Madame de Staël : Woman in Literature – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women

Héloïse : Love
Joan of Arc : Heroic Women
Saint Theresa : Religious Enthusiasm
Madame de Maintenon : The Political Woman
Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
Madame Récamier : The Woman of Society
Madame de Staël : Woman in Literature
Hannah More : Education of Woman
George Eliot : Woman as Novelist

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women
John Lord

Topics Covered
Literature in the 18th Century
Rise of Madame de Staël
Her precocity
Her powers of conversation
Her love of society
Her marriage
Hatred of Napoleon
Her banishment
Her residence in Switzerland
Travels in Germany
Her work on literature
Her book on Germany
Its great merits
German philosophy
Visit to Italy
Its popularity
A description of Italy
Marriage with Rocca
Madame de Staël in England
Her honors
Return to Paris
Incense offered to her
Her amazing éclat
Her death
Her merits as an author
Inaugurated a new style in literature
Her followers
Her influence
Literary women
Their future

Madame de Staël : Woman in Literature

A. D. 1766-1817.

It was two hundred years after woman began to reign in the great cities of Europe as queen of society, before she astonished the world by brilliant literary successes. Some of the most famous women who adorned society recorded their observations and experiences for the benefit of posterity; but these productions were generally in the form of memoirs and letters, which neither added to nor detracted from the splendid position they occupied because of their high birth, wit, and social fascinations. These earlier favorites were not courted by the great because they could write, but because they could talk, and adorn courts, like Madame de Sévigné. But in the eighteenth century a class of women arose and gained great celebrity on account of their writings, like Hannah More, Miss Burney, Mrs. Macaulay, Madame Dacier, Madame de la Fayette,–women who proved that they could do something more than merely write letters, for which women ever have been distinguished from the time of Héloïse.

At the head of all these women of genius Madame de Staël stands pre-eminent, not only over literary women, but also over most of the men of letters in her age and country. And it was only a great age which could have produced such a woman, for the eighteenth century was more fruitful in literary genius than is generally supposed. The greatest lights, indeed, no longer shone,–such men as Shakspeare, Bacon, Milton, Corneille, Racine, Boileau, Molière,–but the age was fruitful in great critics, historians, philosophers, economists, poets, and novelists, who won immortal fame, like Pope, Goldsmith, Johnson, Addison, Gibbon, Bentley, Hume, Robertson, Priestley, Burke, Adam Smith, in England; Klopstock, Goethe, Herder, Schiller, Lessing, Handel, Schlegel, Kant, in Germany; and Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Marmontel, D’Alembert, Montesquieu, Rollin, Buffon, Lavoisier, Raynal, Lavater, in France,–all of whom were remarkable men, casting their fearless glance upon all subjects, and agitating the age by their great ideas. In France especially there was a notable literary awakening. A more brilliant circle than ever assembled at the Hôtel de Rambouillet met in the salons of Madame Geoffrin and Madame de Tencin and Madame du Deffand and Madame Necker, to discuss theories of government, political economy, human rights,–in fact, every question which moves the human mind. They were generally irreligious, satirical, and defiant; but they were fresh, enthusiastic, learned, and original They not only aroused the people to reflection, but they were great artists in language, and made a revolution in style.

It was in this inquiring, brilliant, yet infidel age that the star of Madame de Staël arose, on the eve of the French Revolution. She was born in Paris in 1766, when her father–Necker–was amassing an enormous fortune as a banker and financier, afterwards so celebrated as finance minister to Louis XVI. Her mother,–Susanne Curchod,–of humble Swiss parentage, was yet one of the remarkable women of the day, a lady whom Gibbon would have married had English prejudices and conventionalities permitted, but whose marriage with Necker was both fortunate and happy. They had only one child, but she was a Minerva. It seems that she was of extraordinary precocity, and very early attracted attention. As a mere child Marmontel talked with her as if she were twenty-five. At fifteen, she had written reflections on Montesquieu’s “Spirit of Laws,” and was solicited by Raynal to furnish an article on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. So brilliant a girl was educated by her wealthy parents without regard to expense and with the greatest care. She was fortunate from the start, with unbounded means, surrounded with illustrious people, and with every opportunity for improvement both as to teachers and society,–doubtless one important cause of her subsequent success, for very few people climb the upper rounds of the ladder of literary fame who are obliged to earn their living; their genius is fettered and their time is employed on irksome drudgeries.

Madame de Staël, when a girl, came very near losing her health and breaking her fine constitution by the unwise “cramming” on which her mother insisted; for, although a superior woman, Madame Necker knew very little about the true system of education, thinking that study and labor should be incessant, and that these alone could do everything. She loaded her daughter with too many restraints, and bound her by a too rigid discipline. She did all she could to crush genius out of the girl, and make her a dictionary, or a machine, or a piece of formality and conventionalism. But the father, wiser, and with greater insight and truer sympathy, relaxed the cords of discipline, unfettered her imagination, connived at her flights of extravagance, and allowed her to develop her faculties in her own way. She had a remarkable fondness for her father,–she adored him, and clung to him through life with peculiar tenderness and devotion, which he appreciated and repaid. Before she was twenty she wrote poetry as a matter of course. Most girls do,–I mean those who are bright and sentimental; still, she produced but indifferent work, like Cicero when he was young, and soon dropped rhyme forever for the greater freedom of prose, into which she poured from the first all the wealth of her poetic soul. She was a poet, disdaining measure, but exquisite in rhythm,–for nothing can be more musical than her style.

As remarked in the lecture on Madame Récamier, it is seldom that people acquire the art of conversation till middle life, when the mind is enriched and confidence is gained. The great conversational powers of Johnson, Burke, Mackintosh, Coleridge, Wilkes, Garrick, Walpole, Sydney Smith, were most remarkable in their later years, after they had read everything and seen everybody. But Madame de Staël was brilliant in conversation from her youth. She was the delight of every circle, the admiration of the most gifted men,–not for her beauty, for she was not considered beautiful, but for her wit, her vivacity, her repartee, her animated and sympathetic face, her electrical power; for she could kindle, inspire, instruct, or bewitch. She played, she sang, she discoursed on everything,–a priestess, a sibyl, full of inspiration, listened to as an oracle or an idol. “To hear her,” says Sismondi, “one would have said that she was the experience of many souls mingled into one, I looked and listened with transport. I discovered in her features a charm superior to beauty; and if I do not hear her words, yet her tones, her gestures, and her looks convey to me her meaning.” It is said that though her features were not beautiful her eyes were remarkable,–large, dark, lustrous, animated, flashing, confiding, and bathed in light. They were truly the windows of her soul; and it was her soul, even more than her intellect, which made her so interesting and so great. I think that intellect without soul is rather repulsive than otherwise, is cold, critical, arrogant, cynical,–something from which we flee, since we find no sympathy and sometimes no toleration from it. The soul of Madame de Staël immeasurably towered above her intellect, great as that was, and gave her eloquence, fervor, sincerity, poetry,–intensified her genius, and made her irresistible.

It was this combination of wit, sympathy, and conversational talent which made Madame de Staël so inordinately fond of society,–to satisfy longings and cravings that neither Nature nor books nor home could fully meet. With all her genius and learning she was a restless woman; and even friendship, for which she had a great capacity, could not bind her, or confine her long to any one place but Paris, which was to her the world,–not for its shops, or fashions, or churches, or museums and picture-galleries, or historical monuments and memories, but for those coteries where blazed the great wits of the age, among whom she too would shine and dazzle and inspire. She was not without heart, as her warm and lasting friendships attest; but the animating passion of her life was love of admiration, which was only equalled by a craving for sympathy that no friendship could satisfy,–a want of her nature that reveals an ardent soul rather than a great heart; for many a warm-hearted woman can live contentedly in retirement, whether in city or country,–which Madame de Staël could not, not even when surrounded with every luxury and all the charms of nature.

Such a young lady as Mademoiselle Necker–so gifted, so accomplished, so rich, so elevated in social position–could aspire very high. And both her father and mother were ambitious for so remarkable a daughter. But the mother would not consent to her marriage with a Catholic, and she herself insisted on a permanent residence in Paris. It was hard to meet such conditions and yet make a brilliant match; for, after all, her father, though minister, was only a clever and rich Swiss financier,–not a nobleman, or a man of great family influence. The Baron de Staël-Holstein, then secretary to the Swedish embassy, afterwards ambassador from Sweden, was the most available suitor, since he was a nobleman, a Protestant, and a diplomatist; and Mademoiselle Necker became his wife, in 1786, at twenty years of age, with a dowry of two millions of francs. Her social position was raised by this marriage, since her husband was a favorite at court, and she saw much of the Queen and of the great ladies who surrounded her.

But the marriage was not happy. The husband was extravagant and self-indulgent; the wife panted for beatitudes it was not in his nature to give. So they separated after a while, but were not divorced. Both before and after that event, however, her house was the resort of the best society of the city, and she was its brightest ornament. Thither came Grimm, Talleyrand, Barnave, Lafayette, Narbonne, Sieyès,–all friends. She was an eye-witness to the terrible scenes of the Revolution, and escaped judicial assassination almost by miracle. At last she succeeded in making her escape to Switzerland, and lived a while in her magnificent country-seat near Geneva, surrounded with illustrious exiles. Soon after, she made her first visit to England, but returned to Paris when the violence of the Revolution was over.

She returned the very day that Napoleon, as First Consul, had seized the reins of government, 1799. She had hailed the Revolution with transport, although she was so nearly its victim. She had faith in its ideas. She believed that the people were the ultimate source of power. She condoned the excesses of the Revolution in view of its aspirations. Napoleon gained his first great victories in defence of its ideas. So at first, in common with the friends of liberty, she was prepared to worship this rising sun, dazzled by his deeds and deceived by his lying words. But she no sooner saw him than she was repelled, especially when she knew he had trampled on the liberties which he had professed to defend. Her instincts penetrated through all the plaudits of his idolaters. She felt that he was a traitor to a great cause,–was heartless, unboundedly ambitious, insufferably egotistic, a self-worshipper, who would brush away everything and everybody that stood in his way; and she hated him, and she defied him, and her house became the centre of opposition, the headquarters of enmity and wrath. What was his glory, as a conqueror, compared with the cause she loved, trodden under foot by an iron, rigid, jealous, irresistible despotism? Nor did Napoleon like her any better than she liked him,–not that he was envious, but because she stood in his way. He expected universal homage and devotion, neither of which would she give him. He was exceedingly irritated at the reports of her bitter sayings, blended with ridicule and sarcasm. He was not merely annoyed, he was afraid. “Her arrows,” said he, “would hit a man if he were seated on a rainbow.” And when he found he could not silence her, he banished her to within forty leagues of Paris. He was not naturally cruel, but he was not the man to allow so bright a woman to say her sharp things about him to his generals and courtiers. It was not the worst thing he ever did to banish his greatest enemy; but it was mean and cruel to persecute her as he did after she was banished.

Madame de Staël After the painting by Mlle. de Godefroid, Versailles

Madame de Staël After the painting by Mlle. de Godefroid, Versailles

So from Paris–to her the “hub of the universe”–Madame de Staël, “with wandering steps and slow, took her solitary way.” Expelled from the Eden she loved, she sought to find some place where she could enjoy society,–which was the passion of her life. Weimar, in Germany, then contained a constellation of illustrious men, over whom Goethe reigned, as Dr. Johnson once did in London. Thither she resolved to go, after a brief stay at Coppet, her place in Switzerland; and her ten years’ exile began with a sojourn among the brightest intellects of Germany. She was cordially received at Weimar, especially by the Court, although the dictator of German literature did not like her much. She was too impetuous, impulsive, and masculine for him. Schiller and Wieland and Schlegel liked her better, and understood her better. Her great works had not then been written, and she had reputation chiefly for her high social position and social qualities. Possibly her exceeding vivacity and wit seemed superficial,–as witty French people then seemed to both Germans and English. Doubtless there were critics and philosophers in Germany who were not capable of appreciating a person who aspired to penetrate all the secrets of art, philosophy, religion, and science then known who tried to master everything, and who talked eloquently on everything,–and that person a woman, and a Frenchwoman. Goethe was indeed an exception to most German critics, for he was an artist, as few Germans have been in the use of language, and he, like Humboldt, had universal knowledge; yet he did not like Madame de Staël,–not from envy: he had too much self-consciousness to be envious of any man, still less a woman. Envy does not exist between the sexes: a musician may be jealous of a musician; a poet, of a poet; a theologian, of a theologian; and it is said, a physician has been known to be jealous of a physician. I think it is probable that the gifted Frenchwoman overwhelmed the great German with her prodigality of wit, sarcasm, and sentiment, for he was inclined to coldness and taciturnity.

Madame de Staël speaks respectfully of the great men she met at Weimar; but I do not think she worshipped them, since she did not fully understand them,–especially Fichte, whom she ridiculed, as well as other obscure though profound writers, who disdained style and art in writing, for which she was afterwards so distinguished. I believe nine-tenths of German literature is wasted on Europeans for lack of clearness and directness of style; although the involved obscurities which are common to German philosophers and critics and historians alike do not seem to derogate from their literary fame at home, and have even found imitators in England, like Coleridge and Carlyle. Nevertheless, obscurity and affectation are eternal blots on literary genius, since they are irreconcilable with art, which alone gives perpetuity to learning,–as illustrated by the classic authors of antiquity, and such men as Pascal, Rousseau, and Macaulay in our times,–although the pedants have always disdained those who write clearly and luminously, and lost reverence for genius the moment it is understood; since clear writing shows how little is truly original, and makes a disquisition on a bug, a comma, or a date seem trivial indeed.

Hitherto, Madame de Staël had reigned in salons, rather than on the throne of letters. Until her visit to Germany, she had written but two books which had given her fame,–one, “On Literature, considered in its Relations with Social Institutions,” and a novel entitled “Delphine,”–neither of which is much read or prized in these times. The leading idea of her book on literature was the perfectibility of human nature,–not new, since it had been affirmed by Ferguson in England, by Kant in Germany, and by Turgot in France, and even by Roger Bacon in the Middle Ages. But she claimed to be the first to apply perfectibility to literature. If her idea simply means the ever-expanding progress of the human mind, with the aids that Providence has furnished, she is doubtless right. If she means that the necessary condition of human nature, unaided, is towards perfection, she wars with Christianity, and agrees with Rousseau. The idea was fashionable in its day, especially by the disciples of Rousseau, who maintained that the majority could not err. But if Madame de Staël simply meant that society was destined to progressive advancement, as a matter of fact her view will be generally accepted, since God rules this world, and brings good out of evil. Some maintain we have made no advance over ancient India in either morals or literature or science, or over Greece in art, or Rome in jurisprudence; and yet we believe the condition of humanity to-day is superior to what it has been, on the whole, in any previous age of our world. But let us give the credit of this advance to God, and not to man.

Her other book, “Delphine,” published in 1802, made a great sensation, like a modern first-class novel, but was severely criticised. Sydney Smith reviewed it in a slashing article. It was considered by many as immoral in its tendency, since she was supposed to attack marriage. Sainte-Beuve, the greatest critic of the age, defends her against this charge; but the book was doubtless very emotional, into which she poured all the warmth of her ardent and ungoverned soul in its restless agitation and cravings for sympathy,–a record of herself, blasted in her marriage hopes and aspirations. It is a sort of New Héloïse, and, though powerful, is not healthy. These two works, however, stamped her as a woman of genius, although her highest triumphs were not yet won.

With the éclat of these two books she traversed Germany, studying laws, literature, and manners, assisted in her studies by August v. Schlegel (the translator of Shakspeare), who was tutor to her children, on a salary of twelve thousand francs a year and expenses. She had great admiration for this distinguished scholar, who combined with his linguistic attainments an intense love of art and a profound appreciation of genius, in whatever guise it was to be found. With such a cicerone she could not help making great acquisitions. He was like Jerome explaining to Paula the history of the sacred places; like Dr. Johnson teaching ethics to Hannah More; like Michael Angelo explaining the principles of art to Vittoria Colonna. She mastered the language of which Frederick the Great was ashamed, and, for the first time, did justice to the German scholars and the German character. She defended the ideal philosophy against Locke and the French materialists; she made a remarkable analysis of Kant; she warmly praised both Goethe and Schiller; she admired Wieland; she had a good word for Fichte, although she had ridiculed his obscurities of style.

The result of her travels was the most masterly dissertation on that great country that has ever been written,–an astonishing book, when we remember it was the first of any note which had appeared of its kind. To me it is more like the history of Herodotus than any book of travels which has appeared since that accomplished scholar traversed Asia and Africa to reveal to his inquisitive countrymen the treasures of Oriental monarchies. In this work, which is intellectually her greatest, she towered not only over all women, but over all men who have since been her competitors. It does not fall in with my purpose to give other than a passing notice of this masterly production in order to show what a marvellous woman she was, not in the realm of sentiment alone, not as a writer of letters, but as a critic capable of grasping and explaining all that philosophy, art, and literature have sought to accomplish in that terra incognita, as Germany was then regarded. She revealed a new country to the rest of Europe; she described with accuracy its manners and customs; she did justice to the German intellect; she showed what amazing scholarship already existed in the universities, far surpassing both Paris and Oxford. She appreciated the German character, its simplicity, its truthfulness, its sincerity, its intellectual boldness, its patience, its reserved power, afterwards to be developed in war,–qualities and attainments which have since raised Germany to the foremost rank among the European nations.

This brilliant Frenchwoman, accustomed to reign in the most cultivated social circles of Paris, shows a remarkable catholicity and breadth of judgment, and is not shocked at phlegmatic dulness or hyperborean awkwardness, or laughable simplicity; because she sees, what nobody else then saw, a patience which never wearies, a quiet enthusiasm which no difficulty or disgust destroys, and a great insight which can give richness to literature without art, discrimination to philosophy without conciseness, and a new meaning to old dogmas. She ventures to pluck from the forbidden tree of metaphysics; and, reckless of the fiats of the schools, she entered fearlessly into those inquiries which have appalled both Greek and schoolman. Think of a woman making the best translation and criticism of Kant which had appeared until her day! Her revelations might have found more value in the eyes of pedants had she been more obscure. But, as Sir James Mackintosh says, “Dullness is not accuracy, nor is an elegant writer necessarily superficial.” Divest German metaphysics of their obscurities, and they might seem commonplace; take away the clearness of French writers, and they might pass for profound. Clearness and precision, however, are not what the world expects from its teachers. It loves the fig-trees with nothing but leaves; it adores the stat magni nominis umbra. The highest proof of severe culture is the use of short and simple words on any subject whatever; and he who cannot make his readers understand what he writes about does not understand his subject himself.

I am happy to have these views corroborated by one of the best writers that this country has produced,–I mean William Matthews:–

“The French, who if not the most original are certainly the acutest and most logical thinkers in the world, are frequently considered frivolous and shallow, simply because they excel all other nations in the difficult art of giving literary interest to philosophy; while, on the other hand, the ponderous Germans, who living in clouds of smoke have a positive genius for making the obscure obscurer, are thought to be original, because they are so chaotic and clumsy. But we have yet to learn that lead is priceless because it is weighty, or that gold is valueless because it glitters. The Damascus blade is none the less keen because it is polished, nor the Corinthian shaft less strong because it is fluted and its capital curved.”

The production of such a woman, in that age, in which there is so much learning combined with eloquence, and elevation of sentiment with acute observation, and the graces of style with the spirit of philosophy,–candid, yet eulogistic; discriminating, yet enthusiastic,–made a great impression on the mind of cultivated Europe. Napoleon however, with inexcusable but characteristic meanness, would not allow its publication. The police seized the whole edition–ten thousand–and destroyed every copy. They even tried to get possession of the original copy, which required the greatest tact on the part of the author to preserve, and which she carried with her on all her travels, for six years, until it was finally printed in London.

Long before this great work was completed,–for she worked upon it six years,–Madame de Staël visited, with Sismondi, that country which above all others is dear to the poet, the artist, and the antiquarian. She entered that classic and hallowed land amid the glories of a southern spring, when the balmy air, the beautiful sky, the fresh verdure of the fields, and the singing of the birds added fascination to scenes which without them would have been enchantment. Châteaubriand, the only French writer of her day with whom she stood in proud equality, also visited Italy, but sang another song; she, bright and radiant, with hope and cheerfulness, an admirer of the people and the country as they were; he, mournful and desponding, yet not less poetic, with visions of departed glory which the vast debris of the ancient magnificence suggested to his pensive soul, O Italy, Italy! land of associations, whose history never tires; whose antiquities are perpetual studies; whose works of art provoke to hopeless imitation; whose struggles until recently were equally chivalric and unfortunate; whose aspirations have ever been with liberty, yet whose destiny has been successive slaveries; whose hills and plains and vales are verdant with perennial loveliness, though covered with broken monuments and deserted cities; where monks and beggars are more numerous than even scholars and artists,–glory in debasement, and debasement in glory, reminding us of the greatness and misery of man; alike the paradise and the prison of the world; the Minerva and the Niobe of nations,–never shall thy wonders be exhausted or thy sorrows be forgotten!

“E’en in thy desert what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful; thy wastes
More rich than other lands’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin grand.”

In this unfortunate yet illustrious land, ever fresh to travellers, ever to be hallowed in spite of revolutions and assassinations, of popes and priests, of semi-infidel artists and cynical savants, of beggars and tramps, of filthy hotels and dilapidated villas, Madame de Staël lingered more than a year, visiting every city which has a history and every monument which has antiquity; and the result of that journey was “Corinne,”–one of the few immortal books which the heart of the world cherishes; which is as fresh to-day as it was nearly one hundred years ago,–a novel, a critique, a painting, a poem, a tragedy; interesting to the philosopher in his study and to the woman in her boudoir, since it is the record of the cravings of a great soul, and a description of what is most beautiful or venerated in nature or art. It is the most wonderful book ever written of Italy,–with faults, of course, but a transcript of profound sorrows and lofty aspirations. To some it may seem exaggerated in its transports; but can transports be too highly colored? Can any words be as vivid as a sensation? Enthusiasm, when fully expressed, ceases to be a rapture; and the soul that fancies it has reached the heights of love or beauty or truth, claims to comprehend the immortal and the infinite.

It is the effort of genius to express the raptures and sorrows of a lofty but unsatisfied soul, the glories of the imperishable in art and life, which gives to “Corinne” its peculiar charm. It is the mirror of a wide and deep experience,–a sort of “Divine Comedy,” in which a Dante finds a Beatrice, not robed in celestial loveliness, coursing from circle to circle and star to star, explaining the mysteries of heaven, but radiant in the beauty of earth, and glowing with the ardor of a human love. Every page is masculine in power, every sentence is condensed thought, every line burns with passion; yet every sentiment betrays the woman, seeking to reveal her own boundless capacities of admiration and friendship, to be appreciated, to be loved with that fervor and disinterestedness which she was prepared to lavish on the object of her adoration. No man could have made such revelations, although it may be given to him to sing a greater song. While no woman could have composed the “Iliad,” or the “Novum Organum,” or the “Critique of Pure Reason,” or “Othello,” no man could have written “Corinne” or “Adam Bede.”

In painting Corinne, Madame de Staël simply describes herself, as she did in “Delphine,” with all her restless soul-agitations; yet not in too flattering colors, since I doubt if there ever lived a more impassioned soul, with greater desires of knowledge, or a more devouring thirst for fame, or a profounder insight into what is lofty and eternal, than the author of “Corinne.” Like Héloïse, she could love but one; yet, unlike Héloïse, she could not renounce, even for love, the passion for admiration or the fascinations of society. She does not attempt to disguise the immense sacrifices which love exacts and marriage implies, but which such a woman as Héloïse is proud to make for him whom she deems worthy of her own exalted sentiments; and she shows in the person of Corinne how much weakness may coexist with strength, and how timid and dependent is a woman even in the blaze of triumph and in the enjoyment of a haughty freedom. She paints the most shrinking delicacy with the greatest imprudence and boldness, contempt for the opinions and usages of society with the severest self-respect; giving occasion for scandal, yet escaping from its shafts; triumphant in the greatness of her own dignity and in the purity of her unsullied soul. “Corinne” is a disguised sarcasm on the usages of society among the upper classes in Madame de Staël’s day, when a man like Lord Neville is represented as capable of the most exalted passion, and almost ready to die for its object, and at the same time is unwilling to follow its promptings to an honorable issue,–ready even, at last, to marry a woman for whom he feels no strong attachment, or even admiration, in compliance with expediency, pride, and family interests.

But “Corinne” is not so much a romance as it is a description of Italy itself, its pictures, its statues, its palaces, its churches, its antiquities, its literature, its manners, and its aspirations; and it is astonishing how much is condensed in that little book. The author has forestalled all poets and travellers, and even guidebooks; all successive works are repetitions or amplifications of what she has suggested. She is as exhaustive and condensed as Thucydides; and, true to her philosophy, she is all sunshine and hope, with unbounded faith in the future of Italy,–an exultant prophet as well as a critical observer.

This work was published in Paris in 1807, when Napoleon was on the apex of his power and glory; and no work by a woman was ever hailed with greater enthusiasm, not in Paris merely, but throughout Europe. Yet nothing could melt the iron heart of Napoleon, and he continued his implacable persecution of its author, so that she was obliged to continue her travels, though travelling like a princess. Again she visited Germany, and again she retired to her place near Geneva, where she held a sort of court, the star of which, next to herself, was Madame Récamier, whose transcendent beauty and equally transcendent loveliness of character won her admiration and friendship.

In 1810 Madame de Staël married Rocca, of Italian or Spanish origin, who was a sickly and dilapidated officer in the French army, little more than half her age,–he being twenty-five and she forty-five,–a strange marriage, almost incredible, if such marriages were not frequent. He, though feeble, was an accomplished man, and was taken captive by the brilliancy of her talk and the elevation of her soul. It is harder to tell what captured her, for who can explain the mysteries of love? The marriage proved happy, however, although both parties dreaded ridicule, and kept it secret. The romance of the thing–if romance there was–has been equalled in our day by the marriages of George Eliot and Miss Burdett Coutts. Only very strong characters can afford to run such risks. The caprices of the great are among the unsolved mysteries of life. A poor, wounded, unknown young man would never have aspired to such an audacity had he not been sure of his ground; and the probability is that she, not he, is to be blamed for that folly,–if a woman is to be blamed for an attachment which the world calls an absurdity.

The wrath of Napoleon waxing stronger and stronger, Madame de Staël felt obliged to flee even from Switzerland. She sought a rest in England; but England was hard to be reached, as all the Continent save Russia was in bondage and fear. She succeeded in reaching Vienna, then Russia, and finally Sweden, where she lingered, as it was the fashion, to receive attentions and admiration from all who were great in position or eminent for attainments in the northern capitals of Europe. She liked even Russia; she saw good everywhere, something to praise and enjoy wherever she went. Moscow and St. Petersburg were equally interesting,–the old and the new, the Oriental magnificence of the one, the stupendous palaces and churches of the other. Romanzoff, Orloff, the Empress Elizabeth, and the Emperor Alexander himself gave her distinguished honors and hospitalities, and she saw and recorded their greatness, and abandoned herself to pleasures which were new.

After a delightful winter in Stockholm, she sailed for England, where she arrived in safety, 1813, twenty years after her first visit, and in the ninth of her exile. Her reception in the highest circles was enthusiastic. She was recognized as the greatest literary woman who had lived. The Prince Regent sought her acquaintance; the greatest nobles feted her in their princely palaces. At the house of the Marquis of Lansdowne, at Lord Jersey’s, at Rogers’s literary dinners, at the reunions of Holland House, everywhere, she was admired and honored. Sir James Mackintosh, the idol and oracle of English society at that time, pronounced her the most intellectual woman who had adorned the world,–not as a novelist and poet merely, but as philosopher and critic, grappling with the highest questions that ever tasked the intellect of man. Byron alone stood aloof; he did not like strong-minded women, any more than Goethe did, especially if they were not beautiful. But he was constrained to admire her at last. Nobody could resist the fascination and brilliancy of her conversation. It is to be regretted that she did not write a book on England, which on the whole she admired, although it was a little too conventional for her. But she was now nearly worn out by the excitements and the sorrows of her life. She was no longer young. Her literary work was done. And she had to resort to opium to rally from the exhaustion of her nervous energies.

On the fall of Napoleon, Madame de Staël returned to Paris,–the city she loved so well; the city so dear to all Frenchmen and to all foreigners, to all gay people, to all intellectual people, to all fashionable people, to all worldly people, to all pious people,–to them the centre of modern civilization. Exile from this city has ever been regarded as a great calamity,–as great as exile was to Romans, even to Cicero. See with what eagerness Thiers himself returned to this charmed capital when permitted by the last Napoleon! In this city, after her ten years’ exile, Madame de Staël reigned in prouder state than at any previous period of her life. She was now at home, on her own throne as queen of letters, and also queen of society. All the great men who were then assembled in Paris burned their incense before her,–Châteaubriand, Lafayette, Talleyrand, Guizot, Constant, Cuvier, Laplace. Distinguished foreigners swelled the circle of her admirers,–Blücher, Humboldt, Schlegel, Canova, Wellington, even the Emperor of Russia. The Restoration hailed her with transport; Louis XVIII. sought the glory of her talk; the press implored her assistance; the salons caught inspiration from her presence. Never was woman seated on a prouder throne. But she did not live long to enjoy her unparalleled social honors. She was stifled, like Voltaire, by the incense of idolaters; the body could no longer stand the strain of the soul, and she sunk, at the age of fifty-one, in the year 1817, a few months before her husband Rocca, whom, it appears, she ever tenderly loved.

Madame de Staël died prematurely, as precocious people generally do,–like Raphael, Pascal, Schiller, I may add Macaulay and Mill; but she accomplished much, and might have done more had her life been spared, for no one doubts her genius,–perhaps the most remarkable female writer who has lived, on the whole. George Sand is the only Frenchwoman who has approached her in genius and fame. Madame de Staël was novelist, critic, essayist, and philosopher, grasping the profoundest subjects, and gaining admiration in everything she attempted. I do not regard her as pre-eminently a happy woman, since her marriages were either unfortunate or unnatural. In the intoxicating blaze of triumph and admiration she panted for domestic beatitudes, and found the earnest cravings of her soul unsatisfied. She sought relief from herself in society, which was a necessity to her, as much as friendship or love; but she was restless, and perpetually travelling. Moreover, she was a persecuted woman during the best ten years of her life. She had but little repose of mind or character, and was worldly, vain, and ambitious. But she was a great woman and a good woman, in spite of her faults and errors; and greater in her womanly qualities than she was in her writings, remarkable as these were. She had a great individuality, like Dr. Johnson and Thomas Carlyle. And she lives in the hearts of her countrymen, like Madame Récamier; for it was not the beauty and grace of this queen of society which made her beloved, but her good-nature, amiability, power of friendship, freedom from envy, and generous soul.

In the estimation of foreigners–of those great critics of whom Jeffrey and Mackintosh were the representatives–Madame de Staël has won the proud fame of being the most powerful writer her country has produced since Voltaire and Rousseau. Historically she is memorable for inaugurating a new period of literary history. With her began a new class of female authors, whose genius was no longer confined to letters and memoirs and sentimental novels. I need not enumerate the long catalogue of illustrious literary women in the nineteenth century in France, in Germany, in England, and even in the United States. The greatest novelist in England, since Thackeray, was a woman. One of the greatest writers on political economy, since Adam Smith, was a woman. One of the greatest writers in astronomical science was a woman. In America, what single novel ever equalled the success of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”? What schools are better kept than those by women? And this is only the beginning, since it is generally felt that women are better educated than men, outside of the great professions. And why not, since they have more leisure for literary pursuits than men? Who now sneers at the intellect of a woman? Who laughs at blue-stockings? Who denies the insight, the superior tact, the genius of woman? What man does not accept woman as a fellow-laborer in the field of letters? And yet there is one profession which they are more capable of filling than men,–that of physicians to their own sex; a profession most honorable, and requiring great knowledge, as well as great experience and insight.

Why may not women cope with men in the proudest intellectual tournaments? Why should they not become great linguists, and poets, and novelists, and artists, and critics, and historians? Have they not quickness, brilliancy, sentiment, acuteness of observation, good sense, and even genius? Do not well-educated women speak French before their brothers can translate the easiest lines of Virgil? I would not put such gentle, refined, and cultivated creatures,–these flowers of Paradise, spreading the sweet aroma of their graces in the calm retreats from toil and sin,–I would not push them into the noisy arena of wrangling politics, into the suffocating and impure air of a court of justice, or even make them professors in a college of unruly boys; but because I would not do them this great cruelty, do I deny their intellectual equality, or seek to dim the lustre of the light they shed, or hide their talents under the vile bushel of envy, cynicism, or contempt? Is it paying true respect to woman to seek to draw her from the beautiful sphere which she adorns and vivifies and inspires,–where she is a solace, a rest, a restraint, and a benediction,–and require of her labors which she has not the physical strength to perform? And when it is seen how much more attractive the wives and daughters of favored classes have made themselves by culture, how much more capable they are of training and educating their children, how much more dignified the family circle may thus become,–every man who is a father will rejoice in this great step which women have recently made, not merely in literary attainments, but in the respect of men. Take away intellect from woman, and what is she but a toy or a slave? For my part, I see no more cheering signs of the progress of society than in the advancing knowledge of favored women. And I know of no more splendid future for them than to encircle their brows, whenever they have an opportunity, with those proud laurels which have ever been accorded to those who have advanced the interests of truth and the dominion of the soul,–which laurels they have lately won, and which both reason and experience assure us they may continue indefinitely to win.


Miss Luyster’s Memoirs of Madame de Staël; Mémoires Dix Années d’Exil; Alison’s Essays; M. Shelly’s Lives; Mrs. Thomson’s Queens of Society; Sainte-Beuve’s Nouveaux Lundis; Lord Brougham on Madame de Staël; J. Bruce’s Classic Portraits; J. Kavanagh’s French Women of Letters; Biographic Universelle; North American Review, vols. x., xiv., xxxvii.; Edinburgh Review, vols. xxi., xxxi., xxxiv., xliii.; Temple Bar, vols. xl., lv.; Foreign Quarterly, vol. xiv.; Blackwood’s Magazine, vols. iii., vii., x.; Quarterly Review, 152; North British Review, vol. xx.; Christian Examiner, 73; Catholic World, 18.

Hannah More : Education of Woman

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women