Madame de Stael

Madame de Stael

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by Maria Fairweather

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The influence of the salons of Paris on the thought and culture of the eighteenth century would be difficult to overstate. They were both intellectual powerhouses and also assemblies where the latest and most extreme fashion was displayed.

'Young gallants...wearing silk waistcoats embroidered with Chinese pagodas, making love to ladies reclining negligently


The influence of the salons of Paris on the thought and culture of the eighteenth century would be difficult to overstate. They were both intellectual powerhouses and also assemblies where the latest and most extreme fashion was displayed.

'Young gallants...wearing silk waistcoats embroidered with Chinese pagodas, making love to ladies reclining negligently against the cushions...or accepting small cups of chocolate from the hands of Negro pages', thus Harold Nicolson describes the drawings of the time in his book "The Age of Reason". These meeting places for the vanguard of society were presided over by a succession of brilliantly clever women, the salonieres, and the most brilliant and clever of all of them was Madame de Stael.

Although she died at the age of 51 she filled her life to the brim, and enjoyed a hugely influential role among the great names of the day. Born Germaine Necker, in Paris on 22 April 1766, her father was a powerful banker and her mother a Swiss pastor's daughter who never got over her good fortune in marrying a rich man. In 1786 Germaine was married to a secretary in the Swedish embassy called de Stael, but although she thought him 'a perfect gentleman' she also found him dull and clumsy. She began to take lovers - the Vicomte de Narbonne and possibly Talleyrand - and then Benjamin Constant, in whom she at last met her intellectual equal.

In 1806 her novel "Delphine" was published. It was an instant success and praised by Goethe and Byron, among others. Her salon thronged with glittering visitors including The Tsar, Talleyrand,and Wellington. Maria Fairweather gives an entrancing account of this vanished world, so merciless to outsiders, but for those of the inner circle incomparably glamorous and exciting.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
At one time, it was said that “there are three great powers in Europe: Britain, Russia and Madame de Staël.” Outspoken, childish, intelligent, she lived in a tornado of social engagements, political intrigue, literary work, and love affairs. Fairweather’s biography rewardingly chronicles her long career, from busy days at the court of Louis XVI through the French Revolution, the Terror, and the rise and fall of the Napoleonic empire. Growing up, she knew Gibbon, Diderot, and D’Alembert, and met Voltaire; later her circle included Talleyrand, Wellington, Goethe, Schiller, and Byron. Her temperament was legendarily volcanic. Talleyrand, hearing that she had professed herself baffled that he could have married his unintellectual wife, commented, “To understand the full value of such peace of mind, one would have to have lived under the same roof as Madame de Staël for a month!”
Publishers Weekly
"At Madame de Stael's this evening I meet the world," wrote early American statesman Gouverneur Morris, and British biographer Fairweather's expansive biography of Germaine de Sta l (1766-1817) rightly focuses on the salon as backdrop to French literary and political intrigues of the 18th and 19th centuries. The salons-where the great men of politics and culture gathered during and after the ancien r gime-were often a woman's only avenue of influence, and Mme. de Sta l's gatherings included the most brilliant politicians, writers and artists of her day, including Chateaubriand, Talleyrand and Lafayette. Fairweather digs deep into de Stael's past to contextualize her rise from daughter of a self-made Swiss banker, a former finance minister to Louis XVI, and a Protestant governess whom he married, to author and hostess of one of Paris's leading salons. The result is a complicated portrait of a passionate woman well versed in Enlightenment philosophy, German literature and Calvinism, whose outspokenness pitted her against France's extreme factions-the royalists, the Jacobins-and eventually Napoleon, leading to her exile in Geneva. But this did not deter her from challenging France's leaders from afar or continuing her fruitful literary life. Fairweather (The Pilgrim Princess) offers an extensively researched history; however, only dedicated students of French culture and literature may have the fortitude to wade into this almost over-rich tome. Illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In this mammoth work of love and scholarship, British biographer Fairweather (The Pilgrim Princess, 2001) delves into the fascinating, turbulent life of the French stateswoman and author. With her education firmly rooted in the 18th-century Enlightenment while her heart and literary imagination strained always toward the melancholy thoughtfulness of early-19th-century Romanticism, Germaine Necker de Stael (1766-1817) witnessed and influenced the extraordinary events of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. As the privileged, well-educated only daughter of Louis XVI's brilliant Protestant minister, Swiss banker Jacques Necker, Germaine possessed the intelligence and political savvy of her beloved father, yet because she was a woman (and ugly by the standards of the day) had to wield her power behind the scenes. Her dazzling salons were dedicated to bringing royalists and republicans together toward the high-minded goal of liberal idealism. Through an arranged and increasingly unhappy marriage to Swedish ambassador Eric de Stael, she enjoyed some diplomatic protection during the Revolution, jockeying to get her friends and lovers into positions of power. Fairweather's exciting account of the precipitous events of 1789 and onward is jam-packed with personalities revealed through snippets of constantly circulating letters. Through all the noise and turmoil, Madame de Stael's enthusiastic and indomitable spirit emerges: demanding and protective of lovers like Louis de Narbonne and Talleyrand (who abandoned her to appease her nemesis, Napoleon); often heedless of public opinion (such as when bearing her lovers' children); besotted of her superhuman father and manipulative of intellectualcollaborators such as Benjamin Constant, who fell wildly in love with her and kept boredom at bay during her exile in Geneva. Though Fairweather's treatment of de Stael's literary work is a bit sketchy, her thoroughness in every other respect is heartening, and her devotion to her subject leaves never a dull moment here. An intimate, thrilling walk through Revolutionary Paris.

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Little, Brown Book Group
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Meet the Author

Maria Fairweather is author of The Pilgrim Princess: A Life of Princess

Volkonsky (1999): 'Vibrant and passionately human', TLS.

Maria Fairweather also wrote The Pilgrim Princess: A Life of Princess Volkonsky.

Maria Fairweather is married to the recently retired British ambassador to Italy. This is her first book.

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