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Liberal Among the Revolutionaries

Hugh Gough

Germaine de Staël. A Political Portrait, by Biancamaria Fontana, Princeton University Press, 298 pp, $35, ISBN: 978-0691169040

Madame de Staël has attracted the attention of historians and biographers alike, not only because of her flamboyant lifestyle and unwavering sense of self importance but also because of her sheer energy and impressive literary output. Her life had all the characteristics of a romantic novel, launched as she was into the privileged world of Parisian salons before revelling in the turmoil of the French Revolution, spending years of exile in the family château near Geneva, and travelling through central and eastern Europe before finally returning to France in the early years of the Bourbon restoration. Her interests straddled the Enlightenment and early Romanticism and she was one of the few French-language authors of the late eighteenth century to immerse herself in both German and Italian culture. She met Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, was a close friend of the philosopher and founder of the University of Berlin Wilhem von Humboldt, and had her children educated by the romanticist and orientalist Auguste Wilhelm von Schlegel. Her novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807) have enjoyed lasting success and De l’Allemagne, published between 1810 and 1813, was a highly original analysis of the literature, history and philosophy of a culture that her nemesis, Napoleon Bonaparte, briefly dominated but never understood.

She was a lady born into wealth and privilege, and now has a society dedicated to her memory which publishes her complete works, encourages research and hosts annual meetings in the château in Coppet which has been the home of the Necker family since the eighteenth century. Her political ideas are less well known than her novels but she was an intelligent and reflective commentator on the twists and turns of events in France until Napoleon finally sent her into exile. A political liberal, she favoured representative government, based on a property franchise and the basic freedoms of thought, religion and open debate. Yet throughout the 1790s she grappled with the problem of how to achieve those aims at a time of bitter social and political conflict. She was not alone in this, but her personal contribution to the debate lay in her exploration of the role played by popular emotions, social change and public opinion in shaping the new political world.

Anne Louise Germaine Necker (her family name before marriage) was born in 1766, the only child of Jacques Necker, a wealthy Swiss banker, and Suzanne Curchod, a pastor’s daughter from a village near Lausanne. The couple moved to France a year after her birth, when Necker was appointed resident for the city of Geneva. He went on to become Louis XVI’s finance minister in the mid-1770s, then again in the summer of 1788 when the monarchy was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. He was never popular at court, as a Protestant, a foreigner and a reformer: Louis XVI respected but disliked him, Marie Antoinette loathed him, and he was briefly exiled in July 1789 when the king was mobilising a pre-emptive strike against the National Assembly. He was recalled after the Bastille fell, but his initial cult status as a friend of the people was quickly eroded by hypocritical attacks from Mirabeau and by his failure to accommodate to the new politics created in 1789. He soon became yesterday’s man, resigned in 1790 and retired back to his Swiss property in Coppet.

Her father’s political career was an important formative influence on the young Germaine and she remained devoted to him – as frustrated by his conservatism as he was by her lifestyle – until his death in 1804. But her mother was influential too, making sure that, as a child, she learnt dancing, diction, music, Latin and English, and regularly went to the theatre. From a young age she attended her mother’s salon, which was attended by many of the leading philosophes of the 1780s and recovered from what seems to have been a nervous breakdown in her early teens to become a bright, self confident and forceful woman. In 1786 she married the Swedish envoy to France, Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, and soon opened her own salon on the rue du Bac which attracted liberal reformers such as Condorcet, the marquis de Lafayette, Talleyrand and one of her future lovers, the count of Narbonne. The marriage was never happy – her husband was almost twice her age and their two children died in infancy – and she soon strayed from the straight and narrow, forming a liaison with Narbonne, by whom she had two more children, Ludvig and Mathias. Narbonne ended the relationship in 1793 but she formed a new partnership with the Swiss political theorist Benjamin Constant in 1794 and had a fifth child by him three years later.

If her father failed to adjust to the new political dynamics of revolution, she had no such problem. She was a regular spectator in the public gallery of the National Assembly and its sweeping reforms were freely debated in her salon. Like her father she admired the British political system and favoured a constitutional monarchy, but she was critical of the bitter divisions that opened up between Jacobin radicalism on the left and counter-revolution on the right. The year 1792 proved to be a turning point, as the Girondin war campaign radicalised political debate, pushing it violently to the left and encouraging ideas of conspiracy and treason. Her lover, Narbonne, was made minister of war briefly in late 1791 and she worked closely with him behind the scenes on policy options and speeches. Yet this was the closest she ever got to real power. Narbonne was sacked within months, the king was overthrown, and in the summer of 1792 she had to help Narbonne escape to England. She followed him into exile after the September massacres and for the next ten years spent as much time in Coppet as in France, under suspicion because of her nationality, her former links with Narbonne and an ill-informed pamphlet published in the summer of 1793 proclaiming the innocence of Marie-Antoinette. Even when she was allowed to return, after 1794, she was closely watched and sporadically forced to retreat to Coppet or the provinces to avoid harassment or arrest. She revived her salon in 1797, but it only lasted a matter of months.

By the mid-1790s she had a new partner and soul mate in Constant, and over the next five years she wrote – and occasionally published – several pamphlets on the politics of the Directory. By now she recognised that a British-style constitutional monarchy was no longer an option and favoured instead a parliamentary republic on the American model. Stable government could only be guaranteed, she argued, by a strict separation of powers and a polity based on a property-owning elite which would have the necessary educational and social independence for responsible government. She was no democrat and had no time for Jacobinism or for royalist groups gathered around the count of Provence in exile. Jacobins lacked intelligence and social responsibility, while royalists would never accept a republic. She therefore worked to achieve the unachievable – a fusion of moderate royalists and moderate republicans – and favoured the emergence of a strong leader, on the lines of William Pitt in Britain, to provide a sense of focus and purpose. When one came along in the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte, she initially welcomed him but then rapidly became disillusioned with his authoritarian style. He had no time for criticism or for the political involvement of women and banned her from Paris in 1803, sending her back into an exile that lasted until the Restoration.

Biancamaria Fontana is no stranger to Madame de Staël; she has already published several articles on her, as well as a book on Benjamin Constant. This is a more focused study, based on Staël’s published and unpublished writings of the 1790s, beginning with a newspaper article of 1791 and ending with the publication of De la Littérature in 1800. Her analysis is detailed and chronological, if occasionally repetitious, opening up the progressive development of Staël’s ideas. Like many other commentators, Staël was fascinated by the new politics of the revolution, the power of public opinion, the destabilising impact of popular radicalism and the difficulty of creating stable government. She saw the revolution as being driven by the abstract ideas of liberty and equality, but fatally destabilised by a cocktail of political ambition, street violence and press licence. The challenge of harnessing to a new polity, retaining the crucial principles of legal equality, constitutional government and social progress, without descending into the chaos of the terror, was what fascinated both her and many of her contemporaries. Her solution, most forcefully contained in an unpublished pamphlet of 1797, was a form of representative government based on the representation of interests rather than people, elected by a property-owning elite and headed by a strong leader.

She was no democrat and no feminist, but was passionately committed to the ideals of political and personal freedom at a time of rapid social and political change. In a way her solutions – which were far from original – were less important than the issues that she raised: the relationship between public opinion and power, the destabilising impact of street politics, the ruthlessness of power struggles and the corrosive effect of personal ambition. Her concern with the negative aspects of press freedom might seem at first sight to bring her close to the doctrine of “alternative facts” denounced recently by Donald Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway. But she was no vulgar populist and instead raised many of the difficulties faced by political systems in dealing with the rise of populism. Her solutions may have little relevance to us, because she lived in a very different age, but the dangers that she attempted to resolve remain with us. In an age of the “alt right”, of cyber-espionage, of naked political ambition and a widespread distrust of elites, Madame de Staël is, to use the famous phrase used by Michelin guides for tourists in France, “worth the visit”.


Hugh Gough is emeritus professor of history at University College Dublin.



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