Michael Dirda

  Enlarge Photo    
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, June 8, 2008


A Dual Biography

By Renee Winegarten

Yale Univ. 343 pp. $35

The poet Sappho, the composer Hildegarde von Bingen, the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, the novelist Marie Madeleine de La Fayette, the professional author Aphra Behn -- these are just a few of the earliest women of artistic genius and achievement. In some fashion, they each found ways to realize themselves as creative spirits, despite societies that would have happily relegated them to the long-established female supporting roles of nun, wife, mother and -- the best deal -- society hostess.

The world has long been able to accept the occasional woman artist, ideally a love poet pressing a thorn to her soft bosom and then recording her cries of sweet pain. The daughters of Eve were thought to have been subject to emotion and feeling, while the sons of Adam governed through noble reason and thought. As a result, any woman before the last part of the 20th century who actually dared to think aloud about social issues, to speculate about philosophical questions or to set herself up as a public intellectual found herself deemed somehow unnatural: a man-woman, a kind of hermaphrodite, a freak. Even now, Hillary Clinton occasionally suffers this disparagement. Such patristic labeling plagued the careers of such polymaths as Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt, and before them of Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) and, the first great woman intellectual of modern times, Germaine de Staël. Surely, they wouldn't have squawked so much if they'd just been prettier or more feminine!

Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) wasn't considered good-looking, but she possessed real charisma, as well as brains and money. Her father was Jacques Necker, the finance minister of France, at once rich, astute and intellectual, while her mother, nee Suzanne Curchod, remains famous to all students of 18th-century English literature. When Curchod was an impoverished girl in Switzerland, a young Englishman of scholarly bent fell in love with her and proposed. But the match was forbidden by the young man's father. Years later, Edward Gibbon, the historian of the Roman Empire, wrote in his memoirs: "I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son." Clearly, Suzanne Curchod attracted men of genius and, from her, Germaine learned stern self-discipline and devotion to principles and duty. Both parents adored their only child, and from an early age she was allowed to hone her wit and conversation in their salon.

After entering into what was essentially a marriage of convenience with a Swedish diplomat, Germaine soon made her new name famous throughout Europe. As Madame de Staël, she brought out such ground-breaking books as On Literature Considered in its Relationship to Social Institutions; a bestselling novel about a "liberated" woman, Corinne, or Italy; the posthumous Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution; and, perhaps most enduringly, a pivotal classic of cultural criticism, On Germany, in which she contrasted that country's romantic enthusiasm and soulfulness with the chilly classicism and Cartesian rationality promulgated in France.

Still, Germaine de Staël was more than just a writer. She was first of all a political animal, a defender of civil liberties and Napoleon's bête noire. Her public life was completely entangled with the French Revolution and its aftermath. During the Terror she secreted aristocratic friends in the Swedish embassy. During the early days of the republic she entertained movers and shakers at her salon, helping to launch, in particular, the career of Talleyrand, a name second only to that of Machiavelli in the pantheon of Realpolitik. (When asked what he did during the Revolution and Terror, Talleyrand is reported to have answered: "J'ai survécu" -- I survived.) But early on, this formidable woman's free-thinking and liberal ideas antagonized the ambitious General Bonaparte. By the time the First Consul crowned himself emperor in 1804, de Staël had been exiled from Paris.

But she did not repine. She traveled throughout Europe -- visiting Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, studying the art of Italy -- and she established a dazzling salon at her father's house in Coppet, Switzerland. There, one might find the historian Sismondi, the scholar-intellectuals (and brothers) Friedrich and August von Schlegel (the latter penned a letter in which he promised to be de Staël's slave for life), and the most beautiful woman of her era, Juliette Récamier. De Staël's best friend, Récamier remains legendary to this day because of the magnificent portrait by Jacque-Louis David showing the classically gowned beauty reclining on a chaise lounge. While the two women were both inveterately flirtatious, Récamier bestowed her favors on no one, not even her husband: She lived in a mariage blanc -- an unconsummated marriage -- with a man rumored to be her biological father. Her mother's onetime lover had married her during the Terror as a way of insuring that she would inherit his fortune if he were guillotined. Only at the age of 40 did Récamier enter into a passionate love affair with the most famous writer in France, Chateaubriand. But that's another story.

Necker, Talleyrand, Napoleon, the Schlegels and Récamier were important players in the drama of Germaine de Staël's life, but all of them were unexpectedly overshadowed by its male lead, the Swiss liberal thinker and novelist Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). After an apparently platonic relationship with Isabelle de Charrière -- see Geoffrey Scott's classic The Portrait of Zelide for more about this fascinating woman, once courted by James Boswell -- the young Constant fell hard for de Staël's sparkling eyes and wit. But she viewed him as faintly comic and made fun of his puppyish devotion. Still, Constant persisted. He grew melodramatically impassioned, hinted at suicide, and finally she surrendered. Their subsequent life together -- from roughly 1794 to 1811 -- brought them intense joy and then deep suffering. (She had separated from her husband in 1796.)

They also became Europe's leading power couple, likened by author Renee Winegarten to Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in the mid-20th century. They shared liberal principles, and de Staël's enthusiasm would fire up the often vacillating and indecisive Constant. Through her efforts he found places in various post-Revolutionary governments, where he spoke up for civil liberties and what we think of as First Amendment rights. His Principles of Politics remains one of the fundamental works of modern liberalism. He yearned for real power, but he never became much more than an influential figure in various legislative assemblies, both during and after Napoleon.

Constant, though, wasn't just a pioneer in the development of modern political thought. His short novel Adolphe stands as one of the glories of French fiction. In it he traces a love affair (partly based on his own with de Staël) and portrays its progress and decay with merciless clarity. The young Adolphe exerts all his powers to seduce Ellénore and finally succeeds in persuading her to abandon a settled life, her two children, everything, for him. At first, he is delighted by her constant shower of affection, then annoyed and finally bored and resentful. Under onslaught from his disapproving father, Adolphe comes to feel that he is shackled to an unworthy woman he doesn't really care for. And yet Ellénore has sacrificed so much for him -- how can he abandon her now? The two live on in an agony of non-communication, without intimacy, each in growing despair. Finally, Ellénore dies -- and only then does Adolphe realize that without this woman his life is absolutely meaningless.

Winegarten tells the story of de Staël and Constant's "marriage of true minds" with absorbing detail. Her format requires her to tick-tock back and forth between her two subjects, and this at times can feel a little mechanical. She also resolutely focuses on the complexities of their relationship and public lives, deliberately scanting any extended engagement with their writing. Yet de Staël's books about literature and Germany merit rediscovery. As it is, they have fallen into the sad category of works read by students of European romanticism and by almost nobody else.

For many readers, I suspect that the names Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant are, in effect, just names. If that's the case, take heart: Renee Winegarten's fine dual biography will bring them to blazing life. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company