Germaine de Staël – Woman of Letters and Social Influence

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.”

In an age when most women ‘were nearly done for at thirty’, Germaine de Staël stood out as a woman not to be trifled with. Born into an influential Swiss family (her father was finance minister to France’s King Louis XVI) woman of letters, political propagandist, and conversationalist, Madame de Staël, Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baroness of Staël-Holstein (1766-1817) wrote romantic comedies, tragedies, novels and essays. Her brilliant salon at Paris, and the one held in her family chateau at Coppet in Switzerland, became renowned centres of political debate. They were also a meeting place for the women and men, who were the creative, innovative thinkers of her age.

Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein

Like other highborn young women of her day Germaine’s life was arranged for her in a marriage of convenience, which took place when she was 20 in 1786 to Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein, Swedish ambassador to France at Paris. Germaine was very unhappy and while having many love affairs, gave her husband two sons and a daughter, the latter reputedly the child of one of her lovers.

Germaine had many friendships with the influential people who were busy giving birth to the age of reason or enlightenment. Once she had established her own salon, while a great many may have at first attended it purely out of curiosity, they nevertheless found that perhaps despite their better judgment, they actively sought out the friendship of this passionate hostess. Her renowned personality was entirely engaging and she was a lady from whom compassion and goodness shone out like a great beacon for hope.

“One must, in one’s life, make a choice between boredom and suffering.”

In the morally lax and very hypocritical eighteenth century in Europe it was quite acceptable for married ladies to take pleasure where, and as they found it. Madame´Emilie du Chalet (1706-1749) a very beautiful French mathematician, physicist and author, whose marriage conferred the title of Marquise du Chastellet, lived openly with her lover.

Dynamic Duo Intellectual Giants JJ Rousseau and Voltaire

He was writer, historian and philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet, more generally known as Voltaire who became famous for this wit and style. It was an acceptable arrangement for both her husband and society. Ladies divided their attention between their varied lovers and there were fewer rules, less guilt, less excitement and far less intensity of feelings. They were not indulged.

The vast enthusiasms and passionate nature of Mme de Stael’s affections however gave full force and colour to her rich and versatile character, which is very evident in all the portraits of her. They combine to represent a personality whose influence it seems was completely irresistible to the majority of people who met her, although there were some quite notable exceptions.

Her early works included the romantic drama, Sophie, ou les sentiments secrets (1786), and a tragedy Jane Gray (1790).  It was her Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J.-J. Rousseau (1788; Letters on the Works and the Character of J.-J. Rousseau) that established her credibility in the world of literature and made her well-known in society’s most influential circles.

“The mystery of existence is the connection between our faults and our misfortunes.”

Benjamin Constant

Germaine’s mother, in assisting her husband and Germaine’s father and his career, had established her own brilliant literary and political salon at Paris and it had been a heady environment for the young Germaine to grow up within. As a child she was renowned for her lively intellectual curiousity and for holding her own in-animated conversation with many famous people, as they met to discuss the emergence of new, and often-radical ideas.

In 1792 with revolution in the wind she felt compelled to leave Paris and she took up residence at Chateau Coppet. From there she went to England in 1793, where she was surrounded by French émigré’s, although her views on politics and morals excluded her from the very best London society, despite her husband’s current diplomatic status. It was from there that she also tried in vain to save the life of Queen Marie Antoinette, of whom she was very fond.

She returned to France at the end of the Terror in 1794 via Coppet, where she expanded her study of new ideas and how they were being developed abroad, especially in Germany. This was when she met and began a long-lasting affair with the brilliant thinker, writer and politician Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) who possessed the great quality of sincerity, which endeared him to many.

Her ideas about politics and social life were something he also embraced, including her view of the young Napoleon, which was not favourable. In this new modern world commerce was now becoming superior to war and she would have a significant impact on Constant’s writing aims and style. Their intellectual collaboration made them one of the most important people of their age, although in the end by 1806 he had left her, as so many others were want to do because too often her constancy became completely overwhelming.

“To understand everything makes one very indulgent.”

To protect her personal fortune from her bankrupt husband, and his nefarious business activities, she separated from him in 1798.

Juliette Recamier's famous bedchamber in Paris

An influential Banker Jacques Récamier purchased her Parisian house for his young, and very beautiful wife Juliette in 1798 and remodelled it completely. Juliette’s bedchamber became as famous as the lady who occupied it.

Mme De Staël and Mme Récamier (1777-1849) met for the first time when this happened and began a friendship that would continue for both their lifetimes.

Juliette (Jeanne-Francoise Julie Adélaïde Bernard) Récamier wrote her own account of that first meeting when her husband brought home a lady who had ‘come to speak of the selling and buying of a house

…she wore morning dress, and a little hat decorated with flowers…I was struck by the beauty of her eyes and her glance’…she said ‘she was really enchanted to know me…I had just been reading her Letters on Rousseau and had been thrilled by them…she fixed on me her great eyes, with a curiosity full of kindliness…and expressed the desire to see me a great deal on her return to Paris for she was going to Coppet’.

Coppet in Switzerland was where Germaine retreated often, was her favourite family house and it became her place of security and headquarters. It was nearby Lake Geneva, an unpretentious brick and stone structure, overlooking the lake that was reputedly richly furnished inside.

A contemporary description says ‘the walls were hung with handsome tapestries; there were bright satin hangings, while the carved furniture was also richly upholstered. On the marble topped tables were placed busts of Juliette Récamier, of Germaine’s son, August de Staël, and the walls were adorned with paintings of herself as Corinne and in other classic poses.

The bookcases in the library and studio were filled with rare editions of her works and those of many of the other well-known writers of her time[1] When she entertained her friends they reported that ‘she used to go from room to room, carrying a small green writing desk, in order to write down a few sentences here and there for  her next book’.

Her own literary importance emerged when she published De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800; A Treatise of Ancient and Modern Literature and The Influence of Literature upon Society). It was complex work rich in new ideas and new perspectives that many would not agree with, including Napoleon Bonaparte.

Madame de Staël was a woman with powerful friends. When her husband died in 1802 she travelled via Switzerland to London, St. Petersburg, Stockholm and back to London where admiration for her reached its climax on the publication of De l’Allemagne, the most finished of all her works, which revealed Germany to the French and made Romanticism. She was the first to use the word.

Napoleon detested both Germaine and her friend Juliette Récamier because he intensely disliked intellectual superiority in women. His actions affected the rest of both their lives, especially when he exiled both of them from Paris.

Mme de Staël left in 1803 and at Coppet in 1804 began “Dix Annees d’Exile.” (Ten Years Exile) which was not published until 1821. Her novel Corinne (1807) was released to wide acclaim and critics labelled this, together with her previous novel Delphine (1802), as ‘the first modern feminist psychological romances’.

She resided in Switzerland from where she toured Germany during the months of December 1803 through to April 1804. This experience resulted in her completing De ‘Allemagne (1810: Germany) a serious study of German manners, literature, art, philosophy, morals and religion, which Napoleon took for an anti-French work.

He had the French edition of 1810 (10,000 copies) seized and destroyed. It was finally published in England in 1813.

All who visited Mme de Staël in exile at Coppet passed their time by immensely enjoying her company.

“In matters of the heart, nothing is true except the improbable.”

Chateaubriand...

In this great age of listening the autumn of 1807 was particularly brilliant for legendary beauty Juliette Récamier. She went to stay with Mme de Staël at Coppet where in the drawing room one guest noted he had been seated between ‘beauty and intelligence’. Mme de Staël reputedly and diplomatically replied ‘This is the first time that I hear myself being called beautiful’.

There she met the Prince of Prussia, who fell madly in love with her. Germaine, based on her own experiences, urged her friend to leave the arranged marriage with husband and put happiness at the forefront of her life. However in the end security was far more important for Mme Recamier than a loveless marriage, and Juliette would flee back to Paris.

Germaine was also responsible for introducing Juliette Récamier to the writer, politician, diplomat and historian Francois-René de Chateaubriand, and another friend Edouard Herriott, which would become in the future a momentous occasion. Chateaubriand left a description of that meeting.

I was at Madame de Staël’s one morning when she received me in her private apartment. Her maid was dressing her hair and during the time she talked brilliantly, rolling about in her fingers a little branch of green.  All at once Madame Récamier, wearing a simple white dress, entered. She sat on a blue sofa. Madame de Staël who was standing continued her conversation, which was extremely animated. She spoke with eloquence, but I scarcely made reply, as my eyes were fixed on Madame Récamier. In short I had not heard one word that Germaine had said after the fair Juliette entered the room. Madame Récamier went away shortly and I never saw her until twelve years later.’

Napoleon finally allowed Germaine to return to Paris in the winter of 1816 where she found only animosity from the new ruler. However she set her new salon in place immediately and it was more brilliant than ever before.

She wintered in Italy during Napoleon’s forty days where she married an Italian officer in the French Service, in 1811. In 1812 she visited Austria, Russia, Finland, Sweden and England. She arrived at London in 1813 where this time she was received with great enthusiasm and she collected documents for, but did not complete De l’Angletterre: the material for which still exists. The draft of the work champions the English political system as a model for France.

Despite Louis XVIII welcoming her warmly back to Paris in 1814 where 2 million francs of her money was finally returned to her, the fall of Napoleon she found had not re-established liberty at all in France and she was disillusioned,

George Gordon, Lord Byron at leisure

During Napoleon’s Hundred Days she retreated once more to Coppet, from where she enjoyed another sojourn in Italy. This was to be a happy time.  In the summer of 1816 George Gordon Lord Byron, in flight from England after his unhappy marriage came to stay with her and a strong friendship developed between the two writers.

After he had departed she went back to Paris where she held her final salon through winter and part of the spring. She became ill and an invalid after April 1817 and it was at her deathbed in July of that same year that Chateaubriand and Mme Recamier were re-united.

While today Mme de Staël is perhaps not considered a major force of the enlightenment in literary terms, she is recognised for the clear overview that she had of wider issues of the time.

There is no doubt that her contribution of ideas, shared with important and influential men of her time, helped them and their colleagues to take stock of their belief systems, which in their turn assisted them in giving rise to the modern world.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012


[1] Chateaubriand’s description of meeting Juliette Recamier Her Life and Times by Delia Austrian Publisher Ralph Fletcher Seymour Chicago 1922

*All quotes in italics by Mme de Staël

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.