THE STORY OF MME. DE STAEL
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.