de Staël-Holstein, Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne
Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne de Staël-Holstein 1766-1817
French critic, novelist, historian, and playwright. The following entry presents recent criticism of de Staël. For further discussion of de Staël's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 3.
Madame de Staël is credited with infusing 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 French literary attitudes of her time. In her De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800; The Influence of Literature upon Society), de Staël delineated the distinction between the classical literature of southern Europe, and northern Europe's Romantic literature. Though her fiction, including the novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne; ou, L’Italie (1807; Corinne; or, Italy), has attracted the attention of modern scholars, it is generally considered to be secondary to her historical and critical works, which influenced a generation of writers.
The daughter of Louis XVI's minister of finance, de Staël was raised in Paris. Her intellectual interests were encouraged by her parents, whose literary salon included such notables as Edward Gibbon, Denis Diderot, and Friedrich Grimm. She was married in 1786 to the Swedish ambassador in Paris, Eric de Staël-Holstein. Though de Staël had begun to write at fifteen, it was not until she published Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (1788; Letters on the Works and Character of J. J. Rousseau) that she became known as a theorist. Published just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, the book advocated liberal thinking and the ideas of the Enlightenment as antidotes to the growing political crisis. During the revolution, her husband's political immunity enabled de Staël to remain in France and arrange for the escape of numerous refugees. Ultimately, however, she was forced to flee to Switzerland. Upon her return to Paris in 1797, 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 sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (1796; A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and Nations). During this time she met the French painter and author Benjamin Constant, who became one of her lovers and exposed de Staël to the German philosophy that influenced this and other works. Outspoken in politics, de Staël provoked the ire of Napoleon, who viewed her as a personal enemy; when she formed a liberal opposition to his political aims, he banished her to Switzerland in 1803. During this time she established a well-known coterie of writers and intellectuals at Coppet, wrote two novels, and produced De l’Allemagne (1810; Germany). Napoleon found De l’Allemagne subversive, and ordered its proof sheets to be destroyed. By 1812, finding that she was no longer safe in Switzerland, de Staël fled across Europe, eventually retreating to England. Napoleon's abdication in March of 1813 allowed her to return home; she spent the remainder of her life in Paris and Coppet.
Among De Staël's earliest mature works are several dramas, notably Jane Grey, tragédie en cinq actes et en vers (1790) concerning the Englishwoman who chose death rather than recant her beliefs. The essays of Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau attest to the profound influence of Rousseau's writing and thought on de Staël, and contain analyses of his novels and political works, as well as an assessment of his life. De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations considers such topics as passionate love, ambition, vanity, friendship, and religion. In Essai sur les fictions (1795), de Staël champions the novel as a legitimate literary genre. This work also suggests some of the ideas de Staël was to explore more fully in The Influence of Literature upon Society, which states that a literary work must reflect the moral and historical reality, the Zeitgeist, of the country in which it is created. The epistolary novel Delphine follows an intricate plot as it confronts the multitude of social problems faced by women in the early nineteenth century. Part travelogue and part romantic novel Corinne features the ill-fated affair of its heroine Corinne, a poet of genius, and Oswald, a young Englishman traveling through Italy. De l’Allemagne offers a study of the Sturm und Drang movement and a discussion of German Idealism, particularly the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Dix années d’exil (1818; Ten Years' Exile) is de Staël's memoir of the years 1803 to 1813.
An influential literary and political figure in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, de Staël has been associated with the hegemony of Romantic thought during this period. Critics have noted that the clarity and objectivity of de Staël's literary theories greatly influenced writers to follow, notably Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve and Victor Hugo. Commentators have also acknowledged that she awakened an interest in foreign literature in France and sought to transform the aging spirit of classicism into the new currents of Romanticism. Additionally, she has been viewed as an early and outstanding proponent of feminism. Thus, while scholars have tended to privilege de Staël's criticism over her fictional works, contemporary interest in the novels Delphine and Corinne as significant feminist texts has remained strong.
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
*Recueil de morceaux détachés (essays and novels) 1795
De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations [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, also published as The Influence of Literature upon Society] (criticism) 1800
Delphine [Delphine] (novel) 1802
Corinne; ou, L’Italie [Corinne; or, Italy] (novel) 1807
De l’Allemagne. 3 vols. [Germany] (history and criticism) 1810
Réflexions sur le suicide (essay) 1813
Considérations sur les principaux événements française. 3 vols. (criticism) 1818
Dix années d’exil [Ten Years' Exile; or, Memoirs of That Interesting Period of the Life of the Baroness the Staël Holstein, Written by Herself] (memoirs) 1818
Oeuvres complètes de Mme la Baronne de Staël. 17 vols....
(The entire section is 240 words.)
SOURCE: “Portraits: A Feminist Appraisal of Mme de Staël's Delphine,” in Atlantis, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall, 1981, pp. 65-76.
[In the following essay, Swallow assesses Delphine as it depicts “the oppressive effects of patriarchal hegemony.”]
Madame de Staël has suffered from superficial and fallacious criticism disposed to dismiss her novels as clumsy, dated romans à clef. Certainly there are weaknesses in Staël's writing—she is, for example, annoyingly prone to prolixity and repetition—but her contribution as a writer of fiction has been unduly minimized, especially by critics prepared to see no more in Staëlien theme and characterization than hysterical retaliation and posturing self-pity. Approached thus, her two major works of fiction, Delphine and Corinne, become mere outbursts of self-dramatization, their many characters reduced to vindictive portrayals of resented relatives and out-of-favour lovers.1 And such criticism assumes that, the novels' sensational value having inevitably declined, Delphine and Corinne lack both merit and interest and may, with justification, be relegated to fictional limbo.
In spite of such dismissal, Mme de Staël's heroines have maintained a curiosity value as contemporaries of melancholy loners like Oberman and René.2 And in recent years there has been renewed interest in...
(The entire section is 6859 words.)
SOURCE: “Forging a Vocation: Germaine de Staël on Fiction, Power, and Passion,” in Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, Vol. 86, No. 3, 1983-1985, pp. 242-54.
[In the following essay, Gutwirth analyzes de Staël's views on love, passion, and ambition as expressed in De l’influence des passions.]
Quelle époque ai-je choisie pour faire un traité sur le bonheur des individus et des nations! (What an age I have chosen to write a treatise on the happiness of individuals and nations!)
—Staël De l’influence des passions … Introduction
“Marat,” wrote Germaine de Staël in her account of the French Revolution, “was using his newspaper day after day [in the summer of 1792] to threaten the royal family and its defenders with the most atrocious of tortures. Never had one witnessed a human tongue so denatured; the roaring of wild beasts could have been translated into the language he used.”1
Daughter of Jacques Necker, the ill-starred last pre-revolutionary prime minister of Louis XVI, Germaine Necker had made her entry into society both at Versailles—under the sway of courtly manners and traditions—and at home in the salon of her mother Suzanne Necker—under the aegis of the Enlightenment's radical if sometimes archly ornamented interrogation of those traditions. Her eager...
(The entire section is 5840 words.)
SOURCE: “History and Story,” in The Literary Existence of Germaine de Staël, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, pp. 71-93.
[In the following excerpt, Hogsett examines de Staël's attempts to insert feminine ways of narration into a masculine-oriented history and literature in De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales and Delphine.]
Staël published nothing between Passions in 1796 and On Literature in 1800. Simone Balayé speculates that between 1796 and late 1798, when she began the writing of On Literature, she was perhaps working on the second part of the Passions.1 That does indeed seem likely, especially in the light of her failure to complete “On Current Circumstances …” whose subject matter was closely related to the Passions project. Realizing the impossibility of doing that piece of work, she began to cast about for a potentially more successful project. Her search seems to have taken two forms. In the first place, she apparently decided that part of her problem was the subject matter she had proposed for herself in the Passions, namely, the science of government. Our examination of reasons why government did not energize her writing, a fact all the more odd given her intense interest in it, suggested that Staël felt, in spite of herself, that it was not a topic a woman writer...
(The entire section is 10244 words.)
SOURCE: “Tragedy, Sisterhood, and Revenge in Corinne,” in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 212-32.
[In the following essay, Heller evaluates the impact of de Staël's feminist narrative in Corinne on twentieth century readers.]
The publication of Avriel H. Goldberger's new translation of Germaine de Staël's Corinne ou l’Italie makes accessible to an American readership the novel that Ellen Moers, in her early pioneering study of women's literature, called “the book of the woman of genius” and whose “enormous influence on literary women” she traced throughout the nineteenth century (173, 174). Coinciding with a burgeoning interest in women's studies, Goldberger's translation comes at an opportune time. Thirty years ago, Staël's American biographer was content to write off her novels as period pieces; comparing Staël unfavorably to her contemporary, Jane Austen, J. Christopher Herold observed that while the problems of Austen's characters “are of the commonplace or eternally human variety … the problems of Germaine's characters are those of her age and place.” However questionable this distinction, it led him to an undeniable truth, which he presented as right and just: “Jane is still read, and Germaine is not” (232). The contemporary American Staël scholar, Madelyn Gutwirth, takes a...
(The entire section is 8521 words.)
SOURCE: “Communication and Power in Germaine de Staël: Transparency and Obstacle,” in Germaine de Staël: Crossing the Borders, edited by Madelyn Gutwirth, Avriel Goldberger, and Karyna Szmurlo, Rutgers University Press, 1991, pp. 55-68.
[In the following essay, Bowman considers the problem of communication in de Staël's writing.]
One of the results of absolute power which most contributed to Napoleon's downfall was that, bit by bit, no one dared any longer tell him the truth about anything. He ended up unaware that winter arrived in Moscow in November because none of his courtiers was Roman enough to tell him something even that simple.1
Because of this remark, and many others like it, I shall try to present here an overall view of a major problem in Staël's writing, which she never analyzes in a systematic way, but where her thought is very rich: how communication is impeded or interrupted by silence, lying, hypocrisy, the debasement of language.2 We tend, incorrectly, to associate the problematics of language and communication solely with the crisis of modernity; they were also of great concern for the Groupe de Coppet. The problem is linguistic, but also moral and political, and Staël discusses it in all her various sorts of writing. My goal is in part to demonstrate the homogeneity of her thought as novelist, critic,...
(The entire section is 5373 words.)
SOURCE: “Corinne: The Third Woman,” in L’Esprit Créateur, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 99-106.
[In the following essay, Schor examines the relationship between death and femininity in Corinne.]
On eût dit que dans ces lieux, comme dans la tragédie de Hamlet, les ombres erraient autour du palais où se donnaient les festins.
Madame de Staël, Corinne ou l’Italie
In March, 1992, while on leave in Paris, I prepared a synopsis of a paper on death in Staël's Corinne that I proposed to give at the annual fall meeting of Nineteenth-Century French Studies. A month later I was being operated on at the Hôpital Saint-Antoine for a life-threatening liver failure.
Little did I realize at the time that I was entering a new stage in my life, a stage of serial illnesses from which I have yet to emerge. Consequently, what I viewed with apt modesty as a “small” paper has come to seem to me despite its restricted dimensions a strangely prophetic project insistently calling into question the very relationship of the mind and body I had spent a lifetime repressing. Did I feel the need to write about death because I was in fact and unbeknownst to me silently dying? And when did that dying begin, when I sat at my word processor before my illness declared itself in full-blown visible,...
(The entire section is 3252 words.)
SOURCE: “Forays into Fiction: Delphine,” in Germaine de Staël Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 64-76.
[In the following excerpt, Besser surveys the story, theme, and critical reception of Delphine.]
Staël's two principal novels were to earn her spectacular success. Her first full-length work of fiction, and her only experiment with the epistolary form,1 was the hugely popular Delphine. Recapitulating themes touched on in her short stories, Delphine has a well-developed if convoluted plot, presents a number of sharply defined characters, exemplifies social criticism at its most daring, and marks Staël's emergence as a best-selling writer. The book's conception dates from April 1800. Staël began writing that summer, as she apprised Adélaïde de Pastoret on 9 June 1800: “I am writing a novel … and preparing for a literary career. Contrary to the usual sequence, I started with generalities and have now embarked on a work of the imagination. We shall see what happens.” (Solovieff, 176). By September, she informed Pastoret that she was focusing on women's condition: “I am continuing my novel, which has become the story of women's destiny presented under various guises” (181).
Delphine appeared in December 1802. By the following May, it was in its fourth edition; two translations had come out in London and three in...
(The entire section is 6297 words.)
SOURCE: “Staël, Translation, and Race,” in Translating Slavery: Gender and Race in French Women's Writing, 1783-1823, edited by Doris Y. Kadish and Françoise Massardier-Kenney, Kent State University Press, 1994, pp. 135-45.
[In the following essay, Massardier-Kenney investigates de Staël's critique of cultural values in her work, particularly in the antislavery sentiment of Mirza.]
Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) is the only major woman author of the nineteenth century, with the exception of George Sand, who has managed to break through the silence in literary history surrounding women's writing during that time. Still, until recently her reputation has rested mostly on having introduced German Romanticism in France in De l’Allemagne (1810), on her opposition to Napoleon, and on her affair with Benjamin Constant, which he fictionalized in Adolphe. Her works have been hard to find and her major pieces had not been available in current re-editions. The last two decades have seen a flurry of revisionist studies, of critical editions and translations,1 which bear witness to the considerable interest that Staël's oeuvre holds for anyone interested in nineteenth-century intellectual movements and literature. Yet, her important connection to race and to translation has been ignored, except for Avriel Goldberger's pioneering article on the translation of...
(The entire section is 5655 words.)
SOURCE: “Speech in Action: Language, Society, and Subject in Germaine de Staël's Corinne,” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 7, No. 4, July, 1995, pp. 393-408.
[In the following essay, Birkett discusses the dynamics of subjective and collective narrative voice within the feminist text of Corinne.]
A central preoccupation in Germaine de Staël's Corinne, ou l’Italie (1807),1 and one which is returning to contemporary agendas with a political urgency equal to that of its feminist theme, is the problematic of the relation between the individual subject and the social and political community. In his influential collection of lectures, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985),2 Jürgen Habermas has renewed the debate with two fresh contributions: his concept of the “communication community,” and his meditations on modernity's consciousness of time. In this essay, I use Habermas's insights to illuminate the modernity of Corinne, and in particular to explore the mechanics and the meaning of the heroine's improvisation exercises, which, I argue, are simultaneously improvisations of self and improvisations of society. At the same time, I want to maintain a feminist perspective (not one of Habermas's preoccupations) with a consideration of Staël's emphasis on the distinctive role of the ideal feminine voice in the improvisatory process. The...
(The entire section is 6321 words.)
SOURCE: “Exile and Narrative Voice in Corinne,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 24, 1995, pp. 91-105.
[In the following essay, Coleman contends that the influential narrative voice of Corinne is traceable “to Staël's own experience with exile and other political expressions.”]
Exile was a decisive experience for Germaine de Staël, shaping not only the course of her life but the character of her work as well. If women's fame, in Staël's phrase, can be defined as “le deuil éclatant du bonheur,”1 her own reluctant career, out of which emerged such works as Corinne and De l’Allemagne, provides the most striking example of this intimate yet painful connection between separation and success. For in Staël's most important books the physical distancing of exile and the psychological separation of mourning combine to produce new connections between political, moral, and literary thought. In her masterpieces about Italy and Germany, geographical breadth goes hand in hand with a concern for the inner spirit of persons and nations. I want to suggest that Staël's response to exile may also help us understand her experiments with narrative voice. Corinne is in fact the first modern French novel to use an external narrator in what may be called the realist manner, anticipating in many respects the method of her nineteenth-century...
(The entire section is 7404 words.)
SOURCE: “The Painful Birth of the Romantic Heroine: Staël as Political Animal, 1786-1818,” in Romanic Review, Vol. 87, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 59-66.
[In the following essay, Isbell argues that de Staël chose to produce literary art in response to her exclusion from politics as a woman.]
1. On a raison d’exclure les femmes des affaires politiques et civilies. Staël, 1810.
2. Depuis la Révolution, les hommes ont pensé qu’il était politiquement et moralement utile de réduire les femmes à la plus absurde médiocrité. Staël, 18001.
One author, two verdicts. What is going on? This paper argues that Staël chose art only when banned by men from politics, under Napoleon in particular. The “Romantic heroine” her life and works handed to posterity was a fallback position, used by a woman exiled from the Revolutionary stage. Staël's complete works make this clear, splitting into four periods.
1. ANCIEN RéGIME.
Born in 1766, Staël is writing short moral comedies by the age of twelve—Les Inconvénients de la vie de Paris. In 1786, she marries and turns twenty, and her output now slowly pushes the envelope of discourse expected by society of a very young salonnière: outlines of novels; portraits and...
(The entire section is 4480 words.)
SOURCE: “An Early Dissident: Madame de Staël,” in The New Criterion, Vol. 16, No. 9, May, 1998, pp. 17-22.
[In the following essay, Winegarten probes the results of de Staël's exile from France during the Napoleonic regime.]
There is a world elsewhere.
—Coriolanus Act III, scene iii
Exile is a terrible fate, a source of bitterness and grief since the time of the ancient Hebrews as they sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept. In our own tormented era, a great many people have felt what it means to be forcibly cut off, perhaps forever, from their treasured familiar culture. On this theme, Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Mme. de Staël (1766-1817), the great forerunner of the modern literary and political dissidents, still has much of value to communicate. For a woman as highly strung and imaginative as she was, exile figured as grimly as death itself—and she was by no means the first to think in that way. She often remembered that, nearly a hundred years earlier, the statesman and writer Viscount Bolingbroke had associated exile and death. Her thoughts also turned to the Roman poet Ovid sent into exile by the Emperor Augustus and left to bemoan his fate among the Scythians on the shores of the Black Sea, where he died.
Tradition has it that Ovid was exiled for a poem that gave offense as well...
(The entire section is 3936 words.)
Borowitz, Helen O. “The Unconfessed Précieuse: Madame de Staël's Debt to Mademoiselle de Scudéry.” In Nineteenth-Century French Studies 11, Nos. 1 & 2 (Fall-Winter 1982-83): 32-59.
Explores de Staël's use of Mlle de Scudéry's literary self-portrait as a model for her fictional heroine Corinne.
Bruschini, Enrico and Alba Amoia. “Rome's Monuments and Artistic Treasures in Mme de Staël's Corinne (1807): Then and Now.” In Nineteenth-Century French Studies 22, Nos. 3 & 4 (Spring-Summer 1994): 311-47.
Considers Corinne as a “novel-cum-guidebook” to Italian travel.
DeJean, Joan. “Staël's Corinne: The Novel's Other Dilemma.” In Stanford French Review XI (Spring 1987): 77-87.
Examines de Staël's adoption of the patriarchal third-person perspective and rejection of the first-person, conversational form in Corinne.
Deneys-Tunney, Anne. “Corinne by Madame de Staël: The Utopia of Feminine Voice as Music within the Novel.” In Dalhousie French Studies 28 (Fall 1994): 55-63.
Discusses the crisis of the feminine voice portrayed in Corinne.
Goldberger, Avriel H. “Introduction.” In Corinne, or Italy, by Madame de Staël, translated and edited by Avriel H....
(The entire section is 544 words.)