Napoleon's Women: The Life of Madame de Stael

In her lifetime, it was said there were three great powers in Europe: Britain, Russia and Madame de Staël.  She was a political and literary intellectual giant in an age when women weren't expected to be either.  She was also crucial in putting together the coalition that brought down Napoleon, most of the important treaty negotiations between Russia and Sweden against Napoleon were conducted through Madame de Staël.  After Napoleon's fall, her salon in Paris was where the attempts at constitutional monarchy were framed. She was also an accomplished writer of novels (Delphine, Corrine or Italy), travel writing (her three volume work ‘On Germany’ was heralded at the time), pamphleteer (she wrote a spirited defense of Marie Antoinette) and literary critic (On Literature) who pretty much invented comparative literature. During the reign of terror, Germaine used her status as a Swiss citizen to save the lives of at least a dozen people.  Unlike her contemporaries Fanny Burney and Jane Austen (who she had no use for), Madame de Staël is not as well known today as they are.  Her colorful life seems to have overshadowed her very real contributions to literature.

She was born Anne Louise Germaine Necker on April 22, 1766, the only child of Jacques and Suzanne Necker.  Germaine’s mother was something of an 18th century Tiger Mom, determined that her little darling would be the most brilliant and articulate child in France.  From an early age, Germaine had a steady diet of mathematics, philosophy, religion, and languages.  By the age of 3, she could already recite her catechism.  Suzanne was a devotee of Rousseau, but she seems to have read the abridged version of his work because she kept Germaine isolated from other children, worried that they might corrupt her child.  The upshot was that Germaine suffered a nervous collapse at the age of 12 from overwork.  Her doctors prescribed plenty of rest in the country, and play dates with children her own age which her mother reluctantly agreed too. The one good thing her mother did for was invite her to her salons (where she was instructed to be seen and not heard) where she was able to listen to some of the most brilliant minds of the day such as the Abbé Raynal, Marmontel, Buffon, and Jean-Francois de la Harpe. For the rest of her life, Germaine resented her mother for working her to death and her lack of affection.

The only thing that she and her mother had in common was their love and devotion to Jacques Necker, a Swiss Protestant who rose from unimportant clerk to the Director of Finance under Louis XVI (it was said that his dismissal in 1788 was one of the causes of the storming of the Bastille).  Suzanne was devoted to him since he rescued her from a life of spinsterhood as a governess after a thwarted romance with the historian Edward Gibbons. She would do whatever she could to promote his career, including holding a Friday night salon in Paris, training herself to become an interesting conversationalist, which did not come naturally to her.  Germaine loved him and he doted on her and adored his only child who he nicknamed ‘Minette’.  For many years, she considered him to be the love of her life, although all of her lovers were the complete opposite of her sober, puritanical father.

Germaine was striking rather than beautiful with a flamboyant style of dress (girlfriend knew how to rock a turban).  She was tall, but rather clumsy (she tripped over her train when she made her debut at court and fell on her face) with abundant black hair, large hazel eyes, beautiful shoulders, and a generous bosom.  While not a great beauty, she was also good-humored, vivacious and more important, a witty conversationalist, not afraid to share her opinions, the exact opposite of her mother.  And to put the cherry on top of the cake, she was the richest heiress in France.  A host of suitors showed up at the Necker front door, including William Pitt the younger, who was turned down because Germaine didn’t want to live so far away from her two great loves: Paris and her daddy.  If she had, she would have been the wife of the youngest Prime Minister in British history.

 Instead the winner of her hand was Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, a nobleman eighteen years her senior, who was first attaché of the Swedish legation.  He also had a gambling problem which made Necker think twice about having him as a son-in-law.  He would only agree to the marriage if the King of Sweden promised to make de Staël lifetime ambassador to France and a title.  In return, Sweden received several acres of land on St. Bart’s.  Germaine was now the Baroness de Stael, and the wife of an ambassador, a much higher position at court and in society than she would have achieved by marrying a Frenchman.  However it was Germaine who proved the more effective envoy.  She wrote long letters to the Gustavus IV of Sweden, reporting on the progress of the reformist ideas that were circulating in her salons.

The couple was soon living separate lives.  Germaine consoled herself by creating one of the most brilliant salons in Paris.  Unlike her mother’s salon which was created mainly to promote Necker, Germaine’s salon gathered some of the most brilliant minds of pre-revolutionary France including Talleyrand, Abbé Delille, Clermont-Tonnerre, and Gouverneur Morris.  Later on in Switzerland during the terror and her long exiles, she turned the family chateau at Coppet, into an intellectual powerhouse and asylum for those who opposed Napoleon.  Germaine knew or became good friends with most of the intelligentsia of late 18th and early 19th century Europe including Byron, Schiller, Goethe, Chateaubriand, the Duke of Wellington, Fanny Burney (until her father forbid her to associate with Germaine) and Juliette Recamier (one of her closest friends). After the Terror, her salon served as a resort for all the restless politicians of the day and she was once considered a person dangerous to the state. She hosted dinner parties where she invited people with varying opinions and on other days she entertained separately the leaders of the various cliques. 

Germaine became intimate friends with among others Talleyrand, Narbonne, and the Swiss-born politician Benjamin Constant.  Constant came closest to being both the intellectual equal as well as the ardent lover that Germaine had searched for her entire life. Of her five children, only one could be said to be definitively her husband’s.  She also had a large entourage of admirers, who orbited around her, hoping against hope that they would get the chance to be more than just a friend.  Although she was considered plain by some, Germaine clearly had sex appeal.  She was also apparently a demanding lover. “I have never known a woman who was more continuously exacting…Everybody’s entire existence, every hour, every minute, for years on end, must be at her disposition, or else there is an explosion like all thunderstorms and earthquakes put together,” Benjamin Constant once wrote.  And he lived with her on and off for seventeen years!  Even after he secretly married, he found it hard to tear himself away from Germaine.  The two of them forged an intellectual and romantic partnership that was also incredibly co-dependent.  It was a classic love/hate relationship.  Frankly Germaine sounds both exhilarating as well as exhausting.  One of her biographers, Francine du Plessix Gray, speculates that Germaine may have suffered from manic depression. Her final companion was John Rocca, a handsome but poorly educated former Swiss soldier half her age, who she married secretly (her husband had died in 1802) who she referred to as ‘nothing but a little Scottish melody in my life’.

And then there was that little feud with Napoleon.  Germaine was fully prepared to jump on the ‘Napoleon is Great!’ bandwagon when she first met him but he was immune to her charms, nor was he interested in hearing her ideas of how to make France great.  At their first meeting, she asked him who he thought was the greatest woman in history, he told her that it was the woman who’d had the most children. Napoleon was a misogynist at heart; he disliked intellectual, mouthy women.  He preferred submissive, feminine women, more like his wife Josephine or his later mistress Marie Walewska.  He once leaned over and remarked leeringly at her cleavage, remarking that she must have breast-fed her children.  As Napoleon’s power grew, so did Germaine’s opposition to what became his dictatorship.  Her own preference was for a moderate republic or a constitutional monarchy.  Unfortunately for Germaine, she couldn’t keep her mouth shut, encouraging Constant to speak in opposition of certain government proposals, although he was strongly advised not to do so by others. Napoleon never forgave her for Constant’s speech and in retaliation, he not only spied on her, censored her books,  actually pulping one in mid-printing (On Germany), threatened her with prison, and also exiled her from France on at least three separate occasions between 1803 and 1812.

During her time in exile, she did some of her finest writing. Her novel Corinne or Italy, published in 1807 had a huge impact on women readers outside of France.  Corinne’s heroine broke the mold, as a  woman and as an artist; she was beautiful, imperious, highly strung and emotionally vulnerable.  Many young women consciously modeled themselves after Corinne, including Byron’s Italian mistress Teresa Guiccioli, the British poet Felicia Hemans and Margaret Fuller. Corinne became an international symbol of Romanticism, just as much as Goethe’s Werther.  The novel outsold the works of Sir Walter Scott, has never been out of print since.

In On Germany, Germaine compared and contrasted the differences between southern European literature, which stressed classical style, intellectual rationalism, and antiquity, and northern literature, which emphasized emotionalism, folklore, and nationalistic themes. While praising both, she advocated for a spreading of the northern, romantic variety. She also stressed the concept of nature as a cosmic oneness expressible through literature, especially poetry. These notions profoundly influenced Chateaubriand, François-René, Byron, Emerson, and countless other writers and thinkers around the world.

During her final years, Germaine began to suffer from intense stomach pains, probably from years of opium abuse.  After a cerebral stroke left her paralyzed, she died on July 14, 1817 (Bastille Day) at the age of 51.  Her young husband survived her by only six months before he died from tuberculosis.

Further reading:
Francine du Plessix Gray, Madame de Staël:  The First Modern Woman, Atlas & Co., 2008

Maria Fairweather, Madame de Staël. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005

Christopher J. Herold, Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Staël. New York: Grove Press, 2002

Renee Winegarten, Germaine de Staël & Benjamin Constant: a Dual Biography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008 (ISBN 9780300119251).


Marg said…
Fascinating post about someone I don't recall having heard much about!
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Unknown said…
I'm doing a project on her and I was wondering if you could shorten.this up about her and her life. Like.make bullet points or something

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