1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Staël, Madame de
STAËL, MADAME DE. Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne de Staël-Holstein (1766–1817), French novelist and miscellaneous writer, was born at Paris on the 22nd of April 1766. Her father was the famous financier Necker, her mother Suzanne Curchod, almost equally famous as the early love of Gibbon, as the wife of Necker himself, and as the mistress of one of the most popular salons of Paris. Between mother and daughter there was, however, little sympathy. Mme Necker, despite her talents, her beauty and her fondness for philosophe society, was strictly decorous, somewhat reserved, and disposed to carry out in her daughter’s case the rigorous discipline of her own childhood. The future Mme de Staël was from her earliest years a romp, a coquette, and passionately desirous of prominence and attention. There seems moreover to have been a sort of rivalry between mother and daughter for the chief place in Necker’s affections, and it is not probable that the daughter’s love for her mother was increased by the consciousness of her own inferiority in personal charms. Mme Necker was of a most refined though somewhat lackadaisical style of beauty, while her daughter was a plain child and a plainer woman, whose sole attractions were large and striking eyes and a buxom figure. She was, however, a child of unusual intellectual power, and she began very early to write though not to publish. She is said to have written her father a letter on his famous Compte-Rendu and other matters when she was not fifteen, and to have injured her health by excessive study and intellectual excitement. But in reading all the accounts of Mme de Staël’s. life which come from herself or her intimate friends, it must be carefully remembered that she was the most distinguished and characteristic product of the period of sensibilité—the singular fashion of ultra-sentiment which required that both men and women, but especially women, should be always palpitating with excitement, steeped in melancholy, or dissolved in tears. Still, there is no doubt that her father’s dismissal from the ministry, which followed the presentation of the Compte, and the consequent removal of the family from the busy life of Paris, were beneficial to her. During part of the next few years they resided at Coppet, her father’s estate on the Lake of Geneva, which she herself made famous. But other parts were spent in travelling about, chiefly in the south of France. They returned to Paris, or at least to its neighbourhood, in 1785, and Mlle Necker resumed literary work of a miscellaneous kind, including a novel, Sophie, printed in 1786, and a tragedy, Jeanne Grey, published in 1790. It became, however, a question of marrying her. Her want of beauty was compensated by her fortune. But her parents are said to have objected to her marrying a Roman Catholic, which, in France, considerably limited her choice. There is a legend that William Pitt the younger thought of her; the somewhat notorious lover of Mlle de Lespinasse, Guibert, a cold-hearted coxcomb of some talent, certainly paid her addresses. But she finally married Eric Magnus, Baron of Staël-Holstein, who was first an attaché of the Swedish legation, and then minister. For a great heiress and a very ambitious girl the marriage scarcely seemed brilliant, for Staël had no fortune and no very great personal distinction. A singular series of negotiations, however, secured from the king of Sweden a promise of the ambassadorship for twelve years and a pension in case of its withdrawal, and the marriage took place on the 14th of January 1786. The husband was thirty-seven, the wife twenty. Mme de Staël was accused of extravagance, and latterly an amicable separation of goods had to be effected between the pair. But this was a mere legal formality, and on the whole the marriage seems to have met the views of both parties, neither of whom had any affection for the other. They had three children; there was no scandal between them; the baron obtained money and the lady obtained, as a guaranteed ambassadress of a foreign power of consideration, a much higher position at court and in society than she could have secured by marrying almost any Frenchman, without the inconveniences which might have been expected had she married a Frenchman superior to herself in rank. Mme de Staël was not a persona grata at court, but she seems to have played the part of ambassadress, as she played most parts, in a rather noisy and exaggerated manner, but not ill. Then in 1788 she appeared as an author under her own name (Sophie had been already published, but anonymously) with some Lettres sur J. J. Rousseau, a fervid panegyric showing a good deal of talent but no power of criticism. She was at this time, and indeed generally, enthusiastic for a mixture of Rousseauism and constitutionalism in politics. She exulted in the meeting of the states-general, and most of all when her father, after being driven to Brussels by a state intrigue, was once more recalled and triumphantly escorted into Paris. Every one knows what followed. Her first child, a boy, was born the week before Necker finally left France in unpopularity and disgrace; and the increasing disturbances of the Revolution made her privileges as ambassadress very important safeguards. She visited Coppet once or twice, but for the most part in the early days of the revolutionary period she was in Paris taking an interest and, as she thought, a part in the councils and efforts of the Moderates. At last, the day before the September massacres, she fled, befriended by Manuel and Tallien. Her own account of her escape is, as usual, so florid that it provokes the question whether she was really in any danger. Directly it does not seem that she was; but she had generously strained the privileges of the embassy to protect some threatened friends, and this was a serious matter.
She betook herself to Coppet, and there gathered round her a considerable number of friends and fellow-refugees, the beginning of the quasi-court which at intervals during the next five-and-twenty years made the place so famous. In 1793, however, she made a visit of some length to England, and established herself at Mickleham in Surrey as the centre of the Moderate Liberal emigrants — Talleyrand, Narbonne, Jaucourt and others. There was not a little scandal about her relations with Narbonne; and this Mickleham sojourn (the details of which are known from, among other sources, the letters of Fanny Burney) has never been altogether satisfactorily accounted for. In the summer she returned to Coppet and wrote a pamphlet (Réflexions sur le procès de la reine) on the queen's execution. The next year her mother died, and the fall of Robespierre opened the way back to Paris. M de Staël (whose mission had been in abeyance and himself in Holland for three years) was accredited to the French republic by the regent of Sweden; his wife reopened her salon and for a time was conspicuous in the motley and eccentric society of the Directory. She also published several small works, the chief being an essay De l'Influence des passions (1796), and another De la Littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800). It was during these years that Mme de Staël was of chief political importance. Narbonne's place had been supplied by Benjamin Constant, whom she first met at Coppet in 1794, and who had a very great influence over her, as in return she had over him. Both personal and political reasons threw her into opposition to Bonaparte. Her own preference for a moderate republic or a constitutional monarchy was quite sincere, and, even if it had not been so, her own character and Napoleon's were too much alike in some points to admit of their getting on together. For some years, however, she was able to alternate between Coppet and Paris without difficulty, though not without knowing that the First Consul disliked her. In 1797 she, as above mentioned, separated formally from her husband. In 1799 he was recalled by the king of Sweden, and in 1802 he died, duly attended by her. Besides the eldest son Auguste Louis, they had two other children — a son Albert, and a daughter Albertine, who afterwards became the duchesse de Broglie.
The exact date of the beginning of what Mme de Staël's admirers call her duel with Napoleon is not easy to determine. Judging from the title of her book Dix années d'exil, it should be put at 1804; judging from the time at which it became pretty clear that the first man in France and she who wished to be the first woman in France were not likely to get on together, it might be put several years earlier. The whole question of this duel, however, requires consideration from the point of view of common sense. It displeased Napoleon no doubt that Mme de Staël should show herself recalcitrant to his influence. But it probably pleased Mme de Staël to quite an equal degree that Napoleon should apparently put forth his power to crush her and fail. Both personages had a curious touch of charlatanerie. If Mme de Staël had really desired to take up her parable against Napoleon seriously, she need only have established herself in England at the peace of Amiens. But she lingered on at Coppet, constantly hankering after Paris, and acknowledging the hankering quite honestly. In 1802 she published the first of her really noteworthy books, the novel of Delphine, in which the “femme incomprise” was in a manner introduced to French literature, and in which she herself and not a few of her intimates appeared in transparent disguise. In the autumn of 1803 she returned to Paris. Whether, if she had not displayed such extraordinary anxiety not to be exiled, Napoleon would have exiled her remains a question; but, as she began at once appealing to all sorts of persons to protect her, he seems to have thought it better that she should not be protected. She was directed not to reside within forty leagues of Paris, and after considerable delay she determined to go to Germany. She journeyed, in company with Constant, by Metz and Frankfort to Weimar, and arrived there in December. There she stayed during the winter and then went to Berlin, where she made the acquaintance of August Wilhelm Schlegel, who afterwards became one of her intimates at Coppet. Thence she travelled to Vienna, where, in April, the news of her father's dangerous illness and shortly of his death (April 8) reached her. She returned to Coppet, and found herself its wealthy and independent mistress, but her sorrow for her father was deep and certainly sincere. She spent the summer at the château with a brilliant company; in the autumn she journeyed to Italy accompanied by Schlegel and Sismondi, and there gathered the materials of her most famous work, Corinne. She returned in the summer of 1805, and spent nearly a year in writing Corinne; in 1806 she broke the decree of exile and lived for a time undisturbed near Paris. In 1807 Corinne, the first aesthetic romance not written in German, appeared. It is in fact, what it was described as being at the time of its appearance, “a picturesque tour couched in the form of a novel.” The publication was taken as a reminder of her existence, and the police of the empire sent her back to Coppet. She stayed there as usual for the summer, and then set out once more for Germany, visiting Mainz, Frankfort, Berlin and Vienna. She was again at Coppet in the summer of 1808 (in which year Constant broke with her, subsequently marrying a German lady) and set to work at her book, De l'Allemagne. It took her nearly the whole of the next two years, during which she did not travel much or far from her own house. She had bought property in America and thought of moving thither, but chance or fatality made her determine to publish De l'Allemagne in Paris. The submission to censorship which this entailed was sufficiently inconsistent and she wrote to the emperor one of the unfortunate letters, at once undignified and provoking, of which she had the secret. A man less tyrannical or less mean-spirited than Napoleon would of course have let her alone, but Napoleon was Napoleon, and she perfectly well knew him. The reply to her letter was the condemnation of the whole edition of her book (ten thousand copies) as “not French,” and her own exile, not as before to a certain distance from Paris, but from France altogether. The act was unquestionably one of odious tyranny, but it is impossible not to ask why she had put herself within reach of it when her fortune enabled her to reside anywhere and to publish what she pleased. She retired once more to Coppet, where she was not at first interfered with, and she found consolation in a young officer of Swiss origin named Rocca, twenty-three years her junior, whom she married privately in 1811. The intimacy of their relations could escape no one at Coppet, but the fact of the marriage (which seems to have been happy enough) was not certainly known till after her death.
The operations of the imperial police in regard to Mme de Staël are rather obscure. She was at first left undisturbed, but by degrees the château itself became taboo, and her visitors found themselves punished heavily. Mathieu de Montmorency and Mme Récamier were exiled for the crime of seeing her; and she at last began to think of doing what she ought to have done years before and withdrawing herself entirely from Napoleon's sphere. In the complete subjection of the Continent which preceded the Russian War this was not so easy as it would have been earlier, and she remained at home during the winter of 1811, writing and planning. On the 23rd of May she left Coppet almost secretly, and journeyed by Bern, Innsbruck and Salzburg to Vienna. There she obtained an Austrian passport to the frontier, and after some fears and trouble, receiving a Russian passport in Galicia, she at last escaped from the dungeon of Napoleonic Europe.
She journeyed slowly through Russia and Finland to Sweden, making some stay at St Petersburg, spent the winter in Stockholm, and then set out for England. Here she received a brilliant reception and was much lionized during the season of 1813. She published De l'Allemagne in the autumn, was saddened by the death of her second son Albert, who had entered the Swedish army and fell in a duel brought on by gambling, undertook her Considérations sur la révolution française, and when Louis XVIII. had been restored returned to Paris. She was in Paris when the news of Napoleon's landing arrived and at once fled to Coppet, but a singular story, much discussed, is current of her having approved Napoleon's return. There is no direct evidence of it, but the conduct of her close ally Constant may be quoted in its support, and it is certain that she had no affection for the Bourbons. In October, after Waterloo, she set out for Italy, not only for the advantage of her own health but for that of her second husband, Rocca, who was dying of consumption. Her daughter married Duke Victor de Broglie on the 20th of February 1816, at Pisa, and became the wife and mother of French statesmen of distinction. The whole family returned to Coppet in June, and Byron now frequently visited Mme de Staël there. Despite her increasing ill-health she returned to Paris for the winter of 1816-1817, and her salon was much frequented. But she had already become confined to her room, if not to her bed. She died on the 14th of July, and Rocca survived her little more than six months.
Mme de Staël occupies a singular position in French literature. The men of her own time exalted her to the skies, and the most extravagant estimates of her (as “the greatest woman in literary history,” as the “foundress of the romantic movement,” as representing “ideas,” while her contemporary Chateaubriand only represented words, colours, and images, and so forth) are to be found in minor histories of literature. On the other hand, it is acknowledged that she was soon very little read. No other writer of such eminence is so rarely quoted; none is so entirely destitute of the tribute of new and splendid editions. The abundant documents in the hands of her descendants, the families of Broglie and Haussonville, have indeed furnished material for books and papers, but these are almost wholly on the social aspect of Mme de Staël, not on her literary merit. Nor, when the life and works are examined is the neglect without excuse. Her books are seen to be in large part merely clever reflections of other people's views or views current at the time. The sentimentality of her sentiment and the florid magniloquence of her style equally disgust the reader. But to state this alone would be in the highest degree unfair. Mme de Staël's faults are great; her style is of an age, not for all time; her ideas are mostly second-hand and frequently superficial. But nothing save a very great talent could have shown itself so receptive. Take away her assiduous frequentation of society, from the later philosophe coteries to the age of Byron — take away the influence of Constant and Schlegel and her other literary friends — and probably little of her will remain. But to have caught from all sides in this manner the floating notions of society and of individuals, to reflect them with such vigour and clearness, is not anybody's task. Her two best books, Corinne and De l'Allemagne, are in all probability almost wholly unoriginal, a little sentiment in the first and a little constitutionalism in the second being all that she can claim. But Corinne is still a very remarkable exposition of a certain kind of aestheticism, while De l'Allemagne is still perhaps the most remarkable account of one country, by a native and inhabitant of another, which exists in literature.
Baron Auguste de Staël (d. 1827) edited the complete works of his mother in seventeen volumes (Paris, 1820-1821), with a notice by Mme Necker de Saussure, and the edition was afterwards republished in a compacter form, and, supplemented by some Œuvres inédites, is still obtainable in three volumes, large 8vo (Didot). The Considérations and the Dix années d'exil had been published after Mme de Staël's death. Some Lettres inédites to H. Meister were published in 1903. There is no recent reissue of the whole, and the minor works have not been reprinted, but Corinne, Delphine and De l'Allemagne are easily accessible in cheap and separate forms. Of separate works on Mme de Staël, or rather on Coppet and its society, besides those of MM Caro and Othenin d'Haussonville, may be mentioned the capital work of A. Sorel in the Grands écrivains français. In English there are biographies by A. Stevens (London, 1880), and Lady Blennerhasset (1889).