When a little over a month ago I received an email query from the good folks at Atlas & Co asking, given I had mentioned being interested in Madame de Staël in a blog post a while back, would I like a review copy of Francine du Plessix Gray’s book Madame de Staël: The First Modern Woman? Would I? And how! The book arrived and it turned out to be a tidy little thing of 233 pages cut about a third smaller than the average book dimension. I love smaller books because they fit so nicely in my hand, and this is one of those perfect book sizes.
Germaine Necker de Staël’s father, Jacques Necker, was, for a time, a famous and well-loved economist in France. He was one of those people whose ideas and character fit perfectly a certain time period but when times changed he was unable to change with them and he ended up being forced out of France and back to his native Switzerland. Germaine’s mother was an intelligent woman who decided she was going to have the most famous salon in Paris. She managed but it was work. She was not a great conversationalist and made notes and planned what to say to certain people ahead of time. She was also quite the task master when it came to Germaine’s education, forcing the study of math, geography, science, languages and theology on her by the time she was three! Lucky for Germaine she was a bright girl and learned quickly. That, however, did not keep her from having a nervous breakdown by the time she was twelve.
While her mother was rigid and demanding, her father was relaxed and playful. She loved her father deeply and said more than once if he had not been her father she would have married him. Germaine was a good match and suitable prospects were tossed away more than once. Finally, her parents arranged for her to marry a Swedish nobleman, Eric Magnus de Staël Holstein, eighteen years her senior. As part of the marriage settlement, King Gustavus of Sweden appointed Staël to the Swedish embassy in Paris in exchange for a French island in the Caribbean. Unfortunately for Germaine, her new husband turned out to be rather dull and had a gambling problem. Lucky for Germaine, in the marriage settlement she got to keep her own fortune otherwise her new husband would have drowned them both in debt.
Germaine set up house in the Swedish Embassy in Paris with the goal of having the best Salon in Paris. She was everything her mother was not, quick witted, perceptive, spontaneous. Plus, she truly loved conversation, a skill and art that she took to new heights. Germaine’s salons were were somewhat literary but politics is what she was interested in. And because she could not herself be a politician she worked tirelessly behind the scenes supporting the men whose ideas agreed with hers. She was a powerful woman, so powerful that when Napoleon came to power he eventually forced her into exile from France because she refused to support him and he hated her for it.
I could go on and on, Madame de Staël is such a fascinating woman. I enjoyed the book very much even though I was also disappointed in it. Given title and author (Gray–or is it properly du Plessix Gray?–had been nominated for a Pulitzer for a previous book) I was expecting some in depth study of life and times but that was missing. There really is no explanation about how or why Germaine is the first modern woman and I’d expected it since it is in the title. Am I supposed to just agree and take the author’s word for it? There is also no analysis or thought about how Madame de Staël as a woman managed to obtain such power. It is suggested that men loved her but it is not so clear as to why they loved her so much when she was so demanding and used her relationships to her benefit. Nor is it clear why, for a woman who was such a genius at politics, she thought that Napoleon would let her return to Paris because she wrote such successful books. Simply saying she was naive is not good enough.
All that aside, however, Madame de Staël was an enjoyable read. It zips along through de Staël’s whirlwind of a life and I arrived at the end out of breath and disappointed the woman died so soon at the age of 51. The book is a very good introduction to, just enough to make me want to know more. It is an appetizer, the delicious kind that leaves you wanting more.