Few people have had a better viewpoint during a period of violence than Anne Louise Germaine Necker during the French Revolution. The daughter of the financier and statesman, Jacques Necker, and the wife of the Swedish Ambassador Baron Eric Magnus Staël von Holstein, she observed her father’s efforts to save France from the financial crisis he saw coming to overturn his country. She also watched the early phases of the Revolution, the storming of the Bastille, and the cruelty practiced against French nobility in the name of liberty. Only because of her ambassadorial status did she escape with her life from the Reign of Terror.
Later she clashed with Napoleon. Exiled by him from France, she barely escaped from his army marching on Moscow. She witnessed his triumphs and his abdications. Writing about it all, she put into her account of these historical events the wit and charm that made her a leading conversationalist of her day.
Swarthy of complexion, with thick lips and a prominent nose, noteworthy for her bad taste in clothes, and—judged by her portrait by the artist Francois Gerard—dumpy and anything but pretty, Madame de Staël held a position at the center of the European stage, at the summit of the political and intellectual elite. She was visited by Schlegel, Schiller, Byron, and Wellington. She had children by four men, only one of them her husband, and affairs with another half dozen of the important men of her time.
Besides a few frothy novels, and essays on phases of French literature, Madame de Staël was the author of GERMANY, which introduced German Romanticism into French culture, and of the autobiographical CONSIDERATIONS ON THE PRINCIPAL EVENTS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, published posthumously. It was the Bible of French liberals during the Restoration.
Toward the end of her life, saddened by the death of her second son, Albert, the sickly Germaine Necker, Madame de Staël, began a patriotic essay to refute the idea that Louis XVI and the French regime overthrown by the Revolution were truly representative of French traditions. To her, the Revolution culminated a long struggle for liberty by the real France, the bourgeoisie or Third Estate, against the nobility and the clergy. Though held in check by centuries of oppression, the bourgeoisie had remained true to its traditional ideals. Madame de Staël takes pains to separate her defense of liberty from any apology for atrocities committed in liberty’s name.
Though she admits at the beginning of her book that she has lived through what she considers one of the great eras of French history and has played her part in it, Madame de Staël announces her determination to regard it as some period of ancient history about which she can write with impartiality. Except for an occasional outburst of emotion, she does indeed display indignation without hatred, and wrath without resentment.
Germaine Necker was the daughter of a wealthy, famous man, and was reared by a mother who followed the precepts of Rousseau’s EMILE. Having learned life through literature, the daughter, though acclaimed as an intelligent woman and a witty conversationalist, possessed little solid learning. But she, who could declare that the pursuit of politics was religion, morality, and poetry, all in one, was a keen observer and had abundant opportunity to learn.
Embarked on her theme of liberty, she begins her book with the statement that Greece and Rome fell because, despite the blessings of a free society for some, they enslaved the many. She comments on the backward state of most of Asia, the result of despotic control. The serfs of more recent civilizations represent a condition nearly as degraded. She considers their emancipation a necessary step in the world’s climb to civilization.
To the author, an absolutist government is the worst political form, while a system that maintains an aristocracy is almost as intolerable in the eyes of the lower classes. To make her point, she reviews France’s history during the eight centuries prior to the Revolution. At least every quarter century, some sort of social clash occurred: peasants against nobles, nobles against sovereigns, Protestants against Catholics, or Parliament against the Court, each struggle arising from resentment against arbitrary assumption of power.
Those who praise the beautiful edifices of Louis XIV, she remarks, forget that the despots of Egypt could erect even more spectacular structures, like the pyramids of Memphis, because of their supply of slave labor. Of the great writers of the Age of Louis XIV,...
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