- "[S]omething different, something forbidden" is how Catherine
Hall and Leonore Davidoff, in their groundbreaking study Family Fortunes:
Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, describe English
women's fascination with Mme. De Staël's Corinne, or Italy.
Proper, devout women readers of de Staël's own generation and the
one that followed, "earnest inhabitants of English provincial homes,"
not too far away from the type satirized in the story itself, found
themselves in entranced identification with the "woman of genius"
as celebrity. (161) As Davidoff and Hall suggest, "the free culture
of Corinne's southern Europe" also had an "irresistable pull"
for the early nineteenth-century inhabitants of middle England, providing
a social and cultural space for an anti-domestic cultural fantasy. But
this, they remind us, was only half the story; fantasmatic identification
with the improvisatrice was often accompanied by an equally powerful
repudiation, even or perhaps especially, among the literary women who
admired the novel and its author. So, in a move which echoes the book's
more conservative resolution, Felicia Hemans' "Corinne in the Capital"
follows a celebration of Corinne's triumphal entry into Rome with the
insistence that "She that makes the humblest hearth/Lovely but
to one on earth!" is "Happier, happier, far" than the
crowned Corinne, and the poet and children's author Jane Taylor finds
that the "magic" of the text, and its secular imagination,
returns her "soul, to that retreat/From sin and woe-Thy Saviour's
feet!" (Davidoff and Hall, 161). Only Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
one of the most famous of Corinne's late romantic female fans allows
her poet heroine, to have love and fame, although not without a substantial
transformation of de Staël's formidable and tragic figure into
a public personality within the pale, if only just, of mid-century Victorian
mores. The guilty pleasures of publicity and cultural power, paid for
in de Staël's narrative by Corinne's loss of her lover to her English
half-sister, a loss that kills her, is reflected in the double edge
admiring and punitive of its English reception and appropriation.
- In English literary studies Corinne's importance for Romantic and
Victorian readers and writers took on a new lease of life with the publication
of Ellen Moers' Literary Women in 1977, but even for feminist
critics in the Anglophone world, and in spite of the publication of
important studies of de Staël, it has remained ever since a text
explored through its relations to British reception and imitation rather
than one that is fully integrated into a history of women's writing.
No handy paperback edition of one of the translations signals it as
a must read on University syllabi. This may not surprise us, but it
does indicate that national distinctions in literary and cultural sensibility
still govern Corinne's modern reception as it did its initial
impact, even if the aesthetic, social and political issues that constitute
such divisions are very different. Corinne may continue to fascinate
us precisely because, although it can be historicized, and therefore
much better understood, long after its disruptive power in English letters
has waned, its "alien" status remains.
- In this special issue on Corinne, drawn from a day-conference
held at the Institute for English Studies in November 2003, contributors
have pursued aspects of Corinne's chequered fortunes, as well
as that of the seductive and dangerous figure of the female genius/performer
that it conjured up for its British audience across the long eighteenth
and nineteenth century. These essays clarify the pleasures and dangers
of identification with Corinne and its author at particular historical
conjunctures, but also how complicated the response of admirers and
detractors alike could be, unsettling gender for men and women. Orianne
Smith opens her essay by noting that the figure of the eighteenth-century
Italian improvisatrice, Corilla, among others, was associated
with classic visionaries, and was, in this Delphic mode an acceptable
icon of female genius. By the late eighteenth century, Smith argues,
this "climate of approval disappeared abruptly. What worked for
Corrilla in Italy proved a double-edged sword for Romantic women writers
in England" who now drew on themselves charges of "immorality
and enthusiasm" echoing fears about female intrusion into public
life that harked back to the female prophets of the English Civil War.
While de Staël celebrates a cosmopolitan plurality in Corinne,
Angela Wright argues that reviews and translations and parodies work
to emphasise the contrast and incompatibility between the national characters
of "Great Britain and Italy, the extremes of civilised Europe."
This is especially true, Sylvia Bordoni argues, in Foster's The Corinna
of England (1809) which rewrites the novel with a timid, conventional
English heroine as its heroine, and an eccentric, self-vaunting anti-heroine,
without artistic or intellectual genius as its mock-Corinne. Kate Davies,
in a fascinating exploration of Emma Hamilton's dramatic career and
its reception, contrasts the "turn-of-the-Nineteenth-Century idea
of femininity as performance, pantomime and picturesque display,"
an idea fraught with its own confusions and contradictions, with the
specific critique of woman-as-spectacle in Corinne. In Ann Gardiner's
essay Byron's rereading of the Sante Croce passage in Corinne
in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, together with his musings on the
gender of posthumous fame in the wake of de Staël's death, suggests
how unassimilable the idea of female genius was for male romantic writers.
That sense of matter (and spirit) out of place trails Corinne
throughout the century. By the late nineteenth century, Emma Francis
argues, the "political model represented by Madame de Staël
and Corinne," in which the feminineand the affect surrounding
itas itself a vital influence in art and politics, had decisively
gone out of fashion. What Barrett Browning had perhaps admired in her
use of the "woman's figure," and her defence of a transformative
poetics, now seemed like a dated essentialism, a kind of embarrassment
for women seeking a full civil parity. Yet, as Francis also suggests
through her suggestive discussion of the popularity of the late nineteenth
century text, The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff, the changing
configuration of "the woman of genius" continued to be disruptive,
perhaps becoming more so as women moved closer to civic parity with
- Encountering Corinne in the late 1970's near the beginning
of my life as an academic in the chilly south of England, but with an
abandoned career as an actress in my native United States behind me
(a passionately wished-for vocation that met with the silent disapproval
of my intellectual parents who thought it a misuse of my talents), de
Staël's text struck an entirely personal note. Much as I loved
its "daughter," Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, through
which I had encountered Corinne, its religiosity and political
conservatism impeded my identification with its post-Corinne
poet heroine. Corinne, messier and sexier, with its tragic ending,
felt more like the revolutionary and performative real thing. It still
does. The cosmopolitan horizon that is the utopian element of de Staël's
dystopian tale of genius, thwarted love, national provincialism and
misogyny, and even more at the heart of de Staël's dynamic personal
role in French and European letters still recedes, tantalizingly, as
one seems to approach it.
Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall, Family fortunes : men and women
of the English middle class, 1780-1850. London, Hutchinson, 1987.
Cora Kaplan (University of Southampton)