S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.
Madame de Staël
[Anne Louise Necker, a celebrated authoress, daughter of Necker the financier; born in Paris, April 22, 1766; married Baron de Staël-Holstein, a Swedish diplomatist, 1786; banished from Paris by Bonaparte, 1802; published Corinne, 1807; De lAllemagne, 1810; returned to Paris after the abdication of Napoleon; died there July, 1817.]
On seeing and hearing praised the Lake of Geneva, after her exile from Paris, she exclaimed, Montrez-moi le ruisseau de la Rue du Bac! Her home had been in the Rue de Grenelle St. Germain, near the Rue du Bac, on the south side of the Seine, in the Faubourg de St. Germain. The word rivulet refers to the stream of fresh water which flows through the gutter of the streets in Paris. It was a cry for home, as compared with the most beautiful foreign landscape. Nature, however, seems to have had no charm for Mme. de Staël. In surprise that M. Molé, minister of Louis XVIII., could love the country, she declared, If it were not for public opinion, I would not open my window to see the Bay of Naples for the first time, while I would go five hundred leagues to talk with a man of sense whom I had not known. The Earl of Essex (15401576), quoted in Boswells Johnson, would rather go a hundred miles to speak with one wise man than five miles to see a fair town. On the other hand, when the precocious Mlle. Necker was asked what she admired most in a visit to Versailles, she replied, I preferred the statues in the garden to the personages of the palace; and when her brother further asked her what harm the visit had done her, she said, To make me feel injustice, and look upon absurdity.
One of the exaggerated expressions called forth by her banishment was, I am the Orestes of exile! (Je suis lOreste dexil!) She compared herself to Orestes, seized with madness and pursued from land to land by the Erinyes of his mother, whom he had slain. At another time her mind reverted to a character in the Inferno, who, after ruling tyrannically in Pisa, was shut up in a tower, where he was starved to death: I seem, she said, in imagination to be in the tower of Ugolino; fatality pursues me: exile is almost death (on est presque mort quand on est exile). Thus Ovid, banished from Rome to the deserts of Sarmatia, cried, Exile is death (Exilium mors est); but Victor Hugo wrote upon the door of his study in Jersey, Exilium vita est (Exile is life). Cicero wrote to Atticus from Thessalonica, Aug. 17, 58 B.C., during his ill-borne banishment: While all other sorrows are mellowed by age, this [exile] can only grow keener day by day, as one thinks of the misery of the present, and looks back on the days that are past. This anticipates
the truth the poet sings,
That a sorrows crown of sorrows is remembering happier things.
(Locksley Hall), where Tennyson translates Dante,
Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Inferno, V. 121.
Exile, says Curran, is the bitterest ingredient of captivity. If Adversity ever becomes a teacher, surely her school ought to be found in exile.Life, 344.
In her opinion, Bonaparte at the outset of his career was a military revolutionist (un Robespierre à cheval). At a later period she said of him, His path lay across virtues and vices, as across mountains and rivers, and he followed it (Il traversait les vertus et les vices comme it traversait les montagnes et les fleuves, parce que cétait son chemin). During the Hundred Days she declared, of the restoration of the Bourbons by foreign arms, If Napoleon triumph, it is all over with liberty: if he succumbs to Europe, national independence is gone (Si Napoléon triomphe, cen est fait de la liberté: sil succombe devant lEurope, cen est fait de lindépendance nationale).
It is related of M. de Lalande, the celebrated astronomer, that, finding himself seated at dinner at Mme. Récamiers between her and Mme. de Staël, he unfortunately remarked, How happy I am to find myself between wit and beauty! to which Mme. de Staël immediately rejoined, And without possessing either! A similar story is told of Adrien de Montmorency, afterwards Duc de Laval, minister of Charles X. at Vienna, that, walking one day with the same ladies in the park of Clichy, and making the same remark as M. de Lalande, Mme. de Staël, who could not bear that the palm of beauty should be adjudged to another, replied, That is the first compliment that was ever paid to my face! (Voilà le premier compliment que je reçois sur ma figure!) The French Ana attribute to Talleyrand a reply to Mme. de Staël as startling as that of Napoleon (vide). She pressed him to say which of two ladies he preferred, herself or Mme. de Fl, each of whom received an equal share of his attentions. The wily diplomatist for a long time succeeded in evading a direct answer, until she exclaimed, Confess now, that if we both fell into the river, I should not be the first you would think of saving.It is quite possible, he replied: you know how to swim (Ma foi, cest bien possible: vous savez nager). Talleyrand was once asked by a friend how he could marry so stupid a woman as Mrs. Grant: Dont you see? he replied, I was so worn out by Mme. de Staëls wit, that I thought I couldnt go too far the other way (jai cru ne pouvoir jamais donner assez dans lexcès contraire).
Mme. de Staël was once asked how she would describe her sensibility, gallantries, and other personal characteristics, in her Memoirs. Oh! she answered, I shall only give a bust of myself.
Her last words were: I have loved God, my father, and liberty.
If I were queen, said Mme. de Tessé, I would order Mme. de Staël to talk to me all day. Others, however, like Talleyrand, listened to her brilliant conversation with mingled admiration and despair; for Goethe declared that she never granted a moments reflection on the most important topics, but persistently demanded that we should despatch the deepest concerns as lightly as if it were a game at shuttlecocks.Wahrheit und Dichtung. Thus she is said to have asked an English statesman to tell her all about the British Constitution in ten minutes. Curran, however, said of her, Mme. de Staël talks herself into a beauty.