Baronne Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (née Necker) (April 22, 1766 – July 14, 1817) (stal), commonly known as Madame de Staël, was a French-speaking Swiss author living in Paris and abroad. She influenced literary tastes in Europe at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.
She was, however, a child of unusual intellectual power, and she began very early to write though not to publish. She is said to have injured her health by excessive study and intellectual excitement. But in reading all the accounts of Mme de Staël's life which come from herself or her intimate friends, it must be carefully remembered that she was the most distinguished and characteristic product of the period of sensibility - the singular fashion of ultra-sentimentalism - which required that both men and women, but especially women, should be always palpitating with excitement, steeped in melancholy, or dissolved in tears. Still, there is no doubt that her father's dismissal from the ministry and the consequent removal of the family from the busy life of Paris, were beneficial to her.
During part of the next few years they resided at Coppet, her father's estate on Lake Geneva, which she herself made famous. But other parts were spent in travelling about, chiefly in the south of France. They returned to Paris, or at least to its neighborhood, in 1785, and Mlle Necker resumed literary work of a miscellaneous kind, including a novel, Sophie, printed in 1786, and a tragedy, Jeanne Grey, published in 1790.
The husband was thirty-seven, the wife twenty. Mme de Staël was accused of extravagance, and latterly an amicable separation of goods had to be effected between the pair. But this was a mere legal formality, and on the whole the marriage seems to have met the views of both parties, neither of whom had any affection for the other. They had three children; there was no scandal between them; the baron obtained money and the lady obtained, as a guaranteed ambassadress of a foreign power of consideration, a much higher position at court and in society than she could have secured by marrying almost any Frenchman, without the inconveniences which might have been expected had she married a Frenchman superior to herself in rank. Mme de Staël was not a persona grata at court, but she seems to have played the part of ambassadress, as she played most parts, in a rather noisy and exaggerated manner, but not ill.
Her first child, a boy, was born the week before Necker finally left France in unpopularity and disgrace; and the increasing disturbances of the Revolution made her privileges as ambassadress very important safeguards. She visited Coppet once or twice, but for the most part in the early days of the revolutionary period she was in Paris taking an interest and, as she thought, a part in the councils and efforts of the Moderates. At last, the day before the September massacres (1792), she fled, befriended by Manuel and Tallien. Her own account of her escape is, as usual, so florid that it provokes the question whether she was really in any danger. Directly it does not seem that she was; but she had generously strained the privileges of the embassy to protect some threatened friends, and this was a serious matter.
In the summer she returned to Coppet and wrote a pamphlet on the queen's execution. The next year her mother died, and the fall of Robespierre opened the way back to Paris. Her husband (whose mission had been in abeyance and himself in Holland for three years) was accredited to the French republic by the regent of Sweden; his wife reopened her salon and for a time was conspicuous in the motley and eccentric society of the Directory. She also published several small works, the chief being an essay Sur l'influence des passions (1796), and another Sur la litérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800).
It was during these years that Mme de Staël was of chief political importance. Narbonne's place had been supplanted by Benjamin Constant, whom she first met at Coppet in 1794, and who had a very great influence over her, as in return she had over him. Both personal and political reasons threw her into opposition to Bonaparte. Her own preference for a moderate republic or a constitutional monarchy was quite sincere, and, even if it had not been so, her own character and Napoleon's were too much alike in some points to admit of their getting on together. For some years, however, she was able to alternate between Coppet and Paris without difficulty, though not without knowing that the First Consul disliked her. In 1797 she, as above mentioned, separated formally from her husband. In 1799 he was recalled by the king of Sweden, and in 1802 he died, duly attended by her. Besides the eldest son Auguste Louis, they had two other children - a son Albert, and a daughter Albertine, who afterwards became the Duchesse de Broglie.
The whole question of this duel, however, requires consideration from the point of view of common sense. It displeased Napoleon no doubt that Mme de Staël should show herself recalcitrant to his influence. But it probably pleased Mme de Staël to quite an equal degree that Napoleon should apparently put forth his power to crush her and fail. Both personages had a curious touch of charlatanerie. If Mme de Staël had really desired to take up her parable against Napoleon seriously, she need only have established herself in England at the peace of Amiens. But she lingered on at Coppet, constantly yearning after Paris, and acknowledging the desire quite honestly.
In 1802 she published the first of her really noteworthy books, the novel Delphine, in which the femme incomprise was in a manner introduced to French literature, and in which she herself and not a few of her intimates appeared in transparent disguise. In the autumn of 1803 she returned to Paris. Whether, if she had not displayed such extraordinary anxiety not to be exiled, Napoleon would have exiled her remains a question; but, as she began at once appealing to all sorts of persons to protect her, he seems to have thought it better that she should not be protected. She was directed not to reside within forty leagues of Paris, and after considerable delay she determined to go to Germany.
She returned to Coppet, and found herself its wealthy and independent mistress, but her sorrow for her father was deep and certainly sincere. She spent the summer at the chateau with a brilliant company; in the autumn she journeyed to Italy accompanied by Schlegel and Sismondi, and there gathered the materials of her most famous work, Corinne , whose main protagonist was inspired by the Italian poet Diodata Saluzzo Roero.
She returned in the summer of 1805, and spent nearly a year in writing Corinne; in 1806 she broke the decree of exile and lived for a time undisturbed near Paris. In 1807 Corinne, the first aesthetic romance not written in German, appeared. It is in fact, what it was described as being at the time of its appearance, a picaresque tour couched in the form of a novel. "Tout comprendre rend très-indulgent", commonly translated as "To know all is to forgive all", is found in Corinne, Book 18, chapter 5.
The publication was taken as a reminder of her existence, and the police of the empire sent her back to Coppet. She stayed there as usual for the summer, and then set out once more for Germany, visiting Mayence, Frankfort, Berlin and Vienna. She was again at Coppet in the summer of 1808 (in which year Constant broke with her, subsequently marrying Charlotte von Hardenberg) and set to work at her book, De l'Allemagne. It took her nearly the whole of the next two years, during which she did not travel much or far from her own house.
She had bought property in America and thought of moving there, but she was determined to publish De l'Allemagne in Paris. Straining under French censorship, she wrote to the emperor a provoking and perhaps undignified letter. Napoleon’s mean spirited reply to her letter was the condemnation of the whole edition of her book (ten thousand copies) as not French, and her own exile from the country.
She retired once more to Coppet, where she was not at first interfered with, and she found consolation in a young officer of Swiss origin named Rocca, twenty three years her junior, whom she married privately in 1811. The intimacy of their relations could escape no one at Coppet, but the fact of the marriage (which seems to have been happy enough) was not certainly known till after her death.
She journeyed slowly through Russia and Finland to Sweden, making some stay at St Petersburg, spent the winter in Stockholm, and then set out for England. Here she received a brilliant reception and was much lionized during the season of 1813. She published De l'Allemagne in the autumn, was saddened by the death of her second son Albert, who had entered the Swedish army and fell in a duel brought on by gambling, undertook her Considerations sur la revolution francaise, and when Louis XVIII had been restored returned to Paris.
Her daughter married Duke Victor de Broglie on 20 February 1816, at Pisa, and became the wife and mother of French statesmen of distinction. The whole family returned to Coppet in June, and Lord Byron now frequently visited Mme de Staël there. Despite her increasing ill-health she returned to Paris for the winter of 1816-1817, and her salon was much frequented. But she had already become confined to her room if not to her bed. She died on July 14, and Rocca survived her little more than six months.
Mme de Staël occupies a singular position in French literature. The men of her own time exalted her to the skies and the most extravagant estimates of her (as the greatest woman in literary history, as the foundress of the romantic movement, as representing ideas, while her contemporary Chateaubriand only represented words, colours, and images and so forth) are to be found in minor histories of literature. On the other hand, it is acknowledged that she was soon very little read. No other writer of such eminence is so rarely quoted; none is so entirely destitute of the tribute of new and splendid editions.
Nor, when the life and works are examined is the neglect without excuse. Her books are seen to be in large part merely clever reflections of other peoples' views or views current at the time. The sentimentality of her sentiment and the florid magniloquence of her style equally disgust the reader. But to state this alone would be in the highest degree unfair. Mme de Staël's faults are great; her style is of an age, not for all time; her ideas are mostly second-hand and frequently superficial.
But nothing save a very great talent could have shown itself so receptive. Take away her assiduous frequentation of society, from the later philosophe coteries to the age of Byron, take away the influence of Constant and Schlegel and her other literary friends - and probably little of her will remain. But to have caught from all sides in this manner the floating notions of society and of individuals, to reflect them with such vigour and clearness, is not anybody's task. Her two best books, Corinne and De l'Allemagne, are in all probability almost wholly unoriginal, a little sentiment in the first and a little constitutionalism in the second being all that she can claim. But Corinne is still a very remarkable exposition of a certain kind of aestheticism, while De l'Allemagne is still perhaps the most remarkable account of one country, by a native and inhabitant of another, which exists in literature.