«Meeting with Madame de Staël», drawing by Philibert-Louis Debucourt.
«Meeting with Madame de Staël», drawing by Philibert-Louis Debucourt. Bibliothèque nationale de France

Madame de Staël – Enemy of Napoleon

Germaine de Staël was a Swiss author and thinker during the French Revolution. Even Napoleon feared the strong and well-connected personality and banished her from Paris.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (1766-1817), better known as “Madame de Staël,” is arguably the most-celebrated Swiss-French writer and philosopher to emerge from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Her moderate, progressive views and prolific publications put her in direct opposition to the radical leaders of the First French Republic and later to Napoleon Bonaparte. A forceful personality with a sharp mind, Germaine’s life was marked by literary pursuits, cosmopolitan sojourns, tempestuous encounters, and shrewd observations of European life and politics.

Early Life

Born in Paris at the height of the Age of Enlightenment, Germaine was the daughter of Jacques Necker (1732-1804), the Director-General of Finance to King Louis XVI of France, and Suzanne Curchod (1737-1794), whose salon was among the frequented and dazzling in the history of 18th-century France. Jacques and Suzanne, as Swiss Protestants living in Catholic France, felt it was incumbent to provide the young Germaine with a comprehensive education rooted in the liberal and tolerant Protestant tradition of their homeland. Germaine was well-educated and took an active interest in the whirlwind of visitors who frequented her mother's salon along the Rue de la Chaussée-d'Antin. By 13, she was already an accomplished linguist and adroit conversationalist in her own right, and at 19, she completed two plays: Sophie and Jeanne Grey. The British statesman William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) as well as French general and military writer Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, Comte de Guibert (1742-1790) courted the attractive and vivacious Germaine, but she hesitated in marrying. Ultimately, Germaine decided to marry the Swedish diplomat and soldier Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein (1749-1802) in 1786, who left her much to her own devices. Following her marriage, Germaine set up her salon of her own at the Swedish Embassy in Paris. There, she assembled a brilliant array of talented minds – Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the Marquis de Lafayette, Nicolas de Condorcet and his wife Sophie de Grouchy, and Thomas Jefferson – who shared her constitutionalist views and concerns that France's stability was increasingly undermined by radicalism.
Portrait of Germaine de Staël, around 1802.
Portrait of Germaine de Staël, around 1802. Swiss National Museum

There were three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe — England, Russia, and Madame de Staël.

Victorine de Chastenay

French Revolution and Napoleon

Although her parents fled to Switzerland in 1790, Germaine would remain in Paris until September 1792. The mass executions of prisoners during the "Journées du Septembre'' convinced Germaine to retreat to the safety of her family’s Château de Coppet in Canton Vaud. Germaine remained busy however, visiting Great Britain and publishing a treatise, Réflexions sur le procès de la Reine, which defended Queen Marie-Antoinette, in 1793. Germaine would return to France in 1794 after the fall of Robespierre and remain there until 1803. She would also begin a long term affair with the Swiss-French politician Benjamin Constant, which would continue intermittently for the next two decades. The growing political influence radiating from Germaine’s new salon on Paris’ rue du Bac quickly attracted the attention of a young Corsican general named Napoleon. The two met at the end of December 1797, and they shared an intense mutual dislike of each other. For a woman who cherished the romantic sentiments of Rousseau, the politics of Montesquieu, and the philosophy of Voltaire, Napoleon represented something abhorrent. Germaine believed he would bring ruin to Europe and curtail recently won freedoms in France; when Napoleon became first consul for life in 1802, she knew that their enmity would prove lifelong. Germaine met Napoleon for the final time in 1803. Unconvinced that Germaine could stifle her frank opinions, and fearful of her faction of intellectuals and politicians, Napoleon banished her from Paris. She was not permitted to come within 40 leagues (almost 200 km) of the French capital.
Napoleon Bonaparte in conversation with Madame de Stael during a reception in Paris, drawing by Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet (1792-1845).
Napoleon Bonaparte in conversation with Madame de Stael during a reception in Paris, drawing by Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet (1792-1845). Bibliothèque nationale de France
Coppet Castle, residence and burial place of Madame de Staël and her parents, around 1920.
Coppet Castle, residence and burial place of Madame de Staël and her parents, around 1920. ETH Library Zurich

The greatest happiness is to transform one's feelings into action.

Madame de Staël

Second Exile and Legacy

Germaine’s second period of exile at the Château de Coppet and her subsequent travels through Italy, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Russia, and Turkey inspired many of her writings, which are considered among the finest examples of the Romantic genre. They address a wide array of topics including, a woman's extramarital affairs and social status in Revolutionary France (Delphine), suicide (Réflexions sur le suicide), a comparison of artistic culture in Great Britain and Italy (Corinne), a book on German culture and romanticism (De l'Allemagne), and a lively autobiography of her own years in exile (Dix Années d'Exil). In her later years, Germaine returned to Paris following the Bourbon Restoration in 1814. She continued to write and entertain visitors, like Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington, despite aggravated ill-health. Germaine’s debilitating illness sadly led to paralyzation in late 1816. At the end of July 1817, she perished in her beloved Paris. To the end of her days, she believed that representative democratic governments and freedom of speech rather than armies or autocracies would bring stability to Europe.
Portrait of Germaine de Staël around 1812. Painting by Wladimir Lukitsch Borowikowski.
Portrait of Germaine de Staël around 1812. Painting by Wladimir Lukitsch Borowikowski. Wikimedia / Tretyakov Gallery
Germaine’s works and political positions shaped a diverse array of writers and intellectuals in the 19th century, including Heine, Schlegel, Ibsen, Emerson, Melville, Shelley, Leopardi, Brandes, Stendhal, and Chateaubriand. Her works were particularly praised by Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Vyazemsky, and she remains highly-esteemed in Russia. Although her literary works are no longer as widely read as they were in her time, the same cannot be said of her critical and historical works. Furthermore, while it is true that she never claimed equality in the strict sense of the word for women, Germaine’s opinions and her corpus function can be characterized as a precursor to modern feminism. Her unique style – a mélange of literature, the history of ideas, and of political reflection – is indicative of an astute, confident personality. Intensely curious about the vicissitudes of life and uninhibited in her critiques of those who would undermine civil liberties, Germaine proved that the pen was indeed more powerful than the sword.
De l'Allemagne, 1814.
De l'Allemagne, 1814. Bibliothèque nationale de France

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