Frances Dann (Sheffield Hallam University), Review of Maria Fairweather's, Madame de Staël (London: Constable and Robinson, 2005)
The most striking feature of Mme de Staël's life as shown in this substantial biography is that she retained or regained her friends. Characters introduced at an early stage are worth bearing in mind, as they crop up later reconciled, relocated, taking on different relationships but still in some way part of her circle. It is impossible not to be impressed by the stamina of Germaine de Staël herself and her associates who lived through the intensities here described, on a personal, let alone a political level.
This biographer, like all her predecessors, has been deprived of much manuscript material which was sought out and destroyed by Mme de Staël's children when a wave of anxious propriety swept across Europe in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Enough personal correspondence survives, however, to provide a convincing picture of a woman trying, on the one hand, to live up to her adored father's political principles and, on the other, to surround herself with the affection that alone made life worthwhile. Maria Fairweather deals level-headedly with rather startling assertions to the effect that if only Germaine had been a contemporary of Jacques Necker instead of his daughter, she might have had the supreme happiness of marrying him. The arrangements in the mausoleum at Coppet are also described calmly, the closing chords of the book being provided not by any Freudian or Gothic musings but by Benjamin Constant's magnificent tribute to his former lover and lifelong inspiration.
There is something so full-blooded, so emphatically performative about Mme de Staël that when she shows star quality in amateur dramatic productions (her success affirmed by Schlegel, a devoted associate for many years) it seems only to be expected. The enmity between herself and Napoleon partakes, as described here, of the quality of opera, where rival monarchs who never met in history thrillingly do so on stage. One of the most vivid episodes is the scene in which Mme de Staël's son fearlessly confronts the emperor on her behalf.
Fairweather's book is a straight biography, not an introduction to de Staël's works. Quotations are given almost entirely in English translation, without observations on the style of the originals or on any problems in translating them. For English readers, the book makes its subject's life story perfectly accessible, and would still be full of interest if she had had far less character of her own because she had such a good view of history in the making. As daughter of the Minister of Finance and wife of the Swedish Ambassador Mme de Staël witnessed the French Revolution from, as it were, the stage box. Even when (having rashly ventured into the streets in a coach and six) she was detained at the Hotel de Ville, she happened to observe from the window a tall National Guardsman defending her coach from would-be looters. This turned out to be Santerre who had led the forces from the St Antoine district which attacked the Tuileries on 10th August 1792 . " He had been a brewer in charge of distributing wheat which Necker had procured at the time of acute shortages. Now he wished to show his gratitude to Necker's daughter." At the execution of Louis XVI a few months later it was Santerre who ordered a roll of drums to drown out the king's last words from the scaffold.
The point of view provided by Mme de Staël changes the perspective on events so that instead of looking coolly at a historian's attempt at an overview one instantly assesses, at ground level, the chances of reaching places or making contacts. From time to time the privileged status of Germaine de Staël comes into sharp focus, as when in order to move her lover from one military base to another she manages to get his entire regiment transferred. At times the reader blenches at what influence over friends in high places can do, but Mme de Staël's success in rescuing people during the Terror commands respect.
More problematical is the difficulty of reconciling admiration for de Staël's literary achievements with toleration of her lack of self-control. Persons in her circle who saw the transitions from hardworking writer to spoilt child and back again and participated in pauses, meals, journeys and conversations during which these transitions took place evidently learned to cope. Readers of a biography miss out on the connective tissue of her life. Her horror of solitude comes across to me as tiresome neediness, despite evidence showing how much her presence was desired by many people who couldn't spend enough time in her company.This is a great problem for a biographer and one which no amount of research can solve. It is also exacerbated by its being so unfashionable now to descant upon the charm of accomplished women, for in this instance charm was clearly a vital ingredient in her success. Her appearance, her mannerisms, her actual words where they can be ascertained are not the complete picture. Where the subject of a biography is a great talker but sometimes an embarrassing companion it is not easy even for a contemporary to convey what it was like actually to be in their company.(I'm thinking here, for comparison, of Froude's account of Carlyle.) Two centuries later it is well-nigh impossible, so great the changes in customary gestures, approaches, clothes, posture, and the nuances of social interaction.
Mme de Staël's indifference to dining-table decorum is amusingly emphasised by the incident in which a bone from her corset pops from its casing and, failing to deal with it herself, she asks the footman behind her chair to wrench it out while she continues to converse, rather then leaving the room and getting her maid to see to it.This anecdote is attributed to Byron and is just the sort of paragraph that went the rounds and was used to fill up a page in the lighter magazines. Anecdote, as well as charm, represents unstable ground for the biographer whose subject is a social celebrity from a bygone age. It may be factual, but it leaves the impression of an elaborated caricature rather than a lightning sketch from life.
It would have been really helpful to have this book much more fully illustrated so as to allow readers to form their own impressions of de Staël and her circle. A series of carefully chosen juxtapositions - formal portraits and informal sketches, caricature and commemoration, pictures of social gatherings and of the rooms where they took place, good atmospheric recent photographs of significant places - these would speak volumes and be the proper complement of a £25 book, as in Fiona McCarthy's recent life of Byron. Of particular interest would be a good portrait of the Comte de Narbonne, father of two of de Staël's children, rather than images of Napoleon and Wellington. I suspect the author may have been constrained by gratitude to people who were ready to supply images and reluctance on the publisher's part to allow additional plates.