spouse, even when so many times he left paths open for her to return to her country—can you believe that her heart was barbarous or tyrannical? Ah! no one who knows what it is to love would make others suffer; perhaps no one who has been punished through those whom one cherishes could doubt celestial vengeance.

(Queen, 377)

The only time, according to Staël, that the queen lost her composure or acted out of anything even approaching self-interest was when one of her family members was in danger. "If you want to weaken a grand character," Staël writes, "arrest her children" (Queen, 379). According to Staël's account, when Marie Antoinette was separated from her son, he refused to "take the slightest nourishment" (Queen, 390). Despite the boy's young age, he was kept separate from his mother, yet Marie Antoinette continued to live; "she remains alive because she loves, because she is a mother: ah, but for this sacred bond, she would excuse herself from the company of those who want to prolong her life" (Queen, 391)!

Unfortunately, there were few that wanted to prolong, and many that desired to end, Marie Antoinette's life. Anne Mini insightfully notes that the essence of Staël's defense of the queen hinges on an account of how Marie Antoinette's roles as "woman" suddenly "crashed into one another—roles over which the young queen had even less control than most women."12 Mini elaborates that on Staël's criteria, condemned as a woman, Marie Antoinette was simply seen as "asking for it."

She was famous—and since, society's logic runs, no virtuous woman attracts public attention, she must necessarily have been lacking in virtue. She was wealthy—and since no woman can deserve wealth on her own behalf, she must have stolen it from the French people, using her feminine wiles to distract attention from her avarice.…She was the King's wife—and therefore must have used her feminine wiles to blandish him into bad policies, since as a woman, she could not possess the reason to favor good ones.…She was the daughter of Maria-Theresa—and thus must have been a traitoress to France.

(Mini 1995, 243)

Thus, Marie Antoinette's worst crime: to be a highly visible woman. Anne Mini reminds us of something that Wollstonecraft had pointed out quite forcefully: Marie Antoinette did not step out of the prescribed social roles for women. Yet, her adherence to those social roles, especially when they "crashed into one another" was no guarantee that she would not be slandered. To many women who supported the Revolution, hatred of Marie Antoinette came to symbolize their loyalty to the Revolution. Though the queen adhered to a feminine role, in the context of revolutionary politics, many women came to hate the queen for having escaped the traditional female vices: ignorance, poverty, sexual bondage, slavery to her reproductive life, unfreedom to act (Gutwirth 1992, 242-3). In Lynn Hunt's analysis "the queen, then, was the emblem (and sacrificial victim) of the feared disintegration of gender boundaries that accompanied the Revolution" (Hunt 1991, 123).

Defining the Feminine

Taken together, these accounts by Wollstonecraft and Staël propose different lenses through which to view historical notions of the female self and how they were invoked by these two female political theorists to argue for the potential role of women in politics. Wollstonecraft sees a broad and participatory role for women but holds women to what she calls a "masculine" model of educated citizenship and reasonable reflection (Revolution, 6). She maintains that structural inequality is at the root of gendered accounts of virtue, and that individuals should pursue enlightened virtue regardless of gender. In line with this reasoning, Marie Antoinette and the women who participated in the march equally fail to live up to Wollstonecraft's idea of virtue: Marie Antoinette was a coquette, and the women who marched were part of a "mob" mimicking male behavior. While Wollstonecraft certainly felt that women had a special social role to play in being mothers and would uplift politics through this unique sensibility, she thought women were, first and foremost, human beings with reason who should exercise their reason in playing their political role, Mary Lyndon Shanley writes that Wollstonecraft believed "exaggerated notions of female sensibility corrupted both women and men, and worked against the extension of fundamental rights of citizenship to women."13

Staël puts women's feminine identity at the center of her analysis to lay the groundwork for a protofeminist politics based exclusively in feminine identity. She invokes traditional, even stereotyped, notions of women's virtue, claiming that these are the ideals that are needed in public life. Staël glorifies an appeal to emotions and to the sensuous imagination as a way to understand the situations of persons such as Marie Antoinette.14 … [S]he seems to imply that our feelings might be more deeply rational than our intellect. After all, revolutionary men from the Terror to Napoleon claimed to rule in accordance with reason; women were traditionally excluded. The question arises, however, as to whether women's exclusion necessarily fosters the kinds of emotions Staël depicts. Her appeal to the "hearts of women" fails to account for women's anger, women's violence, and women's deviation from a model of motherhood and compassionate understanding. Staël's move could convincingly be read as simply another essentializing strategy. How much, after all, do the women marchers really have in common with Marie Antoinette, who represents the Old Regime and is consequently a class rival of the marchers? Because of the model of femininity that Staël employs in this particular instance, she is unable to consider the many motivations behind the women's march and the various ways this political action represents possibilities for women's revolutionary activity and their potential relationship to the state. Staël's reading of women's "common" interests in family, emotion, attachment to particular others, and disdain for the "excesses" of politics may indeed misunderstand what the marchers themselves understood about their own political subjectivity and their desire and ability to act on that very subjectivity. In this vein, one would need to inquire whether the marchers' actions were at odds with their own conceptions of womanhood.

From our perspective as contemporary scholars, we stand fully aware of the problems of ever attempting to securely define "woman" and hold women to a standard based in any notion of the eternal feminine. Joan Scott has stressed the indeterminacy of gender categories, noting that "man" and "woman" are at once empty and overflowing categories. They are empty in that they have no ultimate, transcendent meaning; overflowing because even when they appear to be fixed, they still contain within them alternative, denied, or suppressed definitions.15 Denise Riley writes about the peculiar temporality of "women" and distinguishes the levels of indeterminacy that characterize the category. These include "the individual indeterminacy (when am I a woman?), the historical indeterminacy (what do "women" mean, and when?), and the political indeterminacy (what can "women" do?)."16 Madelyn Gutwirth applies these in her own account of the October Days:

The huge existential gap between the ideology of gender and the in-the-home and on-the-street realities of women's actual behavior is nowhere more evident than in the story of the October Days. Just as we still jockey mentally in daily life with insistent ideas of female "goodness," "purity," and "beauty" we encounter, so did the eruption of a mob of women armed with pikes and muskets strain the ability of the Revolution's contemporaries to sort out the solecism of the Frenchwomen's playing so unforeseen a militant role as they did in their march on Versailles.

(Gutwirth 1992, 239)

Dominique Godineau documents that women's revolutionary action does not follow any preconceived patterns of "feminine" behavior, no matter how defined. When women acted politically, they acted from a number of different axes and with a variety of demands and expectations; women do not necessarily act solely (though of course they do sometimes act primarily) as women.

Yet, though we are reminded that it is ill advised to seek firmly fixed notions of woman and the female self, women activists and theorists during the Revolution were faced with a peculiarly difficult situation. In Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man, Joan Scott has argued that we should understand the dilemma of needing to invoke qualities of group identity even while denying their negative characteristics in terms of a "politics of undecidability."17 Due to the political situation whereby the Rights of Man were presumed to be universal, yet posited as against and exclusive of women's rights, women were forced to accept definitions of gender in order to argue on behalf of their sex, while maintaining that gender should not matter if rights are indeed "universal."

This paradoxical political situation sheds light on Staël's strategy of invoking a stereotyped notion of the female self. Recall that Staël's political strategy is born in a crucial moment. Staël felt quite certain that manipulation of the image of the queen as the most visible political woman would have dire political consequences for women as a whole in terms of revolutionary politics. Her appeal in the face of this danger, and at the moment of Marie Antoinette's trial, seeks to forge a female community across class and political boundaries upon emotional grounds suggesting the "hearts" of all women would recognize the queen's plight. Though the women marchers and the queen were class enemies, they were acting in a political moment when the category of "woman" was being manipulated within revolutionary rhetoric. The salient question becomes, in both historical and contemporary terms, when it is possible, and politically strategic, to invoke categories of identity that have heretofore served as disciplinary and/or exclusionary. While marks of identity are oppressive, they are also constitutive of a person's very existence. At the moment of the Women's March, the class oppression of the Old Regime, the queen's status as foreigner and as woman, and French women's revolutionary role were simultaneously in flux.

Across her oeuvre, Staël is well aware of the risks of the attempt to "fix" a notion of feminine subjectivity in any appeal to nature or even social behavior. In light of living through a historical moment in which women were denied access to citizenship based on claims of nature, Staël fractures the category of "woman" throughout her works in talking explicitly about women intellectuals and their various representations and women's "indeterminate" nature. As her work on Marie Antoinette and the representation of women in the Revolution indicates, Staël is quite clearly aware that it is precisely because of the inability to posit a strict feminine subjectivity that the category of woman is open to both overt and covert forms of political manipulation. In championing the emotive and the performative as against the rational and the transparent. Staël willingly engages in the political acts by which women must claim political space and action despite the risks inherent in any such political strategy. She seems to imply that engaging in a political performance might be less risky than forever glorifying a masculine model of reason that makes sexual difference incompatible with rational political discourse.

Moreover, despite (or maybe because of) our inability to read transparently the intentions of the marchers themselves and to understand their own conceptions of womanhood and feminine subjectivity, it is imperative to theorize how best women can act in the name of women without attributing a regulatory and disciplinary categorical status to the concept of woman. Contrary to the instinct to read an appeal to the "hearts" of women as reactionary or stereotyped, I would like to suggest the possibility of claiming this move as an appeal to a utopian moment that, when invoked, points simultaneously towards the possibility of community and laments the current lack of community. Might an affirmation of identity be liberating within the context of a larger struggle to transform wider material and institutional forms of oppression?

Writing almost two hundred years after Germaine de Staël, in her introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes that because women are scattered across all social groups, "the bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other."18 Consequently, women tend to feel solidarity with men in their own social class (or we might add, racial category) rather than with women in general. "Women do notsay'We.'… they do not authentically posit themselves as Subject" (Beauvoir 1984, 19). Depending then on women's particular social class, race, and other circumstances, feminine subjectivity is a strange mix of freedom and alienation. This mix, for Beauvoir, is a highly specific kind of oppression necessarily difficult to break out of due to the problem of the lack of a feminist subjectivity. When we think about Staël's political strategy of asserting a politics of sexual difference in light of Beauvoir's comments, we might better understand the necessity of speaking of and to women as a politicization of the category on the way to its ultimate depoliticization. Despite the fact that Staël herself is well aware of class and political divisions amongst women (witness her analysis of the relationships between women in her famous novel Delphine, for example) she does not give up the hope that women will realize that in order to be free, they must assert themselves as women.

This hope may seem a highly naïve and utopian political strategy. It also may seem a dangerous and debilitating one in light of concerns raised by some feminist scholars who charge that the women's movement posited an identity of women across class and race lines by advancing the middle-class white woman as model.19 While I would insist that feminists constantly be aware of our own exclusionary and disciplinary kinds of moves in attempts to posit woman as a category, in light of this reading of the Women's March, I would also claim that we abandon utopian and collective narratives only at the peril of losing sight of feminist goals for the improvement of the lives of all kinds of women. Staël was eerily aware that in a highly charged political moment, one woman could come to stand in for all women. Staël sought to invoke the utopian dream of women coming together to forge an alternative path to these dangerous options. Because neither history nor philosophy has offered feminists a way beyond the dilemma of feminine subjectivity, I suggest that an alternative path lies in political strategy. If the ultimate goal of feminism is to abolish the need for its own existence, we can learn from Staël's historical moment that the seemingly utopian strategy of speaking collectively as women, carefully and cautiously, may be usefully called upon along the way.


  1. Réflexions sur le procès de la Reine par une Femme (Bibliotèque Nationale Librarie 3272: August, 1793). Unless otherwise indicated, all references to this piece will be to the English translation by Anne A. A. Mini cited in Appendix B. 365-92 in An Expressive Revolution: the political theory of Germaine de Staël, Ph.D. dissertation. University of Washington, 1995, and cited within the text as (Queen, page number).
  2. Dominique Godineau remarks that in this crowd there were "six to seven thousand women and some men [who] forced their way into the Hotel-de-Ville and then began to march toward Versailles." See Dominique Godineau, The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution, trans. Katherine Streip (Berkeley, 1998), 98.
  3. On the ways Marie Antoinette was used to undermine the position of all women as possible political actors or citizens see. Madelyn Gutwirth, "Marie-Antoinette, Scourge of the French People." The Twilight of the Goddesses: Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era (New Brunswick, NJ, 1992), 228-45; Elizabeth Colwill, "Just Another Citoyenne? Marie-Antoinette on Trial, 1790-1793," History Workshop 28 (Autumn 1989), 63-87; and Lynn Hunt, "The Many Bodies of Marie-Antoinette: Political Pornography and the Problem of the Feminine in the French Revolution," as well as "The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited (1785-1786): The Case of the Missing Queen," in Eroticism and the Body Politic, Ed. Lynn Hunt (Baltimore, 1991), 108-30 and 63-89.
  4. Wendy Gunther-Canada, "The politics of sense and sensibility: Mary Wollstonecraft and Catharine Macaulay Graham on Burke's Reflection on the Revolution in France" in Hilda L. Smith, ed., Women Writers and the Early Modern British Political Tradition (Cambridge, 1998), 127-47.
  5. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, eds., The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Volume 5 (New York, 1989). Reference to this work will be cited within the text as (Men, page number).
  6. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ed. Carol Poston (New York, 1988). Reference to this work will be cited within the text as (Woman, page number).
  7. Mary Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral Overview of the French Revolution, in Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, eds., The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Volume 6 (New York, 1989). Reference to this work will be cited within the text as (Revolution, page number).
  8. See Virginia Sapiro, "Wollstonecraft, Feminism, and Democracy: 'Being Bastilled'" In Maria J. Falco, ed., Feminist interpretation of Mary Wollstonecraft (University Park, PA, 1996), 33-45 at 39 as well as Sapiro's A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft (Chicago, 1992).
  9. Geneviève Fraisse, Reason's Muse: Sexual Difference and the Birth of Democracy, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Chicago and London, 1994), 104.
  10. Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution. Three Volumes (London, 1818). References to this work will be cited within the text as (Considerations, Volume Number, page number).
  11. See Germaine de Staël, On Literature in Relation to Social Institutions, in Morroe Berger, ed., Madame de Staël on Politics, Literature, and National Character (Garden City, NY, 1964), 247.
  12. See Anne Mini, An Expressive Revolution, cited above, 234.
  13. Mary Lyndon Shanley, "Mary Wollstonecraft on sensibility, women's rights, and patriarchal power," in Hilda L. Smith, ed., Women Writers and the early Modern British Political Tradition (Cambridge, 1998), 148-67 at 150.
  14. For an analysis of Staël as a political thinker able to include particular identities and loyalties within the call to universal principles, see my (Un)Manly Citizens: J. J. Rousseau's and Germaine de Staël's Subversive Women (Baltimore, 1999).
  15. See Joan Scott's Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988), 49.
  16. Denise Riley, "A Short History of Some Preoccupations," in Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, eds., Feminists Theorize the Political (New York, 1992), 121-9 at 121.
  17. See Joan Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge, 1996), xi.
  18. See Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. Parshley (New York, 1984), 19.
  19. For one (of many) argument concerning the dangers and problems inherent in claiming solidarity for women across class and race lines, see Elizabeth Spelman, Inessential Woman (Boston, 1988).



SOURCE: Kotin Mortimer, Armine. "Male and Female Plots in Staël's Corinne. "In Studies in Literature, History, and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century France: Selected Proceedings of the Sixteenth Colloquium in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, edited by Keith Busby, pp. 149-56. Amsterdam: CIP-Gegevens Koninklijke, 1992.

In the following excerpt, Kotin Mortimer explores the male subjugation of the fallen woman in Corinne.

Through the fictive transcription of her artistic personality in the character of Corinne, Germaine de Staël addressed a vindictive reproach to any man who failed to give due consideration to her genius.1 She plotted to kill her heroine, and to blame her death on Lord Oswald Nelvil, an amalgam of several real men in Staël's circle who, in Madelyn Gutwirth's phrase, held the "analogous role of unreliable lover in Mme de Staël's life."2

From the outset Staël projected Oswald's situation between two women, one superior, the other ordinary; Oswald was to marry the ordinary woman, and have a daughter; Corinne was to die. Writes Simone Balayé of the early outline: "Le héros tue l'héroïne ou l'abandonne … le choix n'est pas fait. Mais on sait d'ores et déjà que Corinne se trouvera dans cette situation, l'abandon, la mort et peut-être le pardon, pendant qu'Oswald sera livré au remords."3

Yet though the accusation is palpable throughout, Staël's final judgment of Oswald remains ambiguous. The last paragraph of the novel is a coda in which a series of questions lays doubt on the future destiny of Nelvil:

Que devint Oswald?…se pardonna-t-il sa conduite passée? le monde, qui l'approuva, le consolat-il? se contenta-t-il d'un sort commun, après ce qu'il avait perdu? Je l'ignore; je ne veux, à cet égard, ni le blâmer ni l'absoudre.4

The veiled accusations against Oswald, and his troubled or common fate, could well have carried against all the men in Staël's coterie who, like Benjamin Constant, failed to recognize that they had been chosen for a unique destiny, as if singled out by a divine power, which it was their error to reject. The novel's closure is marked by this vengeful "I told you so." But the dominant image at Corinne's death in the final pages is that of a cloud that darkens the sky, and symbolically obnubilates any clear finalities. Most romantic closures display this double characteristic: against the brutal certainty of death there stands in counterpoise the ambiguity affecting the final moral judgment on Oswald Nelvil and the uncertainty that Corinne's death will have changed Oswald for the better. Any apotheosis of the female as artist, which is, to be sure, a function of the ending, is counter-balanced by the failure of the novel to close on the decisive punishment of Nelvil. In this Staël sacrificed not to any man but to a tenacious romantic commonplace according to which the moral of a work of art must remain "dans le vague."

There are several masculine standards and morals, or "male plots," that a feminist reading of the novel would expose. Such a reading would show Oswald Nelvil to be rather a stereotypical male chauvinist even in his love of Corinne. It would dwell on Oswald's masculine vanity, as when he is proud to be seen in public with a woman of such fame as Corinne, which later takes an ironic turn when he is thrilled at being with Lucile while her beauty is admired by the crowds in the London theater or in Hyde Park. Staël also treats with some irony a common male plot, according to which women need male protection, a pervasive ethic propounded here by Corinne's friend Castel-Forte: "ces fragiles idoles adorées aujourd'hui peuvent être brisées demain, sans que personne prenne leur défense, et c'est pour cela même que je les respecte davantage" (p. 565). In her decline Corinne herself falls prey to another male plot, a kind of mythological playing out of the older-woman syndrome, who sees her glory eclipsed by the younger, blonder, and fresher Lucile (pp. 488-90). The Phèdre intertext, alluded to in a painting, might be pertinent here (p. 236). Apocalypse, not apotheosis, threatens. Finally, a double paternal authority stands in direct antagonism to female desires (p. 504).

Staël had the courage to develop these male plots while at the same time finding support for her feminist theses in them. Oswald's tendency to judge Corinne too superior and too uncommon is the female author's assessment of the ordinary man's failing; it is a reproach to the men in Staël's circle. The central theme opposing "English" and "Italian" values raises the heated question of a woman's virtue: can a woman of talents and imagination be pure? (It was a heated question at the time, and we can guess Staël's answer.) Corinne's stepmother Lady Edgermond, the nec plus ultra of the straitlaced English, sees only that a woman who has ideas beyond the common ones cannot be pure, according to a socially defined virtue (p. 370). To this Staël opposed the idea of dedication ("dévouement"), and the natural virtues of generosity, goodness, tenderness, and frankness; or as Nelvil warmly defends Corinne to Lady Edgermond:

"Vous confondez dans les règles vulgaires une personne douée comme aucune femme ne l'a jamais été; un ange d'esprit et de bonté; un génie admirable, et néanmoins un caractère sensible et timide; une imagination sublime, une générosité sans bornes, une personne qui peut avoir eu des torts, parce qu'une supériorité si étonnante ne s'accorde pas toujours avec la vie commune."

(p. 459)

As in Paul et Virginie, where Virginie's French education violently disrupts the idyll, the scorn for natural virtues leads to death. But when we reflect on Germaine de Staël's life of talent and character, and on her many lovers, we can readily see that the link "opinion" might have established between "esprit" or "génie" and a lack of virtue might have been of some concern to her. The portrait of herself in Corinne, idealized in so many other ways, is above all idealistically "clean" and "moral"—in the "English" way, ironically. For such an idealism does Corinne die at Germaine de Staël's hands. And it is a troubling deconstructive undercurrent.

The deconstruction lies in a reading which attempts to reconcile the exaggerated idealism of the (feminist) interpretation with the referential reality from which the character is drawn. In this reading we must take into account an occulted subtext. I speak of the "fallen-woman" subtext. Corinne is most emphatically not a fallen woman. Yet in the highly charged chapters of Book 17, "Corinne en Écosse," in which she compares herself to the angelically pure Lucile, such a repressed plot suggests itself, if only by antithesis, to the reader's mind, in direct contradiction to the idealized portrait. Contemplating Lucile's innocent and pious face, Corinne reflects that the younger woman has before her "un avenir qui n'était troublé par aucun souvenir, par aucune vie passée dont il fallût répondre ni devant les autres, ni devant sa propre conscience" (p. 503). Such a reflection would not be in disagreement with the plot of the fallen but repentant woman. Corinne is definitely a Woman with a Past, even though we are told that she is virtuous, and has given only her heart. But the consequences for her are as if she had given all, so that the plot requires and depends on such a subtext. The "faute de la femme" is an implied necessary precondition for this story, or at least a preexisting plot line on which the plot we do have establishes itself by occulting it. In this occulting of the source of the plot lies the romantic genius of the novel, the attraction of its ambiguous ending, and the mystery of its murderous intent.

Thus the heat with which Oswald defends Corinne to Lady Edgermond has an unnamed source, and indeed he speaks of her faults: "une personne qui peut avoir eu des torts, parcequ'une supériorité si étonnante ne s'accorde pas toujours avec la vie commune, mais qui possède une ame si belle, qu'elle est au-dessus de ses fautes, et qu'une seule de ses actions ou de ses paroles les ef-face toutes" (p. 459). Other "lovers" before Oswald—"un grand seigneur allemand" and "un prince italien" (p. 387)—are put neatly into place in Corinne's written recital of her past; they too arise from the subtext, though they appear to exist in the actual plot to deny any dishonor. But before Oswald knows her story, he does have moments of doubt, at least one of which is caused by Corinne's own allusions to "une vie sans tache." A line from an elegy by Properce (Cornélie says: "aucune tache n'a souillé ma vie depuis l'hymen jusqu'au bûcher") inspires in Corinne so passionate an envy that Oswald is overcome with a "soupçon pénible": "Corinne, s'écria-t-il, Corinne, votre ame délicate n'a-t-elle rien à se reprocher?" (pp. 131-32). Corinne's response is anything but unambiguous: "Et n'y a-t-il pas dans le coeur de l'homme une pitié divine pour les erreurs que le sentiment, ou du moins l'illusion du sentiment, aurait fait commettre!" (p. 132). And in her deathbed confession she will recognize that "mes fautes ont été celles des passions" (p. 585). The subtext suggests itself too in Corinne's lessons to Lucile, lessons that otherwise lend themselves readily to quite a smile of mockery, as Corinne unabashedly teaches Lucile to resemble the person Oswald had loved the most, Corinne herself! Here she likens the woman of charm to the woman who needs to "réparer des torts": "On a vu, dit Corinne à Lucile, des femmes aimées non seulement malgré leurs erreurs, mais à cause de ces erreurs mêmes" (p. 578).



I do reproach Rousseau on women's behalf with one wrong, however: of claiming in a note to the Letter on Spectacles [Lettre a d'Alembert sur les spectactles (Letter to d'Alembert on the Theater)] that women are incapable of painting passion with warmth and truth. Let him deny women, if he likes, the vain literary talents that make them struggle with men instead of being loved by them; let him refuse women the intellectual power, the profound capacity for attention with which great geniuses are endowed; women's feeble organs are opposed to this, and their hearts too often preoccupied, monopolizing their minds, so that they cannot concentrate on other meditations; but let Rousseau not accuse women of just being able to write coldly, and of being unable to portray even love. The soul alone is what distinguishes women: the soul gives women's minds some movement; the soul alone makes them find any charm in a destiny whose only events are feelings, whose only interests are affections; the soul makes them identify with the fate of their beloved, and arranges a happiness for them whose only source is the happiness of the things they love; finally, the soul takes the place of both education and experience for them, making them worthy of feeling what they are unable to judge. According to Rousseau, Sappho was the only woman capable of making love speak. Ah! women might blush to use the burning language that is the sign of insane delirium rather than deep passion, and still express what they feel: the sublime abandon, the melancholy sorrow, the overpowering feelings that make them live and die, would touch their readers' hearts more deeply than all the raptures born of the exalted imagination of poets.

De Staël, Germaine. Excerpt from "On the Letter on Spectacles." Reprinted in An Extraordinary Women: Selected Writings of Germaine de Staël. Translated with an introduction by Vivian Folkenflik New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

But it is Corinne's trip to Naples with Oswald, and what happens there, that is the most revealing, and the most symbolically attentive to the subtext. Already highly charged with the implication of a public confession of a love affair, and a sacrifice Corinne risks of her honor, the descent to Naples is a kind of perilous journey to the id. There the intense heat and Corinne's brilliance contribute to the first expressions of Oswald's sexual desire:

Plusieurs fois il serra Corinne contre son coeur, plusieurs fois il s'éloigna, puis revint, puis s'éloigna de nouveau, pour respecter celle qui devait être la compagne de sa vie. Corinne ne pensait point aux dangers qui auraient pu l'alarmer, car telle était son estime pour Oswald, que, s'il lui avait demandé le don entier de son être, elle n'eût pas douté que cette prière ne fût le serment solennel de l'épouser; mais elle était bien aise qu'il triomphât de lui-même et l'honorât par ce sacrifice … Oswald était bien loin de ce calme: il se sentait embrasé par les charmes de Corinne. Une fois il embrassa ses genoux avec violence, et semblait avoir perdu tout empire sur sa passion …

(pp. 288-89)

The metonymic sexual embrace takes place in this elsewhere that Naples represents, where Oswald gives his ring to Corinne, both indulge in self-exposure by telling the much-awaited stories of their pasts, presentiments of death occur, masked as obnubilated sexual desire (a cloud passes over the moon, and Corinne says "ce soir il condamnait notre amour"), and the whole emotional scenario is crowned by the powerful eruption of Vesuvius, producing more clouds in the sky and rivers of fire in the night.

The Naples episode explicitly rejects the sexual interpretation of the couple's passion, which it displaces to the symbolic level with the eruption of Vesuvius. The novel is in contradiction with itself, virtue and passion being made to coexist both in extreme degrees. It is a sort of Lys dans la vallée without Lady Dudley to deflect or absorb the sexual current—in this Corinne is a far more daring work than Balzac's novel. After Naples, and the ruins of Pompeii, the relation between Oswald and Corinne changes, and Corinne begins a long decline. The arrival in Venice is marked by bells ringing for a woman's entry into a convent, her death to the world, which proposes to Corinne's imagination a possible solution that she will nevertheless reject (pp. 421-22).

For clearly Corinne dies of "douleur," and her suffering is imposed on her by Nelvil. To Castel-Forte she says about Oswald: "C'est un homme qui m'a fait trop de mal. L'ennemi qui m'aurait jetée dans une prison, qui m'aurait bannie et proscrite, n'eût pas déchiré mon coeur à ce point" (565). Just as Oswald "killed" his father—"la douleur qui venait de moi avait déchiré son coeur" (p. 332)—so he kills his mistress: "elle désira que l'ingrat qui l'avait abandonnée sentît encore une fois que c'était à la femme de son temps qui savait le mieux aimer et penser qu'il avait donné la mort" (p. 580). Nothing could be clearer: Corinne thinks Oswald has killed her. And a final letter from Corinne, the last words she addresses directly to Oswald, condemns him no less sternly and finally than Ellénore's last letter to Adolphe:

qu'avez-vous fait de tant d'amour? qu'avez-vous fait de cette affection unique en ce monde? un malheur unique comme elle. Ne prétendez donc plus au bonheur; ne m'offensez pas en croyant l'obtenir encore.

(p. 572)

Germaine de Staël plots to kill Corinne in order to propose her a martyr to feminine genius. No man may rise to the level of her pretensions. Oswald, or the amalgam of his various real models, was finally as great a disappointment as the "grand seigneur allemand" and the "prince italien"—promising, but lacking a just appreciation of female genius. In a chapter rejected from De l'Allemagne, Staël wrote:

Je voulois faire ressortir les malheurs qu'entraînent de certaines qualités dans une femme et quel malheur pourroit-il y avoir pour une femme si elle étoit parfaitement aimée d'un homme digne d'elle?5

It is partly the function of the ending "dans le vague" to remind the reader that the moral of a work of imagination is in the impression left after the reading. In the end, the moral reason Germaine de Staël sacrifices Corinne might well depend on the fallen-woman subtext the narrative suggests by rejecting it. Had Corinne found a man worthy of her, she might not have died; but might the novel have left a moral impression if Corinne had not died? The narrative model of the plot with the death of the woman is parallel to an ideological tradition according to which the woman alone pays the price of disobeying social imperatives, and one may well claim that Corinne is sacrificed to this tradition. But much more important is the ideal truth for Germaine de Staël, or what I call the truth of the drive.

The "fallen-woman" subtext might also be named "seduced and abandoned." Germaine de Staël used her plot as a message to particular readers, to show what would happen to her if she were to become the abandoned woman: suffering, then death. She had already, as it were, fulfilled the first half of that plot; the second was a potential outcome. In this the plot serves more as a lightning rod than as a wish-fulfillment, like those dreams Freud analyzed whose function was to ward off dreaded events by dreaming their very realization. This subtext is one of the determinants of the fiction, never realized, but molding the plot: Corinne is not seduced by Oswald, as the authorial voice has taken great pains to assure us, but she is abandoned. It is as if the plot has taken over the fiction, making Oswald so guilty that the seduction might just as well have happened. It is the plot that makes Corinne an idealized portrait of the seduced and seductive Germaine, and it is the plot that puts Oswald in the murderer's shoes, loading the guilt on his shoulders, then leaving his punishment in the interrogatory mode. According to this very weighty literary model, the heroine must either finish her days in a convent (a solution preferred by the eighteenth century) or finish her days right away (the modern preference). It is thus the fiction that kills the heroine, as the text speaks for itself and performs a plot that has its own end in death. Here the truth of the drive irresistibly takes over and rewrites plain truth, casting the reference to reality adrift in the space of what Doubrovsky calls autofiction, which is neither true nor false.6

The occulted plot of the fallen woman, the subtext, contributed to the end to which the plot of the novel came. Corinne is the victim of a murder at the hands of her creator because the author could not die of her suffering, as she so often claimed she would. Her text borrowed the plot of the subtext to make Oswald guilty of causing Corinne's death. This divergence from real life shows that the plot has a life of its own. The text executes for the author the plot the author does not execute in life; it turns this realism into an operable real, in spite of Barthes's assertion that "le réel romanesque n'est pas opérable. "7


  1. A different version of this text has appeared as part of a chapter on Corinne and Adolphe in my book Plotting to Kill (New York: Peter Lang, 1992).
  2. Madelyn Gutwirth, Madame de Staël, Novelist: The Emergence of the Artist as Woman (Urbana, IL.: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 232.
  3. Simone Balayé, Les carnets de voyage de Madame de Staël. Contribution à la genèse de ses œuvres (Genève: Droz, 1971), p. 246.
  4. Germaine de Staël, Corinne ou l'Italie (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), pp. 586-87. All further quotations are from this recent edition.
  5. Quoted in Simone Balayé, "Corinne et les amis de Madame de Staël," Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France, 66 (1966), p. 148.
  6. Serge Doubrovsky, "Autobiographie/Vérité/ Psychanalyse," L'Esprit Créateur, 20, 3 (1980), p. 90.
  7. Roland Barthes, S/Z (Paris: Seuil, 1970), p. 87.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Staël, Germaine de: Title Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . 20 Sep. 2019 <>.

"Staël, Germaine de: Title Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . (September 20, 2019).

"Staël, Germaine de: Title Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Retrieved September 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.