Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library
  PREVIOUSNEXT  

CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · QUICK INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHIES
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · PORTRAITS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Madame de Staël (1766–1817)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN the very interesting and admirable notice of Madame de Staël by her cousin, Madame Necker de Saussure, it is said: “The works of Madame de Staël seem to belong to the future. They indicate, as they also tend to produce, a new epoch in society and in letters; an age of strong, generous, living thought,—of emotions springing from the heart:” and there follows a description of the sort of literature to which Madame de Staël’s writings belong,—a literature “more spoken than written,” a literature of spontaneous, informal expression, which appeals to us more intimately and more powerfully than any elaborate and studied composition. This appeal is especially intimate and powerful in Madame de Staël’s pages, because she may be called, perhaps, the first “modern woman.” She had in many respects a tone of mind resembling our own more than it resembled that of the greater number of even the noteworthy men and women of her own day. There is a much greater moral distance between her and her immediate predecessors in society and in literature, than between her and her immediate successors—whether in France or elsewhere. This kinship with the last half of the nineteenth century, and with other modes of thought than those of her own country, is partly due to her Protestant form of faith. She cared little for dogmas, but the fibre of her being had been fed by liberal Protestant thought. From this cause chiefly, though there were others also, arose a striking contrast between the tone of her mind and that of her great contemporary Chateaubriand. Their opinions on all subjects were affected and colored by their religious opinions. He is now remote from us, he is read as “a classic”: she comes close to us, and inspires us with friendly emotions.  1
  To be in advance of one’s age, if one is a genius, is to tread a sure path to immortality; but if, like Madame de Staël, one is only the possessor of intellectual ability, it is the straight road to forgetfulness. Those who come after us take little interest in hearing their own ideas expressed less effectively than they themselves are expressing them; and so it happens that the world of letters now takes too little account of Madame de Staël, while her own times were incompetent to judge her. We do not value her enough: they did not value her rightly. The false and brilliant light thrown upon her by the enmity of Napoleon, obscured rather than revealed what was really interesting and noble in her; while the assumption that because there was a masculine scope and strength in her intelligence she had a masculine nature, has completely confused her image. She was not precisely feminine, but she was essentially a woman; and her most admirable powers, her highest successes, her real importance to the world, lie in the fact that her thoughts passed from her brain through a woman’s heart. It must be confessed it did not always make them wiser thoughts; but it invested them with a sincerity and an ardor that give the force of fine passion to studies in politics and in literature. For these studies in politics and in literature are at bottom studies in sociology,—that science whose name was unknown, while its foundations were being laid by the promoters, the victims, the critics of the French Revolution; the science whose students are lovers of humanity.  2
  This noble title is one to which Madame de Staël has full right. She is a leader in the great army of those who love, who honor, and who desire to serve their kind: one of those leaders who disseminate their principles and communicate their emotions, but who give no positive counsels; who show their quality chiefly by their love of liberty and their love of light. Wherever she saw the traces of liberty or the track of light, she followed fearlessly. And therefore it is, that as one of the last and one of the ablest of her critics—M. Albert Sorel—has remarked (in the excellent study of her published in the series of ‘Les Grands Écrivains Français’), few writers have exercised in so many different directions, so prolonged an influence. She had during her life, and she continues to have after her death, an immense power of inspiring other souls with lofty aspirations and high thoughts.  3
  It is chiefly the qualities of her character that make her writings now worth reading. Her character illuminates the whole mass. Many of her pages would be dull and empty to the reader of to-day, if it were not that every sentence—involuntarily but unrestrainedly—reveals the writer. She recognized this herself, and said: “When one writes for the satisfaction of the inward inspiration that takes possession of the soul, the writings make known, even without intending it, the writer’s mental conditions, of every kind and degree.” Between the lines of her own writings her whole life may be read; not her life of thought only, but her life of action.  4
  This life of action, of incessant humane action on others, and with and for others, was of too complicated a character, and involved too many relations, to be narrated here save in the most general terms. The supreme affections of her life were, from birth to death, for her father, and during twenty years for her lover, Benjamin Constant. These two passions colored her whole existence: her ardent love and admiration for her father supplied unfailing nutriment to her heart, and her enthusiasm for Benjamin Constant (of which he was little worthy) stimulated her intellect to its most brilliant achievements. Too much stress can hardly be laid on the ennobling effects on her character of her father’s influence. He can scarcely be called a great man; but she fervently adored him with the deepest gratitude all his life, and after his death, in a singularly delightful intimacy of relation.  5
  As her father’s daughter, and from her own noble powers, she became one of the most conspicuous figures in the party of the constitutional reformers, and was more or less drawn into political affairs. But she never threw herself into the current; she never left her salon, whatever was going on outside; and when the earthquake of the Revolution came and her four walls fell, she could find no refuge in any party lines. She was from first to last a witness of political events rather than an actor in them; a witness of most exceptional quality, who could distinguish in the confused and troubled present the old instincts of the past and the new beliefs of the future, and could indicate in lasting lines the meaning of the passing day.  6
  This is the more remarkable because, woman-like, she was always more interested in persons than in purposes,—in the actors than in the actions: and while her sympathies were strong for “the people,” she hardly took count of “the State” in the abstract; the word rarely occurs in her writings. The establishment of guarantees of political liberty was what her political friends strove for; and as M. Sorel points out, this enlightened demand was not quite the same as the blind demand for civil liberty and its concomitants, which inspired the passions of the great majority of Frenchmen. It was the latter cause and not the former that was gained by the Revolution; and consequently the political interests of Madame de Staël were only a source of disappointment and suffering to her, complicated as they were with the political disgrace of her father, his unpopularity, and the oblivion into which he fell.  7
  After the Revolution broke out, she lived for the most part at Coppet, her father’s Swiss home. An object of bitter enmity first to the Directory, later to the First Consul, and afterward to Napoleon when Emperor, she was exiled from Paris from 1792 to 1814. During these years she visited England, Germany, and Italy, studying the politics of England, the literature of Germany, the art of Italy, and embodying her thorough researches in one remarkable book after another. She was one of the first in date, and is still among the first in ability, of cosmopolitan writers and thinkers. Her appreciation of the intellectual achievements of other lands than France was stigmatized in her own day as a lack of patriotism; and at this moment—since the German War—Madame de Staël is esteemed the less by many of her countrymen for what students consider her chief claim to honor, her recognition of the high rank to be assigned to German thought and to German men of letters. This is perhaps the best service her generous mind rendered her country; and it is a true expression of her character.  8
  When at Coppet she was the brilliant hostess of brilliant guests; most of them celebrated men, many of them affectionate friends, many of them admiring strangers. There were often a company of thirty persons collected in the château; and frequently among them Benjamin Constant. It was when he was there that Madame de Staël’s genius as a talker—and this was her greatest genius—shone most vividly and intensely. It is said that no one ever stimulated her to such marvelous achievements in conversation as he—whom she speaks of as “gifted with one of the most remarkable minds that nature ever bestowed on any man.” Nothing, Sainte-Beuve reports from those who were present, was ever so dazzling and consummate as the manner in which, hours long, they tossed the shuttlecock of thought between them, with inimitable ease and grace and gayety.  9
  Even in her books Madame de Staël is rather a great talker than a great writer; and her writings are only rightly read when read as eager and prolonged conversations. They are not even monologues: they demand constantly the co-operation of the reader’s responsive intelligence. Her habits of life are in some measure an explanation of this: they were fitted to develop a “great style” in a talker, but not in a writer. Her books were written rapidly: sometimes when she was at Coppet, she wrote surrounded by her many guests, gayly meeting all interruptions half-way; when she was traveling, she wrote “on the road.” Her writings fill seventeen octavo volumes, and the list of them mounts to some thirty numbers.  10
  Sainte-Beuve in one of his fervent essays on Madame de Staël, remarking that as the personal remembrances of her die out, her fame rests only on her works, continues in a passage which may well be prefixed to selections from her books:—
          “Her writings only are left to us; and they need to be filled out, to be explained: their greatest charm and power is when they are considered in the mass; and it is scarcely possible to detach one page from the others. The phrases even do not retain their meaning when read separately; they must not be displaced…. She needs more than other writers to be read with friendly, intelligent eyes. Let me take, for example, the most celebrated of her phrases, if it can be called so,—that in which her life is summed up:—‘I have always been the same: full of life and full of sadness; I have loved God, my father, and Liberty.’ How emotional, how suggestive: but how elliptical! She has always been the same, ‘vive et triste’: but she has been many things besides, and that must be added; she does not say so. ‘Dieu et la liberté’ is lofty, is the noblest aspiration; but ‘mon père’ inserted there between Dieu and la liberté creates a sort of enigma, or at least is a singularity, and demands explanation. When these words were uttered by her, she was mortally ill and fading away: at that moment they must have seemed admirable, and they were so; but only when there is added to them the illumination of her look, of her expression, of her accent. Her words constantly need that to fill them out; her pen did not complete them; there lacks almost always to her written phrase some indescribable accompaniment. This is perhaps an added reason for the refined reader to delight in it: there is a pleasure in imaginatively conceiving the appropriate gesture and accent. Sensitive souls enjoy such occasions of exercising their sensitiveness.”
  11
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.