"Madame," the general informed the lady in question, "I do not want women mixed up in politics."
"You are perfectly right," came the reply, "but in a country where their heads are cut off, it is only natural for them to want to know why." EXCHANGE BETWEEN NAPOLEON BONAPARTE AND MADAME DE STAËL.
French activist, whose portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte as an opportunistic and emotionally cold ruler who threatened to banish liberty from the continent made her the most politically influential woman of her time.
1776 Necker named finance minister to Louis XVI; favored increased taxes on nobility
1788 Necker reappointed royal finance minister; Louis XVI called Estates General into session
1789 French Revolution began; Paris mob stormed the Bastille; nobility began to flee; Third Estate took charge of the Estates General
1793 Execution of Louis XVI ordered by the National Assembly; de Staël in Coppet
1794-95 Reign of Terror
1802-10 De Staël published works to rally opposition to Napoleon
1804 Napoleon crowned emperor of France
1813 First defeat of Napoleon's armies by a European coalition
1815 Second defeat of Napoleon's armies, near Waterloo, Belgium; Napoleon abdicated
1817 De Staël died
Name variation: Madame de Staël-Holstein; Germaine. Pronunciation: Duh-STAHL. Born Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker in Paris, France, on April 22, 1766; died in 1817; only child of Jacques Necker (a Genevan banker who served as finance minister to the French monarch Louis XVI, whose reign was ended by the French Revolution of 1789) and Suzanne Curchod (daughter of a Swiss-French Calvinist minister); married: Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein, January 14, 1786 (marriage ended by formal separation agreement in 1797); children: August, Albert, and Albertine (allegedly fathered by a lover, Benjamin Constant); after her death, it was announced that she was secretly married on October 10, 1816, to Albert de Rocca, a Swiss army officer; a son, named Louis-Alphonse, had been born in 1812.
It has been said that Madame de Staël was an intellect in the service of a passion, but the passion was not love; it was the preservation of liberty and free speech. From 1800 to 1815, as the French armies of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte swept across Europe, no individual was as influential in shaping European public opinion as was Madame de Staël. Intelligent, articulate, and energetic, she traveled throughout the courts of Europe, portraying Napoleon as a tyrant who had suppressed freedom of speech in France and who threatened all of Europe with dictatorship. Her free-ranging lifestyle and assertive personality were rare for a woman of her time. Fiercely independent, she allowed her parents to arrange her first marriage--to the Swedish ambassador to France--but for the rest of her life, she charted her own courageous course.
Born into a Swiss Calvinist family, de Staël was intimidated by her stern mother but adored her doting father, a respected banker who eventually became finance minister of France. She came to share her father's interest in politics; when she was 12 years old, France intervened in the American war of independence against Britain, helping the Americans end their status as a British colony. De Staël followed the events of the American Revolution with an intense interest; she memorized terms such as "constitution" and "liberty" while imagining the English government as a tyrannical power, holding captive an American nation determined to be liberated. At age 14, she wrote an article on a major political book of the time, Baron Charles de Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws.
After her father was named finance minister of French king Louis XVI in 1776, de Staël was a witness to many of the elaborate ceremonies of the royal government, particularly the 1789 opening of the Estates General, the representative body called into session to help solve problems in government finances. She shared her father's belief that France needed tax reforms which would require the nobility to pay a higher share of government expenses.
Her father's ideas were not popular with the queen, Marie-Antoinette, and the queen was also not impressed with his daughter, whom she described as stumbling and undignified. Necker was fired in 1781. (He was rehired in 1788 when financial troubles worsened.) In 1784, Necker purchased a château distant from Paris, at Coppet, Switzerland; it would be a retreat for his daughter during the rest of her life, a protective cocoon when she was periodically banned or declared unwelcome in Paris.
De Staël Weds Swedish Ambassador
In an era when arranged marriages were considered an important parental duty, de Staël's parents struggled to find her a suitable husband. Eligible men were interested: contemporaries observed that she was not beautiful but "she talks well, and her talk has so much charm that she makes you believe she is beautiful." As Calvinists in Catholic France, the Neckers sought a suitable Protestant for their independently minded daughter, who--not easily pleased--tended to intimidate potential husbands.
The eventual marriage--to Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein, Swedish ambassador to Paris--was no love match, but her new husband's occupation opened doors to the highest diplomatic circles of Europe; in turn, she advanced her husband's career by establishing one of the most famous literary and political salons in Paris. One major problem strained the marriage: de Staël was wealthier than her husband, who frequently was heavily in debt. The marriage ended with a formal separation in 1797.
De Staël would later become the mistress of Louis de Narbonne, a minister of King Louis XVI, and still later the mistress of the French writer and politician Benjamin Constant, who was apparently the father of her third child. When Constant challenged Narbonne to a duel, she intervened to prevent it. In 1816, at the age of 44, she would marry Albert de Rocca, a Swiss army officer who was 21 years her junior. The couple would nickname Louis-Alphonse, the child born to them before the marriage, Petit Nous ("Little Us"), though the marriage would not be officially announced until de Staël's will was read after her death.
When the French Revolution of 1789 began, she at first acquired a reputation for favoring Jacobinism (an "extreme" political movement which sought to abolish the monarchy), but she eventually accepted the more moderate view of retaining a limited monarchy. She attended regular sessions of the National Assembly, the French legislative body established during the Revolution which eventually approved the execution of King Louis XVI. De Staël proved to be a perceptive commentator on the political scene: the king of Sweden commented that he preferred her reports on the proceedings to those of anyone else.
The violence of the Revolution alarmed her, particularly what she believed to be the persecution of the nobility. She agreed with American diplomat Gouverneur Morris, who told her that "the French have moved beyond liberty." During massacres, she courageously appeared on the streets of Paris, attempting to save members of the nobility from mob violence. She even spoke of buying land near the seaport city of Dieppe, hoping to save victims of the Revolution from execution by guillotine. She planned to transport them to safety there, two or three at a time, in the guise of being her traveling companions and relatives.
Unfortunately, her actions, taken in the name of humanity, made her suspect to all parties in the French Revolution. Despite her insistence that she hoped for "a republic as the sole form of government which will not dishonor France," she was denounced as a Swiss meddler in French affairs "who should be sent back to where she came from without delay."
When she admitted that she had met with aristocrats who were banished from France, she was denounced in the Paris press for her activities. The Committee of Public Safety, which ruled during the most violent period of the Revolution, the so-called "Reign of Terror," threatened to banish her. Her first husband (de Staël-Holstein) intervened, protecting her with diplomatic immunity, and she retreated for a brief time to Sweden. During 1793 and 1794, she went to Coppet, where she drew visits from many of the leading intellectuals and diplomats of Europe, including Romantic writer Vicomte François Chateaubriand.
The rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was declared emperor in 1804, brought her back to France. Alternately fascinated and repelled by Napoleon, de Staël recognized him as a new type of monarch. Napoleon, a contemporary observed, expected enemies and knew how to deal with them, but he did not know how to deal with a political woman. When Napoleon and de Staël met, they frequently sparred verbally. De Staël noted that Napoleon often enjoyed directing rude comments to females; "therefore, before I [was to meet] him, I would write a series of tart and sharp answers in advance."
She did not like what she saw: "Far from being reassured, the more I saw of Napoleon Bonaparte, the more alarmed I became. . . . [H]e is a man without emotions," and also, "a calculating chess player" for whom people were either "facts or objects." "Every time I listened to him I was impressed by his intelligence," she observed. She added that whenever Napoleon realized that anyone was staring at him, "he extinguished the last sign of life in his eyes. . . . At such times there would be no expression on his face but a vague smile, confusing anyone who hoped to read his mind." Even when she was banished to Coppet, as frequently happened, Napoleon recognized her as a troublesome adversary. "They say," he observed, "that she does not speak of politics or me; but how does it happen that all who speak to her come to like me less?"
Between 1802 and 1810, de Staël published books which were, in some way, designed to shake the basis of Napoleon's dictatorship. Two of the books--Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807)--were novels that established her as one of the early Romantics in France. The former displeased Napoleon for its praise of England and Protestantism; it also discussed the subject of divorce at a time when Napoleon was considering divorcing his first wife Josephine and would have preferred that the topic not enter public discussion.
Napoleon's Government Bans Her Book
The book which brought the strongest reaction from the emperor, however, was her De l'Allemagne (On Germany), published in 1810. Though it contained no direct criticisms of Napoleon, the emperor condemned the work as anti-French because Germans were portrayed in sympathetic terms. Napoleon understood that the praise of Germany was, at least in part, a ploy to arouse German nationalism against his rule: the implication of the book was that the spirit of resistance against him would be found everywhere and that any attempt at a European dictatorship was futile. When Napoleon's government banned the book in France, de Staël attacked his "slavery of the press," observing that the action amounted to banning it on the entire continent, since other governments would hesitate to anger the French emperor. "Everything is controlled by one man," she noted, "and no person can take a step, or form a wish, without him. Not only liberty but free will seems banished from the earth."
Beginning in 1803, de Staël journeyed throughout Europe. She used her travels to encourage resistance to the French emperor, whose armies were beginning a triumphant march across much of Europe. She visited Germany in 1803 and 1804, cultivating a friendship with the German translator and critic August Wilhelm von Schlegel, who became a frequent companion after 1804.
A tour in 1813 of Austria, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and England gave her the opportunity to argue, before royal courts all over Europe, that it was important for nations to rise up against the dictatorship in France, "the very country which has introduced the spirit of liberty to the world." In Russia, she met Tsar Alexander I, whom Napoleon had ridiculed, and called him a well-informed man of real intellect; she wept when school girls recited passages from her writings, and she was outraged when she heard that a Russian audience had booed the presentation of a classic French play.
In England, she dined with the Duke of Wellington, and the poet Lord Byron, but she was ultimately disappointed that the English were not inclined to move quickly against Napoleon. The English in turn were offended by her spirited defense of the former American colonies and her criticisms of the British army for burning the White House in the War of 1812. She told her hosts that "old and free England should be inspired with admiration by the progress of America."
The final defeat of Napoleon, in 1815 at the battle of Waterloo, brought her back to Paris. She returned slowly, saying she did not want to seem to "follow in the tracks of conquerors." Her role in helping defeat Napoleon was widely recognized. "There are," a contemporary insisted, "only three powers left in Europe--Russia, England, and Madame de Staël." She praised foreigners for "having broken the yoke" of Napoleonic rule but was sad to return to a France dominated by foreign armies. The sight of Russian Cossack troops on the streets of Paris proved depressing.
Despite her humanitarian work during the French Revolution, she was treated coldly by the nobility who had returned to France, as well as by the new monarch, Louis XVIII. They remembered that she had supported the Revolution, even if she had condemned its violence. She lived only two years following Napoleon's defeat. By coincidence, de Staël died in Paris on July 14, 1817--Bastille Day--the day commemorating one of the first events of the French Revolution.
Andrews, Wayne. Germaine: A Portrait of Madame de Staël. Atheneum, 1963.
Herold, J. C. Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Staël. Bobbs-Merrill, 1958.
de Staël-Holstein, Baroness Germaine. Ten Years' Exile. Centaur Press, 1968.
Stevens, Abel. Madame de Staël: A Study of Her life and Times. Harper and Brothers, 1881.
Forsberg, Roberta. Madame de Staël and the English. Astra Books, 1967.
de Pange, Victor, ed. The Unpublished Correspondence of Madame de Staël and the Duke of Wellington. Translated by Harold Kurtz. The Humanities Press, 1966.
West, Anthony. Mortal Wounds. McGraw-Hill, 1973.
"Staël, Madame de." Historic World Leaders. Gale, 1994. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 5 Jan. 2013.