Staal de Launay, Madame de (1684–1750)
Staal de Launay, Madame de (1684–1750)
French writer whose memoirs and letters furnish a candid view of French high society in the 18th century and the frustrations experienced by a talented woman confronting obstacles of gender and class. Name variations: Madame de Staal; Madame de Staal-Delaunay; Baronne de Staal-Delaunay; Rose Delaunay; Rose Delaunay, Baronne de Staal; Rose Staal de Launay; Marguerite Cordier de Launay. Pronunciation: ROSE der-low-NAY, bar-RON der STALL. Born Marguerite-Jeanne Cordier in Paris, France, on August 30, 1684; died on June 15, 1750, in Gennevilliers (Seine) or Sceaux (Seine); buried at the church of Sceaux; second daughter of Cordier (an artist) and Rose de Launay Cordier, known as Rose de Launay; educated in the Convent of Saint-Louis, Rouen; married Baron de Staal, in 1734 or 1735; no children.
Began to live at the Convent of Saint-Louis (1691); fell in love with the Marquis de Silly (c. 1700); took employment with the Duchess of Maine (1711); earned welcome notoriety for letter to Fontenelle on the Tétar affair (1713); organized the "Grand Nights of Sceaux" (1714–15); imprisoned in the Bastille as a participant in the Cellamare Conspiracy (1718–20); was in love with the Chevalier de Ménil (1719–c. 1721); death of Dacier ruined a probable marriage (1722); entered a loveless marriage to Baron de Staal (1734–35); wrote her memoirs (c. 1736–41).
Mémoires de Madame de Staal-Delaunay (numerous editions, in particular, London: 1755, 4 vols. in 2, including the comedies L'Engouement and La Mode; Paris: A. Renouard, 1821, as Oeuvres de Madame de Staal, including letters; Paris: A. Lemerre, 1877, Mathurin de Lescure, ed.; Paris: Mercure de France, 1970, Gérard Doscot, ed.); see also English translations by Selina Bathurst (London: R. Bentley, 1877) and Cora Bell (NY: Dodd, Mead, 1892); Abrégé de métaphysique, Léa Gilon, ed., 1978.
"My experience is exactly the reverse of what is seen in novels, where the heroine, brought up as a humble shepherdess, becomes an illustrious princess. In my childhood I was treated as a person of distinction, and in the course of time I discovered that I was nobody, and that nothing in the world belonged to me." So begins, on a grim, coldly realistic note, the famed memoirs of Madame de Staal de Launay. She wrote them soon after her marriage, at age 50, ended whatever chance she still had to live a fulfilling life. Five years after her death, they were published and recognized at once as a classic of French literature.
Her father was a painter named Cordier. Her mother Rose de Launay Cordier, a beautiful woman, was pregnant with her second child when, for reasons unknown, she fled with him to England in 1684. She separated from Cordier and returned to Paris, where Staal de Launay was born Marguerite-Jeanne Cordier on August 30, 1684. Rose resumed using her maiden name, de Launay, as did Marguerite who also took the name Rose. Staal de Launay would be known as Rose de Launay until her marriage. She never knew her father; she wrote that when he died, a few years after her birth, she shed tears but did not know why. Meanwhile, her mother, all but destitute and with two daughters in tow, found refuge, through the intervention of friends, at the Abbey of Saint-Sauveur in Evreux, Normandy, where the prioress, Mme de La Rochefoucauld (sister of the author of the Maxims), sheltered her free of charge. Two nuns, the Grieu sisters , became friends with her and, wrote Staal de Launay in her memoirs, "took a violent affection for me." When the elder of the sisters was appointed abbess of the Priory of Saint-Louis at Rouen, they both left. With her mother's consent (mother and daughter were never especially close), they took the seven-yearold girl with them. From then until she was 26, the future Mme de Staal de Launay lived at the Saint-Louis convent.
The priory, she wrote, "was like a small state in which I reigned as sovereign." Four nuns and lay sisters waited on her, supported by the Grieu sisters' family allowance: "They deprived themselves of everything that I might lack nothing." She confessed her failure to acknowledge properly their sacrifices and admitted that she "acquired all the faults of the great. This has since taught me to excuse similar defects in them, and has shown me how easily we persuade ourselves that everything is made for us." Over the years, she developed a small "court" of friends. Among them were the poet Abbé Guillaume de Chaulieu; the historian Abbé René de Vertot; a learned lawyer, M. de Brunel; and several young noble women her age who came for stays: Mlle Louise d'Épinay , Mlle de la Ferté, Mlle de Neuville , and especially Mlle de Silly , her closest friend.
Staal de Launay was intellectually precocious. She grew up among adults, was serious by nature, cultivated a rational turn of mind, and read everything in the convent's library plus whatever she could borrow. For a time, she devoured novels and tried writing some before (at
Mlle de Silly's urging) plunging into the philosophies of Descartes and Malebranche. She even wrote a brief philosophical treatise. Her education, in short, exceeded by far that of most women even of the privileged classes at the time. But what would she do for a living? In adolescence, she thought of becoming a nun but at length shrank from the finality of the vows. Not surprisingly, she became the abbess' secretary.
And marriage? She was not especially pretty, and a near-fatal bout of smallpox in her teens had left its mark. Her intellect made her somewhat bossy and didactic. But she had sufficient finesse and pleasantness to experience some innocent love affairs—more accurately, infatuations, crushes on her part—with male visitors to the convent. While sojourning at Mlle de Silly's home, she fell deeply in love with her friend's brother, a soldier ten years her senior, the Marquis de Silly. Yet what could she hope for? She had no dowry and was not of noble blood, so marriage with him was all but impossible. She saw him and corresponded with him for many years, only gradually realizing that to him she was a friend and an agreeable source of information, no more. At bottom, he was a selfish careerist who ended by committing suicide (November 19, 1727), because he had failed to reach the highest posts of the army.
The knowledge of a truth redeems the loss of a pleasure.
—Mme de Staal de Launay
In her late 20s, Staal de Launay found her life changed drastically when the abbess died. The surviving Grieu sister failed to be elected successor and hence lacked the resources to continue supporting her. Staal de Launay confronted "the abyss." Having no dowry, she could not be admitted as a full-fledged nun, even if she truly wanted to take the vows. Proudly declining financial assistance from Vertot, Silly, Brunel, and a M. de Rey (a former object of her affections), she went to Paris to pursue her only good option, namely, a position as governess-tutor in a noble household.
Her search for a job occupies a long section of her memoirs, evidently because it was at this point that she brutally encountered the prejudices of the nobility toward commoners and because she was later hired by a household where she would remain for the rest of her life. For most of a year (it would appear) many prominent people tried to help her while she stayed at the Paris Convent of the Presentation supported by friends. Her sister, Henriette de Launay , played a key role by putting her in touch with her own employer, the Duchess of la Ferté —sister of Charlotte Eléonore de la Mothe Houdancourt , duchess of Ventadour (1661–1744), with whom their mother had briefly held service. Staal de Launay swiftly impressed Ferté as a paragon of knowledge. To her intense discomfort the duchess proceeded to shop her around: "I was no longer in a position to have a will of my own, or to resist the will of others…. I found that I was to be led about like a monkey or any other animal that plays tricks at a fair." Her interlocutors sometimes simply asked her to say something clever or profound.
Certainly she had an opportunity to mingle with the elite. Through Vertot, a friend and relative of Ferté, for example, she met the anatomist Vernay, who introduced her to Mme de Vauvray , mistress of a salon whose frequenters included the philosophes Bernard de Fontenelle and Abbé Charles de Saint-Pierre. Despite these connections, no prospect bore fruit until Ferté took her to the Château de Sceaux, palatial residence of Louis XIV's eldest bastard son, Louis Auguste de Bourbon, duke of Maine (1670–1736), and his tiny, doll-like, but formidable wife, Louise-Bénédicte de Bourbon (1676–1753), duchess of Maine and granddaughter of Louis II Condé ("the Great"). The duke's factotum, Nicholas de Malézieu (1650–1727)—a poet, lawyer, and polymath, member since 1701 of the Académie Française—took great interest in her. An opening appeared in the form of service with Mlle de Clermont , niece of the Duchess of Maine. But Staal de Launay would have to go through Malézieu to be hired. When Malézieu spoke highly of her to the Duchess of Maine, the latter took notice and said that if she were as good as he claimed then she wanted her for herself.
Unfortunately, Ferté, by now much attached to Staal de Launay, decided she wanted her. Staal de Launay had long since concluded she did not want to stay with Ferté because of her volcanic temper, style of life, and the jealousies certain to be inspired among the other servants, beginning with her own sister. So she contacted Malézieu on her own. Ferté found out, waxed furious, but let her accept Malézieu's offer of employment (January 24, 1711) to begin in the spring. Ferté's pain was eased by an element of revenge, for she knew—as Staal de Launay did not—that a place as a lady's maid was coming open, and that was where, not as companion-secretary, the Duchess of Maine would most likely put her. And so it was. To Staal de Launay's intense pain and disappointment, after all the efforts on her behalf, she found herself relegated without ado to an attic alcove and the status of a common servant, superciliously ignored now by the duchess and even Malézieu himself as just another member of Sceaux's huge staff.
Staal de Launay proved utterly inept as a lady's maid and dresser, clumsy (not helped by her poor eyesight) and inexpert at sewing. She grew depressed with this "melancholic and wearisome life" riddled with petty humiliations, and even contemplated suicide. Her mistress, the absolute ruler of Sceaux, was a difficult person, imperious and willful, although (as Staal de Launay confessed in her memoirs) unexpectedly patient with her. To a surprising degree, she wanted to please this petite tyrant for whom she felt a grudging admiration and even, in time, a genuine fondness. Her memoirs are carefully nuanced. On the surface she has nothing bad to say about the woman who employed her for 39 years, but an unmistakable note of frustration and resentment runs through the lines. Interestingly, she ends her memoirs with a long passage fulsomely praising the Duke of Maine at his death—which makes the absence of a similar eulogy of her mistress all the more striking.
Several offers of employment, albeit questionable, surfaced, but on Vertot's advice she declined them. It was the Tétar (or Testart) affair which "caused me to emerge unexpectedly from the profound obscurity in which I lived." Mlle Tétar , with her mother's connivance, sought to escape a marriage proposed by her father, a prominent lawyer, by claiming to be tortured by a spirit (an imp) while in bed. She would secretly manipulate a spring to produce a movement which a gullible public concluded was of satanic origin. Philip Bourbon-Orléans (1674–1723), 2nd duke of Orléans (the future regent), was taken in, and his friend Fontenelle appeared to believe out of respect for him. The Duchess of Maine, who (for reasons to be explained) never missed an opportunity to make Orléans look foolish, asked Staal de Launay to write anonymously to Fontenelle and chide him tactfully for his naïveté. She wrote a wonderfully adroit, humorous letter (December 1713) which caused Fontenelle and Orléans to laugh off the whole business. Copies were made, and Staal de Launay quickly became known to Tout Paris as the author. As a result, the duchess suddenly, at last, realized she had a full-fledged companion-secretary at hand. Such was the position to which Staal de Launay was promoted—for life, as it turned out.
She soon acquired a coterie of her own, including Vertot, the savant Duverney, writers Jean de Valincourt and Antoine La Motte-Houdar, Fontenelle, and even a would-be husband (the now mid-70ish Chaulieu). A marriage prospect collapsed when the fall of a ministry removed a minister who was expected to give her future husband a fine post. Despite its "variety and charm" (as she admitted), hers was no easy life, for the duchess, who hardly slept, made demands at all hours, and the other servants scorned her out of jealousy.
Her most notable role became that of coproducer, with Malézieu, of the famous "Grand Nights of Sceaux," some 16 spectacular entertainments by and for the Maines in 1714–15. With Louis XIV in his last days, the duchess was bent on showing up gloomy Versailles and winning support for her husband at court. The affairs featured songs, poems, dances, illuminations, tableaux, and plays. Staal de Launay, "the veritable soul" of the Nights, wrote much of the material, including two comedies, L'Engouement (Infatuation) and La Mode (Fashion). Beneath the light surface of these plays lay a serious theme: women's lack of education prevents them from carrying out important responsibilities—the principals in the plays are widows—as mother and head of the family. The women of the upper class (her audience) are frivolous, naïve dolls lacking wills of their own, educated only for playing social games. Hers was a female version of women's lives, writes Léa Gilon , not Molière's male version. Realism sets the tone, as in the memoirs. She had to be careful, however, not to offend, so the themes were handled very deftly and the plays were well applauded.
The only truly dramatic event of Staal de Launay's life came with her arrest and imprisonment in the Bastille (December 29, 1718) as a result of the Cellamare Conspiracy. She remained there until June 1720. She was involved because the Duchess of Maine was the prime mover in this clumsy plot to redeem her husband's fortunes. The outlines of the conspiracy are as follows:
Upon the death of his grandson in May 1714, Louis XIV, only a year from death himself, had decided to declare his already legitimized bastard sons (of whom the Duke of Maine, son of the Marquise de Montespan , was the eldest) eligible to succeed to the throne if other branches of the royal family became extinct. Because his successor now would be his great-grandson, who was only a child (Louis XV, 1710–1774), a regency would be necessary, and in his will he named as regent his nephew, Philip Bourbon-Orléans. Once in office, Orléans persuaded the Parlement of Paris in July 1717 to set aside the edict of 1714 and, alas, remove the Duke of Maine as commander of the Household Troops and guardian of young Louis. Outraged over this insult to her husband, the duchess plotted to replace Orléans with Philip V of Spain (Louis XIV's grandson), while Maine, restored to his status, would serve as Philip's proxy at Versailles. Maine went along with his wife's shaky scheme only reluctantly.
At the duchess' command, Staal de Launay searched out legal precedents regarding legitimized princes and served as the conduit for letters between the Maines and agents dealing with the Spanish court and the Spanish ambassador to Versailles, the Prince of Cellamare. Staal de Launay had no illusions about the business, suspecting the conspiracy would fail and fatally damage the Maines. But the duchess laughed off her warnings. Staal de Launay wrote in her memoirs, "I won't explain their plot, for I never understood it," adding dryly, "and perhaps they didn't either." Probably she was ignorant of many details and, for that matter, preferred not to know. But she almost certainly knew much more than her memoirs imply or what she told her interrogators. Of all the participants, she proved to be the most courageous, faithful, and self-sacrificing.
While imprisoned, she refused to make any declaration (a condition of her release) unless she were told exactly what to talk about. She was the last of the conspirators to be freed. The Abbé (later Cardinal) Guillaume Dubois, Orléans' right-hand man, decided, because of his own ambitions and the public's sympathy for the Duke of Maine, not to try the conspirators once he obtained their confessions. The duchess, imprisoned at Dijon, gave way after three months, and the rest gradually followed suit. When told she might as well confess because the duchess had already done so, Staal de Launay cannily replied that since that was the case she saw no reason why they should examine her further. Finally, the duchess thanked her and told her to reply. She gave a declaration (February 1, 1720) about which she later wrote: "I told them only things that no one cared to know, and others that they would have preferred not to hear."
Was her stay in the Bastille disagreeable? Quite the contrary. She wrote of it (apparently ignoring her childhood), "It is the only happy time I ever spent in my life." For one, the Bastille was by no means the grim dungeon of legend. It was "a very tolerable hotel," a "prison of privileged bunglers," with facilities for only 40 to 50 inmates. They enjoyed an extraordinary freedom within the walls, the only strict control being applied to communication with the outside. Prisoners were allowed their own servants, books, writing materials, musical instruments, and pets, and the food and drink, provided at the king's expense, was abundant and rich—so rich that some asked for simpler fare. If one were still dissatisfied, meals could be sent in. Staal de Launay, attended by her maid, occupied her days with reading, card-playing, needlework, and caring for her cats, while M. de Valincourt kept her supplied with comforts and money. From August 1719, moreover, she occasionally dined at the governor's table.
A second reason was that she had found "more liberty than I had lost." In lines easily read as an acid commentary on her life at Sceaux, she wrote: "It is true that in prison one does not follow one's own will, but on the other hand, one does not obey the will of another…. one is exempt from subjugation, duties, and the formalities of society; and taken altogether, it is perhaps the place where one enjoys most liberty." Of her leaving, she wrote, "I felt only confused sensations; joy, if there was any, did not stand out." There was a third reason why the Bastille had not proved so disagreeable: she had fallen in love with a fellow detainee from the conspiracy, the Chevalier de Ménil. With the Marquis de Silly, he was the other great love of her life. She had been apprehensive at first, but his character, maturity (he was older than her 35 years), moderation, and persistence won out: "I beheld a liberator." They exchanged many letters, and in due course he visited her clandestinely in her "cell" (a comfortable room). They were aided by the King's Lieutenant at the prison, Major de Maisonrouge, a former cavalry captain. He became a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac, for he fell deeply in love with her. He later told her that "every time he took or gave our letters," wrote Staal de Launay, "he was plunging a dagger into his own heart." She described him as "a straight-forward soldier, full of natural good qualities, accompanied, but not disfigured, by a certain toughness and rusticity of manner." Ménil obsessed her, however.
He was released to his home in Anjou on January 5, 1720. They continued to correspond via Maisonrouge, but Staal de Launay detected a change in his tone. She grew troubled about her future while awaiting her own release. The thought of returning to a convent—maybe to Presentation—recurred, as it usually did when she was unhappy. But the duchess wanted her back. Everything now depended on Ménil. Upon her release early in June, she went to Sceaux (June 6) but returned to Paris to visit the convent and retrieve some belongings at the Bastille. She found Maisonrouge ill and dejected. As a memento, she gave him a piece she had written. The truth about Ménil became all too clear after a couple of strained meetings. He had found another love back home. Staal de Launay was devastated: "I would sooner have expected the sky to fall from heaven, than any change to take place in the heart of the Chevalier de Ménil."
She returned to Sceaux, where life resumed its old course, although dampened by the late unpleasantness (so to speak) and a temporary separation of the Maines. When the duchess fell seriously ill, Staal de Launay felt she could not desert her. But she became deeply depressed, wanting only solitude. Valincourt tried to obtain a pension for her, but the project foundered. She came to realize what she had missed in not responding to Maisonrouge's devotion. In her memoirs, she described him as "the only man by whom I believed myself to be truly loved." She decided to resume contact with him. It was too late. She learned he had died at his provincial home, brokenhearted. His death inspired some self-examination: "I mourned him far more than I had appreciated him…. To meet with ingratitude"—she might have been thinking, too, of the duchess—"is always the destiny of devotion too faithful and pure." Life now seemed "without aim or object."
Staal de Launay devoted the last portion of her memoirs to her eventual marriage, in 1734 (or 1735). She experienced mixed feelings about the whole business because she had been burned so often, yet she found it hard to submerge her "passions," as she put it. Marriage would confer two advantages. It would raise her social standing, and if she married a noble she would be accepted at court and into the duchess' circle, eat at her table, ride in her carriage, and so forth. It also could make it possible for her to "procure some degree of liberty." Death was now reaping a harvest among her family and friends: her sister during her (Staal de Launay's) imprisonment and her mother soon after her release, Chaulieu, Valincourt, the Marquis de Silly, Mme de Grieu, and others. A pension finally settled on her by the Duke of Maine after her imprisonment plus bequests from dead friends provided her with resources. But plainly she wanted some confirmed status beyond her unclassifiable occupation as reader and friend to the duchess.
A projected marriage to a wealthy widower and well-known classicist, André Dacier (1651–1722), fell through on the verge of consummation when he died suddenly. She had a succession of suitors, but all suffered from various drawbacks. Retirement to a convent still beckoned. Through it all, she continually felt bound not to do something to which the duchess (who was adamantly determined to keep her) would not consent. The duke suggested that a man of position, preferably noble, be found among his many dependents. A friend of hers and the duchess knew a 50ish artillery officer in the Swiss Corps. (Maine was commander of the Swiss and Grand Master of the Artillery.) Baron Jean-Jacques de Staal was living in a new country house at Gennevilliers (about six miles northeast of Paris) with his two daughters. Staal de Launay (who was now a milk-drinker, she tells us) dreamed of a country life and found that the house "recalled the simplicity of the golden age." She described Staal as good tempered, calm, of "unstudied politeness … a person whose society cannot be disagreeable and is incapable of causing animation as of giving annoyance"—a delicate way of saying he was boring. He received the promotion to captain he had long coveted, and all was ready.
It now dawned on Staal de Launay that she had consented too soon. The daughters, she learned, owned the house and openly resented her. The dream of a bucolic idyll dissolved: "Human pride conceals from us the paltry circumstances which have assisted in forming our decisions even on occasions of great importance," she wrote. Notes biographer Maurice Rat, "For the cows she accepted Staal." Probably the bitterest line in her memoirs describes her wedding: "The bride, bound and adorned, was led to the altar." Staal's daughters refused to attend. In no time she was back on duty at Sceaux, where she soon found the duchess unwilling even to allow her to spend Holy Week at Gennevilliers before her husband left on duty: "I now saw that I had only tightened the chains that I had endeavored to slacken." Her social standing had improved, but she could sense that the duchess was uncomfortable with her new status: "I perceived that, unlike baptism, the sacrament of marriage does not wipe away the stain of original sin." To finish it off, her dearest friend, Mme de Bussy , died, and the final illness of the Duke of Maine (1736) compelled her to stay close by the duchess for a year. With a tribute to the late duke, she abruptly ended her memoirs.
The years after 1736 slid by quietly. Festivities resumed at Sceaux after a year's mourning for the duke, but less frequently and intensely than in the golden years before the Cellamare affair. Staal de Launay still read to the duchess into the wee hours, but near the end of her days she was becoming blind. Possibly to come to terms with her life and to fill the empty hours, she wrote her memoirs, probably ceasing after 1741. Sometimes she took refuge at Gennevilliers, "the land where one sleeps." Distinguished guests stayed at Sceaux, the most notable being Voltaire and Mme du Châtelet , from 1747 to 1749, before he left for Potsdam and Frederick the Great's patronage. Staal de Launay disliked that whole interlude intensely, feeling, for some reason, a special distaste for Châtelet. In compensation, she relished the visits (since 1728) of a writer, her last great friend, the Marquise du Deffand (1697–1780), with whom she exchanged mordantly witty letters about the current scene at Sceaux.
Rose Staal de Launay died on June 15, 1750, aged 66, at Gennevilliers (or possibly Sceaux), writes Mathurin de Lescure, "without missing too much the life she left and without thinking too much about the other." She was buried at the church at Sceaux. In 1755, after the death of the Duchess of Maine in 1753 but while her husband still lived, her memoirs appeared and received instant acclaim.
Her life was a tale of disappointments and missed opportunities, a striking case of talent frustrated by rigid conventions confining women and commoners to inferior roles. She was highly intelligent, courageous, resilient, and cool. On the other hand, in a self-portrait Mme du Deffand suggested she write, she did not spare herself: "Launay is of medium height, thin, dry, and unpleasant [désagréable]. Her character and her mind are like her face; there is nothing awry, but nothing pleasing [aucun agrément]." Her characteristic irony tempered her strong sense of selfworth. She surely was unlucky in love, for example, but she ruefully admitted that while she wanted always to be governed by reason, she suffered greatly because reason is so often powerless against feeling. Her frustration broke through in the most striking passage in her self-portrait, where she wrote, "The love of liberty is her dominant passion: a passion which would have rendered dependence insupportable if she had not found in her servitude pleasures which have helped her to bear it." But then, reading it over, she changed its whole thrust: "The love of liberty is her dominant passion; a most unfortunate passion for one who has spent the greater part of her life in servitude; hence her state has always been unsupportable to her despite the unhoped-for pleasures she was able to find in it."
Mme de Staal de Launay's memoirs, wrote Friedrich Grimm at their appearance, have "enriched our literature by a work unique in its genre." By which he implied that what we know as autobiography had appeared, for memoirs previously were essentially historically oriented. She had almost nothing to say about the public events of her times save the Cellamare Conspiracy, for which she remains, even so, a very discreet, if still important, witness. She was far from being principally a memorialist of the court of Sceaux and the grandees who mingled there, as she has often been portrayed, although, again, she has justly remained a valuable source of knowledge about life in the first decades of the 18th century. Certainly her position afforded her a matchless opportunity to observe the great ones of the day—as the 19th-century master critic Sainte-Beuve remarked, "absolutely like one observes large fish in a small basin." Given what she suffered at those grandees' hands, it is remarkable that she delivered no diatribe against them. Even her treatment of the duchess is above any reproach of maliciousness. (Her correspondence, however, contains a pitiless dissection.) As W.H. Lewis remarks, "She is neither overawed by, nor contemptuous of the great; finds them, on the whole, much like other people, only a little more ridiculous."
Rather, the core interest of the memoirs (and of her correspondence) lies in the revelation of "the defeat of an intelligent, educated, spirited woman," notes Buchanan. Perhaps (probably) she wrote, as did many other women, to give her thwarted life some retrospective meaning. In so doing she took risks. Women were ridiculed for even trying to write seriously—only 5% of 18th-century French memoirs were by women—and memoirs, certainly after Staal de Launay's, by nature exposed to public view some of the most intimate details of their writers' lives, writes Susan Kinsey. Given the course of her life, one wonders why a woman so discreet preserved "the record of her most private defeats," writes Judith Curtis , unless her pain "had hallowed them and made them fit for display."
It is not just the content, however, which sets her memoirs apart from so many others. She was a splendid stylist with a true gift for acute observation. She is "the pupil who has become the equal of the master, La Bruyère," wrote Sainte-Beuve, recalling that 17th-century grand maître of unvarnished character studies. The same words appear again and again in descriptions of her style: concise, keen, incisive, marked by finesse and le mot juste, mordant, exquisitely ironic, elegant, effortless ("no groping around," says Sainte-Beuve), classique, sober, restrained, subtle, original, true to life, secretly bitter. Her writing contains an epigrammatic strain: "Anything tending to assure us of our own merits seems at least probable"; or "One has a greater aversion to the foibles from which one is exempt than to those to which one yields"; or "The heart never fails to betray the reason, whatever lessons it may have received." Examples abound. Despite innumerable opportunities to indulge in it, however, there is no sentimentality. La Bruyère and Fontenelle were the models for her age; Rousseau had yet to appear.
It is cool, unblinking observation and subtle self-revelation served by a masterful command of language and style which makes Mme de Staal de Launay one of the premier writers of classical French prose. How ironic a fate for an ironist whose life is commonly described as "failed."
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David S. Newhall , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky