Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Madame de Staël - the woman who defied Napoleon

She excelled in the art of conversation, was a writer, a deep thinker and therefore agitator, and was possibly one of Napoleon's greatest enemies. In the early 19th century, while everyone in France submitted to Napoleon's will or else succumbed to his magnetic force, following him into war throughout Europe, one woman saw him for what he really was. Long before the #metoo age, Madame de Staël stands out as a formidable feminine force against the Napoleonic war machine.

In the first decade of the 19th century, Napoleon's censuring policy was at its peak. A special bureau kept an eye on printers, bookstores and newspapers. In 1800 Napoleon closed down sixty political newspapers, leaving just thirteen. In 1811 this was reduced to eight newspapers - almost all of these supporting him. By 1811 the number of publishing houses was limited by law to no more than eighty. Nothing that was unfavourable to the French Republic was tolerated in print. Madame de Staël's profound socio-political observations were seen as a threat to Napoleon's control of the French Empire.

In a time when the ideal woman had to be beautiful, bear children, but keep her ideas to herself, Germaine de Staël was not only out of line, she was a threat. She was not graceful, was quite loud, and liked nothing better than to tell people what she thought...about everything and in a well-spoken manner, whether this be on art, culture, politics or literature. De Staël published essays, books and letters that expounded on her rather modern views even if these opposed or criticised those held by Napoleon. It seemed that nothing would silence her.

In 1803 Napoleon banned Madame de Staël from being within forty leagues of Paris. Despite the fact that she often continued to sneak in and out of France, she found refuge at her chateau in Coppet, Switzerland. There, isolated from friends and often depressed, she held literary salons and invited her guests, many of them writers, to voice their ideas liberally. Napoleon was so wary of her that he had spies sent out to Coppet to intercept letters and continue to watch her.

In December 1806, while in Prussia, Napoleon wrote to his Police Minister, Fouché with no uncertain terms concerning de Staël's escapades into France, "Do not allow that hussy, Madame de Staël, near Paris." In case you might be thinking this was a bit of an in-joke, nope. Napoleon really did not wish de Staël to come near Paris. In March, he followed up on his previous letter with bolder instructions, "You must execute my commands and ensure that Madame de Staël is not allowed within forty leagues of Paris. That wicked intriguer will in time have to learn to take the wisest course." Was Napoleon obsessed with de Staël? Of course. No news is good news but he just could not cease thinking of her. In mid-April, the emperor wrote again with the words "It gives me pleasure that I have heard no more of Madame de Staël. If I take an interest it is because I have facts to back it up. That woman is a real crow..."

On the publication of her novel, Corinne (2006), literary minds lauded de Staël as a genius. Napoleonic press had none of it, and the Gazette de France wrote of the author, "A woman distinguished by qualities other than those proper to her sex is contrary to the laws of nature."

Not content with banishing de Staël and being endlessly preoccupied with her whereabouts, Napoleon later banned one of her novels. De l'Allemagne (1810) was a thorough study of Germany and its people. On its publication, Napoleon moved in, and five thousand copies soon to be released in France were destroyed.

But why was he opposed to the book, you might ask? At the time this novel was written, France and Germany had been at war and perhaps Napoleon had no wish to transform France's view of Germany because it would conflict with his political interests. Or perhaps he feared that the author might be praising Germany's intellectualism and culture at the expense of France. Yet again, being a keen writer himself, he might have been secretly envious of her literary prowess. Whatever the reason, the book became forbidden until 1813, at which time it was re-published and became a success. De l'Allemagne can be credited for improving cultural understanding between the two countries.

Madame de Staël believed that Napoleon was a ruthless tyrant who regarded individuals as pawns on a chessboard which he controlled. Long before everyone, well mostly everyone as we shall see, she saw right through him. After all this was a man who ended up leading France into war for over 15 years. Even Napoleon's foreign minister, the incredibly gifted Talleyrand who served multiple regimes and had a talent for survival, was early on made aware of Napoleon's unquenchable thirst for war. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand and Germaine de Staël not only possessed a shared view on this psychological portrait of Napoleon, they had been friends. From the reign of Terror, they had remained in communication during their exile and beyond. Even if from 1800, Talleyrand was guilty of distancing himself from her in order to align himself with Napoleon's sentiments, in later years, he kept a room for Madame de Staël in his chateau at Valencay.

Taking it from biographer Maria Fairweather, de Staël can be credited for putting together the coalition that brought down Napoleon. An uber rich woman with influential contacts, her salons not only hosted dissident thoughts, but the writer Stendhal called her family home in Switzerland 'the general headquarters of European thought'. He does not exaggerate. Most of the important treaty negotiations between Russia and Sweden against Napoleon were conducted through Madame de Staël.

For all her brilliant intelligence, warmth, and courage as a writer, de Staël possessed an Achilles heel. It was that she was terrified of being alone and suffered much in her relationships. Not as beautiful as her friend, the celebrated Juliette Recamier, and aware of her clumsiness, she clung to people, and was as emotionally unstable as she was passionate. Her long time lover, Benjamin Constant, had once observed: "If she knew how to rule herself, she could rule the world." He tried in vain to leave her but was confronted with one emotional scene after the next. Having secretly wedded another woman, he found it difficult to reveal this to de Staël. When she found out, she ordered him back to Coppet. Benjamin Constant promised his new wife, Charlotte, that he would return, but he lingered at Coppet under de Staël's torrid emotions, their days alternating between heated debates and short-lived peace. Soon enough the neglected Charlotte tried to kill herself, not before alerting the couple of the fact, for full effect. They found her in time and revived her. Charlotte pleaded for Benjamin to return lest she would once again poison herself. At this Madame de Staël threatened to stab herself.

She may have lost her lover to Charlotte in the end, but de Staël had the last word with Napoleon. In her book, Dix Annees d'Exil (Ten Years in Exile), she devotes almost every page to recounting the details of her persecution and banishment, providing anecdotes about Napoleon's tempestuous, vulgar and egotistical character. Call it her #metoo moment, it is a work of revenge, of reckoning for years of suffering, and it brings to account a man who had fooled France but never fooled her.

What I most admire in Madame de Staël is her personal integrity and the courage to be herself when a military powerhouse of a man opposed her. She was in all likelihood incapable of being other than herself, despite censure and ostracism.

When he was about to meet her for the very first time, the German writer, Goethe received this letter from his friend Schiller, "Madame de Staël will appear to you as you have imagined her. Everything about her is of a piece: you will find not one thing in her which is disparate or false. That is why, in spite of the differences between her nature and ours, one is comfortable with her; one is disposed to listen to anything from her while wishing, at the same time, to tell her everything; she is the personification, as perfect as it is interesting, of the true French spirit."