1. Napoleon’s Nemesis
The Committee of Public Safety had banished her from France; the Directory had reduced this to exclusion from Paris; the day after its fall she hurried back to the capital (November 12, 1799), and took an apartment in the Rue de Grenelle in the fashionable Faubourg St.-Germain. The new consular government—i.e., Napoleon—made no protest against her return.
Soon she had opened a new salon, partly because “conversing in Paris… has always been to me the most fascinating of all pleasures,”12 partly because she was determined to play a part in the direction of events. She did not admit that such a role was unbecoming a woman; it seemed to her quite becoming if the woman (like her) had both money and brains; and particularly becoming to the heiress of Jacques Necker, whom she considered the unappreciated hero of the Revolution. Incidentally the government still owed him the twenty million francs he had loaned it in 1789; part of her resolve was to regain that sum for her father and her patrimony. Her ideal (like his) was a constitutional monarchy allowing freedom of press, worship, and speech, and protecting the property of the rich against the envy of the poor. In this sense she felt that she was faithful to the Revolution as defined by the National Assembly of 1789–91. She scorned the regicides, and welcomed to her salon her titled neighbors of the Faubourg, who daily prayed for a Bourbon restoration. Nevertheless she centered her gatherings around Benjamin Constant, who was all for a republic, and who, as a member of the Tribunate, opposed every move of Napoleon from consular to imperial power. She welcomed also the brothers of the First Consul, for they too were uncomfortable under his growing authority.
Indeed, most of the men of standing in the political and intellectual world of Paris in 1800 found their way to her soirees, eager to learn the latest political gossip, or to hear Madame sail off in such conversation as Paris had not heard from a woman since Mme. du Deffand. Mme. de Tessé declared: “If I were queen, I would order Mme. de Staël to talk to me all the time.”13 Germaine herself wrote that “the necessity of conversation is felt by all classes in France; speech is not there, as elsewhere, merely a means of communication; … it is an instrument on which they are fond of playing.”14
She did not at once oppose Napoleon; indeed, if we may believe Bourrienne, she wrote him some flattering letters in the early Consulate, even to offering herself to his service.15 But his resolute ignoring of her advances, his expanding censorship, his scorn of intellectuals in politics, his conception of women as breeders and charming toys not to be trusted with a thought, stung her to reply in kind. When he called her guests ideologues she called him an ideophobe; and as her ire warmed she described him as “Robespierre on horseback,”16 or as the bourgeois gentilhomme on the throne.17
On May 7, 1800, she moved her household, and a small retinue of devotees, to Coppet for the summer. Napoleon had left Paris the day before to cross the Alps and meet the Austrians at Marengo. Germaine later confessed: “I could not help wishing that Bonaparte might be defeated, as that seemed the only means of stopping the progress of his tyranny.”18 In the fall of the year, bored with Coppet and Mont Blanc, she returned to the capital, for she lived on conversation, and “French conversation exists nowhere but in Paris.”19 Soon she gathered a bevy of geniuses in her salon, and their predominating topic was Napoleon’s dictatorship. “She carries a quiver full of arrows,” he complained. “They pretend that she speaks neither of politics nor of me; but how, then, does it come to pass that all who see her like me less?”20 “Her home,” he said at St. Helena, “became quite an arsenal against me. People went there to be dubbed knights in her crusade.”21 Yet he admitted: “That woman teaches people to think who never took to it before, or have forgotten how.”22
He felt that as a man seeking to pull France out of chaos by giving her an efficient administration, and meanwhile leading her armies to victory against hostile coalitions, he had the right to expect, and, if necessary, enforce, some unity of morale in the public, some coordination of the national spirit with the national will to defend France’s new republic and its “natural” frontiers; but this woman gathered and united against him both the royalists and the Jacobins, and comforted his enemies. Germaine’s father here agreed with Napoleon; he reprimanded her for her persistent attacks upon the young dictator; some dictatorship, he told her, was necessary in time of crisis or war.23 She replied that freedom was more important than victory. She encouraged Bernadotte in his opposition to Napoleon; she wrote some of the speeches that Constant made in the Tribunate against Napoleon’s encroachment upon the powers of the legislature. She and Bonaparte were expanding and inflammable egoists, and France was not large enough to house them both and keep them free.
In the spring of 1801 Napoleon wrote to his brother Joseph: “Monsieur de Staël is in the most abject misery, and his wife gives dinners and balls.”24 Joseph relayed the rebuke, Germaine went to Monsieur’s room in the Place de la Concorde, and found him in the last stages of paralysis. She attended to his care, and in May, 1802, she took him with her when she left Paris for Switzerland. He died on the way, and was buried in the cemetery of Coppet. In that year, increasingly excitable, Mme. de Staël began to take opium.
2. The Author
She was the greatest European authoress of her time, and the greatest French author, barring Chateaubriand. She had written fifteen books, now forgotten, before 1800; in that year she offered a major work, De la Littérature; thereafter she produced two novels—Delphine (1803) and Corinne (1807)—that made her famous throughout Europe; in 1810–13 she fought the battle of her life to publish her masterpiece, De l’Allemagne; at her death she left another major work, Considérations sur … la Révolution française, andLes Dix Années d’exil. All of those here named were substantial and conscientious productions, some running to eight hundred pages. Mme. de Staël worked hard, loved assiduously, and wrote passionately; she fought to the end the strongest man of her time, and sadly triumphed in his fall.
De la Littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales undertook a large and heroic theme: “I propose to examine the influence of religion, morals, and laws upon literature, and the influence of literature upon religion, morals, and laws.”*It still breathes the spirit of the eighteenth century—freedom of thought, the individual versus the state, the progress of knowledge and morals; here is no supernatural myth, but faith in the spread of education, science, and intelligence. The first prerequisite of progress is the liberation of the mind from political control. With minds so freed, literature will embody, spread, and transmit the mounting heritage of the race. We must not expect art and poetry to progress like science and philosophy, for they depend chiefly on imagination, which is as keen and fertile in early as in later times. In the development of a civilization, art and poetry precede science and philosophy; so the age of Pericles preceded that of Aristotle, the Middle Ages preceded Galileo, the art of Louis XIV preceded the intellectual Enlightenment. The progress of the mind is not continuous; there are retrogressions, due to disturbances in nature or to the vicissitudes of politics; but even in the Middle Ages science and scientific method advanced, and made possible the appearance of Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes. In every age philosophy represents the accumulation and substance of the intellectual heritage. Perhaps (she mused) philosophy will in some future era be sufficiently comprehensive and mature to “be to us what the Christian religion has been in the past.”25 She defined les lumières philosophiques (philosophical enlightenment) as “the appreciation of things according to reason,”26 and only in the face of death did she waver from her faith in the life of reason. “The triumph of the light [les lumières] has always been favorable to the greatness and betterment of mankind.”27
But, she continues (having read Rousseau as well as Voltaire), the growth of the intellect is not enough; knowledge is only one element in understanding. The other is feeling. There must be a sensitivity of the soul as well as of the senses. Without it the soul would be a tabula mortua, a dead receiver of physical sensations; with it the soul enters into the life of other living beings, shares their wondering and suffering, feels the soul within the flesh, the God behind the material world. From this viewpoint the Romantic literature of the misty north—Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain—is as important as the classic literature of the sunny south—Greece and Italy; the poems of “Ossian” are as important as Homer’s epics, and Werther was the greatest book of its time.
Napoleon (in his youth) would have agreed with these evaluations, but he must have been disturbed by the author’s view of the relations between literature and government. Democracies (she held) tend to subject writers and artists to popular tastes; aristocracies lead them to write for an elite, encouraging deliberate thought and sobriety of form;28 absolutism promotes art and science, thereby imposing itself through splendor and power, but it discountenances philosophy and historiography, for these make for a breadth and depth of view dangerous to dictatorship. Democracy stimulates literature and retards art; aristocracies impose taste but frown upon enthusiasm and originality; absolute government stifles freedom, innovation, and thought. If France could have a constitutional government—reconciling order and liberty—she might combine the stimulations of democracy with the judicious restraints of lawful rule.
All in all, this was a remarkable book for a woman of thirty-four years and several million francs. There are errors, of course, in these six hundred pages, for when the mind outgrasps its reach it is bound to risk a fall—though it may shake to the ground some elusive fruit. Madame was a bit vague in history and literature; she thought the Irish were Germans, and that Dante was a minor poet; but she argued bravely for a liberal government and a reasonable Christianity, and she spilled a hundred aperçus on her way. She foresaw that the development of statistics might make government more intelligent, and that political education might help prepare candidates for public office. She remarked prophetically that “scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man’s power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened.”29 “There is scarcely an idea of the eighteenth century which [the book] does not transmit, scarcely an idea of the twentieth century which it does not contain in germ.”30
She had written, in this volume, her lifelong plaint—that “the entire social order … is arrayed against a woman who wants to rise to a man’s reputation” in the realms of art and thought.31 Now she had to make an exception; for, as she wrote twenty-one years later, “in the spring of 1800 I published my work on literature, and the success it met with restored me completely to favor with society; my drawing room became again filled.”32 The faint of heart who had shied away from her salon after Constant’s blast against dictatorship returned penitent and adulant; and the Little Corporal in the Tuileries had to admit that he had found a foe to match his mettle.
In August, 1802, Jacques Necker sent to Consul Lebrun Les Dernières Vues de politique et de finance—his last views on politics and money. It excused the dictatorship of Napoleon, but as a necessary evil, presumably temporary; it warned against the continued concentration of power in the hands of the military; it expressed regret that the finances of the new government depended so heavily upon war indemnities; and it proposed a more liberal constitution of which Napoleon would be the “guardian.” Lebrun showed the book to Napoleon, who, already half imperial, resented the notion that he should reduce his power. Convinced that Mme. de Staël had guided the pen of her father, he issued an order excluding her from Paris—i.e., in effect, closing her mischief-making salon. He forgot that she could write as well as speak. She spent the winter of 1802–03 in Geneva, but in December she again became the talk of Paris by publishing a novel, Delphine. No one reads it now; everyone of literary or political consciousness read it then, for it was part of a virile struggle between a woman and her time.
Delphine is a virtuous girl who longs and fears to yield; otherwise she is Mme. de Staël. Léonce (= Narbonne) is a handsome aristocrat who loves Delphine but abstains from her because a rumor accuses her of “affairs”; he cannot risk his social standing by making her his wife. He marries Matilde de Vernon, whose mother is a scheming witch who covers her lies with wit; Paris saw this lady as Talleyrand despite her skirts, and Talleyrand revenged himself by remarking of the masculine authoress that she had disguised both him and herself as women. Delphine, rejected, retires to a convent, where the abbess hurries her into a vow of lifelong chastity. When Léonce discovers her innocence he thinks of divorcing his unresponsive wife and courting Delphine, but he hesitates to ruin his career by violating the Catholic code of irrefragable monogamy. Matilde dies, a victim of dramatic convenience; Léonce persuades Delphine to elope with him and surrender to his passion; he deserts her, goes off to join the émigrés, is caught and condemned to death. Delphine, in love with his cruelty, rushes to save him, but arrives only in time to see him shot; whereupon she too falls dead.
This absurd and typically romantic plot served the authoress as a podium from which to discuss the legitimacy of divorce, the bigotry of Catholicism (she had inherited Protestantism), the moral rights of women as against the double standard, and the validity of the individual conscience as against the honor code of a class. Her arguments were well received by the intelligentsia of Paris, but they did not please Napoleon, who was turning to Catholicism as a cure for the mental and moral turmoil of France. On October 13, 1803, he issued an order forbidding Mme. de Staël to approach within forty leagues of Paris.
She thought it was just the right time to visit Germany. She had learned enough German to read it, though not to speak it; why not now sample the music of Vienna, the wit of Weimar, and the royal society of Berlin? On November 8, with son Auguste, daughter Albertine, two servants, and her now platonic cavaliere servente Constant, she crossed the Rhine at Metz into Germany.
3. The Tourist
Her first impression, at Frankfurt, was hostile; all the men seemed fat, lived to eat, and ate to smoke; she found it difficult to breathe when they were near. They wondered at this proud woman who could not appreciate the Gemütlichkeit of their pipes. Goethe’s mother wrote to him: “She oppressed me like a millstone. I avoided her wherever I could, refused all invitations to go to things she was to attend, and breathed more freely when she left.”33
Germaine, with her retinue, hurried on to Weimar, where she found the atmosphere purified by poetry. The town was dominated by writers, artists, musicians, and philosophers; the court was judiciously and tolerantly led by Duke Charles Augustus, his wife the Duchess Luise, and his mother the Duchess Dowager Anna Amalie. These people were well educated; they smoked with discrimination, and nearly all of them spoke French. Moreover, many of them had read Delphine, many more had heard of her war against Napoleon; and all noted that she had money and spent it. They feted her with dinners, theater parties, dances, and balls; they summoned Schiller to read scenes from Wilhelm Tell; they listened to her reciting long passages from Racine. Goethe, then at Jena, tried to play truant by pleading a cold; the Duke urged him to come to Weimar nevertheless; he came, and conversed with Madame uncomfortably. He was alarmed by her frank warning that she intended to print her report of his remarks.34 She was disappointed to find that he was no longer Werther, having changed from a lover to a pontiff. He tried to confuse her with contradictions; “my obstinate contrariness often drove her to despair, but it was then that she was most amiable, and that she displayed her mental and verbal agility most brilliantly.”35 “Fortunately for me,” she recalled, “Goethe and Wieland spoke French extremely well; Schiller struggled.”36 She wrote of Schiller with affection, of Goethe with respect; he and Napoleon were the only men she had met who made her realize her limitations. Schiller was fatigued by the rapidity of her thought and speech, but he ended by being impressed. “Satan,” he wrote to a friend, “has led me to the female French philosopher who, of all creatures living, is the most animated, the most ready for contest, the most fertile in words. But she is also the most cultivated, the most spirituelle [intellectually alert] of women; and if she were not really interesting I would not be disturbed by her.”37 Weimar breathed a sigh of relief when, after a three months’ stay, she left for Berlin.
She found the mists of Berlin depressing after the brilliance of Weimar. The leaders of the Romantic movement in Germany were absent or dead; the philosophers were immured in distant universities—Hegel at Jena, Schelling at Würzburg; Germaine had to content herself with the King, the Queen, and August Wilhelm von Schlegel, whose wide knowledge of languages and cultures delighted her. She engaged him to come with her to Coppet as tutor to her son Auguste; he agreed, and fell in love with her at the worst possible time.
At Berlin she received word that her father was dangerously ill. She hurried back to Coppet, but before reaching it she learned that he had died (April 9, 1804). It was a blow more desolating than any in her duel with Napoleon. Her father had been her moral as well as her financial mainstay; in her view he had always been right, and ever good; and not all her lovers could take his place. She found comfort in writing an idyl of adoration—Monsieur Necker’s Character and Private Life—and in beginning work on her masterpiece, De l’Allemagne. She inherited most of her father’s fortune, and now had an income of 120,000 francs per year.
In December she went to seek the sun in Italy. She took along her three children—Auguste, Albertine, and Albert—and Schlegel, who now tutored her also, for he found her poorly informed about Italian art. At Milan they were joined by a still better Baedeker—Jean-Charles-Léonard de Sismondi, who was beginning to write his learned History of the Italian Republics. He too fell in love with Germaine—or with her mind or her income—until, like Schlegel, he discovered that she never took a commoner seriously. Together they moved through Parma, Modena, Bologna, and Ancona to Rome. Joseph Bonaparte, always fond of her, had given her letters of introduction to the best society there. She was lionized by the aristocracy, but found the princes and princesses less interesting than the courtly cardinals, who, as men of the world, knew her books, her wealth, and her feud with Napoleon, and were not disturbed by her Protestant faith. She was received with an ovation, and with improvised poetry and music, into the Accademia dell’ Arcadia; she used that experience in introducing Corinne.
In June, 1805, she was back in Coppet, soon again surrounded by lovers, friends, scholars, diplomats (Prince Esterházy of Vienna, Claude Hochet of Napoleon’s Council of State), even a ruler—the Elector of Bavaria. Coppet’s was now a more famous salon than any in Paris. “I just returned from Coppet,” wrote Charles-Victor de Bonstetten, “and I feel completely stupefied… and exhausted by the intellectual debauches. More wit is expended at Coppet in a single day than in many a country during a whole year.”38 The assemblage was sufficiently numerous and talented to stage complete dramas; Germaine herself played the lead in Andromaque and Phèdre, and some guests thought her performances were surpassed only by the queens of the Paris stage. On other occasions there were recitals of music or poetry. Three times a day the table was set, sometimes for thirty guests; fifteen servants were kept busy; and in the gardens lovers might wander, and new friendships might be made.
Germaine’s time-beaten lovers—Montmorency, Constant, Schlegel, Sismondi—had cooled considerably, exhausted by her demand for obedient devotion, and she was warming herself with passion for Prosper de Barante. He was twenty-three, she was thirty-nine, but her pace soon tired him, and he sought refuge in distance and the indecisiveness which she was satirizing in the Oswald of Corinne. That once famous novel was nearing completion, and called for a French printer, who would need the imprimatur of Napoleon’s police. Prosper’s father, prefect of the department of Leman, assured Fouché that Madame had been “reserved and circumspect” for the past year. She received permission to spend the summer of 1806 at Auxerre, 120 miles from Paris; she took a villa there; and in the fall she was allowed to move to Rouen for the winter. Several of her friends visited her in these cities, and some of them expressed hope that Napoleon would at last meet defeat in the arduous campaign that made him and his army spend the winter in the freezing north.39 Napoleon’s secret police opened Germaine’s correspondence, and informed him of these sentiments. On December 31 he wrote angrily to Fouché: “Do not let that bitch of a Madame de Staël approach Paris. I know she is not far from it.”40(Secretly and briefly she stole into Paris sometime in the spring of 1807.) Amid preparations for the battle of Friedland, Napoleon wrote to Fouché, April 19:
Among the thousand and one things concerning Madame de Staël that come into my hands, here is a letter from which you can see what a fine Frenchwoman we have there…. It truly is difficult to restrain one’s indignation at the spectacle of all the metamorphoses this whore, and an ugly one at that, is undergoing. I shall not tell you what projects this ridiculous coterie has already formed in case by a happy accident I should be killed, since a police minister may be assumed to be informed of this.
And on May 11, again to Fouché:
This madwoman of a Madame de Staël writes me a six-page letter, in double Dutch…. She tells me she has bought an estate in the valley of Montmorency and draws the conclusion that this will entitle her to reside in Paris. I repeat to you that to leave such a hope to that woman is to torture her gratuitously. If I showed you the detailed evidence of everything she has done at her country place during the two months she resided there, you would be astonished. Indeed, although at five hundred leagues from France, I know better what happens there than does my Minister of Police.41
So, on April 25, 1807, Germaine unwillingly returned to Coppet. Constant, constant despite inconstancies, accompanied her partway, but diverged at Dole to stay with his ailing father. Arrived at Coppet, she sent Schlegel to tell Constant that unless he rejoined her soon she would kill herself. Benjamin knew that this classic threat was a siren, not a swan, song, but he came, and silently bore her reproaches. He had long since ceased to love her, but “how can one tell the truth to one whose only answer consists in swallowing opium?” On July 10 Juliette Récamier came for a long visit; Germaine fell in love with her, and decided to live.
The police allowed Corinne to be printed, and its publication in the spring of 1807 gave its author a triumph that consoled her for Napoleon’s victory at Friedland on June 14. The government-sponsored reviews were hostile, but thousands of readers were charmed, and said so. Today we are not enchanted by its form—an ecstatic romance interspersed with dull and dated essays on Italian scenery, character, religion, manners, literature, and art; and no one is thrilled by the hero’s “manly face” (he turns out to be spineless), or “the divine inspiration enthroned in” the heroine’s eyes.42 But in 1807 Italy was not yet an overwritten land, more familiar to us, in history and art, than our own; romance was spreading its wings; romantic love was struggling to be freed from parental power, economic bonds, and moral taboos; the rights of women were beginning to find voice. Corinne had all these fascinations, embodied in a fair improvatrice who sings spontaneous poetry and strums a bewitching lyre. Corinne, in her prime, is visibly Germaine, with “an Indian shawl twined about her lustrous black curls;… her arms transcendently beautiful,… her figure rather robust”; moreover, her conversation “united all that is natural, fanciful, just, sublime, powerful, and sweet.”43 Strange to say, the unsentimental Emperor, stranded on St. Helena, took up the book and could not lay it down until he had read it to its end.44
4. Understanding Germany
To the task of overthrowing Napoleon and managing a menagerie of geniuses and epicures, Madame now added the delicate enterprise of explaining Germany to France. Even while her newborn Corinne was battling for life against a subjugated press, she was hiding in her secret self a bold and massive opus on the land beyond the Rhine. To prepare herself conscientiously she set out on another tour of Central Europe.
On November 30, 1807, she left Coppet with Albert, Albertine, Schlegel, and her valet Eugène (Joseph Uginet). At Vienna she heard music by Haydn, Gluck, and Mozart, but left no mention of Beethoven. During three of five weeks in Austria she carried on an amorous correspondence with an Austrian officer, Moritz O’Donnell; offered him money and marriage, lost him, and wrote to Constant letters of limitless devotion—”My heart, my life, everything I have is yours if you wish and as you wish”;45 he contented himself by borrowing some of her money. At Teplitz and Pirna she conferred with Friedrich von Gentz, an ardent anti-Bonaparte publicist; learning of these meetings, Napoleon concluded that she was aiming to disrupt the peace that he had recently signed at Tilsit in July. At Weimar she found neither Schiller (who had died in 1805) nor Goethe. She passed on to Gotha and Frankfurt; then, suddenly ill and depressed, she hurried back to Coppet.
Perhaps this intimation of mortality shared in her turn toward mysticism; Schlegel contributed to it; but a much stronger influence came from the ascetic Julie von Krüdener and the lecherous dramatist Zacharias Werner, both of whom sojourned at Coppet in 1808. By October of that year the guests and the language were predominantly German, and the lumières of the Enlightenment had yielded to a mystic religion. “There is no reality on this earth,” Germaine wrote to O’Donnell, “except religion and the power of love; all the rest is even more fugitive than life itself.”46
It was in this mood that she wrote De l’Allemagne. By 1810 it was nearing completion, and she longed to be in Paris for its printing. She wrote humbly to Napoleon, telling him that “eight years’ [exile and] misery modify all characters, and destiny teaches resignation.” She proposed to go to the United States; she asked for a passport, and permission for an interim stay in Paris. The passport was granted; the permission was not.47 Nevertheless, in April, 1810, she moved with her family and Schlegel to Chaumont (near Blois), from which she superintended the printing of her three-volume manuscript in Tours. In August she moved to neighboring Fossé.
The proofs of the first two volumes were submitted by Nicolle, the printer, to the censors in Paris. They agreed to the publication after the deletion of a few unimportant sentences. Nicolle printed five thousand copies, and sent advance copies to influential persons. On June 3 the sympathetic Fouché was dismissed as minister of police, and was succeeded by the rigorous René Savary, Duc de Rovigo. On September 25 Juliette Récamier brought to the censor the proofs of Volume III, and to Queen Hortense a full set of proofs for transmission—with a letter from the authoress—to the Emperor. Savary, apparently with Napoleon’s approval, decided that the book was so unfavorable to France and its ruler that its distribution could not be allowed. He ordered the printer to suspend the publication, and, on October 3, sent a stern notice to Mme. de Staël that she was to carry out at once her declared intention to go to America. On October 11 a detachment of gendarmes entered the printer’s plant, smashed the type plates, and carried away all obtainable copies of the volumes; these were later crushed into pulp. Other officers demanded the manuscript; Germaine gave them the original, but her son Auguste secreted and preserved a copy. The authoress reimbursed the printer for his losses, and fled back to Coppet.
On Germany, as published in 1813, is an earnest attempt to survey, with brevity and sympathy, every aspect of German civilization in the age of Napoleon. That a woman with so many cares and lovers should have found the leisure, the energy, and the competence for such an enterprise is one of the marvels of that exciting time. Through the Swiss internationalism in her background, through her marriage with a Holstein baron, through her Protestant heritage and her hatred of Napoleon, she was prepared to give Germany the benefit of nearly every doubt, to use its virtues as an indirect criticism of Napoleon and tyranny, and to present it to France as a culture rich in sentiment, tenderness, and religion, and therefore well suited to correct the intellectualism, cynicism, and skepticism then current in literate France.
Strange to say, she did not care for Vienna, though, like her, it was both gay and sad—gay with wine and talk, sad with the mortality of love and the proliferation of Napoleon’s victories. It was Catholic and southern with music, art, and almost childlike faith; she was Protestant and northern, heavy with food and sentiment, and floundering in philosophy. There was no Kant here, but there was Mozart; no ardor of controversy, no fireworks of wit, but there was the simple pleasure of friends and lovers, parents and children, promenading in the Prater and watching the Danube pass idly by.
Even the Germans disconcerted her; “stoves, beer, and the smoke of tobacco surround all the common folk with a thick and hot atmosphere from which they are never inclined to escape.”48 She deplored the monotonous simplicity of German dress, the complete domestication of the men, the readiness to submit to authority. “The separation into classes … is more distinct in Germany than anywhere else;… everybody keeps his rank, his place, … as if it were his established post.”49 She missed, in Germany, that cross-fertilization of aristocrats, authors, artists, generals, politicians, which she had found in French society; hence “the nobles have few ideas, the men of letters have too little practice in affairs”;50 the ruling class remains feudal, the intellectual class loses itself in airy dreams. Here Madame quoted Jean Paul Richter’s famous epigram: “The empire of the seas belongs to the English, that of the land to the French, and that of the air to the Germans.”51She added, pertinently: “The extension of knowledge in modern times serves to weaken the character when it is not strengthened by the habit of business and the exercise of the will.”52
She admired the German universities as then the best in the world. But she deplored the German language, with its massing of consonants, and she resented the length and structure of the German sentence, which kept the decisive verb to the end, and so made interruption difficult;53 interruptions, she felt, were the life of conversation. She found too little in Germany of the lively but polite debate characteristic of Parisian salons; this, she thought, was due to lack of a national capital which could bring the country’s wits together,54 and partly to the German habit of sending the women away from the dinner table when the men proposed to smoke and talk. “At Berlin the men rarely converse except with each other; the military condition gives them a sort of rudeness, which prevents them from taking any trouble about the society of women.”55 In Weimar, however, the ladies were cultured and amorous, the soldiers minded their manners, and the Duke realized that his poets were giving him a niche in history. “The literary men of Germany… form in many respects the most distinguished assemblage which the enlightened world can present to us.”56
Our guide had some trouble appreciating the nuances of German poetry, and even of German prose; she was accustomed to French clarity and found Teutonic depth a learned obscurity. But she took the side of the Germans in the Romantic revolt against classical models and restraints. She defined the classical style as one based upon the classics of ancient Greece and Rome; Romantic literature, by contrast, rose out of Christian theology and sentiment, spread its roots in the poetry of the troubadours, the legends of chivalry, the myths and ballads of the early medieval north. Basically, perhaps, the division lay in the classic subordination of the self to reality, and the Romantic subordination of reality to the self.
For this reason Mme. de Staël welcomed German philosophy despite its difficulty, for, like herself, it put the emphasis on the self; it saw in consciousness a miracle greater than all the revolutions of science. She rejected the psychology of Locke and Condillac, which reduced all knowledge to sensations, and so made all ideas the effects of external objects; this, she felt, led inevitably to materialism and atheism. In one of the longest chapters in her book she attempted, with modest disclaimers, to state the essence of Kant’sCritiques: they restored the mind as an active participant in the conception of reality; free will as an active element in the determination of actions; and moral conscience as a basic ingredient in morality. By these theorems, she felt, “Kant had with a firm hand separated the different empires of the soul and the senses,”57 and so had established the philosophical basis of Christianity as an effective moral code.
Though she had made a shambles of the Sixth Commandment, Madame was convinced that no civilization could survive without morality, and no moral code could dispense with religious belief. Reasoning about religion, she argued, is a treacherous procedure; “reason does not give happiness in place of that which it takes away.”58 Religion is “the solace of misery, the wealth of the poor, the future of the dying”;59 here the Emperor and the Baroness agreed. So she preferred the active Protestantism of Germany to the pretended Catholicism of upper-class France; she thrilled to the mighty hymns that resounded from German throats in choirs, homes, and streets, and she frowned upon the French way of watching the stock exchange and leaving the poor to attend to God.60 She had a good word to say for the Moravian Brethren. Her final chapter was a plea for a mystic “enthusiasm” —an inner sense of an omnipresent God.
All in all, allowing for limitations imposed by temperament and time, On Germany was one of the outstanding books of the age, a heady leap from Corinne to Kant; and Napoleon would have been wise to disarm it with faint praise—as being excellent for a woman with no sympathy for the problems of government. She had strongly censured censorship, but to deny the book to France was to illustrate and strengthen her case. She had on many pages praised Germany at the expense of France, but she had often praised France at the expense of Germany, and a hundred passages revealed her love for her native and forbidden land. She had dealt lightly with abstruse subjects, but she had aimed to interest a wide audience in France, and thereby promote international understanding. She asked for a cross-fertilization of cultures, which would have helped Napoleon’s union of the Rhenish Confederation with France. She wrote intelligently, sometimes wittily,61 adorning her pages with illuminating perceptions and ideas. Ultimately she revealed Germany to France, as Coleridge and Carlyle were soon to reveal it to England. “This book,” said Goethe, “ought to be considered as a powerful engine which made a wide breach in that Chinese wall of antiquated prejudice which divided the two countries; so that, beyond the Rhine, and afterward beyond the Channel, we [Germans] became better known—a fact that could not fail to procure for us a great influence over all Western Europe.”62 She was “a good European.”
5. Imperfect Victory
Only another author can understand what it meant to Germaine de Staël that the culminating production of her life and thought had to remain hidden in the recesses of Coppet, apparently as dead as a child stifled at birth. She discovered that her home was surrounded by agents of the Emperor, that some of her servants had been bribed to report on her, and that any friend who dared to visit her would be marked for imperial revenge. Notables whose lives and fortunes had been saved by her during the Revolution took care not to come near her now.63
She had two consolations. In 1811 she met Albert-Jean Rocca, then close to twenty-three years old, a second lieutenant wounded in battle, permanently lamed, and suffering from tuberculosis. He fell in love with the heroic Germaine, who was then forty-five, physically unprepossessing, morally imperfect, intellectually brilliant, and not without financial charm. “John” besieged her, and gave her a child. Germaine welcomed the new love as defying and delaying old age. —The other solace was her hope that if she could get to Sweden or England she might find a publisher for her hidden masterpiece. But she could not get to Sweden through any country under Napoleon’s power. She resolved to take her manuscript secretly through Austria, then up through Russia to St. Petersburg, and thence to Stockholm, where Prince Bernadotte would help her. It was no easy matter for her to abandon the home that she had made famous, and the grave of her mother, whom she could now forgive, and of the father who still seemed to her to have been a political sage and a financial saint. —On April 7, 1812, she gave birth to Rocca’s boy, who was sent to a nurse for safekeeping. On May 23, 1812, eluding all spies, and accompanied or followed by her daughter Albertine, her two sons, her old lover Schlegel and her new lover Rocca, she left for Vienna, hoping to secure there a passport to Russia, and then to find her way to St. Petersburg and a handsome, chivalrous, and liberal Czar. On June 22 Napoleon, with 500,000 men, crossed the Niemen into Russia, hoping to find there a beaten and penitent Czar.
Germaine told the story of this trip in her Ten Years of Exile. Contemplating now that strange conjunction of wills and events, one wonders at the courage that took this harassed woman through a thousand obstacles and a supposedly barbarous people, to reach Zhitomir, in Polish Russia, only eight days ahead of Napoleon’s troops.64 She hurried on to Kiev and thence to Moscow, where, challenging fate, she lingered to visit the Kremlin, to hear the church music, to visit the local leaders in science and literature. Then, a month before Napoleon’s arrival, she left Moscow via Novgorod for St. Petersburg. Everywhere, in the cities on her route, she was received as a distinguished ally in the war against the invader. She flattered the Czar as the hope of European liberalism. Together they planned to make Bernadotte king of France.
In September she reached Stockholm, where she helped to bring Bernadotte into the coalition against Napoleon.65 After a stay of eight months in Sweden, she crossed the sea to England. London acclaimed her as the first woman of Europe; Byron and other notables came to pay their respects, and she had no difficulty in arranging with Byron’s publisher, John Murray, to issue her long-delayed volumes to the world (October, 1813). She remained in England while the Allies broke Napoleon at Leipzig, marched into Paris, and put Louis XVIII on the throne. Then (May 12, 1814) she hurried across the Channel, restored her salon in Paris after ten years of exile, and played host to dignitaries from a dozen lands—Alexander, Wellington, Bernadotte, Canning, Talleyrand, Lafayette. Constant rejoined her, and Mme. Récamier shone again. Germaine urged Alexander to remember his liberal pronouncements; Alexander and Talleyrand persuaded Louis XVIII to “grant” to his recaptured subjects a bicameral constitution based on the British model; at last Montesquieu had his way. But Madame did not like the word “grant”; she wanted the King to recognize the sovereignty of the people. In July, 1814, she went back to Coppet, triumphant and proud, but feeling the nearness of death.
Her adventures, her battles, even her victories, had brought her amazing vitality close to exhaustion. Nevertheless she devotedly tended the dying Rocca, arranged for the marriage of her daughter to the Duc de Broglie, and began to write her brilliant swan song, the 600-page Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution française. The first part was a defense of Necker in all his policies; the second excoriated the despotism of Napoleon. After his seizure of the government his every move seemed to her an advance toward tyranny; and his wars were props and excuses for absolutism. Before Stendhal, long before Taine, she likened Napoleon “to the Italian despots of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.”66 He had read and accepted Machiavelli’s principles of government, without feeling a comparable love for his country. France was not really his fatherland; it was his steppingstone. Religion was to him not the humble acceptance of a supreme being but an instrument for the conquest of power. Men and women were not souls but tools.67 He was not sanguinary, but he was ever indifferent to the carnage of victory. He had the brutality of a condottiere, never the manners of a gentleman. And this crowned vulgarian made himself the judge and censor of all speech and thought, of the press that was the last refuge of liberty, and of the salons that were citadels of the free mind of France. He was not the son of the Revolution; but if he was, he was also its parricide.68
When she learned that a plan was forming to kill the dethroned Emperor, she hurried to notify his brother Joseph, and offered to go to Elba and protect her fallen foe; Napoleon sent her a word of appreciation. When he returned from Elba, and regained France without a blow, she could not help admire his courage: “I will not abandon myself to declamations against Napoleon. He did what was natural for the restoration of his throne, and his march from Cannes to Paris was one of the greatest conceptions of audacity that can be cited from history.”69
After Waterloo she withdrew at last from the political arena. She did not relish the occupation of France by foreign troops, nor the rush of the old nobility to regain land, wealth, and power. However, she was glad to receive from Louis XVIII the twenty million francs owed to Necker or his heirs for his loan to the French Treasury. On October 10, 1816, she was privately married to Rocca. On October 16, though both were ailing, they went to Paris, and Germaine reopened her salon. It was her final triumph. The most famous names in Paris came: Wellington from England, Blücher and Wilhelm von Humboldt from Prussia, Canova from Italy; there Chateaubriand began his idyl with Mme. Récamier. But Germaine’s health was fast failing, and her disillusionment with the Restoration grew as the royalists undertook to eliminate from the political life of France every vestige of the Revolution. This was not the dream that she had dreamed. Her Considérations defined despotism as the union of both the executive and the legislative powers in one person; and it insisted on a national assembly fully elected by a sovereign people.
She did not live to see that book published. Her body, weakened with passions, poisoned with drugs, winning sleep only through increasing doses of opium, broke down in its attempt to support her mind. On February 21, 1817, as she was mounting the stairs at a reception given by one of Louis XVIII’s ministers, she swayed and fell, paralyzed by a cerebral stroke. For three months she lay on her back, unable to move but able to talk, and sensitive to a host of pains. At her urging her daughter took over the role of hostess in the salon. “I have always been the same, intense and sorrowful,” she told Chateaubriand. “I have loved God, my father, and liberty.”70 She died on July 14, 1817, the anniversary of the Bastille. She was not yet fifty-one. Four years later her great enemy died, not yet fifty-two.
We can agree with Macaulay that she was “the greatest woman of her time,”71 and the greatest name in French literature between Rousseau and Chateaubriand. Her work ranked higher in aim and range than in literary art, and her thought was more pervasive than profound. She shared many qualities with her chosen foe: forceful personality, courage against odds, domineering spirit, pride of power, and intolerance of dissent; but she lacked his realistic mind, and her imagination, as seen in her novels, was romantically childish compared with the reach of his political dreams. Let him sum her up from the perspective of his island isolation: “The home of Madame de Staël became a veritable arsenal against me. To her came many to be armed as her knights in her war…. And yet, after all, it is only true to say that she was a woman of very great talent, of high distinction, and of great strength of character. She will endure.”72