Staël, Germaine de (1766–1817)

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Staël, Germaine de (1766–1817)

A precursor of Romanticism and modern literary criticism whose liberalism reflected 18th-century thought and made her an active adversary of Napoleon Bonaparte. Name variations: Anne Louise Germaine Necker; Madame de Stael or Staël; Baronne or Baroness de Staël von Holstein; (nickname) Minette. Born in Paris, France, on April 22, 1766; died in Paris on July 14, 1817; daughter of Jacques Necker (a financier and director general of finance for Louis XVI) and Suzanne (Curchod) Necker (a governess); cousin of Albertine Necker de Saussure (1766–1841); married Eric Magnus, baron de Staël von Holstein, in Paris, on January 14, 1786; secretly married John Rocca in Coppet, on October 10, 1816; children: (first marriage) Gustavine (b. July 22, 1787, died young); (with Louis, comte de Narbonne-Lara) Auguste (b. August 3, 1790) and Albert (b. Nov. 20, 1792); (with Benjamin Constant) Albertine, Duchesse de Broglie (b. June 8, 1797); (in secret with John Rocca) Louis Alphonse Rocca (b. April 7, 1812).

Published Letters on the Writings and Character of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1788); was present at opening of Estates-General, Versailles (May 5, 1789); father resigned as French finance minister (September 3, 1790); published Sophia, or the Secret Feelings (October 1790); published Reflections on Peace (1794); published On the Influence of the Passions (autumn 1796); met Napoleon Bonaparte (December 6, 1797); published On Literature (April 1800); published Corinne or Italy (May 1, 1807); published On Germany in London (November 4, 1813); suffered a stroke in Paris (February 21, 1817).

Germaine de Staël did not fit the stereotypical image of femininity in the 18th century. Physically unattractive and tastelessly attired, she was known for her brilliant mind and her writings, her unconventional lifestyle, and her opposition to Napoleon Bonaparte. She was the product of liberal, free-thinking Parisian salon society and the Calvinist religion. From these sources, she absorbed her liberal idealism, her sentimental romanticism, and her anti-Catholicism. Nothing was more dear to her than her adored father and the city of Paris.

Brought up in a narrowly religious household by staid, dull, emotionally inhibited parents, de Staël led an abnormally proscribed life. As chief financial officer in Louis XVI's government, her famous father, the Swiss financier Jacques Necker, was destined to play a vital role in the decade prior to and during the early years of the French Revolution. A self-made millionaire, Necker was more at ease among accountants than in Parisian society; devoid of cultural interests and social graces, he was respected only for his business acumen. Her mother Suzanne Necker , daughter of a Swiss Protestant pastor, was prudish and socially ambitious, a perfect mate for her lackluster husband.

Until she was 12, de Staël lived in a singularly adult world. Her mother supervised her education which was confined to intellectual and spiritual instruction; no physical activity was permitted, no contact with children was allowed. Suzanne Necker's salon also served as a classroom for her precocious child. Every Friday afternoon, Germaine listened to the brilliant discourse of some of the most celebrated thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment: Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, George Buffon, Melchior Grimm, and Edward Gibbon. Lessons in Latin and English and reading and copying extracts from books supplemented her weekly attendance at her mother's salon. Germaine's mind was thus assiduously cultivated at the expense of an active, playful childhood.

Germaine was not allowed to leave the house without her mother, nor did she have a friend her own age until she was 12. Intensive supervision of her every thought and action and her heavy schedule of daily lessons ended abruptly when she became seriously ill. The doctor removed Germaine from her mother's care, and ordered her to rest, to discard her corset, and to avoid mental strain. During the summer of 1779, she lived at the Necker country estate in Saint Ouen, near Paris. In this freer atmosphere, a bond of deep affection grew between daughter and father; since 1777, Jacques Necker had served as director general of finance for Louis XVI, but, at Saint Ouen, he could escape from his duties and his God-fearing wife. Germaine's unbounded adoration of her father developed into open rivalry with her mother for his affection. De Staël's biographer, J.C. Herold, stresses this hero worship and notes that "her entire life was spent in celebrating him." This anomalous attachment is evident in de Staël's diary entry of July 31, 1785: "Of all men in the world it is he whom I would have wished for a lover." Conversely, in her novel Corinne or Italy, she drew a savage caricature of her mother who "liked to make others' lives as drab as possible."

There is no doubt, as Herold concludes, that de Staël's "emotional involvement with her mother and father was the most decisive factor in her formation." But the repressive environment of childhood did not carry over into adulthood. After she married, Germaine had numerous lovers of whom her parents disapproved, and she infuriated them further by having illegitimate children. Indeed, her lovers were dashing and worldly and generally amoral, her equals, but never her masters. De Staël refused to be dominated, to be used as a mere paramour.

In the late 18th century, marriage among the upper classes often meant freedom for women, which greatly appealed to de Staël. Because she was one of the richest heiresses in all Europe, her parents decided that only a Protestant noble would be suitable for her. Few French nobles fit the religious requirement, and Germaine insisted that she live in France, no matter who the suitor was. After long, intricate negotiations involving the French royal family and the king of Sweden, Eric Magnus de Staël von Holstein was selected. But Eric had to be appointed as Swedish ambassador to France and made a baron before he could marry Mlle Necker. Among the conditions of the marriage contract, agreed to by Eric and signed by the French royal family, was that Germaine would never have to live in Sweden. The wedding was held in the chapel of the Swedish embassy in Paris. Germaine had no romantic illusions about marriage or about Baron de Staël, and love would be sought elsewhere. The baron had, of course, married for money, but he loved Germaine. She, free of parental constraints, intended to live without bonds of dependence or obligation. After her marriage, she had her formal presentation at court; she arrived late and split her dress while curtseying before Queen Marie Antoinette , and in general violated court etiquette. Lacking in beauty, manners and social graces, tactless and arrogant, Germaine often defied social convention. In spite of her being witty, intelligent, and a brilliant conversationalist, Parisian society ridiculed her gauche behavior. No woman, no matter how talented, could be forgiven such bold eccentricities, and Germaine de Staël never was forgiven.

Necker de Saussure, Albertine (1766–1841)

Swiss writer. Born in 1766; died in 1841; daughter of Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740–1799, the Swiss physicist and geologist); cousin of Germaine de Staël (1766–1817); married into the Necker family.

A cousin to Germaine de Staël by marriage and an intimate friend, Albertine Necker de Saussure was a writer who lived in Geneva, Switzerland. Her chief works were Notice sur le caractère et les écrits de Mme de Staël (1820) and her treatise on children's education, L'Éducation progressive, étude du cours de la vie (1828–32, 3 vols.). She also translated Schlegel's lectures on theater.

Necker, Suzanne (1739–1794)

French-Swiss essayist and salonnière. Name variations: Mme Necker. Born Suzanne Curchod in France in 1739; died in 1794; daughter of Louis Curchod (a pastor); grew up near Lausanne; married Jacques Necker (a Swiss banker and French finance minister), in 1764; children: Germaine de Staël (1766–1817).

Daughter of a Swiss Protestant minister, Suzanne Curchod Necker was educated by her father in his pastorate near Lausanne. Following his death, she moved to Paris where she served as a "ladies' companion." She married Jacques Necker in 1764. Though Suzanne Necker was neither a Parisian nor known for her social polish, she hosted a successful salon for philosophes and encyclopaedists and was prized for her honesty and intelligence. She left behind some miscellaneous writings, published as Mélanges extraits des manuscrits (Various Extracts from Manuscripts, 1798) and Nouveaux Mélanges (Further Extracts, 1801). Necker, who was responsible for the education of her daughter Germaine de Staël , promoted the education of women and also advocated a court of women to adjudicate petitions for legal separations.

In the Swedish embassy, Germaine established her own salon, attended by a new generation of thinkers whose major interest was politics. An attentive listener and avid talker, she had the ability to analyze and criticize without inhibiting her guests. Her illustrious circle included Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Germaine had also begun to concentrate on writing; Sophia, or The Secret Sentiments shocked Suzanne Necker by its revelation of Germaine's excessive love for her father. Jacques Necker, who never took Germaine's, or any woman's, writing seriously, was undisturbed. He indulged his daughter in her writing, but never allowed her to have a writing desk in his house. However, Germaine acquired a portabledesk with a hinged top, which she carried with her throughout her life. Marriage, which in practice she loathed, gave her freedom to live her own life, and freedom to write. To de Staël, writers had a "mission"—to act as moral guides, to explore human conduct, as individuals and as members of society. When her Letters on the Writings and Character of Jean-Jacques Rousseau was published in 1788, Mme de Staël was recognized as a writer of distinction.

Pregnancy was as distasteful as marriage, and her first child, Gustavine, who died at 18 months, was cared for by household servants. De Staël was already suffering from periods of depression and loneliness, and she longed for passionate, blissful love as described by the Romantic writers of the time. To fill the void, she had a brief affair with Talleyrand, the future revolutionary and foreign minister. Through him, she met and fell in love with Comte Louis de Narbonne-Lara whose career ambitions she successfully promoted.

"M adame," Napoleon informed her, "I do not want women mixed up in politics."

"You are perfectly right," Mme de Staël replied, "but in a country where their heads are cut off, it is only natural for them to want to know why."

—Exchange between Napoleon Bonaparte and Madame de Staël

During the 1780s, Jacques Necker had been dismissed and reappointed as financial minister a number of times. When delegates to the Estates-General met in Versailles in May 1789, inaugurating ten years of revolution, they initially looked to Jacques to bring about urgently needed financial reform. Germaine was excited about the possibilities for political reform in France to achieve happiness through a liberal constitution and rule by an enlightened elite. She envisioned a new world in the making and saw an opportunity to influence politics through the political moderates who frequented her salon. She attended Assembly meetings, but did not participate. Unlike some feminist activists, de Staël did not campaign for the right of women to participate in public affairs, but she wanted them to have equal civil rights, freedom of religion, of speech, assembly, and the press, which would benefit everyone. When her father resigned his post in September 1790 and moved to his château at Coppet, Switzerland, she decided to stay in Paris. Relations with her parents were further strained after Germaine gave birth to a son by Narbonne. De Staël exerted influence through her political friends, contributed to their speeches and reports, and worked behind the scenes to promote their careers and her own ideas. She was responsible for Narbonne's appointment as minister of war and reportedly wrote some of his bulletins.

With the overthrow of the monarchy in August 1792, Mme de Staël's constitutional monarchist friends went into hiding. Pregnant again, and in danger herself, she hid Narbonne and others in the Swedish embassy and arranged their escape from France. When she tried to leave Paris for Switzerland, she was arrested, but after an appeal to a political acquaintance she was released. From Coppet, she continued to provide money and documents for victims of political persecution. After the birth of another son, she traveled to England to join Narbonne. Exiled French royalists in England attacked her as an adulterer and instigator of revolution, while in France leftist radicals equally condemned her for her "aristocratic" views. Leaving England in May 1793, she again went to Coppet where Narbonne was to join her, but he procrastinated. De Staël was a difficult woman, demanding and domineering, and she enervated her many lovers. She complained of his ingratitude; she had saved his life, paid his debts, and bought him a house in Switzerland. Still, he ignored her entreaties. Her dejection is poignantly iterated in her treatise On the Influence of the Passions. Mme de Staël laments the lot of women: the code of honor and mutual respect that binds men together does not carry over into male-female relations. And she deplored the unjust double standard of morality that vilified women who dared to defy social convention.

When Narbonne finally arrived, he resumed his liaison with a former mistress. It was then that Germaine met the brilliant intellectual Benjamin Constant. She continued to write and publish works on politics and fiction. Her Reflections on Peace excoriated Robespierre and the Terror and blamed the European powers for not supporting the moderates whom de Staël saw as the sole hope for establishing a liberal regime in France. By May 1795, Germaine had reopened her salon in Paris and strove to influence the course of events. She favored a republic based on ownership of property, but all people would enjoy civil rights, fair taxation, and equal justice and opportunity. Abstract equality was a chimera, a lower-class demand that would impede progress. Following an attempted coup by royalists in August, Benjamin Constant and another friend were arrested. They were released only after Germaine personally appealed to a member of the Directory government. Her efforts resulted in her expulsion from France. Kept under police surveillance at Coppet, she and Benjamin Constant continued to collaborate on political writings. Baron de Staël eventually persuaded the Directory to allow his wife to return to France, but not until May 1797

was she permitted to live in Paris where her (and Constant's) daughter Albertine , later duchesse de Broglie, was born in June. Mme de Staël, Constant, and several moderates founded the Club de Salm to spread their political principles, and she continued to help beleaguered friends. Through her intercession, Talleyrand was able to return from the United States and was appointed minister of foreign affairs. She lent him money and helped launch his career, but he, like so many others, failed to acknowledge his debt to her.

In December 1797, a new chapter in her life began: de Staël met Napoleon Bonaparte. Impressed by his intelligence and ability, she hoped to draw him into her circle, even though she was intimidated by his emotional reserve and serious demeanor. However, Bonaparte disapproved of women who meddled in politics, and even of intelligent, vocal women in general. Women were to be modest and retiring, decorative accessories in polite society. The formidable, assertive de Staël was the antithesis of his feminine ideal. Napoleon became her bête noire, and she became an irritating thorn under his imperial crown. Members of the Directory did not approve of her either. She pestered them to refund two million francs her father had lent the French Treasury. Her political writings and activities were "troublesome" to the stability of the regime, and her friends were suspect. As punishment, she was exiled again. Why not simply imprison this outspoken woman? Because arresting her would do more harm to the regime than good.

At Coppet, Germaine kept abreast of political developments in Paris. Anticipating another change in regime, she entered Paris on the eve of the coup of 18 Brumaire (November in the Republican calendar) in 1799, which overthrew the Directory. She hoped that Bonaparte and his coconspirators would install a moderate republic based on enlightened principles. All her hopes were dashed when Bonaparte installed his authoritarian regime, the Consulate. Mme de Staël soon had direct access to Napoleon through his brothers Joseph and Lucien who frequented her salon, and Benjamin Constant, now a member of the government. But instead of reducing Napoleon's dislike for officious females, Germaine continued to aggravate him; this mutual enmity ceased only with Napoleon's downfall. Moreover, as Germaine's literary reputation flourished, each book brought an angrier response from Bonaparte. Nothing in On Literature (1800) or Delphine (1802) was directly critical of Bonaparte, but he reacted strongly. On Literature, a highly original work, examines various national literatures, relating them to their social and historical contexts. In Delphine, Mme de Staël explores issues such as religion and marriage and divorce as they affect society, especially women. Reproached by critics as unwomanly and immoral and by Bonaparte as a direct attack on his social policies, the book caused Bonaparte to exile her from Paris, her spiritual home.

Now a widow, Germaine was unwilling to live in the provinces or with her father at Coppet, both of which she found too dull, so she set out for Germany, accompanied by Benjamin Constant and two of her children. She intended to collect material for a book on Germany, its culture and its people. She visited Frankfurt and Weimar where she met Schiller and Goethe. In Berlin, Queen Louise of Prussia and the nobility fêted her, and she engaged a tutor for her children. On learning of her father's death, she went to Coppet. She and Constant had a written agreement to marry, but she decided against it; she would lose her title of baronne and she was still skeptical about marriage, believing it would cost her her independence and identity.

Albertine (1797–1838)

Duchesse de Broglie. Name variations: Albertine de Staël. Born Albertine Ida Gustavine de Staël in Paris, France, on June 8, 1797; died on September 22, 1838; illegitimate daughter of Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant; married (Achille Charles Léonce) Victor, duc de Broglie (1785–1870, French minister of the interior, 1830, and foreign affairs, 1832–34 and 1835–36), in February 1816; children: Jacques Victor Albert, duc de Broglie (b. 1821, a French politician, publicist, and historian who was ambassador to London, 1871, and premier, 1873–74 and 1877).

Born in Paris in 1797, Albertine Ida Gustavine de Staël was the illegitimate daughter of Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant. Cherishing the causes of her grandmother Suzanne Necker rather than those of her mother, Albertine wrote moral and religious essays which were collected after her death under the title Fragments sur divers sujets de religion et de morale (1840).

Still forbidden to reside in France by Bonaparte, now Emperor Napoleon I, she set out for Italy. Traveling to Milan, Rome, Naples, Venice, and Florence, she met the Italian literary and artistic elite, climbed Vesuvius, and visited Pompeii. During the summer of 1805, at Coppet, she worked on her novel Corinne, and hosted many of the most illustrious and talented figures of that time. But Germaine missed the stimulation, the energy of Paris, and was determined to return. As a major figure in the Romantic movement in Europe, Mme de Staël had no interest in nature, or country living. For a brief time, she resided in Auxerre, then Rouen, and risked venturing into Paris for a few days. Renée Winegarten describes a meeting between Germaine's son Auguste and Napoleon in December 1807; the young man asked the emperor to allow his mother to return to Paris. "As long as I live she will never set foot in Paris again," he replied. "Women should stick to knitting."

Instead, Germaine wrote, and her novel Corinne or Italy was a great success. The heroine is an independent woman of genius, restless and unhappy, but a remarkably talented poet and actress, obviously patterned after her creator (as was Delphine). Mme de Staël praised Italian culture but lamented the lack of freedom in Italy. As king of Italy (since 1805), Napoleon interpreted the book as a criticism of French rule there. But his reaction was mild compared to actions taken when Germaine attempted to publish On Germany in France. Napoleon forbade publication, and the manuscript and proof pages were seized; the work was "not French," according to the minister of police. Once again the strong arm of the state prevailed—she was sent into exile from France.

Isolated from friends and society, she found solitude frightening and unnatural. The loneliness of women of genius served as a theme in several of her works. Brief sexual affairs could not compensate for the energizing urbanity of Paris. She was miserable, but that never interfered with her writing and commenting on the major issues of the day. Then she met John Rocca, an officer in the hussars, who had been wounded in the Peninsular Wars and suffered from tuberculosis. He was a devoted lover and later her husband, and father of her son Louis Alphonse Rocca (b. April 1812). From her "prison" at Coppet, Germaine, two of her children, and Rocca set out for Vienna (late May 1812). From Vienna, she traveled to Russia on the eve of Napoleon's Russian campaign (June 1812). In her Ten Years of Exile, she describes the exotic grandeur of Moscow as it was before Napoleon's army arrived and the Moscovites burned the city. In St. Petersburg, she met Tsar Alexander I, and they discussed plans for defeating Napoleon. Mme de Staël sailed to Stockholm to confer with her friend Jean Bernadotte, Napoleon's marshal and the effective ruler of Sweden (later king of Sweden as Charles XIV John); she had determined that he should command the allied military effort against Napoleon and eventually govern France. But Bernadotte was less resolute than Germaine, and her scheme eventually failed. After eight months in Sweden, she went to England where she was admired as a writer and staunch opponent of Napoleon. But her brusque manner, immodest necklines, and propensity for talking too much offended the English sense of propriety and provided grist for malicious gossip. During her 11-month stay, she met poets, members of Parliament, and aristocratic social reformers; she also obtained a contract with John Murray to publish On Germany, one of her major works, which appeared in November 1813. While in England, Germaine continued writing as usual. She worked on Ten Years in Exile and began a study of the French Revolution based on her own experiences and observations. In her view, the early promise of liberal reform, a written constitution, and individual liberty had augured well for the future happiness of France, but Robespierre and the Terror had betrayed the Revolution. Political ideology had replaced religious faith, but had retained the fanaticism and intolerance which fuelled persecution and violence, now in the name of the state. Censorship and banishment were ever-present reminders to Mme de Staël that she was the object of state-sponsored harassment, because she advocated rule by a landowning elite and despised one-man rule as exemplified by Napoleon.

Napoleon was defeated by a coalition of allies in April 1814, and de Staël quickly returned to France. She accepted the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty without enthusiasm, and the allied occupation of France saddened her. However, in March 1815, Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba, and de Staël departed for Coppet. She resumed residence in Paris after Waterloo and was again welcomed at court. Needing a substantial dowry to enable her daughter Albertine to marry the indigent Victor, duc de Broglie, Mme de Staël appealed to Louis XVIII to redeem the two million francs her father had lent the Treasury in 1790. This was granted, but a similar request to Benjamin Constant to return what she had loaned him was refused. Her daughter Albertine was married in February 1816, and that autumn de Staël secretly married Rocca at Coppet. The château again became the gathering place of distinguished European intellectuals and politicians, including the social outcast Lord Byron whom she had met in England.

On her return to Paris, de Staël met with foreign diplomats to argue for reducing the number of occupation forces and the indemnity imposed on France. Suffering emotional strain from years of exile and persecution, her last pregnancy, and the effects of abusing drugs, especially opium to relieve insomnia, she had a stroke in February 1817, which left her paralyzed but able to speak. She died a few months later, age 51. Napoleon, whose ego matched that of his arch-adversary, described her as a woman of great talent and intellect, a woman whose reputation would last.


Charvet, P.E. "Madame de Staël," in A Literary History of France: The Nineteenth Century, 1789–1870. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1967.

Herold, J. Christopher. Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Staël. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958.

Winegarten, Renée. Mme de Staël. Lemington Spa: Berg, 1985.

suggested reading:

Gutwerth, M. Mme de Staël, Novelist: The Emergence of the Artist as Woman. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Larg, David Glass. Madame de Staël: Her Life as Revealed in Her Work, 1766–1800. Trans. by Veronica Lucas. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.

Posgate, Helen B. Madame de Staël. NY: Twayne, 1968.

Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah

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Staël, Germaine de (1766–1817)

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