MADAME DE STAEL
Supremacy of Her Genius--Her
Early Training--Her Sensibility--a Mariage de Convenance--Her Salon--Anecdote
of Benjamin Constant--Her Exile--Life
at Coppet--Secret Marriage--Close
of a Stormy Life.
The fame of all other French women
is more or less overshadowed by that of one who was
not only supreme in her own world, but who stands on
a pinnacle so high that time and distance only serve
to throw into stronger relief the grand outlines of
her many-sided genius. Without the simplicity
and naturalness of Mme. de Sevigne, the poise
and judgment of Mme. de Lafayette, or the calm
foresight and diplomacy of Mme. de Maintenon,
Mme. de Stael had a brilliancy of imagination,
a force of passion, a grasp of intellect, and a diversity
of gifts that belonged to none of these women.
It is not possible within the limits of a brief chapter
to touch even lightly upon the various phases of a
character so complex and talents so versatile.
One can only gather a few scattered traits and indicate
a few salient points in a life of which the details
are already familiar. As woman, novelist, philosopher,
litterateur, and conversationist, she has marked,
if not equal, claims upon our attention. To speak
of her as simply the leader of a salon is to merge
the greater talent into the less, but her brilliant
social qualities in a measure brought out and illuminated
all the others. It was not the gift of reconciling
diverse elements, and of calling out the best thoughts
of those who came within her radius, that distinguished
her. Her personality was too dominant not to
disturb sometimes the measure and harmony which fashion
had established. She did not listen well, but
her gift was that of the orator, and, taking whatever
subject was uppermost into her own hands, she talked
with an irresistible eloquence that held her auditors
silent and enchained. Living as she did in the
world of wit and talent which had so fascinated her
mother, she ruled it as an autocrat.
The mental coloring of Mme. de
Stael was not taken in the shade, as that of Mme.
Roland had been. She was reared in the atmosphere
of the great world. That which her eager mind
gathered in solitude was subject always to the modification
which contact with vigorous living minds is sure to
give. The little Germaine Necker who sat on a
low stool at her mother’s side, charming the
cleverest men of her time by her precocious wit; who
wrote extracts from the dramas she heard, and opinions
upon the authors she read; who made pen-portraits
of her friends, and cut out paper kings and queens
to play in the tragedies she composed; whose heart
was always overflowing with love for those around
her, and who had supreme need for an outlet to her
sensibilities, was a fresh type in that age of keen
analysis, cold skepticism, and rigid forms. The
serious utterances of her childhood were always suffused
with feeling. She loved that which made her weep.
Her sympathies were full and overflowing, and when
her vigorous and masculine intellect took the ascendency
it directed them, but only partly held them in check.
It never dulled nor subdued them. The source
of her power, as also of her weakness, lay perhaps
in her vast capacity for love. It gave color
and force to her rich and versatile character.
It animated all she did and gave point to all she
wrote. It found expression in the eloquence of
her conversation, in the exaltation and passionate
intensity of her affections, in the fervor of her
patriotism, in the self-forgetful generosity that brought
her very near the verge of the scaffold. Here
was the source of that indefinable quality we call
genius not genius of the sort which Buffon
has defined as patience, but the divine flame that
crowns with life the dead materials which patience
It was impossible that a child so
eager, so sympathetic, so full of intellect and esprit,
should not have developed rapidly in the atmosphere
of her mother’s salon. Whether it was the
best school for a young girl may be a question, but
a character like that of Mme. de Stael is apt
to go its own way in whatever circumstances it finds
itself. She was the despair of Mme. Necker,
whose educational theories were altogether upset by
this precocious daughter who refused to be cast in
a mold. But she was habituated to a high altitude
of thought. Men like Marmontel, La Harpe, Grimm,
Thomas, and the Abbe Raynal delighted in calling out
her ready wit, her brilliant repartee, and her precocious
ideas. Surrounded thus from childhood with all
the appointments as well as the talent and esprit
that made the life of the salons so fascinating; inheriting
the philosophic insight of her father, the literary
gifts of her mother, to which she added a genius all
her own; heir also to the spirit of conversation,
the facility, the enthusiasm, the love of pleasing
which are the Gallic birthright, she took her place
in the social world as a queen by virtue of her position,
her gifts, and her heritage. Already, before
her marriage, she had changed the tone of her mother’s
salon. She brought into it an element of freshness
and originality which the dignified and rather precise
character of Mme. Necker had failed to impart.
She gave it also a strong political coloring.
This influence was more marked after she became the
wife of the Swedish ambassador, as she continued for
some time to pass her evenings in her mother’s
drawing room, where she became more and more a central
figure. Her temperament and her tastes were of
the world in which she lived, but her reason and her
expansive sympathies led her to ally herself with
the popular cause; hence she was, to some extent, a
link between two conflicting interests.
It was in 1786 that Mme. de Stael
entered the world as a married woman. This marriage
was arranged for her after the fashion of the time,
and she accepted it as she would have accepted anything
tolerable that pleased her idolized father and revered
mother. When only ten years of age, she observed
that they took great pleasure in the society of Gibbon,
and she gravely proposed to marry him, that they might
always have this happiness. The full significance
of this singular proposition is not apparent until
one remembers that the learned historian was not only
rather old, but so short and fat as to call out from
one of his friends the remark that when he needed
a little exercise he had only to take a turn of three
times around M. Gibbon. The Baron de Stael had
an exalted position, fine manners, a good figure,
and a handsome face, but he lacked the one thing that
Mme. de Stael most considered, a commanding talent.
She did not see him through the prism of a strong affection
which transfigures all things, even the most commonplace.
What this must have meant to a woman of her genius
and temperament whose ideal of happiness was a sympathetic
marriage, it is not difficult to divine. It may
account, in some degree, for her restlessness, her
perpetual need of movement, of excitement, of society.
But, whatever her domestic troubles may have been,
they were of limited duration. She was quietly
separated from her husband in 1798. Four years
later she decided to return to Coppet with him, as
he was unhappy and longed to see his children.
He died en route.
The period of this marriage was one
of the most memorable of France, the period when noble
and generous spirits rallied in a spontaneous movement
for national regeneration. Mme. De Stael
was in the flush of hope and enthusiasm, fresh from
the study of Rousseau and her own dreams of human
perfectibility; radiant, too, with the reflection of
her youthful fame. Among those who surrounded
her were the Montmorencys, Lafayette, and Count Louis
de Narbonne, whose brilliant intellect and charming
manners touched her perhaps too deeply for her peace
of mind. There were also Barnave, Chenier, Talleyrand,
Mirabeau, Vergniaud, and many others of the active
leaders of the Revolution. A few woman mingled
in her more intimate circle, which was still of the
old society. Of these were the ill-fated Duchesse
de Gramont, Mme. de Lauzun, the Princesse de Poix,
and the witty, lovable Maréchale de Beauvau.
As a rule, though devoted to her friends and kind
to those who sought her aid, Mme. de Stael did
not like the society of women. Perhaps they did
not always respond to her elevated and swiftly flowing
thoughts; or it may be that she wounded the vanity
of those who were cast into the shade by talents so
conspicuous and conversation so eloquent, and who felt
the lack of sympathetic rapport. Society is au
fond republican, and is apt to resent autocracy, even
the autocracy of genius, when it takes the form of
monologue. It is contrary to the social spirit.
The salon of Mme. de Stael not only took its
tone from herself, but it was a reflection of herself.
She was not beautiful, and she dressed badly; indeed,
she seems to have been singularly free from that personal
consciousness which leads people to give themselves
the advantages of an artistic setting, even if the
taste is not inborn. She was too intent upon what
she thought and felt, to give heed to minor details.
But in her conversation, which was a sort of improvisation,
her eloquent face was aglow, her dark eyes flashed
with inspiration, her superb form and finely poised
head seemed to respond to the rhythmic flow of thoughts
that were emphasized by the graceful gestures of an
exquisitely molded hand, in which she usually held
a sprig of laurel. “If I were queen,”
said Mme. de Tessé, “I would order
Mme. de Stael to talk to me always.”
But this center in which the more
thoughtful spirits of the old regime met the brilliant
and active leaders of the new was broken up by the
storm which swept away so many of its leaders, and
Mme. de Stael, after lingering in the face of
dangers to save her friends, barely escaped with her
life on the eve of the September massacres of 1792.
“She is an excellent woman,” said one
of her contemporaries, “who drowns all her friends
in order to have the pleasure of angling for them.”
Mme. de Stael resumed her place
and organized her salon anew in 1795. But it
was her fate to live always in an atmosphere surcharged
with storms. She was too republican for the aristocrats,
and too aristocratic for the republicans. Distrusted
by both parties and feared by the Directoire,
she found it advisable after a few months to retire
to Coppet. Less than two years later she was
again in Paris. Her friends were then in power,
notably Talleyrand. “If I remain here another
year I shall die,” he had written her from America,
and she had generously secured the repeal of the decree
that exiled him, a kindness which he promptly forgot.
Though her enthusiasm for the republic was much moderated,
and though she had been so far dazzled by the genius
of Napoleon as to hail him as a restorer of order,
her illusions regarding him were very short-lived.
She had no sympathy with his aims at personal power.
Her drawing room soon became the rallying point for
his enemies and the center of a powerful opposition.
But she had a natural love for all forms of intellectual
distinction, and her genius and fame still attracted
a circle more or less cosmopolitan. Ministers
of state and editors of leading journals were among
her guests. Joseph and Lucien Bonaparte were
her devoted friends. The small remnant of the
noblesse that had any inclination to return to a world
which had lost its charm for them found there a trace
of the old politeness. Mathieu de Montmorency,
devout and charitable; his brother Adrien, delicate
in spirit and gentle in manners; Narbonne, still devoted
and diplomatic, and the Chevalier de Boufflers, gay,
witty, and brilliant, were of those who brought into
it something of the tone of the past regime. There
were also the men of the new generation, men who were
saturated with the principles of the Revolution though
regretting its methods. Among these were Chebnier,
Regnault, and Benjamin Constant.
The influence of Mme. de Stael
was at its height during this period. Her talent,
her liberal opinions, and her persuasive eloquence
gave her great power over the constitutional leaders.
The measures of the Government were freely discussed
and criticized in her salon, and men went out with
positions well defined and speeches well considered.
The Duchesse d’Abrantes relates an incident
which aptly illustrates this power and its reaction
upon herself. Benjamin Constant had prepared a
brilliant address. The evening before it was to
be delivered, Mme. de Stael was surrounded by
a large and distinguished company. After tea was
served he said to her:
“Your salon is filled with people
who please you; if I speak tomorrow, it will be deserted.
Think of it.”
“One must follow one’s
convictions,” she replied, after a moment’s
She admitted afterward that she would
never have refused his offer not to compromise her,
if she could have foreseen all that would follow.
The next day she invited her friends
to celebrate his triumph. At four o’clock
a note of excuse; in an hour, ten. From this time
her fortunes waned. Many ceased to visit her
salon. Even Talleyrand, who owed her so much,
came there no more.
In later years she confessed that
the three men she had most loved were Narbonne, Talleyrand,
and Mathieu de Montmorency. Her friendship for
the first of these reached a passionate exaltation,
which had a profound and not altogether wholesome
influence upon her life. How completely she was
disenchanted is shown in a remark she made long afterward
of a loyal and distinguished man: “He has
the manners of Narbonne and a heart.” It
is a character in a sentence. Mathieu de Montmorency
was a man of pure motives, who proved a refuge of
consolation in many storms, but her regard for him
was evidently a gentler flame that never burned to
extinction. Whatever illusions she may have had
as to Talleyrand and they seem to have
been little more than an enthusiastic appreciation
of his talent were certainly broken by
his treacherous desertion in her hour of need.
Not the least among her many sorrows was the bitter
taste of ingratitude.
But Napoleon, who, like Louis XIV,
sought to draw all influences and merge all power
in himself, could not tolerate a woman whom he felt
to be in some sense a rival. He thought he detected
her hand in the address of Benjamin Constant which
lost her so many friends. He feared the wit that
flashed in her salon, the satire that wounded the criticism
that measured his motives and his actions. He
recognized the power of a coterie of brilliant intellects
led by a genius so inspiring. His brothers, knowing
her vulnerable point and the will with which she had
to deal, gave her a word of caution. But the advice
and intercession of her friends were alike without
avail. The blow which she so much feared fell
at last, and she found herself an exile and a wanderer
from the scenes she most loved.
We have many pleasant glimpses of
her life at Coppet, but a shadow always rests upon
it. A few friends still cling to her through the
bitter and relentless persécutions that form one
of the most singular chapters in history, and offer
the most remarkable tribute to her genius and her
power. We find here Schlegel, Sismondi, Mathieu
de Montmorency, Prince Augustus, Monti, Mme.
Recamier, and many other distinguished visitors of
various nationalities. The most prominent figure
perhaps was Benjamin Constant, brilliant, gifted,
eloquent, passionate, vain, and capricious, the torturing
consolation and the stormy problem of her saddest
years. She revived the old literary diversions.
At eleven o’clock, we are told, the guests assembled
at breakfast, and the conversations took a high literary
tone. They were resumed at dinner, and continued
often until midnight. Here, as elsewhere, Mme.
de Stael was queen, holding her guests entranced by
the magic of her words. “Life is for me
like a ball after the music has ceased,” said
Sismondi when her voice was silent. She was a
veritable Corinne in her esprit, her sentiment, her
gift of improvisation, and her underlying melancholy.
But in this choice company hers was not the only voice,
though it was heard above all the others. Thought
and wit flashed and sparkled. Dramas were played the
“Zaïre” and “Tancred” of Voltaire,
and tragedies written by herself. Mme. Recamier
acted the Aricie to Mme. de Stael’s Phedre.
This life that seems to us so fascinating, has been
described too often to need repetition. It had
its tumultuous elements, its passionate undercurrents,
its romantic episodes. But in spite of its attractions
Mme. de Stael fretted under the peaceful shades
of Coppet. Its limited horizon pressed upon her.
The silence of the snowcapped mountains chilled her.
She looked upon their solitary grandeur with “magnificent
horror.” The repose of nature was an “infernal
peace” which plunged her into gloomier depths
of ennui and despair. To some one who was admiring
the beauties of Lake Leman she replied; “I should
like better the gutters of the Rue du Bac.”
It was people, always people, who interested her.
“French conversation exists only in Paris,”
she said, “and conversation has been from infancy
my greatest pleasure.” Restlessly she sought
distraction in travel, but wherever she went the iron
hand pressed upon her still. Italy fostered her
melancholy. She loved its ruins, which her imagination
draped with the fading colors of the past and associated
with the desolation of a living soul. But its
exquisite variety of landscape and color does not
seem to have touched her. “If it were not
for the world’s opinion,” she said, “I
would not open my window to see the Bay of Naples
for the first time, but I would travel five hundred
leagues to talk with a clever man whom I have not met.”
Germany gave her infinite food for thought, but her
“astonishing volubility,” her “incessant
movement,” her constant desire to know, to discuss,
to penetrate all things wearied the moderate Germans,
as it had already wearied the serious English.
“Tell me, Monsieur Fichte,” she said one
day, “could you in a short time, a quarter of
an hour for example, give me a glimpse of your system
and explain what you understand by your ME; I find
it very obscure.” The philosopher was amazed
at what he thought her impertinence, but made the
attempt through an interpreter. At the end of
ten minutes she exclaimed, “That is sufficient,
Monsieur Fichte. That is quite sufficient.
I comprehend you perfectly. I have seen your
system in illustration. It is one of the adventures
of Baron Munchhausen.” “We are in
perpetual mental tension,” said the wife of
Schiller. Even Schiller himself grew tired.
“It seems as if I were relieved of a malady,”
he said, when she left.
It was this excess of vivacity and
her abounding sensibility that constituted at once
her fascination and her misfortune. Her beliefs
were enthusiasms. Her friendships were passions.
“No one has carried the religion of friendship
so far as myself,” she said. To love, to
be loved was the supreme need of her soul; but her
love was a flame that irradiated her intellect and
added brilliancy to the life it consumed. She
paints in “Corinne” the passions, the struggles,
the penalties, and the sorrows of a woman of genius.
It is a life she had known, a life of which she had
tasted the sweetest delights and experienced the most
cruel disenchantments. “Corinne” at
the Capitol, “Corinne” thinking, analyzing,
loving, suffering, triumphing, wearing a crown of laurel
upon her head and an invisible crown of thorns upon
her heart it is Mme. de Stael self-revealed
by the light of her own imagination.
It was in a moment of weakness and
weariness, when her idols had one after another been
shattered, and all the pleasant vistas of her youth
seemed shut out forever, that she met M. de Rocca,
a wounded officer of good family, but of little more
than half her years, whose gentle, chivalric character
commanded her admiration, whose suffering touched
her pity, and whose devotion won her affection.
“I will love her so much that she will end by
marrying me,” he said, and the result proved
his penetration. This marriage, which was a secret
one, has shadowed a little the brilliancy of her fame,
but if it was a weakness to bend from her high altitude,
it was not a sin, though more creditable to her heart
than to her worldly wisdom. At all events it brought
into her life a new element of repose, and gave her
a tender consolation in her closing years.
When at last the relentless autocrat
of France found his rock-bound limits, and she was
free to return to the spot which had been the goal
of all her dreams, it was too late. Her health
was broken. It is true her friends rallied around
her, and her salon, opened once more, retook a little
of its ancient glory. Few celebrities who came
to Paris failed to seek the drawing room of Mme.
de Stael, which was still illuminated with the brilliancy
of her genius and the splendor of her fame. But
her triumphs were past, and life was receding.
Her few remaining days of weakness and suffering,
darkened by vain regrets, were passed more and more
in the warmth and tenderness of her devoted family,
in the noble and elevated thought that rose above
the strife of politics into the serene atmosphere
of a Christian faith. At her death bed Chateaubriand
did her tardy justice. “Bon jour, my dear
Francis; I suffer, but that does not prevent me from
loving you,” she said to one who had been her
critic, but never her friend. Her magnanimity
was as unfailing as her generosity, and it may be
truly said that she never cherished a hatred.
The life of Mme. de Stael was
in the world. She embodied the French spirit;
she could not conceive of happiness in a secluded existence;
a theater and an audience were needed to call out
her best talents. She could not even bear her
griefs alone. The world was taken into her confidence.
She demanded its sympathy. She chanted exquisite
requiems over her dead hopes and her lost illusions,
but she chanted them in costume, never quite forgetting
that her rôle was a heroic one. She added, however,
to the gifts of an improvisatrice something infinitely
higher and deeper. There was no problem with which
she was not ready to deal. She felt the pulse
beats in the great heart of humanity, and her tongue,
her pen, her purse, and her influence were ever at
the bidding of the unfortunate. She traversed
all fields of thought, from the pleasant regions of
poetry and romance to the highest altitudes of philosophy.
We may note the drift of her ardent and imaginative
nature in the youthful tales into which she wove her
romantic dreams, her fancied griefs, her inward struggles,
and her tears. In the pages of “Corinne”
we read the poetry, the sensibility, the passion, the
melancholy, the thought of a matured woman whose youth
of the soul neither sorrow nor experience could destroy.
We may divine the direction of her sympathies, and
the fountain of her inspiration, in her letters on
Rousseau, written at twenty, and foreshadowing her
own attitude towards the theories which appealed so
powerfully to the generous spirits of the century.
We may follow the active and scholarly workings of
her versatile intellect in her pregnant thoughts on
literature, on the passions, on the Revolution; or
measure the clearness of her insight, the depth of
her penetration, the catholicity of her sympathies,
and the breadth of her intelligence in her profound
and masterly, if not always accurate, studies of Germany.
The consideration of all this pertains to a critical
estimate of her character and genius which cannot
be attempted here.
It has grown to be somewhat the fashion
to depreciate the literary work of Mme. de Stael.
Measured by present standards she leaves something
to be desired in logical precision; she had not the
exactness of the critical scholar, nor the simplicity
of the careful artist; the luxuriance of her language
often obscures her thought. She is talking still,
and her written words have the rapid, tumultuous flow
of conversation, together with its occasional négligences,
its careless periods, its sudden turns, its encumbered
phrases. Misguided she sometimes was, and carried
away by the resistless rush of ideas that, like the
mountain torrent, gathered much debris along their
course. But her rapid judgments, which have the
force of inspiration, are in advance of her time,
though in the main correct from her own point of view,
while her flaws in workmanship are more than counterbalanced
by that inward illumination which is Heaven’s
richest and rarest gift. But who cares to dwell
upon the shadows that scarcely dim the brilliancy of
a genius so rare and so commanding? They are
but spots on the sun that are only discovered by looking
through a glass that veils its radiance. It is
just to weigh her by the standards of her own age.
Born at its highest level, she soared far above her
generation. She carried within herself the vision
of a statesman, the penetration of a critic, the insight
of a philosopher, the soul of a poet, and the heart
of a woman. If she was not without faults, she
had rare virtues. No woman has ever exercised
a wider or more varied influence. With one or
two exceptions, none stands on so high a pinnacle.
George Sand was a more finished artist; George Eliot
was a greater novelist, a more accurate scholar, and
a more logical thinker; but in versatility, in intellectual
spontaneity, in brilliancy of conversation and natural
eloquence of thought she is without a rival.
Her moral standards, too, were above the average of
her time. Her ideals were high and pure.
The wealth of her emotions and the rich coloring of
sentiment in which her thoughts and feelings were
often clothed left her open to possible misconceptions.
It was her fate to be grossly misunderstood, to miss
the domestic happiness she craved, to be the victim
of a sleepless persecution, to pass her best years
in a dreary exile from the life she most loved, to
be maligned by her enemies and betrayed by her friends.
Her very virtues were construed into faults and turned
against her. Though we may not lift the veil
from her intimate life, we may fairly judge her by
her own ideals and her dominant traits. The world,
which is rarely indulgent, has been in the main just
to her motives and her character. “I have
been ever the same, intense and sad,” were among
her last words. “I have loved God, my father,
and liberty.” But she was a victim to the
contradictory elements in her own nature, and walked
always among storms. This nature, so complex,
so rich, so ardent, so passionate, could it ever have
found permanent repose?