Francine du Plessix Gray, “Madame de Stael”

This is a physically adorable book: pink, with brown lettering and ornament; modestly sized, discreetly charming…. and apparently the exact opposite of its subject, who was loud, large, and anything but discreet. Still — Germaine de Staël cut a swathe in early nineteenth-century Europe, and this concise biography tells us why. And who better to introduce me to this French woman of letters than Francine du Plessix Gray, who knows a thing or two about France and about brilliant women?

Madame de Stael: no oil painting

Gray’s greatest difficulty with her subject is a substantial one. Madame de Staël’s great art form (despite her copious writings) was apparently conversation, and not the kind we experience even at the best dinner tables. It was, or so we’re told, sparkling, allusive, witty, learned…. you see the problem. We have no way of imagining this.

On the other hand, de Staël knew lots of writers. Who wrote letters, many of which survive, and which are excellent sources here. So that’s the consolation. And Gray is a lucid writer who presides over this tempestuous era with a kind of magisterial calm. De Staël was born in 1766, daughter of Lous XVI’s finance minister Necker, and was educated like… well, a boy. Languages, classics, political theory. At the age of twenty she married a handsome Swede, with whom she had one, at most two children. (We’ll come back to this question.) Do the math — by the fourth year of her marriage, the young matron was deeply implicated in revolutionary politics, but not in any systematic way. To be honest, I don’t remember every step of her ardent political attachments any more than I remember the names of all of her lovers. Gray helpfully points out that most of Germaine’s opinions were oppositional in nature. None was more so than her hatred of Napoleon, which caused her to be exiled from her beloved France for most of the Emperor’s tenure.

Her exile took her to Germany, among other locations, where she met, naturally, Goethe and Schiller, and attracted the scholar Schlegel to her elastic household as tutor to her children, and her own lover. This despite the fact that the French author Benjamin Constant was already ensconced. I tell you, it’s incredibly complicated. And volatile. Gray suggests that de Staël was bipolar, which may be true but is somehow disappointing: I would so much have preferred to think of her as the embodiment of a romantic temperament. But the scenes –screaming, fainting, suicide attempts, tantrums — she engaged in, her fierce energy, her narcissism and generosity, her delusions… well, Gray makes a good case.

In a book this short, you don’t get a lot of anecdote or incident, which is why I cherished one story about de Staël and Madame de Récamier (devoted friends), attempting to climb Mont Blanc and having to turn back because of sunburns on their chests (oh, those Empire dresses!).

On the other hand, Gray is generous with the epigrams: Constant, enmeshed in de Staël’s life for many years, summed her up by saying, “She exerts over everything around her a kind of inexplicable but very real power. If she could govern herself, she might have governed the world.”

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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