*Staël, Madame de

Baroness of Staël von Holstein

Baroness of Staël von Holstein



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Staël, Madame de

French, 1766–1817
In her most important book of essays, De la litterature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800; The Influence of Literature upon Society) and De l’Allemagne (1810; Of Germany), Germaine Necker, Baroness of Staël von Holstein can be considered a feminist avant la lettre, founder of the sociology of literature, and the first historian of comparative history. In her essays she reveals the spirit of the contemporary European movements she came to know during several exiles as a major opponent of Napoleon. The emerging Romantic generation in particular impressed her considerably. Already in The Influence of Literature upon Society she transformed the opposition between Christian medieval Romanticism and classicism as stated by August Wilhelm Schlegel in his Berlin lectures into an opposition between German folk literature and the classical tradition, discovering along the way the importance of Nordic literature as well as the tension between Northern and Southern within the history of European culture. Contemporary German literature was considered a necessary model for the renewal of French literature. Madame de Stael emphasized the institutional status of literature, considering the literary text as the expression of society and its history, although society was still understood in the sense of a leading social class. She believed the emergence of new literary classes to be a consequence of the emancipation of society from the monarchical system that resulted from the French Revolution. Freedom and emancipation were the new values of literature.
The sociological emphasis of her essays was inherited from the Enlightenment, especially from Montesquieu’s theory of climates and the idea of the influence of literature on religion, habits, and law put forward by Marmontel, whose writings Madame de Staël linked to a Rousseauvian concept of perfectibility. Because of Marmontel’s heritage, René Wellek, for instance, denies the originality of Madame de Staël. Her capacity for coherently synthesizing different sources is obviously a heritage of the Enlightenment, and already Vico, Lessing, and Herder had perceived the influence of people’s moral and social habits on literature. Nevertheless, Madame de Staël focused on the importance of extraliterary factors such as nationality, history, and social institutions in an organic way, claiming a more dynamic theory of literature which takes into account historical processes and adapts classic normative poetics to contemporary needs.
Methodologically, the sociology proposed by Madame de Staël is obviously not modern, since it does not include the consideration of economic factors. Moreover, her concept of history is not historically differentiated. The idea of perfectibility inherited from Rousseau only concerns the ideal of education, and her vision of nations is incomplete (especially concerning Spain). The aim of her essays is nonetheless not the establishment of universal history, but the position of French literature in relation to the literatures of other countries. Her comparative analysis of literary history corresponds with the purpose of defining national character through comparison with representative traditions such as classical literature.
In De l’Allemagne, a more meticulous work about German culture, de Staël plays the role of opinion leader for European intellectuals. Through the portraits and reportages (in the sense of modern interviews) as well as résumés of books contained in these essays, Madame de Staël influenced the image of Germans in France and throughout Europe.
The emerging Romantic generation in Germany is presented as an idyllic republic of poets and erudite people working enthusiastically on the establishment of modern thinking during the crisis of the ancient social structures in Europe. Her image of Germans was partially a compendium of French common opinions, but more interesting than these stereotypes are her sociological arguments. She attributed what she saw as Germans’ lack of taste and esprit as well as their inaccurate linguistic style (all of this in spite of their profound intellectual work) to both the nonexistence of a capital and the separation of court life and intellectuals.
Madame de Staël’s essayistic style is extremely personal, resulting from discussions within the literary gatherings at her family residence at Coppet on Lake Geneva. Her portraits, particularly in De l’Allemagne, are a casual “montage” of impressions, a detailed reportage including quotations from texts (which she translated), as well as a mixture of information and meditations about German philosophy and religion and about questions on literary theory, though she did not examine music and the arts.


Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne de Staël von Holstein. Born 22 April 1766 in Paris. Studied privately at home. Grew up attending her mother’s salon. Married Baron Eric Magnus de Staël von Holstein, 1786 (separated, 1800; he died, 1802): one daughter (died in infancy). Opened her own salon, 1787. Affair with Count Louis de Narbonne, 1788–93: two sons. Moved to Coppet on Lake Geneva for part of each year, from 1790; fled to England during the Revolution, 1793. Affair with Benjamin Constant, from 1795: one daughter probably fathered by Constant. Exiled by Napoleon, 1795–96; reopened her salon in Paris, 1797; traveled often to Italy, Austria, Germany, Russia, Sweden, and England, from 1803; exiled by Napoleon for De l’Alletnagne, 1810. Married Jean Rocca secretly, 1811, publicly, 1816: one son. Lived in England, 1813–14; returned to Paris after Napoleon’s defeat, 1814. Died (after a stroke) in Paris, 14 July 1817.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1788; revised edition, 1789
Réflexions sur le procès de la reine, 1793
Réflexions sur la paix, 1795; edited by C.Cordié, 1945
De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations, 1796; edited by Michel Tournier, 1979; as A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and Nations, translated anonymously, 1798
Essai sur les fictions, 1796; edited by Michel Tournier, 1979
De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales, 2 vols., 1800; edited by Paul Van Tieghem, 1959, and Gérard Gengembre and Jean Goldzink, 1991;
as A Treatise on Ancient and Modern Literature, translated anonymously, 1803; as The Influence of Literature upon Society, translated anonymously, 1812
De l’Allemagne, 1810; edited by Jean de Pauge and Simone Balayé, 1958
Réflexions sur le suicide, 1813; as Reflections on Suicide, translated anonymously, 1813
Essais dramatiques, 1821
Madame de Staël on Politics, Literature, and National Character, translated by Morroe Berger, 1964
An Extraordinary Woman: Selected Writings, translated by Vivian Folkenflik, 1987

Other writings: two dramas-in-verse (Sophie, 1790; Jane Grey, 1790), two novels
(Delphine, 4 vols., 1802; Corinne, 3 vols., 1807), two volumes of short stories, a play, books on the French Revolution and on cultural comparisons between France and Germany, and many volumes of correspondence.
Collected works edition: (OEuvres complètes, edited by Auguste-Louis de Staël, 17 vols., 1820–21.

Longchamp, F.-C., L’OEuvre imprimée de Mme. Germaine de Staël, Brussels: Mondeanum, 1966
Schazmann, Paul-Émile, Bibliographie des oeuvres de Madame de Staël, Paris and Neuchâtel: Attinger, 1938

Further Reading
Balayé, Simone, Madame de Staël: Lumières et liberté, Paris: Klincksieck, 1979
Balayé, Simone, Madame de Staël: Écrire, lutter, vivre, Geneva: Droz, 1994
Besser, Gretchen Rous, Germaine de Staël Revisited, New York: Twayne, 1994
Diesbach, Ghislain de, Madame de Staël, Paris: Perrin, 1983
Gutwirth, Madelyn, Avriel Goldberger, and Karyna Szmurlo, editors, Germaine de Staël: Crossing the Borders, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1991
Herold, J.Christopher, Mistress to an Age: A Life of Mme. de Staël, Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1958; London: Hamilton, 1959
Hogsett, Charlotte, The Literary Existence of Germaine de Staël, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987
Isbell, John Claiborne, The Birth of European Romanticism: Truth and Propaganda in Staël’s “De l’Allemagne,” 1810–1813, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994
Posgate, Helen B., Madame de Staël, New York: Twayne, 1968
Winegarten, Renée, Mme. de Staël, Leamington Spa: Berg, 1985

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