Madame de Stael: Portrait of a Liberal in the Revolutionary Age by Margaret Goldsmith


I had thought of Madame de Stael as one of those famous French women who presided over a salon where all the most interesting political and literary figures of the era met.  Turns out she was so much more.  Her father was Jacques Necker, the Timothy Geithner of the era a few years before the French Revolution.  (Now there's a worrisome thought.)  Necker was brilliant at the nuts and bolts of finance, but he was unable to rein in Marie Antoinette's spending, and his attempt to do so hastened his departure. 

While he was exiled to his native Switzerland, his daughter married the Ambassador from Sweden (de Stael needed the money and Germaine needed the standing in Paris).  She was a brilliant political thinker, a prodigious author, showed incredible bravery during the Revolution and during Napoleon's repression, and had an unorthodox personal life.  Unorthodox is too mild a term…she had countless lovers, drove anyone around her mad with her demands, and was constantly in motion.  Benjamin Constant was her lover, off and on for 10 years, and while they were unable to be apart, when they were together, they had screaming fights.   Her impatience is evident in this quote from her book De L'Allemagne, graceful interruptions of conversation are impossible in a language in which "the meaning of a sentence is not apparent until the very end."

Napoleon found her to be one of his most fearful enemies (on a par with England), and exiled her from France for 10 years.  She moved around Europe, and wherever she went, England, Germany, Russia, her father's home Coppet in Switzerland, the great thinkers and political movers gathered.  She published several novels, political treatises, reflections on the Revolution, and a much respected work on Germany.  When she was in Stockholm in 1813, she justified Napoleon's great fear of her by her work in encouraging Bernadotte, a former minister in the French government, to join the armies of Europe in the attack of Napoleon. 

This biography was written in 1938 and occasionally dates itself; it is a very readable book about an amazing woman in a fascinating era.

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