(Slow) speedrun: Germaine de Staël

I’m starting to write up a review of Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism, and this quote fragment jumped out at me:

Suppose you went to Germany and spoke there to the people who had once been visited by Madame de Staël, who had interpreted the German soul to the French.

It’s a poetic turn of phrase, and I have just about enough mild curiosity to fancy doing a speedrun on her. Currently I know absolutely nothing. Maybe I’ll also expand it to the people she visited, if it turns out that she’s at the centre of some interesting intellectual circle.

I’m calling this one a slow speedrun because it’s too hot here and like most people in the UK I don’t have air conditioning, so I’m writing this with my feet in a tub of ice water as a poor substitute. It’ll still be an hour long, but I’ll take it easy and probably won’t get through as much as normal.

Right, let’s go. Slowly.

Right, start with wikipedia as ever.

Full name Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël. 1766 – 1817.

She was a voice of moderation in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era up to the French Restoration.

Her intellectual collaboration with Benjamin Constant between 1794 and 1810 made them one of the most celebrated intellectual couples of their time.

OK I’ve never even heard of him. Open in new tab.

She discovered sooner than others the tyrannical character and designs of Napoleon.[5] For many years she lived as an exile – firstly during the Reign of Terror and later due to personal persecution by Napoleon.

In exile she became the centre of the Coppet group with her unrivalled network of contacts across Europe.

Ah, brilliant, there’s an intellectual scene, that’s what I was hoping for. Open in new tab.

In 1814 one of her contemporaries observed that "there are three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe: England, Russia, and Madame de Staël".

Nice. Now I understand the allusion in that Berlin quote.

Known as a witty and brilliant conversationalist, and often dressed in daring outfits, she stimulated the political and intellectual life of her times. Her works, whether novels, travel literature or polemics, which emphasised individuality and passion, made a lasting mark on European thought. De Staël spread the notion of Romanticism widely by its repeated use

OK, now for some historical background on her childhood. Only child of a popular Parisian salon host and a prominent banker and statesman. They both have wikipedia pages too but I doubt I’d get to them.

Mme Necker wanted her daughter educated according to the principles of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and endow her with the intellectual education and Calvinist discipline instilled in her by her pastor father.

Haha, poor child. Sounds like she turned out quite well given the circumstances.

At the age of 13, she read Montesquieu, Shakespeare, Rousseau and Dante.[10] This exposure probably contributed to a nervous breakdown in adolescence, but the seeds of a literary vocation had been sown.

Her father got into trouble by releasing the national budget, which had always been kept secret. So he got dismissed and they moved to a chateau on Lake Geneva. Then back to Paris once the fuss died down.

Aged 11, Germaine had suggested to her mother she marry Edward Gibbon, a visitor to her salon, whom she found most attractive. Then, she reasoned, he would always be around for her.[12] In 1783, at seventeen, she was courted by William Pitt the Younger and by the fop Comte de Guibert, whose conversation, she thought, was the most far-ranging, spirited and fertile she had ever known.

It’s very tempting to get sidetracked and read the article on fops, but let’s not. After this her parents got impatient and married her off to some Swedish diplomat.

On the whole, the marriage seems to have been workable for both parties, although neither seems to have had much affection for the other.

Now we’re getting to her actual work.

In 1788, de Staël published Letters on the works and character of J.J. Rousseau.[15] In this panegyric, written initially for a limited number of friends (in which she considered his housekeeper Thérèse Levasseur as unfaithful), she demonstrated evident talent, but little critical discernment.

OK, she was 22 at this point. Now there’s another argument between her father and the king and he gets dismissed and exiled.

In December 1788 her father persuaded the king to double the number of deputies at the Third Estate in order to gain enough support to raise taxes to defray the excessive costs of supporting the revolutionaries in America. This approach had serious repercussions on Necker’s reputation; he appeared to consider the Estates-General as a facility designed to help the administration rather than to reform government.[16] In an argument with the king, whose speech on 23 June he didn’t attend, Necker was dismissed and exiled on 11 July. On Sunday, 12 July the news became public and an angry Camille Desmoulins suggested storming the Bastille.[17]

Oh but it doesn’t last long:

On 16 July he was reappointed; Necker entered Versailles in triumph.

But then he resigned a couple of years later and moved to Switzerland. This is about the time that Germaine de Staël holds a salon.

The increasing disturbances caused by the Revolution made her privileges as the consort of an ambassador an important safeguard. Germaine held a salon in the Swedish embassy, where she gave "coalition dinners", which were frequented by moderates such as Talleyrand and De Narbonne, monarchists (Feuillants) such as Antoine Barnave, Charles Lameth and his brothers Alexandre and Théodore, the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, Pierre Victor, baron Malouet, the poet Abbé Delille, Thomas Jefferson, the one-legged Minister Plenipotentiary to France Gouverneur Morris, Paul Barras, a Jacobin (from the Plain) and the Girondin Condorcets.

That’s quite a list.

Lots of complicated revolutionary stuff after this, things got bad and she fled to Switzerland as well. Then went to England for a bit and caused a scandal:

In January 1793, she made a four-month visit to England to be with her then lover, the Comte de Narbonne at Juniper Hall. (Since 1 February France and Great Britain were at war.) Within a few weeks she was pregnant; it was apparently one of the reasons for the scandal she caused in England.

Back in Switzerland for a while, then she meets Benjamin Constant, then moves back to Paris with him.

In 1796 she published Sur l’influence des passions, in which she praised suicide, a book which attracted the attention of the German writers Schiller and Goethe.

Still absorbed by French politics, Germaine reopened her salon.[41] It was during these years that Mme de Staël arguably exerted most political influence.

More trouble, she leaves Paris for a bit. This is complicated. Then back again. I feel like I’m learning a lot about where she lived and not much about her ideas.

De Staël completed the initial part of her first most substantial contribution to political and constitutional theory, "Of present circumstances that can end the Revolution, and of the principles that must found the republic of France".

Now we’re getting in to her conflict with Napoleon.

On 6 December 1797 she had a first meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte in Talleyrand’s office and again on 3 January 1798 during a ball. She made it clear to him she did not agree with his planned French invasion of Switzerland. He ignored her opinions and would not read her letters.

and later:

He did not like her cultural determinism and generalizations, in which she stated that "an artist must be of his own time".[48][51] In his opinion a woman should stick to knitting.[52] He said about her, according to the Memoirs of Madame de Rémusat, that she "teaches people to think who had never thought before, or who had forgotten how to think".

Still running a salon but it’s getting dangerous. In 1803 Napoleon exiles her from Paris and she travels with Constant to Germany.

33 minutes left, I might have to speed up and not get bogged down in every detail. Though it looks like this is the interesting gbit She meets Goethe, Schiller and Schlegel. Her father dies and it looks like Coppet is the name of the place she’s inherited:

On 19 May she arrived in Coppet and found herself its wealthy and independent mistress, but her sorrow for her father was deep.

In July Constant wrote about her, "She exerts over everything around her a kind of inexplicable but real power. If only she could govern herself, she might have governed the world."

Next she visited Italy, wrote a book on it, Nopleon decided she was having too much fun and sent her back to Coppet.

Her house became, according to Stendhal, "the general headquarters of European thought" and was a debating club hostile to Napoleon, "turning conquered Europe into a parody of a feudal empire, with his own relatives in the roles of vassal states"

Some more travels in France and then Vienna. Benjamin Constant has also married someone else in the meantime, without telling her.

De Staël set to work on her book about Germany – in which she presented the idea of a state called "Germany" as a model of ethics and aesthetics and praised German literature and philosophy.[76] The exchange of ideas and literary and philosophical conversations with Goethe, Schiller, and Wieland had inspired de Staël to write one of the most influential books of the nineteenth century on Germany.

Yet more convoluted stuff where she gets back into France and then gets exiled again when she tries to publish the Germany book there.

She found consolation in a wounded veteran officer named Albert de Rocca, twenty-three years her junior, to whom she got privately engaged in 1811 but did not marry publicly until 1816.

I think I missed what happened to her first husband. It’s too hot to keep track of all this stuff.

Now there’s some complicated journey across eastern Europe to Russia. Then Sweden, then England.

She met Lord Byron, William Wilberforce, the abolitionist and Sir Humphry Davy, the chemist and inventor. According to Byron, "She preached English politics to the first of our English Whig politicians … preached politics no less to our Tory politicians the day after."[85] In March 1814 she invited Wilberforce for dinner and would devote the remaining years of her life to the fight for the abolition of the slave trade.

Returns to Paris yet again, where her salon is popular yet again, then fled to Coppet yet again. This is why I’m getting bogged down. Byron visited Coppet a lot.

"Byron was particularly critical of de Staël’s self-dramatizing tendencies"


One final trip to Paris:

Despite her increasing ill-health, she returned to Paris for the winter of 1816–17, living at 40, rue des Mathurins. Constant argued with de Staël, who had asked him to pay off his debts to her. A warm friendship sprang up between Madame de Staël and the Duke of Wellington, whom she had first met in 1814, and she used her influence with him to have the size of the Army of Occupation greatly reduced.[94]

She had become confined to her house, paralyzed since 21 February 1817. She died on 14 July 1817

So I’m finally through her biography. My god. She basically travelled everywhere and met everyone. I got tired reading this.

Oh I missed the bit about her novels somehow.

De Staël published a provocative, anti-Catholic novel Delphine, in which the femme incomprise (misunderstood woman) living in Paris between 1789 and 1792, is confronted with conservative ideas about divorce after the Concordat of 1801.

This is before Napoleon exiled her.

Right I have 18 minutes left, I think I’ll look up the Coppet group article. Oh boring, it’s just a couple of short paragraphs and a big list of names.

The Coppet group (Groupe de Coppet), also known as the Coppet circle, was an informal intellectual and literary gathering centred on Germaine de Staël during the time period between the establishment of the Napoleonic First Empire (1804) and the Bourbon Restoration of 1814-1815.[1][2][3][4] The name comes from Coppet Castle in Switzerland.

Core group: her family plus Humboldt, Schlegel and a bunch of names I dont’ recognise. Loong list of visitors, the ones I recognise from a quick skim are Byron, Clausewitz and Humphry Davy.

This doesn’t seem like a very tightly knit scene, too many people and too varied in their views. Maybe not as interesting as I was hoping for. Did a quick google and nothing is really standing out. Fine, let’s look up Benjamin Constant instead for the last ten minutes.

Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (French: [kɔ̃stɑ̃]; 25 October 1767 – 8 December 1830), or simply Benjamin Constant, was a Swiss-French political thinker, activist and writer on political theory and religion.

I’m sort of running out of energy now. It’s got hotter and this tub of ice water has warmed up. Something something proponent of classical liberalism, wrote some essays and pamphlets and so on. Skim for interesting bits.

Constant looked to Britain rather than to ancient Rome for a practical model of freedom in a large mercantile society. He drew a distinction between the "Liberty of the Ancients" and the "Liberty of the Moderns".

Ancients: parcipatory, burdensome, good for small homogeneous societies. Moderns: less direct participation, voters elect representativies.

He criticised several aspects of the French Revolution, and the failures of the social and political upheaval. He stated how the French attempted to apply ancient republican liberties to a modern state. Constant realized that freedom meant drawing a line between a person’s private life and that of state interference.[19] He praised the noble spirit of regenerating the state. However, he stated that it was naïve for writers to believe that two thousand years had not brought some changes in the customs and needs of the people.

Constant believed that, in the modern world, commerce was superior to war. He attacked Napoleon’s belligerence, on the grounds that it was illiberal and no longer suited to modern commercial social organization. Ancient Liberty tended to rely on war, whereas a state organized on the principles of Modern Liberty would tend to be at peace with all other peaceful nations.

Ah, nice link back to Berlin:

The British philosopher and historian of ideas, Sir Isaiah Berlin has acknowledged his debt to Constant.

Four minutes to go but I’ll end it there, I’m tired of this.

That worked ok apart from the bit where I got tired at the end. I feel like I learned a lot more about personal life and travels round Europe than I did about her ideas – would have been nice to understand more about the romanticism connection, exactly what ideas she picked up from Germany, etc. Still, she was interesting enough that that didn’t bother me too much.

Now I’m going to have a shower and cool down.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s