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Every Tuesday evening in the early years of the revolution, Germaine de Staël held a small dinner at her hôtel in the rue du Bac, on Paris's left bank. She invited a catholic assortment of liberal, anglophile nobles, their glamorous wives and mistresses, and ambitious young men of middling rank. 'Go hence to Mme de Staël's,' wrote Gouverneur Morris, the one-legged American envoy to Paris, in his apple-green journal in January 1791. 'I meet here the world.'
For Germaine's guests, these evenings were a chance to discuss the latest news: books, plays, affairs and, above all, politics, the shared obsession of the day. Thomas Jefferson, a frequent visitor to the rue du Bac, called Paris in 1788 a 'furnace of politics . . . men, women and children talk nothing else'. In the words of a foreign observer, the entire country felt 'that they were on the eve of some great revolution'. For Germaine, her salons, combining her three passions—love, Paris and power—were 'the noblest pleasure of which human nature is capable'.
'We breathed more freely, there was more air in our lungs,' she wrote of this optimistic period; 'the limitless hope of infinite happiness had gripped the nation, as it takes hold of men in their youth, with illusion and without foresight'. If her friend the marquis de Talleyrand could say that no one who had not lived before 1789 could know the true sweetness of living, then Germaine could equally truly declare that for her, nothing could compare to the exquisite flavour of those days between 1788 and 1791 when she was in love and believed a new France was being created withinthe four gold-embroidered walls of her drawing-room.
Germaine de Staël was twenty-three in July 1789, the month that her father Jacques Necker, on-and-off Finance Minister to Louis XVI, was sacked by the king. Louis's powers permitted him to appoint, dismiss and banish ministers at will, so there was nothing unusual in this; what was unusual this time was the response it provoked.
Necker had made himself unpopular at court by advising the king to make wide-ranging changes to his archaic administration, urging modernization (particularly of the system of taxation, which weighed most heavily on the poor) and greater accountability to the French people. He had encouraged the king to summon the Estates-General, France's only national representative assembly, for the first time since 1614 and, partly at his daughter's urging, argued that the three estates (clergy, nobles and commons, known respectively as the First, Second and Third Estates) should vote individually - thus preventing the nobles and clergy from grouping together to block the Third Estate's demands.
Hard-line royalists, who feared the changes sweeping France, were convinced Necker would betray the king to his people, and welcomed his downfall. In the royal council, two days before Necker was dismissed, the king's brother, the comte d'Artois, told the minister to his face that he ought to be hanged; on the same day, in Paris, a well dressed woman was publicly spanked for spitting on his portrait.
Necker's defiant attitude towards the king had prompted his discharge and cemented his status as a popular hero; his reputation for financial acumen was matched only by his reputation for probity. Reformers who idolized him saw his expulsion as a manifestation of outmoded arbitrary power and an unwelcome confirmation of the king's distaste for reform. They rallied to the cause of their champion.
News of Necker's dutifully silent departure from Versailles reached Paris on Sunday, 12 July. A large crowd had gathered in the Palais Royal, as it did every Sunday, to eat ices, buy caricatures, ribbons or lottery tickets, ogle scantily dressed femmes publiques and magic lantern shows, and listen to orators declaiming against the government. The Palais Royal, owned by the king's cousin the duc d'Orléans, was a vast, newly built piazza surrounded by colonnaded shops, theatres and cafés. By the mid-1780s, protected from police regulation by its royal owner and encouraged by that owner's well known antipathy to the court party at Versailles, it had become a city within a city, a place where anything could be seen, said or procured, and the centre of popular opposition to royal abuses.
On that July afternoon the crowd gathered around a passionate young journalist, Camille Desmoulins, who stood on a table urging his fellow-citizens to rise up against the king's 'treachery' in sacking Necker. 'To arms, to arms,' he cried; 'and,' seizing a leafy branch from one of the chestnut trees that edged the Palais Royal, 'let us all take a green cockade, the colour of hope.' With Desmoulins carried triumphantly aloft, the shouting, clamouring, bell-ringing mob surged on to the streets to search Paris for the weapons that would transform them into an army.
The king was not unprepared for this type of rising; indeed, one of the underlying causes for the popular uproar that greeted Necker's dismissal was distrust of the troops—about a third of whom were Swiss or German soldiers rather than French—with which Louis had been quietly surrounding Paris during late June and early July as preparation for a show of force that would silence his critics for good. But the democratic germs of patriotism and reform that had infected the French people had penetrated as far as the lower ranks of the army, for so long a bastion of aristocratic privilege and tradition, and their leaders' response to the crisis was hesitant. The Palais Royal mob, by evening numbering perhaps six thousand, met a cavalry unit of the Royal-Allemands at the Place Vendome and the Place Louis XV (later, Place de la Révolution, and still later Place de la Concorde) just to the north-west of the Tuileries palace, and, reinforced by the popular Paris-based gardes françaises, forced the German and Swiss soldiers, in the early hours of 13 July, to retreat from the city centre. After a day of chaos and . . .Liberty. Copyright © by Lucy Moore. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.