Germaine de Staël Essay - Critical Essays

Staël, Germaine de

Introduction

Although for many years her reputation rested largely on her critical works, de Staël has, since the 1970s, been viewed by feminist scholars as an important novelist. As a critic, de Staël is credited with inculcating the theories of Romanticism into French literary and political thought. Her belief that critical judgment is relative and based on a sense of history sharply altered the French literary attitudes of her time. In her De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800; A Treatise on Ancient and Modern Literature), she delineated the distinction between the classical literature of southern Europe and northern Europe's Romantic literature. Feminist scholars have focused on de Staël's depiction of the oppressive effects of patriarchal hegemony. De Staël's novels Corinne; ou, L'Italie (1807; Corinne; or, Italy) and Delphine (1802) in particular have been praised by feminist scholars as perceptive explorations of female subjugation.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

De Staël, born Anne Louise Germaine Necker in Paris on April 22, 1766, was the daughter of the French politician Jacques Necker, Louis XVI's minister of finance. Her literary interests were encouraged by her parents, and as a girl she was exposed to the intellectual salon that her mother hosted in her house, which included such notables as Edward Gibbon, Denis Diderot, and Friedrich Grimm. In 1786 de Staël married Baron de Staël-Holstein, the Swedish ambassador to Paris. Although initially sympathetic to the cause of the French Revolution, she turned away from its ideals. During the Revolution, her husband's political immunity enabled de Staël to remain in France and arrange the escape of numerous refugees. Ultimately, however, she was forced to flee to Switzerland in 1792. When she returned to France in 1797, she established her own salon as a center of progressive political and intellectual discussions. She separated amicably from her husband and became intimately associated with the French painter and author Benjamin Constant, and for the rest of her life she enjoyed a series of unconventional romantic attachments. In 1803 the publication of de Staël's Delphine angered Napoleon Bonaparte and resulted in her exile from Paris. She retired to her estate at Coppet on the Lake of Geneva, where she once again attracted a circle of well-known intellectuals. She fled France again in 1810 after Napoleon took issue with her historical-critical work De l'Allemagne (Germany; 1810) and criticized it as "un-French." She returned to Paris in 1813 and attempted to establish another literary salon, but she died within a few years.

MAJOR WORKS

De Staël became known as a theorist with the publication of Letters sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (1788; Letters on the Works and Character of J. J. Rousseau). Published just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, the book advocated liberal thinking and the ideas of the Enlightenment as antidotes to the then current political crisis. Upon her return to Paris, de Staël began what many critics consider to be the most brilliant segment of her career. She published several important political and literary essays, notably De l'influence des passions (1796; A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and Nations), a document of European Romanticism. By 1800, her political and literary concepts had become more defined, as evidenced in A Treatise on Ancient and Modern Literature. The book holds that a literary work must reflect the moral and historical reality, or Zeitgeist, of the country in which it is created. De Staël's other famous work of historical criticism, Germany, a study of the Sturm und Drang movement (a movement that dealt with the individual's revolt against society), introduced German Romanticism in France and inspired new modes of thought and expression. De Staël idealized Germany and saw its culture as a model for French intellectual development, a position that Napoleon found subversive and intolerable, and he ordered the work's proof sheets to be destroyed before exiling the author.

The novels Delphine and Corinne have been viewed by some critics as limited illustrations of de Staël's literary concepts. Corinne centers on a love affair between the Englishman Oswald, Lord Nelvil, and a beautiful Italian poetess, a woman of genius. It is also an homage to the landscape, literature and art of Italy. In the epistolary novel Delphine, a woman fights the social codes of France—in particular, codes regarding divorce and social disdain for older, unmarried women—in an attempt to gain individual freedom.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Contemporary critics of de Staël praised her as a powerful literary figure and a champion of liberal ideas. Her unconventional life and views about women garnered negative attention from conservative critics, but many acknowledged the importance of her literary theories and her role in awakening her native France to an interest in foreign literature. For more than a century de Staël's reputation rested solely on her critical and historical work, but feminist critics have revisited her novels as important works for their portrayal of female characters and their use of a distinctly female narrative voice. Scholars note in her novels depictions of the fallen woman, and an over-arching view of the challenges that talented, intellectual women faced. Her anonymously published 1793 essay on the trial of Marie Antoinette, Réflexions sur le procés de la Reine, par une Femme (Reflections on the Trial of a Queen, by a Woman), has also been of interest to feminist scholars because of its political attitudes and representation of the female self.

Principal Works

Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau [Letters on the Works and Character of J. J. Rousseau] (essays) 1788

Jane Grey, tragédie en cinq actes et en vers (verse drama) 1790

Réflexions sur le procés de la Reine, par une Femme [Reflections on the Trial of a Queen, by a Woman] (essay) 1793

De l'influence des passions [A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and Nations] (essays) 1796

De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales [A Treatise on Ancient and Modern Literature] (criticism) 1800; also published as The Influence of Literature upon Society 1813

Delphine (novel) 1802

Corinne; ou, L'Italie [Corinne; or, Italy] (novel) 1807

De l'Allemagne 3 vols. [Germany] (history and criticism) 1810

Considérations sur les principaux événemens de la Révolution française, [Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution] (criticism) 1818

Dix Années d'Exil [Ten Years' Exile] (memoirs) 1818

(The entire section is 156 words.)

Primary Sources

GERMAINE DE STAËL (ESSAY DATE 1810)

SOURCE: de Staël, Germaine. "Of the Women." In Germany, pp. 43-45. New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1859.

In the following excerpt from her nonfiction work Germany, originally published in 1810, de Staël offers an analysis of the character of the German woman, who she says is distinguished by her perfect loyalty.

Nature and society give to women a habit of endurance; and I think it can hardly be denied that, in our days, they are generally worthier of moral esteem than the men. At an epoch when selfishness is the prevailing evil, the men, to whom all positive interests are related, must necessarily have less generosity, less sensibility, than the women. These last are attached to life only by the ties of the heart; and even when they lose themselves, it is by sentiment that they are led away: their selfishness is extended to a double object, while that of man has himself only for its end. Homage is rendered to them according to the affections which they inspire; but those which they bestow are almost always sacrifices. The most beautiful of virtues, self-devotion, is their enjoyment and their destiny; no happiness can exist for them but by the reflection of another's glory and prosperity; in short, to live independently of self, whether by ideas or by sentiments, or, above all, by virtues, gives to the soul an habitual feeling of elevation.

In those countries where men are called upon by political institutions to the exercise of all the military and civil virtues which are inspired by patriotism, they recover the superiority which belongs to them; they reassume with dignity their rights, as masters of the world; but when they are condemned, in whatever measure, to idleness or to slavery, they fall so much the lower as they ought to rise more high. The destiny of women always remains the same; it is their soul alone which creates it; political circumstances have no influence upon it. When men are ignorant or unable to employ their lives worthily and nobly, Nature revenges herself upon them for the very gifts which they have received from her; the activity of the body contributes only to the sloth of the mind; the strength of soul degenerates into coarseness; the day is consumed in vulgar sports and exercises, horses, the chase, or entertainments which might be suitable enough in the way of relaxation, but brutalize as occupations. Women, the while, cultivate their understanding; and...

(The entire section is 1065 words.)

General Commentary

SOURCE: Moers, Ellen. "Mme de Staël and the Woman of Genius." The American Scholar 44, no. 2 (spring 1975): 225-41.

In the following essay, Moers maintains that Corinne is as much a guidebook to Italy as it is a guide to the woman of genius.

I am not used to Hope—It might intrude upon—Its sweet parade—blaspheme the place—Ordained to Suffering—
It might be easier To fail—with Land in Sight—Than gain—My Blue Peninsula—To perish—of Delight—
—EMILY DICKINSON

Of all the books that have had a special meaning for gifted women, Mme de...

(The entire section is 6280 words.)

Title Commentary

Reflections of the Trial of a Queen, by a Woman

LORI J. MARSO (ESSAY DATE SPRING 2002)

SOURCE: Marso, Lori J. "Defending the Queen: Wollstonecraft and Staël on the Politics of Sensibility and Feminine Difference." The Eighteenth Century 43, no. 1 (spring 2002): 43-60.

In the following excerpt, Marso analyzes de Staël's Reflections on the Trial of a Queen, by a Woman discussing how she negotiates the politics of sense and sensibility and uses a masculine model to offer a notion of the female self.

I shall therefore only speak of that verdict, analyzing the political, in telling what I have...

(The entire section is 5509 words.)

Corinne

ARMINE KOTIN MORTIMER (ESSAY DATE 1992)

SOURCE: Kotin Mortimer, Armine. "Male and Female Plots in Staël's Corinne. "In Studies in Literature, History, and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century France: Selected Proceedings of the Sixteenth Colloquium in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, edited by Keith Busby, pp. 149-56. Amsterdam: CIP-Gegevens Koninklijke, 1992.

In the following excerpt, Kotin Mortimer explores the male subjugation of the fallen woman in Corinne.

Through the fictive transcription of her artistic personality in the character of Corinne, Germaine de...

(The entire section is 3358 words.)