The Story Of Mme De Stael
Each century, or sometimes each generation, is distinguished by some
especial interest among those who are given to fancies--not to call them
fads. Thus, at the present time, the cultivated few are taken up with
what they choose to term the "new thought," or the "new criticism," or,
on the other hand, with socialistic theories and projects. Thirty years
ago, when Oscar Wilde was regarded seriously by some people, there were
many who made a cult of estheticism. It was just as interesting when
Walked down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily
In his medieval hand,
or when Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan guyed him as
Bunthorne in "Patience."
When Charles Kingsley was a great expounder of British common sense,
"muscular Christianity" was a phrase which was taken up by many
followers. A little earlier, Puseyism and a primitive form of socialism
were in vogue with the intellectuals. There are just as many different
fashions in thought as in garments, and they come and go without any
particular reason. To-day, they are discussed and practised everywhere.
To-morrow, they are almost forgotten in the rapid pursuit of something
Forty years before the French Revolution burst forth with all its
thunderings, France and Germany were affected by what was generally
styled "sensibility." Sensibility was the sister of sentimentality and
the half-sister of sentiment. Sentiment is a fine thing in itself. It is
consistent with strength and humor and manliness; but sentimentality and
sensibility are poor cheeping creatures that run scuttering along the
ground, quivering and whimpering and asking for perpetual sympathy,
which they do not at all deserve.
No one need be ashamed of sentiment. It simply gives temper to the
blade, and mellowness to the intellect. Sensibility, on the other hand,
is full of shivers and shakes and falsetto notes and squeaks. It is, in
fact, all humbug, just as sentiment is often all truth.
Therefore, to find an interesting phase of human folly, we may look back
to the years which lie between 1756 and 1793 as the era of sensibility.
The great prophets of this false god, or goddess, were Rousseau in
France and Goethe with Schiller in Germany, together with a host of
midgets who shook and shivered in imitation of their masters. It is not
for us to catalogue these persons. Some of them were great figures
in literature and philosophy, and strong enough to shake aside the
silliness of sensibility; but others, while they professed to be great
as writers or philosophers, are now remembered only because their
devotion to sensibility made them conspicuous in their own time. They
dabbled in one thing and another; they "cribbed" from every popular
writer of the day. The only thing that actually belonged to them was a
high degree of sensibility.
And what, one may ask, was this precious thing--this sensibility?
It was really a sort of St. Vitus's dance of the mind, and almost of
the body. When two persons, in any way interested in each other, were
brought into the same room, one of them appeared to be seized with
a rotary movement. The voice rose to a higher pitch than usual, and
assumed a tremolo. Then, if the other person was also endowed with
sensibility, he or she would rotate and quake in somewhat the same
manner. Their cups of tea would be considerably agitated. They would
move about in as unnatural a manner as possible; and when they left the
room, they would do so with gaspings and much waste of breath.
This was not an exhibition of love--or, at least, not necessarily
so. You might exhibit sensibility before a famous poet, or a gallant
soldier, or a celebrated traveler--or, for that matter, before a
remarkable buffoon, like Cagliostro, or a freak, like Kaspar Hauser.
It is plain enough that sensibility was entirely an abnormal thing, and
denoted an abnormal state of mind. Only among people like the Germans
and French of that period, who were forbidden to take part in public
affairs, could it have flourished so long, and have put forth such
rank and fetid outgrowths. From it sprang the "elective affinities" of
Goethe, and the loose morality of the French royalists, which rushed
on into the roaring sea of infidelity, blasphemy, and anarchy of the
Of all the historic figures of that time, there is just one which
to-day stands forth as representing sensibility. In her own time she
was thought to be something of a philosopher, and something more of a
novelist. She consorted with all the clever men and women of her age.
But now she holds a minute niche in history because of the fact that
Napoleon stooped to hate her, and because she personifies sensibility.
Criticism has stripped from her the rags and tatters of the philosophy
which was not her own. It is seen that she was indebted to the brains of
others for such imaginative bits of fiction as she put forth in Delphine
and Corinne; but as the exponent of sensibility she remains unique. This
woman was Anne Louise Germaine Necker, usually known as Mme. de Stael.
There was much about Mile. Necker's parentage that made her interesting.
Her father was the Genevese banker and minister of Louis XVI, who failed
wretchedly in his attempts to save the finances of France. Her mother,
Suzanne Curchod, as a young girl, had won the love of the famous English
historian, Edward Gibbon. She had first refused him, and then almost
frantically tried to get him back; but by this time Gibbon was more
comfortable in single life and less infatuated with Mlle. Curchod, who
presently married Jacques Necker.
M. Necker's money made his daughter a very celebrated "catch." Her
mother brought her to Paris when the French capital was brilliant beyond
description, and yet was tottering to its fall. The rumblings of the
Revolution could be heard by almost every ear; and yet society and the
court, refusing to listen, plunged into the wildest revelry under the
leadership of the giddy Marie Antoinette.
It was here that the young girl was initiated into the most elegant
forms of luxury, and met the cleverest men of that time--Voltaire,
Rousseau, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Volney. She set herself to be the
most accomplished woman of her day, not merely in belles lettres, but in
the natural and political sciences. Thus, when her father was drawing
up his monograph on the French finances, Germaine labored hard over
a supplementary report, studying documents, records, and the most
complicated statistics, so that she might obtain a mastery of the
"I mean to know everything that anybody knows," she said, with an
arrogance which was rather admired in so young a woman.
But, unfortunately, her mind was not great enough to fulfil her
aspiration. The most she ever achieved was a fair knowledge of many
things--a knowledge which seemed surprising to the average man, but
which was superficial enough to the accomplished specialist.
In her twentieth year (1786) it was thought best that she should marry.
Her revels, as well as her hard studies, had told upon her health, and
her mother believed that she could not be at once a blue-stocking and a
woman of the world.
There was something very odd about the relation that existed between the
young girl and this mother of hers. In the Swiss province where they had
both been born, the mother had been considered rather bold and forward.
Her penchant for Gibbon was only one of a number of adventures that
have been told about her. She was by no means coy with the gallants of
Geneva. Yet, after her marriage, and when she came to Paris, she seemed
to be transformed into a sort of Swiss Puritan.
As such, she undertook her daughter's bringing up, and was extremely
careful about everything that Germaine did and about the company she
kept. On the other hand, the daughter, who in the city of Calvin had
been rather dull and quiet in her ways, launched out into a gaiety such
as she had never known in Switzerland. Mother and daughter, in fact,
changed parts. The country beauty of Geneva became the prude of Paris,
while the quiet, unemotional young Genevese became the light of all the
Parisian salons, whether social or intellectual.
The mother was a very beautiful woman. The daughter, who was to become
so famous, is best described by those two very uncomplimentary English
words, "dumpy" and "frumpy." She had bulging eyes--which are not
emphasized in the flattering portrait by Gerard--and her hair was
unbecomingly dressed. There are reasons for thinking that Germaine
bitterly hated her mother, and was intensely jealous of her charm
of person. It may be also that Mme. Necker envied the daughter's
cleverness, even though that cleverness was little more, in the end,
than the borrowing of brilliant things from other persons. At any rate,
the two never cared for each other, and Germaine gave to her father the
affection which her mother neither received nor sought.
It was perhaps to tame the daughter's exuberance that a marriage was
arranged for Mlle. Necker with the Baron de Stael-Holstein, who then
represented the court of Sweden at Paris. Many eyebrows were lifted when
this match was announced. Baron de Stael had no personal charm, nor any
reputation for wit. His standing in the diplomatic corps was not very
high. His favorite occupations were playing cards and drinking enormous
quantities of punch. Could he be considered a match for the extremely
clever Mlle. Necker, whose father had an enormous fortune, and who
was herself considered a gem of wit and mental power, ready to discuss
political economy, or the romantic movement of socialism, or platonic
Many differed about this. Mlle. Necker was, to be sure, rich and clever;
but the Baron de Stael was of an old family, and had a title. Moreover,
his easy-going ways--even his punch-drinking and his card-playing--made
him a desirable husband at that time of French social history, when the
aristocracy wished to act exactly as it pleased, with wanton license,
and when an embassy was a very convenient place into which an indiscreet
ambassadress might retire when the mob grew dangerous. For Paris was now
approaching the time of revolution, and all "aristocrats" were more or
less in danger.
At first Mme. de Stael rather sympathized with the outbreak of the
people; but later their excesses drove her back into sympathy with
the royalists. It was then that she became indiscreet and abused the
privilege of the embassy in giving shelter to her friends. She was
obliged to make a sudden flight across the frontier, whence she did
not return until Napoleon loomed up, a political giant on the
horizon--victorious general, consul, and emperor.
Mme. de Stael's relations with Napoleon have, as I remarked above, been
among her few titles to serious remembrance. The Corsican eagle and the
dumpy little Genevese make, indeed, a peculiar pair; and for this reason
writers have enhanced the oddities of the picture.
"Napoleon," says one, "did not wish any one to be near him who was as
clever as himself."
"No," adds another, "Mme. de Stael made a dead set at Napoleon, because
she wished to conquer and achieve the admiration of everybody, even of
the greatest man who ever lived."
"Napoleon found her to be a good deal of a nuisance," observes a third.
"She knew too much, and was always trying to force her knowledge upon
The legend has sprung up that Mme. de Stael was too wise and witty to
be acceptable to Napoleon; and many women repeated with unction that the
conqueror of Europe was no match for this frowsy little woman. It is,
perhaps, worth while to look into the facts, and to decide whether
Napoleon was really of so petty a nature as to feel himself inferior to
this rather comic creature, even though at the time many people thought
her a remarkable genius.
In the first place, knowing Napoleon, as we have come to know him
through the pages of Mme. de Remusat, Frederic Masson, and others, we
can readily imagine the impatience with which the great soldier would
sit at dinner, hastening to finish his meal, crowding the whole ceremony
into twenty minutes, gulping a glass or two of wine and a cup of coffee,
and then being interrupted by a fussy little female who wanted to
talk about the ethics of history, or the possibility of a new form of
government. Napoleon, himself, was making history, and writing it in
fire and flame; and as for governments, he invented governments all over
Europe as suited his imperial will. What patience could he have with
one whom an English writer has rather unkindly described as "an ugly
coquette, an old woman who made a ridiculous marriage, a blue-stocking,
who spent much of her time in pestering men of genius, and drawing from
them sarcastic comment behind their backs?"
Napoleon was not the sort of a man to be routed in discussion, but
he was most decidedly the sort of man to be bored and irritated by
pedantry. Consequently, he found Mme. de Stael a good deal of a nuisance
in the salons of Paris and its vicinity. He cared not the least for her
epigrams. She might go somewhere else and write all the epigrams she
pleased. When he banished her, in 1803, she merely crossed the Rhine
into Germany, and established herself at Weimar.
The emperor received her son, Auguste de Stael-Holstein, with much good
humor, though he refused the boy's appeal on behalf of his mother.
"My dear baron," said Napoleon, "if your mother were to be in Paris
for two months, I should really be obliged to lock her up in one of the
castles, which would be most unpleasant treatment for me to show a lady.
No, let her go anywhere else and we can get along perfectly. All Europe
is open to her--Rome, Vienna, St. Petersburg; and if she wishes to write
libels on me, England is a convenient and inexpensive place. Only Paris
is just a little too near!"
Thus the emperor gibed the boy--he was only fifteen or sixteen--and made
fun of the exiled blue-stocking; but there was not a sign of malice in
what he said, nor, indeed, of any serious feeling at all. The
legend about Napoleon and Mme. de Stael must, therefore, go into the
waste-basket, except in so far as it is true that she succeeded in
For the rest, she was an earlier George Sand--unattractive in person,
yet able to attract; loving love for love's sake, though seldom
receiving it in return; throwing herself at the head of every
distinguished man, and generally finding that he regarded her overtures
with mockery. To enumerate the men for whom she professed to care would
be tedious, since the record of her passions has no reality about it,
save, perhaps, with two exceptions.
She did care deeply and sincerely for Henri Benjamin Constant, the
brilliant politician and novelist. He was one of her coterie in Paris,
and their common political sentiments formed a bond of friendship
between them. Constant was banished by Napoleon in 1802, and when Mme.
de Stael followed him into exile a year later he joined her in Germany.
The story of their relations was told by Constant in Adolphe, while Mme.
de Stael based Delphine on her experiences with him. It seems that he
was puzzled by her ardor; she was infatuated by his genius. Together
they went through all the phases of the tender passion; and yet, at
intervals, they would tire of each other and separate for a while, and
she would amuse herself with other men. At last she really believed that
her love for him was entirely worn out.
"I always loved my lovers more than they loved me," she said once, and
it was true.
Yet, on the other hand, she was frankly false to all of them, and hence
arose these intervals. In one of them she fell in with a young Italian
named Rocca, and by way of a change she not only amused herself with
him, but even married him. At this time--1811--she was forty-five, while
Rocca was only twenty-three--a young soldier who had fought in Spain,
and who made eager love to the she-philosopher when he was invalided at
The marriage was made on terms imposed by the middle-aged woman who
became his bride. In the first place, it was to be kept secret; and
second, she would not take her husband's name, but he must pass himself
off as her lover, even though she bore him children. The reason she gave
for this extraordinary exhibition of her vanity was that a change of
name on her part would put everybody out.
"In fact," she said, "if Mme. de Stael were to change her name, it would
unsettle the heads of all Europe!"
And so she married Rocca, who was faithful to her to the end, though she
grew extremely plain and querulous, while he became deaf and soon lost
his former charm. Her life was the life of a woman who had, in her own
phrase, "attempted everything"; and yet she had accomplished nothing
that would last. She was loved by a man of genius, but he did not love
her to the end. She was loved by a man of action, and she tired of him
very soon. She had a wonderful reputation for her knowledge of history
and philosophy, and yet what she knew of those subjects is now seen to
be merely the scraps and borrowings of others.
Something she did when she introduced the romantic literature into
France; and there are passages from her writings which seem worthy of
preservation. For instance, we may quote her outburst with regard to
unhappy marriages. "It was the subject," says Mr. Gribble, "on which she
had begun to think before she was married, and which continued to haunt
her long after she was left a widow; though one suspects that the word
'marriage' became a form of speech employed to describe her relations,
not with her husband, but with her lovers." The passage to which I refer
is as follows:
In an unhappy marriage, there is a violence of distress surpassing all
other sufferings in the world. A woman's whole soul depends upon the
conjugal tie. To struggle against fate alone, to journey to the grave
without a friend to support you or to regret you, is an isolation of
which the deserts of Arabia give but a faint and feeble idea. When
all the treasure of your youth has been given in vain, when you can no
longer hope that the reflection of these first rays will shine upon the
end of your life, when there is nothing in the dusk to remind you of
the dawn, and when the twilight is pale and colorless as a livid specter
that precedes the night, your heart revolts, and you feel that you have
been robbed of the gifts of God upon earth.
Equally striking is another prose passage of hers, which seems less the
careful thought of a philosopher than the screeching of a termagant. It
is odd that the first two sentences recall two famous lines of Byron:
Man's love is of man's life a thing apart;
'Tis woman's whole existence.
The passage by Mme. de Stael is longer and less piquant:
Love is woman's whole existence. It is only an episode in the lives
of men. Reputation, honor, esteem, everything depends upon how a woman
conducts herself in this regard; whereas, according to the rules of
an unjust world, the laws of morality itself are suspended in men's
relations with women. They may pass as good men, though they have caused
women the most terrible suffering which it is in the power of one human
being to inflict upon another. They may be regarded as loyal, though
they have betrayed them. They may have received from a woman marks of
a devotion which would so link two friends, two fellow soldiers, that
either would feel dishonored if he forgot them, and they may consider
themselves free of all obligations by attributing the services to
love--as if this additional gift of love detracted from the value of the
One cannot help noticing how lacking in neatness of expression is this
woman who wrote so much. It is because she wrote so much that she wrote
in such a muffled manner. It is because she thought so much that her
reflections were either not her own, or were never clear. It is because
she loved so much, and had so many lovers--Benjamin Constant; Vincenzo
Monti, the Italian poet; M. de Narbonne, and others, as well as young
Rocca--that she found both love and lovers tedious.
She talked so much that her conversation was almost always mere personal
opinion. Thus she told Goethe that he never was really brilliant until
after he had got through a bottle of champagne. Schiller said that to
talk with her was to have a "rough time," and that after she left him,
he always felt like a man who was just getting over a serious illness.
She never had time to do anything very well.
There is an interesting glimpse of her in the recollections of Dr.
Bollmann, at the period when Mme. de Stael was in her prime. The worthy
doctor set her down as a genius--an extraordinary, eccentric woman in
all that she did. She slept but a few hours out of the twenty-four, and
was uninterruptedly and fearfully busy all the rest of the time. While
her hair was being dressed, and even while she breakfasted, she used to
keep on writing, nor did she ever rest sufficiently to examine what she
Such then was Mme. de Stael, a type of the time in which she lived, so
far as concerns her worship of sensibility--of sensibility, and not
of love; for love is too great to be so scattered and made a thing to
prattle of, to cheapen, and thus destroy. So we find at the last that
Germaine de Stael, though she was much read and much feted and much
followed, came finally to that last halting-place where confessedly
she was merely an old woman, eccentric, and unattractive. She sued her
former lovers for the money she had lent them, she scolded and found
fault--as perhaps befits her age.
But such is the natural end of sensibility, and of the woman who
typifies it for succeeding generations.
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