Staël, Germaine de

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Staël, Germaine de (1766-1817): French Writer.

Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, Baronne de Staël-Holstein -- generally known as Madame de Staël -- was celebrated as a woman of letters who maintained the finest literary and intellectual salon in Europe. Born on 22 April 1766 in Paris, Germaine was raised a Protestant. Her father, Necker, Jacques, was a Swiss banker and French King Louis XVI’s Minister of Finance. Her mother, Suzanne Curchod, had a salon frequented by Diderot, Denis, Gibbon, Edward, and other important thinkers. Although contemporaries teased Germaine for a perceived lack of beauty, she soon surpassed them intellectually and artistically. She also eventually earned the enmity of her mother by creating a rival salon with even greater celebrities.

Married off at the age of 20 to a Swiss ambassador, Baron Eric de Staël-Holstein, Germaine had a child by him but considered their marriage to be purely one of convenience. She remained married primarily to give legitimacy to her next four children, fathered by other men. Among her more famous lovers were philosopher Schlegel, August Wilhelm and Friedrich, politician Charles de Talleyrand, and novelist Benjamin Constant. Her salon was also frequented by the Marquis de Lafayette, André Chénier, Count Mirabeau, Honoré Gabriel Riquetti, Comte de, and Lord Byron. Madame de Staël’s scandalous sex life, radical ideas and controversial friends resulted in her being repeatedly exiled to Switzerland, England, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. After running afoul of Bonaparte, Napoleon, she lived lavishly at Chateau Coppet near Geneva. When finally widowed, Madame de Staël, at age 45, married a 24-year-old Swiss-Italian soldier, John Rocca. She continued writing controversial political tracts that caused monarchists to consider her a revolutionary while causing Jacobins to consider her a reactionary. She also wrote novels, plays, and poems. Eventually she returned to Paris and, following a period of time as an invalid and opium user, died on 14 July 1817.

Madame de Staël is best remembered for popularizing some highly influential ideas in the realm of politics and literary theory. For the most part, she urged France to adopt the English model of parliamentary monarchy. She also wrote important essays in support of Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de’s concept of law and Rousseau, Jean-Jacques’s ideas about the role of the passions in society and the nature of the social contract. She revitalized European literature by proselytizing for the budding new trend called Romanticism. In her seminal works De la littérature (On Literature, 1800) and De l’Allemagne (On Germany, 1810), Madame de Staël drew a contrast between southern European literature -- which stressed classical style, intellectual rationalism, antiquity, and universality -- and northern literature, mostly Germanic and Anglo-Saxon, which emphasized emotionalism, folklore, and modern nationalistic themes. While praising both types of literature, she urged 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, vicomte (viscount) de, Lamartine, Byron, Emerson, and countless other writers and thinkers around the world.

Further Reading:

Gretchen Rous Besser, Germaine de Staël Revisited, 1994.

J. Christopher Herold, Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Staël, 1958.

Kenneth T. Rivers

Lamar University