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Book Review: Madame de Staël: The Dangerous Exile by Angelica Goodden

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Napoleon feared her, the crown heads of Europe courted her, as did the intellectual elite, she was much quoted in her own time and ours, yet Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein – generally known as Madame de Staël, was a figure who had almost disappeared into the mists of history.

How astonishing it is, that the woman of whom the French memoir writer Madame de Chastenay wrote, there were three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe: “England, Russia, and Madame de Staël,” could have suffered such a fate. And Vienna, a city heavily marked by its opposition to Napoleon, would, despite the fact that she stayed there for only five months, for years after refer to 1808 as the year of Madame de Stael’s visit.

I’ve been obliquely bumping into her during my excursions through women’s history for years, but it was only when reading about her friendship with Juliette Récamier , and learning that she’s been the subject of no less than five recent books, led me to finally determine to read more.

I’d love to read all five books, but since that isn’t going to happen, I chose Angelica Goodden The Dangerous Exile, in part because it seemed to focus rather less on the romantic side of de Staël’s life, and if there’s one aspect of her I find rather repulsive, it’s her rather histrionically conducted love life.

That, of course, got her into trouble in her own time – having children to men not your spouse being rather frowned upon. Fanny Burney wrote in 1813, about her dropping of de Stael in 1793: “I had found her so charming that I fought the hardest battle I dared fight against almost ALL my best connections… She is now received by all mankind – but that indeed, she always was — all womankind, I should say with distinction and pleasure.”

That was when de Staël was in exile in England, yet for Goodden, she is always more or less in exile – fighting to be allowed to be the person she wants to be, when she’s a woman. Behind her exile the author identifies the question: “how is it possible to be politically aware, politically active and yet a woman?”

And she’s also fighting to make society correspond more closely to what she sees as positive, womanly virtues. So de Staël in the second preface to La Nouvelle Heloise, defends reading fiction as a moral activity, “believing that the novel’s presentation of intimacy fosters a sense of values that beg to be preserved in a world otherwise enslaved to the vulgar thrust of glory-seeking and self-interest”.

Mary Berry describes dining at Stael’s house in Paris with among others Recamier. The salon society of Paris, though more serious than before the Revolution, still impressed visitors as cultured and more stylish and sophisticated than London’s.

“Napoleon’s empire, and with it the exclusive rule of men, had not yet begun. In the salons people still listened to music and conversed; they watched plays and talked about literature and art rather than money and other concerns of a world governed by self-interest.”

Goodden also makes it clear how the European intellectual elite valued her. Goethe was drawn to her: “There is something charming about her presence, both in the spiritual and in the physical sense, and she seemed not displeased when one showed one’s impressionability in the later respect too. How often she tried to unite sociability, well-meaningless, inclination and passion! Indeed, she once said, ‘I have never trusted a man who hadn’t once been in love with me.'”

The Queen of Prussia, Luise von Mecklemburg-Strelitz, was a passionate opponent of the French Revolution and a declared enemy of Napoleon – also considered “as beautiful as Recamier”. It was a mutual charming between visitor and queen, although it is to de Staël’s credit that she found the Queen’s reign utterly deadened by Prussian militarism. She wrote to Goethe “whatever liveliness and youth might have existed my perceptions are is virtually suffocated here”.

Goodden says her Corinne and earlier heroines “seem to epitomize the impotence of women in early 19th-century Europe, unwisely loving, caring too much, destroyed by the grief that follows disappointment, and perfectly embodying the futility of the only kind of reason credited to them, that of being able to analyse their feelings but not uproot them”.

Yet while this is often expressed in romantic terms, Goodden sees the disappointment as also clearly political. She sees this particularly in de Stael’s novel Corrinne – “the title character has broken the bounds of convention as a woman and an artist, and the art is an expression of the political state that may come to prevail in her country”. There’s implicit criticism of France here, for, as de Stael had written in De La Litterature: “As soon as a woman is marked out as a distinguished person, the general public is prejudiced against her. The crowd only ever judges according to certain common rules that can he adhered to without risk.”

Corinne was twice translated in English in the year of its publication. George Eliot admired it and Elizabeth Barrett, born the year before it appeared declared it to be “an immortal book”. Maria Edgeworth describes both male and female members of her family being consumed with grief at the unfolding of the story, during a reading that continued into 2am

The power of her pen and her tongue – and the way it was feared by Napoleon, was demonstrated in 1810. Mathieu de Montmorency spent a few days with her at her unhappy refuge at Coppet and was immediately exiled by Napoleon, her link being given as the absolute cause. Recamier also suffered the same fate. Goodden writes: “To be known to Staël was immediately to become persona non grata, however, little political influence one possessed.”

Soon after the birth of a child, in 1812 she evaded Napoleon’s spies and embarked on a two-year trip to Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Gailicia, Russia, Sweden and England. She would use her own persecution by Napoleon as an example to warn against his threat to Eirope.

She claimed to have gone to Sweden to have her sons enlist in the army, but actually she was acting as a go-between in the rapprochement of Alexander and Bernadotte at Truku, helping to bring Sweden into the coalition that resulted in Napoleon’s defeat. Goodden reports that the Tsar had twice consulted her, realising the influence she might be able to exert on the Crown Prince, who he envisaged as head of a liberal French monarchy. In eight months in Sweden, she dominated society, “received everywhere like a queen”.

In London in 1813 Fanny Burney wrote: “The whole talk of London is of Madame de Stael, and her having lived wholly with the [Whig] opposition since her arrival – yet being invited [despite her liberal reputation] to the Prince Regent’s grand ball last night.”

Maria Fanshaw was at a dinner with de Stael, which she described as “the longest and most entertaining dinner at which I ever in my life was present… had the whole discourse been written without a syllable of correction, it would be difficult to name a dialogue so full of eloquence and wit. Eloquence is a great word, but not too big for her”.

She clearly delivered harangues and monologues more often than indulging in dialogue, but as Goodden notes, this was very much a fashion of the time. As a star turn at a society hostess’s dinner table, she was supposed to perform to expectations. A contemporary wrote “Her subjects… were invectives against Napoleon, praise of Bernadotte, the state of Europe, and above all the happiness of Englishmen.”

In the allied occupation of Paris after Waterloo, Goodden says that her influence was crucial in reducing the number of troops occupying Paris. And the hero of Waterloo, although often infuriated by her political efforts, was one of her most faithful visitors during her final illness in 1817.

She’s quite a woman, and Goodden in The Dangerous Exile has focused on what for me are some of the most interesting elements of her life – the political ones. There’s also quite a lot about her influential writings, both fiction and non-fiction, and mercifully no more than necessary about her men. So as an account, this suited me nicely, although it may well be that others would prefer another of the recent texts on de Staël: Goodden certainly assumes a fair knowledge of the period and the outline of her subject’s life, making few concessions to the lay reader, although her text is mercifully short on jargon and analysis wrapped in fancy theoretical robes.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.