Madame de Staël
Article abstract: Madame de Staël publicly articulated the liberal, rational opposition to the injustices and corruption of the French government during the Revolution and under Napoleon I. Her social and literary criticism, as well as her colorful personal life, placed her in the vanguard of the Romantic movement, and her two major novels constitute early treatments of the concerns of women.
Madame de Staël was born Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker in Paris on April 22, 1766, the only child of Suzanne Curchod Necker, the beautiful and highly educated daughter of a Swiss clergyman, and the Genevese financier Jacques Necker, who was to achieve fame as minister to Louis XVI. Despite her learning, Madame Necker was considered a rather narrow woman by the urbane Parisians, and her relations with her daughter were always rigid and distant. Though not without critics of his own, the stodgy Jacques Necker was widely esteemed as a man of public and private virtue. Germaine’s natural love for her father was intensified by her childhood awareness of the public acclaim he enjoyed. As an adult, Germaine’s consciousness of her place in the prominent Necker family helped to form her notions of social criticism and political activism and her sense of personal destiny.
A precocious child, Germaine was educated at home in imagined accordance with Émile: Ou, De l’éducation (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, A New System of Education, 1762-1763), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s radical exposition on childhood education. Madame Necker stalwartly maintained one of the literary salons for which Paris was celebrated during the eighteenth century, and Germaine grew up on familiar terms with such people as Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Comte de Buffon, and Abbé Raynal. In this rarefied environment, she absorbed the liberal politics and morals of the Enlightenment.
On January 14, 1786, after years of negotiation, Germaine Necker married a Swedish aristocrat, Eric Magnus, Baron de Staël-Holstein, a favorite of Gustav III and—in accordance with the marriage negotiations—Swedish ambassador to the French court. De Staël may have felt some affection for Germaine (and some, certainly, for her dowry of 650,000 pounds), but she apparently felt none for him, and their first child, Edwige-Gustavine, was probably the only one of their four children actually fathered by de Staël. More important, however, Germaine gained a measure of social and economic independence from the marriage. In the embassy residence in Paris, she established a salon of her own, which soon became the gathering place for such liberal members of the aristocracy as Mathieu de Montmorency, Talleyrand, and Louis, Vicomte de Narbonne Lara. In the early days of her marriage, she used her husband’s court connections to try to advance the position of her father, and she took advantage of de Staël’s frequent absences to lead the relatively independent life that was possible for women of her station in eighteenth century Paris.
Madame de Staël’s residence at the Swedish embassy in Paris was one of the more attractive features of her marriage agreement, for Jacques Necker had been dismissed by Louis XVI in 1781 and had moved his family to Saint-Ouen, where Germaine had sorely missed the intellectual life of Paris. Necker was recalled by Louis XVI in 1788, and was then dismissed and recalled once again at the fall of the Bastille. He continued at his post through the march on Versailles in September, 1789, and the massive nationalization effected by the Assembly under Comte de Mirabeau. Necker finally resigned in September, 1790, and repaired to the family estate of Coppet, near Geneva.
During her father’s interrupted tenure at court, Germaine attempted to elicit support among her influential friends of the liberal aristocracy for a constitution and a bicameral government, as a compromise between the continued abuses of the Bourbon dynasty and the inevitable triumph of the Third Estate. On August 31, 1790, she gave birth to a son, Auguste, fathered by Narbonne, with whom she had been involved for about a year and a half. Determined that Narbonne should be the leader of the new government, Madame de Staël became further embroiled in intrigues at court until Narbonne was appointed war minister at the request of Marie Antoinette; he was dismissed, however, in March, 1792. At about the same time, de Staël was recalled to Sweden when Louis and Marie Antoinette were arrested attempting to escape Paris in a maneuver arranged by Gustav III. Gustav was assassinated in March, 1792, however, and de Staël returned to Paris, where Madame de Staël continued to encourage the constitutionalists and agitated for the restoration of Narbonne. She finally fled Paris for Coppet the day before the September massacres began in 1793.
Madame de Staël’s relationship with Narbonne—which followed a similar liaison with Talleyrand and coincided with a profound friendship with Montmorency—was characteristic of her lifelong attraction to the heroes of her political and intellectual causes. Much of her own appeal resided in her power as a fascinating conversationalist, and even those who were prepared to be intimidated by her were often won over by her exuberance and lack of pretension. Possessing none of her mother’s conventional beauty, she was nevertheless a woman of imposing physical appearance. Her wide, luminous eyes were considered her most attractive feature. A woman of Junoesque proportions, Madame de Staël continued to dress in the revealing diaphanous fabrics...
(The entire section is 2313 words.)