Standing out from the word weavers by force of voice and character was a woman who, amid successful novels and a succession of lovers, accepted the Revolution, denounced the mob and the Terror, fought Napoleon at every step, and survived to victory while he languished in a living death. Germaine Necker had the advantage of being born to prominence and fortune: her father, soon a millionaire, became France’s minister of finance; her mother, once pursued by Edward Gibbon, gathered in her salon the celebrated geniuses of Paris and beyond, to serve unwittingly or unwillingly in the education of her child.
She was born in Paris on April 22, 1766. Mme. Necker, insisting on being her chief tutor, filled her with an explosive mixture of history, literature, philosophy, Racine, Richardson, Calvin, and Rousseau. Germaine trembled with fashionable sensibility over Clarissa Harlowe’s approach to a fate worse than death, and with youthful enthusiasm over Rousseau’s call to freedom, but she proved painfully allergic to Calvinism, and resisted the insistent theology and discipline with which it was daily administered to her. More and more she shied away from her ailing, dominating mother, and fell in love with her virtuous but indulgent and providing father. This was the only liaison that she maintained with lasting fidelity; it made other attachments tangential and insecure. “Our destinies,” she wrote, “would have united us forever if fate had made us contemporaries.”60 Meanwhile, to confuse her emotions with intellect, she was allowed, from puberty onward, to attend her mother’s periodical meetings of the minds; there she pleased the pundits by her quickness of understanding and repartee. By the time she was seventeen she had become the star of the salon.
Now the problem arose of finding for her a husband who could match her mind and her prospective fortune. Her parents proposed William Pitt, the rising light of English politics; Germaine rejected the idea for the same reason that had led her mother to resist Gibbon—there was not enough sun in England, and the women there were beautiful but unheard. Baron Eric Magnus Staël von Holstein, being bankrupt, offered his hand; the Neckers held him at bay until he had become Swedish ambassador to France. This happened, and Germaine agreed to marry him because she expected to be more independent as a wife than as a daughter. On January 14, 1786, she became Baronne de Staël-Holstein; she was twenty, the Baron thirty-seven. We are assured that “she knew nothing of sexual love until her marriage”;61 but she was a quick learner in everything. The Comtesse de Boufflers, who presided at the wedding, described the bride as “so spoiled by admiration for her wit that it will be hard to make her realize her shortcomings. She is imperious and strong-willed to excess, and she has a self-assurance that I have never seen matched by any person of her age.”62 She was not beautiful, being masculine in build as well as mind; but her black eyes sparkled with vivacity, and in conversation she had no equal.
She went to live at the Swedish Embassy in the Rue du Bac, where she soon established her own salon; but also—since her mother was ailing—she took charge of the salon in the apartments over her father’s bank. Necker had been dismissed from the Ministry of Finance in 1781, but he was recalled to office in 1788 to help turn aside the threat of revolution. He was now, despite his millions, the ideal of Paris, and Germaine, passionately supporting him with tongue and pen, had some reason to be proud. Politics, next to unlicensed love, became her meat and drink.
On Necker’s advice Louis summoned the States-General; over Necker’s resistance he bade the three estates sit separately, maintaining class distinction; On July 12, 1789, he dismissed Necker a second time, and ordered him to leave France at once. He and Mme. Necker drove to Brussels; Germaine, wild with wrath, followed them; Staël, forgetting his official duties, accompanied her and her fortune. On July 14 the Parisian populace stormed the Bastille and threatened the monarchy. The frightened King sent a courier to overtake Necker and call him back to Paris and office; Necker came; the people acclaimed him. Germaine rushed to Paris, and thereafter, till the September Massacres, felt every day the hot winds of revolution.
Associating its early stages with her father, and her politics with her income, she supported the States-General, but pleaded for a bicameral legislature under a constitutional monarchy assuring representative government, civil liberties, and the protection of property. As the Revolution proceeded she used all her influence to moderate the Jacobins and encourage the Girondins.
However, she outdistanced the Jacobins in her moral philosophy. Nearly all the men she met thought it reasonable that their marriages, having been unions of property and not of hearts, should allow for a mistress or two to give them excitement and romance; but they held that similar privileges could not be extended to the wife, since her infidelity would cause disruptive uncertainties in the inheritance of property. Germaine did not feel this argument, since in her case—an only child—the property in question and in prospect was almost wholly her own. She concluded that she should feel free to seek romance, even to sampling other beds.
She had soon lost respect for her husband, who was too obedient to be interesting, and too incompetent to be solvent. She did not object to his taking Mlle. Clairon as a mistress, but he was spending his official income on the seventy-year-old actress, was neglecting his duties as ambassador, was gambling and losing, and repeatedly accumulating debts which his wife and father-in-law reluctantly paid. So she made her way through a procession of lovers, for, as she was to say in Delphine, “Between God and love I recognize no mediator but my conscience”; and conscience could be managed. One of her first collaborators was Talleyrand, ex-bishop of Autun, who agreed with her on the flexibility of vows. After him came Comte Jacques-Antoine de Guibert, lately the beau idéal of Julie de Lespinasse; however, he died in 1790, aged forty-seven. A year earlier Germaine had formed a deeper and more lasting attachment with Louis de Narbonne-Lara. He was the son of an illegal union, and was himself, at thirty-three, the father of several bastards; but he was remarkably handsome, and had that ease and grace of manner which unpedigreed youth can seldom learn. By social heredity he was all for the aristocracy against an “upstart” bourgeoisie, but Germaine persuaded him to her ideas of a constitutional monarchy in which the propertied class would share in power with the nobility and the king. If we may believe her, Narbonne “changed his destiny for my sake. He broke his attachments and consecrated his life to me. In a word, he convinced me that …he would consider himself happy to possess my heart, but that if he lost it irremediably he could not survive.”63
On September 4, 1790, Necker, his liberal policy frustrated by the nobles around the King, resigned, and retired with his wife to a temporarily quiet life in his château at Coppet. Germaine joined them in October, but she soon tired of Swiss peace, and hurried back to what she called, by comparison, the delectable “gutter of the Rue du Bac.”64 There her salon hummed with the voices of Lafayette, Condorcet, Brissot, Barnave, Talleyrand, Narbonne, and her own. She was not content to set the pace for brilliant conversation; she longed to play a part in politics. She indulged the dream of leading France from Catholicism to Protestantism, but she hoped, through her nest of notables, to bring the Revolution to a peaceful rest in constitutional monarchy. With help from Lafayette and Barnave, she secured the appointment of Narbonne as minister of war (December 6, 1791). Marie Antoinette reluctantly supported the appointment. “What glory for Mme. de Staël,” she commented; “what joy for her to have the whole army at her disposal! “65
Narbonne went too fast. On February 24, 1792, he presented to Louis XVI a memorandum advising the King to break with the aristocracy and give his trust and support to a propertied bourgeoisie pledged to maintain law and order and a limited monarchy. The other ministers angrily protested; Louis yielded to them, and dismissed Narbonne. Germaine’s house of cards fell; and to put salt in her wounds her rival, Mme. Roland, secured, through Brissot, the appointment of her husband as minister of the interior.
Germaine lived in Paris through most of the terrible year 1792. On June 20, 1792, she witnessed (if only across the Seine) the storming of the Tuileries by a crowd whose unvarnished manners frightened her. “Their frightful oaths and shouts, their threatening gestures, their murderous weapons, offered a horrifying spectacle which could forever destroy the respect which the human race should inspire.”66 But that journée (as the French came to call an uprising of the populace) was an amiable rehearsal, crowned and appeased by the red cap of the Revolution on the King’s head. On August 10, however, she witnessed, from her coign of safety, the bloody capture of the Tuileries by a mob that did not rest until the King and the Queen fled to a momentary protection by the Legislative Assembly. The triumphant rebels began to arrest every available aristocrat; Germaine spent her fortune liberally in protecting her titled friends. She hid Narbonne in the recesses of the Swedish Embassy; she stoutly resisted, and finally deflected, a search patrol; and by August 20 Narbonne was safe in England.
Still worse came on September 2, when the fear-maddened sansculottes led the arrested nobles and their supporters out of their jails and murdered them as they emerged. Mme. de Staël barely escaped that fate. After helping many of her friends to get out of Paris and France, she herself set forth, on that bright September 2, in a stately carriage with six horses and liveried servants, toward the city gates; she deliberately put on the style and insignia of the ambassadress in the hope of receiving diplomatic courtesies. Almost at the start the carriage was stopped by “a swarm of old women, issued from hell.” Burly workingmen ordered the postilions to drive to the headquarters of the section; thence a gendarme conducted the party through hostile crowds to the Hôtel de Ville. There “I stepped out of the carriage, surrounded by an armed mob, and made my way through a hedge of pikes. As I mounted the stairway, which also was bristling with lances, a man pointed his pike at my heart. My policeman fended it off with his saber. If I had stumbled at that moment it would have been the end of me.”67 In the headquarters of the Commune she found a friend who secured her release; he escorted her to the embassy, and gave her a passport that enabled her, the next morning, to pass safely out of Paris on the long ride to Coppet. That was the day on which the head of the Princesse de Lamballe, parading on a pike, passed below the imprisoned Queen.
Germaine reached the arms of her parents on September 7. In October, hearing of revolution in Geneva, they moved eastward to Rolle, nearer to Lausanne. On November 20, 1792, the twenty-six-year-old mother gave birth to a son, Albert, whom she had been carrying with her through her adventures with death. Probably he had been sired by Narbonne, but her husband was led to believe, or pretend, that he was the father. At Rolle, and then at Coppet, she gave passing refuge to a number of men and women, titled or not, who were in flight before the coming Terror. “Neither she nor her father cared for opinion in the presence of misfortune.”68
When she heard that Narbonne had offered to leave his refuge in England to come and testify in defense of Louis XVI, Germaine could not bear the thought that he would so endanger himself; she must go to England and dissuade him. She made her way through France and across the Channel, and joined Narbonne in Juniper Hall, at Mickelham near London, on January 21, 1793—the day that Louis was guillotined. Her former lover was too depressed by the news to give her much welcome; his aristocratic lineage reasserted itself, and his love for his mistress lost its ardor in his grief for the King. Talleyrand came from nearby London for frequent visits, and cheered them with his humor. Fanny Burney joined them, and reported (in Macaulay’s summary) “that she had never heard such conversation before. The most animated eloquence, the keenest observation, the most sparkling wit, the most courtly grace, were united to charm her.” She refused to believe the gossip that Narbonne and Germaine were living in adultery. She wrote to her father, the famous historian of music:
This intimation was … wholly new to me, and I do firmly believe it a gross calumny. She loves him even tenderly, but so openly, so simply, so unaffectedly, and with such utter freedom from all coquetry.… She is very plain, he is very handsome; her intellectual endowments must be with him her sole attraction. … I think you could not spend a day with them and not see that their commerce is that of a pure but exalted … friendship.69
When Fanny became assured that this brilliant couple were living in shameless sin, she sorrowfully gave up her visits to Juniper Hall.
The little group was shunned, too, by earlier émigrés, who accused them of having too long defended the Revolution. On May 25, 1793, Germaine crossed to Ostend; then, as still the wife of the Swedish ambassador, she made her way safely to Bern, where she was met by her occasional husband, and went with him to Coppet. Thence she issued Reflections on the Trial of the Queen, by a Woman, a fervent appeal for mercy toward Marie Antoinette. But the Queen was guillotined on October 16, 1793.
Mme. Necker died on May 15, 1794. Her husband mourned her with a depth of affection that only long unity can bring. Germaine, not overwhelmed, moved to the Château of Mézerey, near Lausanne, to form a new salon, and to forget everything else in the arms of Count Ribbing. Narbonne, arriving tardily, found himself displaced, and returned to a former mistress. Sometime in the fall of 1794 a tall, freckle-faced, red-haired Swiss, Benjamin Constant, almost twenty-seven, met Germaine at Nyon, and began with her a long embattled union of literature and love.
Meanwhile Robespierre had fallen; the moderates came to power; now she might return to Paris. She did in May, 1795, made peace with her husband, and revived her salon at the Swedish Embassy. There she brought together the new leaders of the dying Convention—Barras, Tallien, Boissy d’Anglas, and literary lions like Marie-Joseph de Chénier. She plunged so avidly into politics that a deputy denounced her on the floor of the Convention as conducting a monarchist conspiracy while cuckolding her husband. The new Committee of Public Safety ordered her to leave France; by January 1, 1796, she was back in Coppet. There, between Constant and her books, she wrote a somber study, De l’influence des passions, dripping with Rousseau and feeling, echoing The Sorrows of Werther, and praising suicide. Her friends in Paris arranged ecstatic reviews. The Directory notified her that she might come to France, but not closer than twenty miles to the capital. She and Constant settled in a former abbey at Hérivaux. In the spring of 1797 she was allowed to join her husband in Paris. There, on June 8, she gave birth to a daughter, Albertine, of uncertain paternity. Amid these complications she secured, through Barras, the recall of Talleyrand from exile, and his appointment (July 18, 1797) as minister of foreign affairs. In 1798 Baron de Staël lost his post as ambassador. He gave Germaine an amicable separation in return for an allowance, and retired to an apartment in what is now the Place de la Concorde, where we shall find him dying in 1802.
On December 6, 1796, at a reception given by Talleyrand to the homecoming conqueror of Italy, she first met Napoleon. He spoke to her some words in praise of her father. For the first time in her life she was not ready with a response; “I was a bit troubled, first with admiration, then with fear.”70 She asked him a foolish question: “Who is the greatest woman, alive or dead?” He gave her an impish answer: “The one who has made the most children.”71 Four days later she saw him again when he received the acclaim of the Directors in the court of the Luxembourg Palace. She was puzzled by his mixture of modesty and pride; here, she felt, was a man who carried with him the destiny of France. She longed to be taken into his confidence, to share with him in great enterprises, perhaps to number him among her victories. She rejoiced like a secret lover when, on November 10, 1799, Lucien Bonaparte told her that Napoleon had emerged triumphant at St.-Cloud, and had been named First Consul—therefore, in effect, the ruler of France. She felt that an age of chaos and tarnished ideals had ended, and that another age of heroes and glory had dawned.