Germaine de Staël made her reputation in at the end of the 18th century Europe as a writer whose charisma, wit and keen intelligence attracted politicians, philosophers, poets and artists. Her life spanned the Age of Enlightenment, French Revolution, Napoleon’s reign and the dawn of the Romantic era. She was a celebrated essayist, political agitator and novelist with a passion for theatre. Her politics so threatened Napoleon that he had her exiled from Paris.
The only child of the Swiss banker, Jacques Necker, and his Calvinist wife, Suzanne Curchod, Anne Louise Germaine Necker was born in Paris on April 22, 1766. Young Germaine spent her childhood in the company of her mother’s brilliant guests who included the Enlightenment philosopher and editor, Denis Diderot, and the British historian and Member of Parliament, Edward Gibbon. As a five year-old, Germaine was taken to meet Voltaire on his deathbed.
Germaine was – by the most generous accounts – plain. She was, however, a gifted and witty conversationalist whose quick mind and acute intellect made her a charismatic friend and seductive woman. Her writing was marked by a precocious intelligence and avid curiosity. Her first published essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written when she was 22 years old, established her as a voice to be reckoned with. She became an insightful social commentator and a passionate proponent of the need to educate the public in values of compassion and mutual assistance.
Germaine’s marriage to the Swedish diplomat Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein in 1786 was not a love match. Soon she had lovers – men of influence whom she attempted to infuse with her ideals of democratic monarchy and liberalism. Perhaps predictably, her impetuous nature and lifelong search to exert political influence through her husbands and lovers led her into a series of unhappy relationships. Most famous among them was her long-term and stormy affair with the Swiss political thinker and writer, Benjamin Constant.
Germaine survived the French Revolution by taking refuge in Switzerland. When peace was established, she returned to her beloved Paris and became an early and enthusiastic supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte. She believed him to have the power to enforce the ideals of the revolution – democracy and equality – but she was soon disenchanted.
Through her circles of intellectual and politically well-connected friends, she used her gifts of rhetoric and mockery against the self-styled Emperor to such effect that Napoleon famously declared he was afraid of her and had her banished from Paris.
Her exile to the family estate in Coppet caused her enormous distress. She bombarded Napoleon and his entourage with pleas for clemency so that she could return to the capital, even enlisting French Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, and Napoleon’s brother Joseph, but to no avail.
Her exile lasted ten years from 1804 to1814. During this period she wrote some of her most famous works including an influential book of essays on Germany that introduced that country’s thinkers and artists to France just as the German Romantic era was beginning to emerge. Her novel, Delphine, is considered to be the first Romantic style novel written in French.
While in exile in Coppet, Germaine was visited by famous friends and supporters including Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington. But it is her long-running dispute with Napoleon that marks her legacy. She was strong and articulate in her open opposition to his totalitarianism. She had believed him capable of transforming France into a progressive nation based on tolerance and moderation and reacted with vigour and hyperbole when her hopes were betrayed. Napoleon could not stand outspoken, literate women, especially women who were physically unattractive! He had the entire print run of 10,000 copies of her book on Germany destroyed and kept Germaine away from Paris until he was sent into his first exile on Elba.
2015 marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s final exile to the remote island of St. Helena where he was to spend the rest of his days under British guard. It is said he took a copy of Germaine de Staël’s novel, Corinne, with him in his personal library. A late life conversion? A refusal to let go of the long-simmering battle of wills? We will never know. But this passionate and brilliant woman had marked one of the strongest leaders of European history to the end of his life.
When Germaine at last met a man who seemed able to offer her the peace of mind she sought, she resisted his advances. Albert Jean Michel “John” Rocca was 21 years younger than she. She finally relented and they were married in secret in 1816. She died in Paris on July 14, 1817, predeceasing Rocca by six months.
Written for Sheroes of History by Kristine Greenaway
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