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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 their leader--

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 new.

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 Revolution.

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


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 subject.

"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


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 love?

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


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


"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 others."

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


The emperor received her son, Auguste de Stael-Holstein, with much

good humor, though he refused the boy's appeal on behalf of his


"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


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 boring him.

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


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 Geneva.

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 rest!

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 had written.

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.