Betsy’s Circle: Germaine de Staël

Laugier de Stael

Anne Louise Germaine Necker, baronne de Staël by Jean Nicolas Laugier, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Betsy’s literary friends was Germaine de Staël, who was a colorful and controversial figure on the European scene.

She was born Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker to Swiss parents in Paris in 1766. Her father was a Genevan banker who became Louis XVI’s finance minister. Like Betsy, she exhibited the qualities of wit, intellectual curiosity, and lively conversation as a child. She was married at the age of twenty to Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein, the Swedish ambassador to France. It was not an affectionate marriage but gave her status as the wife of a diplomat.

Madame de Staël first gained literary fame by publishing Letters on the Works and Character of J.-J. Rousseau in 1788. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, her work exhibited a “mixture of Rousseau’s enthusiasm and Montesquieu’s rationalism.” Despite the Revolution, she remained in France until 1793, and then she moved to England to be with her lover, Louis de Narbonne, who had been one of Louis XVI’s ministers.

After the Reign of Terror ended, she returned to Paris and began the most illustrious stage of her career. She alternated between living in Paris and at her chateau in Coppet, Switzerland. Madame de Staël held a noted salon, where intellectuals could converse about important ideas of their day, and she published several essays. She also took a new lover, the politician and writer Benjamin Constant, who introduced her to German romanticism.

Madame de Staël wrote two novels, Delphine and Corinne, that were infamous in their day because they exposed the limits imposed on independent and creative women. Napoleon disapproved of her work—he was a traditionalist in his views of women’s roles. As a liberal, Madame de Staël opposed him politically, so that deepened his dislike. In about 1803, Napoleon exiled her to a distance of at least 40 miles from Paris. During the remainder of his reign, Coppet was her home base.

In 1810, she published her most important work, a study of German culture. She returned to Paris after Napoleon’s downfall, but lived only a few more years, dying in 1817.

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