The Story Of Mme. Stael
( Originally Published 1909 )
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
or when Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan guyed him as Bunthorne in "Patience."
When Charles Kingsley was a great ex-pounder 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. Today, they are discussed and practised everywhere. Tomorrow, 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 sensi bility 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 as 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 today 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 Staël.
There was much about Mlle. 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 Antoinette.
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, Rous-seau, 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 specialist.
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 Gérard—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 Staël-Holstein, who then represented the court of Sweden at Paris. Many eyebrows were lifted when this match was announced. Baron de Staël 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 Staël 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 danger.
At first Mme. de Staël 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 Staël'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 picture.
"Napoleon," says one, "did not wish any one to be near him who was as clever as himself."
"No," adds another, "Mme. de Staël made a dead set at Napoleon, because she wished to
`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 Staël 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 Rémusat, Frédéric 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 Staël 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 Weimar.
The emperor received her son, Auguste de Staël-Holstein, with much good humor, though he refused the boy's appeal on behalf of his mother.
"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 near!"
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 Staël 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 prfessed to care would be tedious, since the record of her passions has no reality about it, save, perhaps, with two exceptions.
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 Staël 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 Staël 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 Staël 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 Staël 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 Staël 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 Staël, a type of the time in which she lived, so far as concerns her worship of sensibility—f 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 Staël, though she was much read and much fêted 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.