Madame de Staël, the daughter of Swiss-born Jacques Necker (30 September 1732 – 9 April 1804), Louis XVI’s Finance Minister, is a legendary figure. For one thing, Napoleon I was so afraid of her that he would not let her live in or near Paris. She was born in Paris, but, in 1784, her father had bought a lovely home in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva. When Germaine de Staël was exiled from France, by Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon I, she took refuge at Coppet.
Germaine de Staël
French-Swiss Anne Louise Germaine de Staël (22 April 1766 – 14 July 1817; aged 51), may well be the most prominent intellectual, and salonnière (salonist) of her era, an era that spans the French Revolution, Napoleon’s Empire (Napoléon I) and the beginning of the Bourbon restoration. After Napoleon’s defeat, France was a monarchy, but not an absolute monarchy. It had to be a Constitutional Monarchy, or a form of parliamentary Monarchy, as was the wish of the signatories of the Tennis Court Oath. Madame de Staël joined the National Assembly, constituted by members of the Third Estate, le tiers-état, from rich bourgeois to impoverished peasants still living on feudal seigneuries and paying taxes. The National Assembly (13, 1789 to July 9, 1789) was soon replaced by the Legislative Assembly, which takes us to 1792 and the National Convention. It lasted from 21 September 1792 to 26 October 1795, or 28 July 1794, when Robespierre and Saint-Just were guillotined. (See The French Revolution, Wikipedia.)
Suzanne Curchod and Jacques Necker
Madame de Staël is the daughter of Suzanne Curchod (1737 – 6 May 1794), a salonnière whose salon could be compared favorably to the salon where Madame Geoffrin (26 June 1699 – 6 October 1777), the daughter of a banker who had entertained and dined distinguished guests on Monday and on Wednesday. Salonnières had “days.” Madame Geoffrin, the finest hostess of the Age of Enlightenment, attracted to her salon the leading intellectual, literary, artistic and political figures of the Age of Enlightenment, and, among them, Voltaire, a Freemason, encyclopédistes Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert and, to a significant degree, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778), an encyclopédiste who challenged the reign of reason and is, therefore, a precursor, if not the founder, of Romanticism. Remember La Querelle des Bouffons.
Nearly a generation later, during the 1770s and 178Os, madame Necker’s salon du vendredi, the Friday salon, would attract exceptional figures, one of whom, Jean-François Marmontel, has been somewhat neglected by posterity. Marmontel was secretary-for-life (lifetime) of the Neuf Sœurs (The Nine Sisters), the leading Masonic Lodge of the Grand Orient of France. Moreover, from 1771 until 1793, Louis-Philippe II, Duke of Orleans (Philippe Égalité) was its Grand Master. France also had English-speaking lodges.
As for Madame de Staël’s father, Swiss-born Jacques Necker (30 September 1732 – 9 April 1804), he was Louis XVI’s finance minister (1788–89, 1789–90). Jacques Necker had become extremely wealthy, richissime in fact, during the Seven Year’s War. He made savvy speculations, perhaps not altogether above-board, but speculations that earned him a fortune and put him in a position to lend money to the “Crown,” so to speak. In 1764, he married Suzanne Curchod (1739 – 1794), the cultivated daughter of a Vaudois* pastor who was considering marrying historian Edward Gibbon. Suzanne Necker became a prominent salonnière or salonist.
*from the Swiss Canton (township) of Vaud
Jacques Necker, a Protestant, would not allow his beloved daughter Germaine to marry a Catholic. In 1786, Madame de Staël was therefore married to the Swedish ambassador in Paris, Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein. It was, of course, a marriage of convenience, ended formally in 1797, but Madame de Staël was now at court, meeting statesmen. Madame de Staël and Erik de Staël had four children, three of whom survived childhood: Auguste (b. 1790), who edited his mother’s complete works; Albert (b. 1792); and Albertine (b. 1796). Albertine married Victor de Broglie, 9th Prime Minister of France. Gustavine (b. 1887) died in 1789.
One of the children may have been fathered by Benjamin Constant (25 October 1767 – 8 December 1830), the author of Adolphe (1816) and, for some 14 years (1794 – 1809), Madame de Staël’s lover. He and Madame de Staël shared the same liberal views. Benjamin’s writings were influenced by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel and his brother August Wilhem Schlegel, who were leading “Romantics.” (See Romanticism, Wikipedia.)
Madame de Staël had a fifth child, Alphonse, born in 1812 when Germaine was 46. In all likelihood, he was fathered by Albert de Rocca who legitimated him as Louis- Alphonse Rocca. Albert was twenty-three years younger than madame de Staël’s. The couple married after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and lived in Paris. Although sources differ concerning the date on which the marriage took place, my best information is that Albert de Rocca and Germaine de Staël married on 10 October 1816. She had a seizure in early 1817 and died on July 14, 1817. Albert de Rocca suffered from tuberculosis. He died on 31 January 1818.
Madame de Staël & Napoleon
The coup d’état of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799) had made Bonaparte the self-declared head of state, in France (see Napoleon, Wikipedia), a position he consolidated in 1804 by proclaiming himself and his Créole wife, Joséphine, Emperor and Empress of France, leaving no voice to the people. After the execution of Louis XVI, madame de Staël therefore switched to moderate Republicanism.
Having read her writings, I would suspect that, intellectually, Madame de Staël may have been Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord‘s equal, except that their roles differed. Madame de Staël was a political thinker, but Talleyrand, a shrewd politician, a survivor, and Napoleon’s éminence grise, to a point. However, although Napoleon Bonaparte proved quite an adroit statesman, he was, first and foremost, an extraordinary general, which brought both his rise and his demise. Moreover, he had taken possession of France, not to mention Europe.
At any rate, a rather cowardly Napoleon had madame de Staël chased throughout Europe and banished her. Her refuge was the Château de Coppet, on Lake Léman (Lake Geneva), the property purchased by Jacques Necker, Madame de Staël’s doting father, in 1784. Germaine spent approximately ten years, at Coppet which she described as her Dix années d’exil (Ten Years of Exile). Scholar Mona Ozouf[i] speaks of Madame de Staël’s inquiétude (worriness). Who would catch her when she fell: “descendre sans appui” (to fall without support)? She did not moan, except privately, and in her Dix années d’exil (published posthumously, in 1821, as were other works), but isolation was a major burden to a conversationalist, hence the title of her book on her banishment: Dix années d’exil. Madame de Staël was a woman, a wife, and a mother who dared to write. (Ozouf, p. 121)
Le Groupe de Coppet
However, unexpectedly, during the ten years (an approximate number) Madame de Staël spent at Coppet, Coppet, not Paris, was the appropriate destination for men of letters, intellectuals, writers and various dignitaries. Helen Phillio Jenkins[ii] quotes French novelist Stendhal, the pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle (23 January 1783 – 23 March, 1842. Stendhal is the author of Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) and many classics of 19th-century French literature. The Red and the Black is on my list of future posts. Stendhal describes a triumphant summer feast in 1816, Madame de Staël’s last summer.
“There was here on the coast of Lake Geneva last autumn the most astonishing reunion. It was the states general of European opinion. The phenomenon rises even to political importance. There were here six hundred persons, the most distinguished of Europe. Men of intellect, of wealth, of the greatest titles–all came here to seek pleasure in the salon of the illustrious woman for whom France weeps today.” The Review Politique, 1880, says: “It was a parliament whence came forth political doctrines, a race [breed] of statesmen, a school of thinkers, which have filled with their combats, their triumphs or their defeats, more than half a century of our history.”[iii]
No, although she grieved, Germaine did not moan. She learned German and took an interest in German Romanticism. She met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832) known as Goethe, and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (10 November 1759 – 9 May 1805), known as Friedrich Schiller. She is therefore associated with Sturm und Drang (late 1760s to early 1780s).
However, Madame de Staël’s knowledge of Geneva-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) works had fully prepared her to understand and to contribute to the development of European Romanticism. Madame de Staël had studied Rousseau and written about his works: 1) Letters on the Works and the Character of J.-J. Rousseau (1788). Although Madame de Staël had published two works before she was 21, she entered the world of letters when she started writing analytical works: political theory, literary theory, thoughts on various subjects, sociology avant la lettre:
- Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1788) ;
- De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (1796) ;
- De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800).
Jean-Jacques had rehabilitated sentiment, a subject debated from the day René Descartes published, in French, his Discours de la Méthode (1637). By and large, seminal ideas stem from intuition, but are then examined methodically.
As for Madame de Staël, she wrote 2) A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations, published in 1796. French-Swiss Benjamin Constant, the author of Adolphe (1816) and Madame de Staël’s lover, also studied sentiment.
Madame de Staël is also the author of 3) The Influence of Literature upon Society (1800). It’s a fascinating topic. However, Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne (Germany), written between 1810 and 1813, is her magnum opus. Yet, her novel entitled Delphine (1802), is also a classic.
In this post, we have seen Germaine de Staël as an intellectual and a salonnière, but a salonnière who played an active role in the conversation and was a thinker. She was in fact, both hostess and guest, and her guests included such individuals as Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington, Madame Récamier.
She was a novelist, Delphine (1802)and Corinne (1807), but, first and foremost a thinker. Philosopher Auguste Comte, the father of sociology, included her in his “Calender of Great Men.”
In literature, she helped create a new hero well-exemplified by Chateaubriand‘s René, a French Werther, Goethe’s Werther. Our new hero suffers from le mal du siècle and le vague des passions. He stands tall compared to the rest of humanity, but he lives in a garret, his genius unrecognized. Reason had not been crushed, but it had been carefully circumscribed.
Politically, moderation guided her thinking. After the execution of Louis XVI, she was a moderate Republican. In fact, she was always a moderate.
And then comes Coppet, the unrivalled meeting-place of Europe’s intellectual elite. Whenever I think of Madame de Staël, she is in Coppet.
- Descartes: The Discourse on Method, Project Gutenberg [EBook #59]EN
- Benjamin Constant: Adolphe, Project Gutenberg [EBook #13861]EN
- Staël Delphine (1802), Project Gutenberg [EBook #7812]EN
- Madame de Staël: Corinne, or Italy (1807)EN
- De l’Allemagne (1810-1803) may be read online (a 1852 edition).FR
- De l’Allemagne, edited by Henri Heine, is an online publication.FR
- Madame de Staël: De l’Allemagne, translated by Heinrich Heine (Amazon)EN
- Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (1818) (Amazon)EN
Paul Gautier: Chateaubriand et madame de Staël (Revue des Deux Mondes, Tome 17, 1903 Chateaubriand et madame de Staël d’après les lettres inédites de Chateaubriand (1903)FR
- Paul Gautier: Madame de Staël et Napoléon (1904)
- Édouard Hérriot (1872 – 1957): Madame Récamier et ses amis
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2gmVKMvBV0 (Michel Winock sur Madame de Staël)FR
- art: Varvara Ivanovna Narishkine, by Vigée Le Brun, 1801
Please accept my apologies for the long absence. I was not feeling well. Kind regards to all of you.
[i] Mona Ozouf, Les Mots des femmes ; essai sur la singularité française (Paris : Fayard, 1995), p. 113.
[ii] Helen Philleo Jenkins, “Madame de Stael,” in Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Buiding, World’s Columbia Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A. 1893 (Chicago: Monarch Book Company, 1894), pp. 686-690).Johann Baptist Vanhal, (12 May 1739 – 20 August 1813) Symphony in G minor, II Adagio
© Micheline Walker
March 12, 2014WordPress Madame de Staël as Corinne, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)