Let me summarize the opening chapter of Mme de Staël’s Corinne: or Italy, which was published in 1807 and became one of the most celebrated novels of the earlier nineteenth century. In this chapter we are introduced to Oswald, Lord Nelvil, a peer of Scotland who, late in the year 1794, has taken ship for Italy for reasons of health. He is a noble and beautiful young man with an independent fortune, but is borne down by a secret sorrow, caused by his father’s recent death and the remorse and some “delicate scruples”1 connected with it. His regrets have robbed him of all enjoyment of life. No one could be more prompt to serve his friends, but even beneficence gives him no pleasure, and he half reproaches himself for leaving his native Scotland: for perhaps ghosts, like his father’s, are only permitted to roam in the places where their ashes lie. Once or twice, as they cross the North Sea, the weather grows stormy, whereupon Lord Nelvil gives helpful advice to the sailors, calms the fears of the other passengers, and eventually takes over the handling of the ship himself—all his actions exhibiting a skill and vigor “which should not be considered simply the effect of suppleness and agility of body, for the soul also plays its part in these things.” As he leaves the ship, the sailors, as one man, cry “My dear Sir, would that you were more happy!”
This exordium, one has to say, is marvelously, is inexpressibly, absurd. Nor have we heard the last of Lord Oswald’s presence of mind and generous thought for others. For upon reaching Ancona he wakes up to find the city on fire and single-handedly extinguishes the conflagration, shaming the nerveless Italians, who do no more than cower in the street covering their heads with their cloaks. After his exertions, the local women crowd round him, crying—“with that imagination which is the almost universal gift of the common people”—“You must be Saint Michael, the patron saint of our town. Spread your wings, but do not desert us.” Certain truths are reserved for a later age, and one of them is (surely?) that, wonderful as Germaine de Staël is to read about, her novels simply won’t do.
Nevertheless, the reason why they won’t do is well worth studying, and we can do this just as easily with the earlier of her two novels, Delphine, which was published in 1802 and now appears in a new and admirable translation based on the edition by Simone Balayé and Lucia Omacini published in 1987. The translator, Avriel Goldberger, is a noted Staël scholar and has provided an extremely well-informed introduction. The trouble is, she speaks of Delphine as a great novel, “the first great novel of nineteenth-century France,” and also as “a political and a feminist novel as much for our time as for its own.” There seems nothing to do but to disagree: to say, indeed, that it is an absurd novel, written on an absurd principle, one which has damaged many other novels as well as hers but dominates more here than in most.
The principle is that everything in the novel should redound to applause for the central character. We saw how, in Corinne, a group of Anconan women, like an operatic chorus, emerges from nowhere to pay tribute to Lord Nelvil’s grand doings. Equally, one of the first things one notices in Delphine is that there always seems someone at hand, even in the most improbable circumstances, to give the heroine applause. Moreover, Delphine is a novel in letters, so that we often actually learn these admiring things said about the heroine from her own letters or journal.
It is important to be clear about the objection. It is a matter of reader’s rights. There is no reason in the world why we should not feel keen admiration for a character in a novel—as, shall we say, most readers do in the case of Prince Andrei in War and Peace. What we cannot accept is that our admiring should be done for us, that the author should contrive applause situations within the novel itself. These may be of the type in which the hero or heroine rouses some secondary character to astonished admiration, leaving the reader with no choice but to follow suit; or conversely they may be ones which demand applause from the reader for behavior that nobody but a novel-reader would be likely to applaud, like a heroine’s perversely refusing, in the cause of some superfine scruple, to clear her name from slander, though all future happiness depends on her doing so (a favorite theme in Delphine). The intention in both cases is, obliquely, to win kudos for the author, as if we had been seeing him or her performing.
No one has written better about Staël’s novels than Ellen Moers in her Literary Women (1976), and she argues that their influence was not only great and long-continuing but thoroughly deleterious. Here, in Staël, is that “performing heroinism” that did real injury to the genius of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, tempting Brontë to attribute sublimity to Jane Eyre’s watercolors and causing Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch to make “Corinne-like” entrances or be posed for our admiration in “brooding abstraction” in the Vatican Museum.
The plot of Delphine runs thus. Delphine is the young widow of the wealthy M. d’Albémar, a man of enlightened sympathies who had previously been her guardian. She is greatly admired for her brilliant conversation, though some criticize her for overboldness and independence of mind. Her closest friend is the subtle and worldly-wise Sophie de Vernon, and out of the generosity of her heart she has offered Sophie’s daughter Matilde, a narrow-minded religious zealot, a large sum as a dowry. Matilde’s intended husband is Léonce de Mondoville, the scion of a noble family, living in Spain. His elderly tutor M. Barton, who worships the ground he treads on, arrives in Paris in advance of him; and on the strength of Barton’s accounts of his pupil, combined with the false news of Léonce’s death, Delphine falls in love with him, her passion being returned as soon as Léonce encounters her.
Delphine wants to confess the truth to Sophie, and at last, after cleverly evading the topic for some days, Sophie offers to speak to Léonce on her behalf. In fact, though—her heart being set upon Matilde’s marriage—she misrepresents Delphine to Léonce. This is easily done, for Léonce (it is his one moral weakness) has an excessive respect for public opinion, and Delphine, though quite innocently, has involved herself in a scandal. She has allowed a married friend, Thérèse d’Ervins, to have a farewell meeting with her lover at her house, and all unexpectedly Thérèse’s husband appears on the scene; a duel ensues, and M. d’Ervins is killed.
Léonce therefore marries Matilde, only to discover how he has been tricked. He finds life intolerable without Delphine, and she, equally unable to do without him, agrees that they should continue to see each other, on a Platonic basis. All Paris gossips, however, and Delphine is painfully ostracized, only Matilde remaining in ignorance of the situation. At last, just as she is about to give birth to a child, she learns the truth from Delphine’s lips; but by this time, through her incautious generosity, Delphine has got herself into a further compromising situation. Paris has become unbearable to her, and she flees from the city, leaving no address.
After a wild journey, “traveling at random through unknown lands,” Delphine reaches Switzerland. She is being pursued by an implacable suitor, Valorbe, and to escape him she takes refuge in a Swiss convent. The Mother Superior attracts her by a curious resemblance to Léonce, and it turns out that she is his aunt—a woman of fashion embittered by the loss of her beauty. Valorbe tricks Delphine into leaving the convent, against the rules, in order to rescue him from arrest for debt, and on her return the wily Mother Superior uses this misdemeanor to force her to take the veil. By this time Matilde and her child have died, and Léonce tracks Delphine down in the convent, persuading her to break her vows. There seems no good reason now why they should ever part; but at the sound of a regiment passing under the windows Léonce is overcome by longing to be fighting with his fellow émigrés (public opinion again). He sets off to join them, falls into enemy hands, and is joined by Delphine, who takes poison as she accompanies him to the scene of his execution.
This is the mechanism of the plot; but as the reader experiences it, the narrative seems to take the form of a series of compliments. Letters, even from Delphine’s enemies, pay the most lavish tribute to her extraordinary beauty, the brilliance of her conversation, her unparalleled generosity, capacity for feeling, and self-abnegation, and little scenes are continually being contrived for no other purpose than to illustrate these qualities. The complimenting often comes from Delphine herself. “I have lost all that made me once lovable,” she laments in a moment of despondency. “What a situation for a person whose soul was so alive to every delight of mind and sensibility!” The dying Sophie assures her: “You are the one person in the world whom I have found at once superior and natural, simple in manner, generous in sacrifice, steadfast and passionate, witty like the cleverest, trusting like the best.” Léonce tells her: “At Mme de Vernon’s, when I heard you speak of virtue and reason, heard you analyze the most profound ideas, unraveling the most subtle relationships, I was enlightened. I better understood the purpose of life.” Poised over a precipice in the Jura mountains, contemplating suicide, Delphine is saved by hearing a passing group of peasants “praise my beauty in their language”; and at the end of the novel, as she travels in the cart with Léonce to his place of execution, the soldiers exclaim, “How beautiful she is!”
These tributes are not merely incidental, they are the directing force behind the narrative. The author has granted Delphine special fictional privileges, with the fatal consequence that the novel’s characters do not meet on equal terms. As ideas, Delphine, Léonce, and Sophie are not badly conceived; the trouble comes when they start to interact, whereupon all plausibility flies out the window. It is significant that in Delphine, as in Corinne, the acme of absurdity is reached, not in the heroine but in the character who serves as a foil to her—Oswald in Corinne, and Léonce in Delphine. We expect Léonce as a member of a proud and ancient family and, judging from his tutor’s account a paragon of talents and virtues, to display some social graces: in fact his manners strike the reader as appalling, enough to cause raised eyebrows in a kindergarten. A friend of Delphine’s is surprised at his “somber, distracted gaze” as he enters Sophie de Vernon’s drawing room and at the way he instantly goes and sits in a corner where there is no one to talk to. When his wife, Matilde, goes over and speaks to him, he replies gently, but as soon as she leaves he gives an audible sigh, “as if he had just shown restraint.” When he calls on Delphine and happens to find another young man sitting with her, he scowls in a terrifying manner and, leaning against the mantlepiece, resembles “Apollo Belvedere hurling the shaft at the serpent.”
The truth is, there is a muddle at the heart of Staël’s novel. She had explosive feelings about the place of women in society, holding that everything, including sexual freedom, should be allowed to a truly exceptional woman and resenting the persecution such torchbearers are exposed to. She chooses, however, to embody these feelings in a genre, the Richardsonian novel in letters, where they have no natural place. By tradition, in an old-fashioned novel in letters, the heroine’s preoccupation is with defending, and repelling slurs on, her chastity, and this is the kind of heroine Staël is forced to saddle herself with, tacking on such independent-minded and “exceptional” qualities as best she can, at the cost of much inconsistency. Moreover, the Richardsonian kind of novel turned upon subtleties of “manners,” and she was not, as a novelist, at all interested in manners, indeed was committed to despising them as an ancien régime fetish.
Madelyn Gutwirth, in her brilliant Madame de Staël, Novelist (1978), has dissected the inconsistencies and self-contradictions in Delphine so thoroughly as to have done my work for me. Let me quote just one remark of hers: “It is a novel that adopts a ‘posture of submission’ like those that a cornered beast enacts, in the hope of obtaining from the other a sign of nonaggression.”
Her book, though, sends one’s thoughts off on a different track. She describes it as “a work of feminist criticism.” Now, like many other writers I am both a feminist and a critic, but I have never really understood the term “feminist criticism.” I have never seen the need for any other definition of criticism than the one F.R. Leavis borrowed from T.S. Eliot: “the common pursuit of true judgment.” Gutwirth explains “feminist criticism” as signifying “an effort to add to our knowledge and understanding of the emergence of female self-consciousness in literature.” This sounds meaningful enough; nevertheless in practice, and maybe in theory too, it turns out to involve a clash between two incompatible interests.
Half her remarks on Delphine are about the weaknesses of this novel (i.e., are, and very effectively, made in “pursuit of true judgment”); the other half are about Staël’s psychological hang-ups, Weltanschauung, and relationship to her moment in history. These seem two very different and mutually conflicting lines of approach. For whereas we are absolutely called upon to judge a novel, that being what criticism is and exists for, we are not called upon to pass judgment on its author—or if we do, it ought to be in a different and much more tentative spirit. Many of us have a weird psychology, but we do not just for this reason have to be written off as human failures. The result of this mixing of two approaches is that, to my mind anyway, Staël comes out unfairly diminished.
It makes her, for one thing, appear as more of a psychological mess than was the case. Certainly, she had a very strange make-up. As is well known, her perennial regret was that, for reasons of chronology, she had not been able to marry her father, Jacques Necker, France’s Director of Finance (both before and after 1789, briefly) and always her ideal of manhood. This passion went with a furious jealousy of her mother, the starchy “philosophic” hostess Suzanne Curchod—a jealousy prolonged by the fact that, in her will, her mother insisted on being embalmed and preserved in alcohol, so that Necker might continue to visit her daily. Both to the world and to themselves the Neckers, Germaine included, were always the objects of a cult.
One of the effects Staël’s upbringing had on her was that, in Gutwirth’s words, “setting her self above her sex was her preferred posture.” Marrying a Swedish diplomat, she set up an influential political salon and earned a reputation as a dazzling conversationalist. Soon after her marriage she began, with considerable publicity, to take lovers (to the great chagrin of her mother), and, though noted as a champion of political liberalism and opponent of the tyrant Napoleon, her attitude toward these lovers could not have been more tyrannical. On at least two occasions (was it some kind of feudal fantasy?) she made an admirer sign a formal treaty or promissory note declaring entire submission—asserting (in the case of Benjamin Constant) that the signatory “knew nothing on earth as worthy of love as Madame de Staël,” or (in the case of the German man of letters A. W. Schlegel) that “I declare that you have every right over me and that I have none over you.”
When, on the other hand, she could not get her way with lovers, she cheerfully abandoned all dignity—being much prone to threatening suicide and capable of rolling on the floor, attempting to strangle herself with a cambric handkerchief. An extravagant figure, with her turban, ample décolletage, and bird-of-paradise plumes, she stormed through the salons and ballrooms of Europe with majestic aplomb, ignoring mockery as unworthy, and never nonplussed—except on two occasions by Napoleon.2 One may surmise that she was incapable of forming any picture of another person except in regard to herself, and this would be a good explanation why her novels are—so at least they seem to me—so preposterous.
Much of my knowledge of her comes from J.C. Herold’s Mistress to an Age (1959). It is one of the funniest biographies I have ever read, but essentially Herold is on Staël’s side, rightly so I think. What becomes clear is that, tyrannical and wildly vain though she was, she was a kind person: one of her friends even spoke of “a kind of childlike good humour.” It was not in her nature, unlike Napoleon’s, to snub people, nor did she harbor rancor. Byron, a frequenter of her château at Coppet on Lake Geneva, came to love her and said she made Coppet “as agreeable as society and talent can make any place on earth.”3 Many others were of the same opinion. “Wherever a conversation developed,” wrote a visitor to Coppet, “one set up camp and stayed for hours or for days, without being interrupted by any of the normal routines of life.” One would love to have been a guest at Coppet, if one could have stood the pace.
Her lovers and friends, anyway in the earlier stages of their attachment, found Staël inspiring and electrifying. Herold’s description of her conversation strikes me as convincing. The style was delphic and prestidigitatory (“When she had her inspired moments, which could last for nearly an hour, her listeners were absolutely under her spell, sometimes even reacting physically”), but it was also a form of seduction. “Once she had discovered a vulnerable spot in a man’s sensibility, she played on it with such consummate skill that her victim was bewitched into seeing and sensing in her the promise of fulfillment of all his desires.” I think, too, that her wilder tyrannical tendencies arose from her involvement with Benjamin Constant, at heart an even more extraordinary person than herself. Constant remarked in his diary, with brutal clarity and complacency: “There are few women who can remain indifferent to my way of being obsessed and dominated by them.”4 His fantastic fifteen-year enslavement to Germaine de Staël, which caused him to complain so piteously, was more his own doing than hers, and it encouraged her thereafter to take tyranny to unrealistic lengths.
Of her nonfiction writings, On Germany (1813)—a more impressive work than the sketchy On Literature (1800)—was a thoroughly valuable piece of popularization, introducing the German Romantic poets and philosophers to a French public more or less entirely ignorant of them. Even Heine, who was ribald about Staël and wrote his own On Germany as a counterblast to hers, allowed her book a good deal of merit. It has done its work and one will hardly go back to it, but a few passages still have their appeal—like the concluding paean to “enthusiasm,” anathematizing (by implication) the hardness and unfeeling efficiency of Napoleonic world-conquest.
Again, Staël deserves to be taken seriously, though this has not always been her fate, as a political activist who opposed Napoleon’s dictatorial regime. He certainly had a healthy respect for her influence, banning her books, insisting implacably on exiling her from Paris, and ultimately from France, and continuing to reminisce about her on St. Helena as one of the most formidable of his enemies.
All in all, Staël counted for a great deal. Her coruscating career, simply as a spectacle, was a magnificent boost to the cause of women. It was as enlarging to women’s sense of the possible as her novels were baneful to women’s fiction-writing.
December 21, 1995
This and subsequent quotes are my translation. ↩
At a dinner party given by Talleyrand in 1797, she asked Napoleon, fishing for a compliment, whom he thought “the greatest woman, alive or dead,” to which he replied, “the one who has made the most children.” A year or two later, at a grand reception, he stopped in front of her, staring rudely at her bare bosom, and asked: “No doubt you have nurtured your children yourself?” “You see,” he remarked to his brother Lucien when she could find no retort, “she doesn’t even want to say yes or no.” ↩
Letter to John Murray, September 30, 1816. See the edition of Byron’s letters by Leslie Marchand (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1976). ↩
Quoted by Dennis Wood in Benjamin Constant: A Biography (Routledge, 1993), p. 211. ↩