French Letters' Open Book

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at
Friday, October 31, 2008


The First Modern Woman

By Francine du Plessix Gray

Atlas & Co. 248 pp. $24

She was sturdy, she dressed eccentrically, she couldn't keep her mouth shut. She was sometimes called a talking machine. She was madly enthusiastic about sex: Some said that was because she was so plain she was absolutely delighted to be chosen by almost any man. That talking thing? That turned out to be a blessing, since she was born into France's ancien régime, when Louis XVI was king, Marie Antoinette his pretty queen, and lively conversation was valued more than almost any other social attribute.

Germaine de Staël, nee Necker -- the subject of this brief interpretive biography -- was lucky in her choice of parents, too. Her father, Jacques Necker, was the only foreigner in King Louis's cabinet. Necker was Swiss, Lutheran, enormously rich and in charge of France's finances. (Little Germaine grew up to be one of the wealthiest women in Europe.) Her mother, a rather icy Protestant who didn't value fun very much, presided over the most esteemed salon in Paris. She did it from a sense of duty. On one occasion, a group of guests who came early snooped around the drawing room and found, tucked among the furniture cushions, cards with witty remarks and pertinent questions already written out. This happened more than 200 years ago, and the story is still told. The French aristocracy had plenty of money, sophistication to burn, and a mean streak a mile wide.

Growing up, Germaine was more than high-strung. Rebelling against her mother's strict methods of pedagogy, she went through a major nervous breakdown, which meant, in the end, that she was allowed to be taught in the way she wished. She inhabited a world that's hard for us to comprehend. Paris was divided -- just under the king -- into the clergy; nobles; doctors, lawyers, professors, professional men of all kinds; and finally the rabble, mobs of urban peasants rushing around the city. They lived on bread and soup and washed their linens -- if they had any -- in the Seine. The royal family was isolated from it all, well-intentioned, perhaps, but totally out of touch with the larger world.

Germaine grew up. She married the Swedish ambassador to France, had a child with him and kept on talking: to friends who lounged about watching her get dressed, to the 15 or so onlookers who were in the room when she had her first baby, to the guests of her countless salons, which had easily surpassed her mother's in elegance and wit. She embarked on a series of affairs, then wrote a screed on the value of a constitutional monarchy (which was the last thing the monarch wanted to hear about). From then on, she was exiled, on and off, to her family's estates in Switzerland.

The French Revolution began, and continued, in waves. Germaine had a new lover, Monsieur Narbonne, with whom she had two children. Many wealthy French fled the country, to Switzerland, to England. Germaine, widely known for her selflessness and generosity, rented a huge house in England, where squadrons of emigres lived off her largesse, while they waited to be honorably summoned back to France by the next regime. She and her friends crossed many borders, in many disguises, while the government sorted itself out with a maximum of confusion and the king and queen lost their heads.

What a life she lived! Another (very unattractive) suitor, Benjamin Constant, failing to seduce her, faked taking a fatal dose of opium; onlookers smirked, but that gambit did the trick. She covered him with kisses and they became lovers. Some years later, Napoleon gained power, and that tiny autocrat absolutely detested the ever-blabbing Madame de Staël. He sent her into exile again -- to Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland. She mourned the loss of her beloved Paris, but took to writing nonstop, building her reputation as Europe's foremost woman of letters. She wrote incessantly, talked without pause, took a lover half her age, had a baby in secret, right under the noses of her family. Even after a severe stroke, tormented by bedsores, she kept up with her entourage, her loyal circle of friends.

Francine du Plessix Gray does a marvelous job in "Madame de Staël," filling us in on the French Revolution as though it were (almost) easy to understand, recognizing de Staël's faults (delusions of grandeur, mostly), while steadfastly commending her talents, her sweet nature, her generosity. I loved this book!

Sunday in Book World

· How Lincoln, FDR and Jackson weathered hard times.

· David Thomson's favorite 1,000 movies.

· The fictional career of a Japanese film star.

· Marc Chagall's rapturous life.

· John Adams's minimalist memoir.

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