Madame de Staël Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.