I’ll be honest: “First modern woman” does not constitute what I would call a dream job. Someone had to step up, however, and—assuming royal and Ptolemaic women are off limits—one looks to Enlightenment Europe for volunteers. French residency if not nationality was a plus. A fortune was de rigueur. It helped to be an only child; generally one goes further in the absence of pesky male heirs. And what never hurts—arguably even today—is an adoring, intellectually inclined father. Such were the blessings showered on Germaine de Stael, and though I might argue that Mesdames du Chatelet and de Charrière challenge her title —and the subtitle of Francine du Plessix Gray’s new biography —few have done as much with those advantages as Madame de Stael. Certainly no one caused as much trouble.
The prolific writer and thinker was born Germaine Necker in 1766. Neither parent was celebrated for a sense of humor, but both distinguished themselves on other counts. Monsieur Necker was Louis XVI’s immensely powerful director general of finances. As financially astute as he was politically obtuse, he did his government few favors; on the other hand, he left his daughter the greatest fortune in France. Madame Necker presided over Paris’ most illustrious salon, no mean feat given her mute husband. As Gray notes, Necker’s conversation “consisted, at best, of a profound and disdainful silence.”
In a manic misreading of Rousseau, the couple force-fed their precocious daughter “math, geography, science, languages, and theology from the time she was three.” By 12 she was “a walking encyclopedia of philosophical knowledge.” (Where was J.S. Mill when you had the girl for him? Alas, not born yet.) Permanently affixed to her mother’s side, Germaine was spared the company of other children. She was allowed to attend Madame Necker’s salon on the condition she be seen, not heard, for which the rest of her life could be said to constitute a prolix revenge.
Naturally the walking encyclopedia suffered a nervous breakdown early on. Playmates were prescribed, along with a separation from Madame Necker. (I was reminded of that haunting moment in Strachey’s Queen Victoria, when the newly crowned 18-year-old asks to be left alone for an hour. At its end she issues her first royal edict, essentially amputating her mother from her side.) In this case Gray attributes a yearning insecurity to an oddly unaffectionate brand of maternal smothering. It was either balanced or exacerbated by an “extravagant passion” for her father, the love of Germaine’s life.
At 20, Germaine married de Stael, a hapless Swedish nobleman and sometime ambassador—a man so “sterile and inert” that he actually made her miss her mother. Neatly clinching the modernity title in one realm, she never put sex, love, marriage, and progeny in one basket. The first child was de Stael’s. The next two were those of the raffish Vicomte de Narbonne. Benjamin Constant, the liberal writer and politician and the proto-Sartre to this 18th-century de Beauvoir, fathered the fourth. At 45, Germaine was pregnant again, by a man young enough to be her son and whom she later secretly married. He was a lover of a different kind, inarticulate in a manner that may have recalled her father. As Madame de Stael explained to one hardworking hostess, “Speech is not his language.”
It was entirely hers. She woke with her mouth open, discoursed “as she was being coiffed, manicured, and laced into corsets,” fell silent only when asleep. It was a virtuoso performance, at least at those addresses that thrilled to such things. Her aperçus were lost, for example, in Geneva, for whose people she had little patience: “Their love of equality is but a desire to drag everybody down; their liberty is insolence, and their morality is boredom.” Generally she set a difficult, relentless pace and was an exhausting companion; Gray may well have a point in diagnosing manic depression. None of which stopped de Stael from wondering why men, in particular, tired of her so quickly. Constant provided one answer: “I have never known a woman who was more continuously exacting. … Everybody’s entire existence, every hour, every minute, for years on end, must be at her disposition, or else there is an explosion like all thunderstorms and earthquakes put together.”
It did not take her long to pick up her pen, thereafter lodged (attested Byron) at all times behind her ear; on the page she—and her political acuity—captivated Europe. Her first great work addressed women’s difficulty reconciling love and work, for which the winning formula has yet to be revealed. This was new terrain, repeatedly trod by de Stael, who recognized in her sex a moral superiority and a civilizing presence. She begged them to continue to assert themselves: “It is essential to the happiness of society for women to develop their spirit and their rational powers.” The novels, too, are polemics on women’s rights. Her Corinne certainly qualifies as the first independent literary heroine; as Gray points out, she is not only financially, socially, and romantically independent but celebrated for her own accomplishments to boot. The novel would influence, among others, Mary Godwin, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who confessed to “intense sympathy” for its heroine.
More than anything it was her assault on imperial politics that put Madame de Stael on the map; she was the bane of Napoleon’s existence. He was not pleased to read that “[l]iberality is nothing other than morality in government” and was no happier to be compared on the page to Attila the Hun. For her published offenses he exiled her from Paris so many times I lost count. On no occasion does he seem to have made it through more than a few pages of Madame de Stael’s works. More to the point, she was a dangerous woman with influential friends and a dedicated audience.
De Stael’s politics were liberal, also at all times wildly inconsistent. She was a contrarian; Gray notes that she tended to side with the opposition. She wrote against slavery, for Marie Antoinette. When she was not writing she was politicking. She knew everyone worth knowing and appears never to have met an idea, or an intrigue, that left her cold. She colluded with Czar Alexander, who hoped she might entice the Swedes to join in an anti-Napoleon coalition—one that envisioned a Swede on the throne of France. In thanks part to Napoleon, she roamed the Continent; she was responsible for a great deal of cultural cross-pollination, introducing German philosophy and literature to England, the history of Italy to France.
As a woman, she comes off as a mix of self-regard, self-delusion, and raw, overpowering intellect. Her physical charms were less defined, by no means set off to advantage by her wardrobe. She went in for feathered turbans and vibrantly colored décolletés. You know the type; if you grew up in a small town, she taught modern dance. She was speechless on only one recorded occasion, an early meeting with First Consul Bonaparte. “No doubt,” he ventured, speaking directly to her formidable bosom, “you have nursed your children yourself?”
As she has proved before, Gray excels at the short form, not exactly made for Madame de Stael. That Gray is able to rein her in is a marvel; that she has compressed her exuberance and corpulence to 256 pages a miracle. Then there are the convoluted politics of the time: At one point Gray neatly extracts de Stael’s major ideas, freely admitting her subject’s ineptitudes and inconsistencies without bludgeoning her with either. She lets this eminently quotable woman speak for herself, administering a full dose of her intoxicating conversation. What was exile? De Stael, who should know, defined it as “a tomb in which you can get mail.”
Gray is fortunate in that the genius was perhaps more in the life than in the literature, always a blessing for the biographer. Madame de Stael endures primarily as an activist, a champion of women’s rights, a brilliant nonconformist. She positioned herself at the nexus of talent and society and proceeded to defy the rules of both. To appreciate the immensity of her achievement one has only to remember that this irrepressible force of nature, she who had every gift she bestowed on Corinne—education, independence, a private life, and a public career—was nearly an exact contemporary of Jane Austen.