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When they first met in 1794, shortly after the Reign of Terror, Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant were both in their twenties, both married, and both outsiders. She was already celebrated and a published writer, whereas he, though ambitious, was unknown. This compelling dual biography tells the extraordinary story of their union and disunion, set against a European background of momentous events and dramatic social and cultural change. Renee Winegarten offers new perspectives on each of the protagonists, ...
When they first met in 1794, shortly after the Reign of Terror, Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant were both in their twenties, both married, and both outsiders. She was already celebrated and a published writer, whereas he, though ambitious, was unknown. This compelling dual biography tells the extraordinary story of their union and disunion, set against a European background of momentous events and dramatic social and cultural change. Renee Winegarten offers new perspectives on each of the protagonists, revealing their rare qualities and their all-too-human failings as well as the complex nature of their debt to one another.
Their passionate and productive relationship endured on and off for seventeen years. Winegarten traces their story largely through their own words—letters and autobiographical writings—and illuminates the deep intellectual and visceral bond they shared despite disparate personalities and gifts. Exploring their relationships with Napoleon and the Bourbons, their different responses to the momentous upheavals of postrevolutionary France, their support of individual liberty with order, and more, the book concludes with an appreciation of de Staël’s and Constant’s singular contributions to a new literature and to the history of liberty.
This "dual biography" is the first full-length exploration of the tempestuous 17-year partnership between Madame de Stael, the most celebrated woman writer of the Napoleonic period, and up-and-coming liberal politician, journalist, and theorist Benjamin Constant. Literary critic Winegarten (Accursed Politics) uses letters, diaries, and published accounts to reveal the pair's innermost thoughts and feelings on love, marriage, and politics, skillfully interweaving the story of their parallel lives against the backdrop of the social and political maneuverings of post-revolutionary France. While the two were never a married couple, they consulted, advised, inspired, and used each other, and each responded in distinct ways to the new Napoleonic order. At times, the complexities of French politics in this period may make the book difficult to follow for all but the most engaged and informed readers, yet Winegarten's recounting of the nature of this partnership and clear examination of the pair's political ideas, writings, and emotions make her book an important contribution to the field. The author concludes that despite their private shortcomings, these two should be remembered and admired for their key contributions to Western liberalism in its formative phase. Students of French literary and cultural history will best appreciate this highly readable, if occasionally complex, narrative. Recommended for academic collections and large public libraries.
—Marie Marmo Mullaney
It was "by chance," Benjamin Constant was later to affirm, that he met for the first time a great celebrity. Filtering his own experience through that of the narrator of his unfinished autobiographical novel Cécile, he described his encounter with "the most famous person of our age through her writings and her conversation. I had never seen anything comparable." That encounter between Benjamin Constant and Germaine de Staël, daughter of Jacques Necker, the egregious former finance minister to Louis XVI, was to have an enduring influence on his life-as it did on hers-and on the course of European literary culture and political thought. It was Benjamin who would make the first moves in a strange, mutually enriching, and ultimately stormy relationship. The tie between these two brilliant innovators and advocates of "the new ideas" lasted nearly seventeen years, marking him even after her death and leaving their names permanently entwined in the eyes of posterity.
When they met for the first time, on September 18, 1794, neither of them was in the first flush of youth. She was born in Paris of Swiss parentage on April 22, 1766; he was born inLausanne of Swiss parentage on October 25, 1767. They were both in their late twenties, she being slightly the elder. They were neither inexperienced nor unattached. Both were married.
The excesses of the French Revolution could not be far from anyone's mind, for their first meeting took place about two months after the fall of Robespierre and the end of the Terror in France. The occasion was a social gathering at Montchoisi in Switzerland, the pleasant country retreat of Benjamin's cousin, Constance Cazenove d'Arlens, and her husband. Montchoisi was situated on a hillside just outside Lausanne, overlooking gardens, meadows, and Lake Geneva. The autumn air in that region of the Canton of Vaud was balmy and pure. Germaine had just come from taking a sad farewell of her secret lover, the handsome Swedish republican conspirator Count Adolph Ribbing, who had been involved in the plot to assassinate Gustavus III and had departed to settle in Denmark. At that moment her thoughts were full of Ribbing.
Germaine had been friendly with Constance Cazenove d'Arlens for many years and knew her cousin Rosalie de Constant, yet she had never met their first cousin, Benjamin. Indeed, there was no reason why the celebrated Germaine de Staël, with her glittering connections among noted thinkers and writers of the Enlightenment as well as among crowned heads in France and Sweden and the highest ranks of the French aristocracy, should have been aware of Benjamin. He moved, as it were, on the fringes of her acquaintance and had been living abroad for several years at the court of the Duke of Brunswick.
Benjamin, however, was certainly aware of Mme de Staël even before he met her, and he was not at all favorably inclined toward her after hearing all the malicious tittle-tattle about "la trop célèbre" that was current in his family circle in Lausanne. When he was in Paris in the 1780s, living ostensibly under the guardianship of the eminent writer and publisher Jean-Baptiste Suard, who was a long-standing friend of the Neckers and their daughter, he could easily have been presented to her. Benjamin's adventurous cousin, Charles de Constant, known as "Chinese Constant" because of his travels to the Far East, was in Paris at the same time, and he took the opportunity to visit her in her new salon on several occasions. But Charles had been bored there, feeling that nobody took much notice of him among the crowd, and he made adverse comments about Mme de Staël, although he admitted that she had spoken kindly to him. Perhaps Charles's disgruntled view of her as a pedantic parvenue dissuaded Benjamin from attempting to meet her. In 1793, a year before the fateful encounter with Germaine, Benjamin roundly declared that he was not interested in the lady: "I shall not be running after Mme de Staehl [sic]. I do not know what to say to someone who does not interest me." In a separate statement, he reaffirmed his total indifference: "I have not seen Mme de Staël, nor am I curious about her."
While in Paris, early in 1787, Benjamin had met and had fallen under the influence of the embittered Dutch-born novelist Isabelle de Zuylen, Mme de Charrière, familiarly known as Belle. Theirs was a warm platonic relationship between an ambitious young man and a distinguished female author twice his age. Belle, the author of Caliste, a novel that Germaine deeply admired, did not care for Germaine or her writings. When, in August 1793, Germaine called in person at Belle's home, a manor house at Colombier, and lavished praise on her work, Belle let Benjamin know that she had little esteem for Mme de Staël, her story "Zulma," or her essay on the trial of Marie Antoinette, which she found ill written and inappropriate. Benjamin shared Belle's poor opinion of Germaine's apology for the unfortunate queen, considering it affected when it should have been moving, and he said nothing at the time to counter Belle's snide remarks about Germaine. The aristocratic Mme de Charrière was impressed by Germaine's powers of speech, seduced and charmed by her amiable manner, but, she said, the charm did not last. According to Belle, later remembering Germaine's visit, there her caller was, "priding herself on her wit as if she had none, on titled friends as if M. de Staël had picked her up yesterday at a dressmaker's, and on Paris society like some provincial female who had spent only six weeks there.... She is a woman who is pleasant to listen to, but it would be madness to want to have any closer connection with her than with Molé [Jean-François Molé, a well-known actor at the Comédie Française] when he is playing brilliantly the most attractive role possible. No reality is to be found there. We shall often amuse ourselves recalling her together." All the same, Belle felt that it was high time Benjamin met her. Indeed, she urged him to see Mme de Staël as "a curiosity." She had no idea of the tremendous impression that the living and breathing Germaine would make on him.
A rude awakening was in store for Belle, however, as she was about to see herself supplanted by another. On September 26, a week after his first meeting with Germaine, Benjamin decided to call on his new acquaintance at her family mansion at Coppet, just outside Geneva. "My trip to Coppet was pretty successful," he informed Belle excitedly. Not having found Germaine at home, he galloped after her, caught up with her carriage, and was invited to join her. "I settled myself in her carriage, and traveled here with her from Nyon, supped, breakfasted, dined, supped, breakfasted again with her, so that I saw her very closely and, above all, heard her. It seems to me that you judge her very severely," he told Belle. "I believe her to be very energetic, very imprudent, very talkative, but also kind, trusting and confiding in others in good faith. One proof that she is not solely a talking machine is the lively interest she takes in those of her acquaintance who are suffering." He cited as an example of Germaine's humanitarian instincts how, after three vain and costly attempts, she had succeeded in rescuing a woman who detested her from the prisons of the Revolution in France. This was in all likelihood vicomtesse de Laval, erstwhile mistress of Germaine's former lover, comte Louis de Narbonne. Benjamin did not yet realize the extent of Germaine's secret maneuvers to rescue her friends and acquaintances and support them now that they were refugees.
He went on, trying to convince Belle that Germaine's positive qualities had been overlooked, that she used her energy "to do good. And so I believe her to be more than a Molé, and I am not convinced that she lacks reality." As a concession to Belle, however, he echoed part of her criticism: "What you say of her absurdities is true. She quotes great aristocrats like a newly arrived parvenue, and, as you say, she talks of Parisian society like a woman from the provinces. But I do not think that she prides herself on her wit. She feels that she has a good deal of it, she has a great need to talk, to confide in others, recognizing neither limit nor prudence. That is perhaps the source of what you hold against her, if your reproach is founded. She praises people too much because she wants to please them in order to confide in them unreservedly. When they are no longer there she naturally retraces her steps. It cannot really be called a betrayal." He added, significantly, "I am far from thinking about a relationship because she is surrounded by too much company, she is too active, too preoccupied; but this is the most interesting acquaintance I have made in a long time." The idea of a relationship, then, had already crossed his mind only a few days after meeting her.
What Germaine and Benjamin discussed during their succession of breakfasts, dinners, and suppers is not known, apart from one telling item: the freedom of the press. In Benjamin's account to Belle, Germaine expressed surprise that a certain paper, Le Tableau de la dernière quinzaine, had not been closed down. She and her beloved father, Jacques Necker, had been badly treated in its pages. Worse still in her eyes, this journal favored her bête noire, Robespierre, and the Jacobin Terror, which she excoriated. Nonetheless, Benjamin spoke up for the unrestricted freedom of the press-it was indeed one of his first principles and would remain so to the end. Germaine did not hold his opinion against him, said Benjamin; on the contrary, she tolerated the way that he opposed her vigorously in public, in the middle of a grand dinner at Rolle, on a subject that touched her amour propre and her peace of mind. (She was probably more concerned, in fact, about the attack on her father than that on herself.) In Benjamin's view, she had shown merely "an intolerant intention," and in any case, unbeknownst to them at the time, the paper had indeed been silenced. Here he was, already hastening to her defense, as he would often have occasion to do in the future.
By October 21, Benjamin was finding it impossible to agree at all with his old friend's opinions of his new friend. In particular, he defended Germaine's taste for lavishing praise on all and sundry: "On the contrary, since I know her better, I have great difficulty in not ceaselessly singing her praises, and displaying my interest and my admiration to everyone I address. I have rarely seen a similar combination of astonishing and attractive qualities, so much brilliance, rightness, so wide and active a benevolence, so much generosity, a form of courtesy so gentle and constant in society, so much charm, simplicity, lack of constraint in her intimate circle." Carried away by his enthusiasm at being received privately along with her close friends, Benjamin added tactlessly, "She is the second woman I have encountered who could have replaced the whole world for me. You know who was the first." This unfortunate remark was hardly likely to placate Belle. A proud woman does not like to hear that she is not unique and that she has a successor-especially after having been told that she is herself one of a kind. "How much I love you! How I feel that you alone suit me completely," he had told Belle only a few months earlier. Now he informed her that "Mme de Staël has infinitely more wit in intimate conversation than in society: she knows how to listen-something neither you nor I imagined-and she responds to the wit of others with as much pleasure as to her own. She brings out those of whom she is fond with her clever, acute attentiveness, something that proves as much kindness as intelligence. Finally, she is a Being apart, a superior Being, one of a kind perhaps to be found in a hundred years, so that those who associate with her, know her, and count themselves her friends, should not ask for any other form of happiness." In short, in the course of a few weeks, Benjamin had fallen passionately under her spell. But it would be a very long time before his feelings were returned.
Notably, in the course of his dithyramb Benjamin made no mention of Germaine's physical attributes or attractiveness. He would not share his views on that aspect until many years later, and after many vicissitudes, by way of Cécile. Instead, he concentrates on her extraordinary gifts of intelligence, charm, charisma, and infinite good-heartedness. It was generally agreed that Germaine was not beautiful by the standards of the day. Her father had candidly told her so and advised her to concentrate on her intelligence. Since intellect was commonly regarded as a masculine preserve, she was seen as lacking in feminine qualities, meaning softness and pliability. She was dark when the beauties of the day were fair, her build was stocky rather than svelte, her movements forceful rather than elegant. All were agreed, however, on her marvelously expressive eyes: they were "exceptionally magnificent," according to her cousin, Albertine Necker de Saussure. Then there was the fascinating way she talked, which made her listeners forget everything else. The fine "speaking" portrait by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, thought to date from 1790-1792, just a few years before Benjamin met her, shows her with fashionable shoulder-length, free-flowing hair, wearing a high-waisted muslin dress fastened under the breast with a cameo set on a wide velvet ribbon. The portrait may well be flattering, for Isabey was a friend, but it is nonetheless wonderfully animated, perhaps the only portrait to capture that particular quality of hers.
And what did Mme de Staël think of Benjamin Constant, who had so rapidly fitted into her brilliant intimate circle? For her, looks were important. She saw a tall, willowy, slightly stooping man who had damaged his eyesight through too much reading by candlelight and whose appearance struck her as distinctly unprepossessing. Some even thought him downright ugly, as did Belle after they had grown distant. All the same, from the start, Germaine considered his intellect so remarkable that she fully expected him to be a great liberal philosopher, a second Montesquieu, a talent capable of producing a work akin to The Spirit of the Laws.
"I found here this evening," she wrote to her distant beloved Count Adolph Ribbing from Montchoisi on September 18, the day of her fateful meeting with Benjamin, "a man of great wit called Benjamin Constant ... not very good looking, but exceptionally intelligent." In short, in modern parlance, Benjamin was not her type, as she wanted to make clear. Besides, Germaine was not unattached; Benjamin had joined a sort of imbroglio that involved the recent arrival in Switzerland of her former idol, Louis de Narbonne, and the departure of her present idol, Adolph Ribbing. Germaine always favored good looks, preferably associated with high birth and physical courage, such as she had found in the comte de Narbonne, a dazzling figure in pre-Revolutionary society, or in the dashing Count Ribbing. By October 8, she was informing Ribbing that she had a new suitor: "I must tell you that M. Benjamin Constant, gentleman attached to the court of His Highness the Duke of Brunswick, twenty-six years old and outstandingly ugly, has fallen in love with your Minette [Germaine's pet name among her family and intimate friends]. We shall keep his letters for you and hide his face, which would add little merit to my sublime indifference." So Germaine, unlike Benjamin, was not launching into raptures. She wanted Ribbing, an infrequent correspondent, to know that someone else valued her love, but that he had no rival and that she was utterly indifferent to Benjamin's attempts to pay court to her. Although the letters from Benjamin to which she refers are lost, some idea of their tenor can be gleaned from the wild and desperate tone of those he later addressed to Anna Lindsay and Juliette Récamier.
During the months that followed, Benjamin's frustrated passion grew in intensity. Germaine had only to be found straightening Ribbing's portrait for Benjamin to fall in a faint. From the mansion she was renting at Mézery, she wrote to Ribbing with a touch of coquetry:
M. Constant, of whom I have already spoken, I think, has conceived a passion for me that is beyond description, he is at death's door and overwhelms me with so much misery that it deprives him of his one charm-a very superior mind-and inflicts on me a kind of compassion that both wearies me and reminds me that my Adolph perhaps never, never loved me so deeply. If you hear that M. Constant, gentleman attached to the court of His Highness the Duke of Brunswick, aged twenty-seven, as red haired as members of the royal house of Hanover, has killed himself at Bois de Céry, which he has just rented in order to spend his life in my garden or in my courtyard, do not believe that it is my fault. I have truly praised him for his work entitled The Spirit of Religions [an early draft of the immense study that was not to be published until many years later] which really reveals a talent comparable to that of Montesquieu; and forgetting entirely that his appearance is an invincible obstacle even for a heart not already yours, he has completely lost his senses.
Excerpted from Germaine de Staël & Benjamin Constant by RENEE WINEGARTEN Copyright © 2008 by Renee Winegarten. Excerpted by permission.
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1 A Chance Encounter 6
2 Prodigies 33
3 A Bold Throw 67
4 Enter the Hero 98
5 A New Order 125
6 Journey into the Unknown 155
7 Corinne and Adolphe 180
8 The Flight to Freedom 218
9 Reunion in Paris - and After 247
10 The Death of Corinne 277