A Celebration of Women Writers

"Madame de Stael." by Helen Philleo Jenkins (1835-).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 686-690.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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On the northern shore of Lake Geneva lies the small hamlet of Coppet, famous for its chateau, which was once the home of Madame de Stael and her celebrated father, Necker. A century ago this chateau was an intellectual center of Europe; today it is a shrine which tourists visit with tender and reverent interest. Three summers ago it was my privilege to visit this chateau where the most notable literary characters of France used to gather, drawn there by the charming hospitality and the brilliant talents of the most celebrated woman of the century. Madame de Stael is undeniably the most remarkable literary woman France had produced up to that day. For two hundred years French women have shone in the salon, an institution which they had created, but the literary achievements of the women in the early salons are trivial beside the "Germany" of Madame de Stael. That work was the first vigorous, philosophical work from a woman's pen. To the multitude of readers she is best known as the author of "Corinne," but it is her "Germany," and her "Considerations on the French Revolution," which gave her highest rank as an author. But it is not alone as a writer that she will be remembered. She was one of the most remarkable conversationalists of the world's history. There have been many famous talkers from Socrates to Margaret Fuller, but there is reason to believe that Madame de Stael excelled them all in brilliancy of thought, in wit, and in that mysterious quality we term illuminism. No subject was so profound but she seemed inspired with its true meaning, no subject so trivial but her wit flashed over it and gave it brilliancy. Bonstetten declares that in conversation she never had a rival.

She has an especial interest for us because of the times in which she lived. She was a young woman at the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution, and lived until after the Battle of Waterloo, and was associated with many of the most remarkable personages of that most remarkable period of French history.

Anne Louise Germaine Necker was born in Paris in 1776. Her father was a wealthy banker, Necker, who was three times made minister of finance, and as many times dismissed, owing to the upheavals of the times. Her mother, Susanna Curchod, was the daughter of an obscure Swiss pastor. She became one of the notable women of the day. It is in the salon of Madame Necker that we first see the little Germaine, not yet ten years old, seated in a little chair beside her mother, listening to the discussions of the learned men about her. The stories told of her precocious intellect, [Page 687]  and of the flattering attentions bestowed upon her even in childhood, are too well-known to need repeating. Madame de Stael has been severely criticised for her excessive fondness for society and for admiration. The marvel is that she was not utterly spoiled by the adulation lavished upon her in her youth. It was a remarkable character that could withstand such flattery and develop into so generous and radiant a life. When Germaine was twenty years of age a marriage was arranged for her with the Baron de Stael, Holstein, Swedish ambassador. It is not counted a happy marriage, but there was no open rupture. At the time of her marriage she was already known through Paris as a brilliant talker, and this fact, combined with her social position as ambassadress and daughter of the most popular man in France, made the Necker salon, where she presided with her mother, the most brilliant and influential salon in Paris. Not only literature and art were discussed there, but politics became an absorbing theme. There were no absurd pen-portraits of each other, no sentimental verses of these earlier salons, but the talk was of the alarming condition of France, its bankrupt treasury and its masses taxed to starvation; of the American Revolution and the republic beyond the sea; of the wisdom of representative government and of the future of France; and no man in France was more keenly alive to these great questions than Madame de Stael. She had an aptitude for politics, which she considered a sacred subject. If she were living today she would be one of the foremost women in demanding political equality for women. Her marvelous gift of speech, combined with her remarkable dramatic power, would have made her a world renowned orator, but in that day women had not yet ventured to address the public from the platform.

France was already feeling the premonitions of the approaching revolution. A flash from the gathering storm entered the Necker household one evening when a lettre de cachet was received from the king commanding Monsieur Necker to leave Paris immediately and secretly. Once before he had been dismissed from the ministry and recalled, but this dismissal had a darker look. The king disliked Necker, Marie Antoinette hated him, but the people believed in him and were furious at his dismissal, and demanded his recall; and he was recalled within forty-eight hours after his departure from Paris, even before he could reach Switzerland. Within those forty-eight hours the bastile had fallen, blood had been shed, and the nobles were fleeing over the boarders. Out of the revolution which was breaking over France Madame de Stael hoped to see evolved a constitutional monarchy, a government similar to that of England. Her salon was the rallying place of the "Constitutionals," as they were called, among whom was Lafayette, Count de Narbonne and M. de Montmorency. But all such hope was swept away by the fury of the revolution. Terrorism prevailed in Paris. Those suspected of sympathy with the king were seized and imprisoned. The Baron de Stael was recalled to Sweden, Necker was again dismissed and sought refuge in Coppet. He entreated his daughter to save herself by flight. But Paris held her. The very terror of events fascinated her. More than that, she felt she had influence that might save some dear friend from destruction. But the hour soon came when it was no longer safe for her to remain. She attempted to leave, but in her efforts to assist in the escape of the old Abbe Montesquion, she came near losing her own life. She was seized and carried to the Hotel de Ville and into the presence of Robespierre. She protested against her arrest, asserting her privilege as the wife of an ambassador to depart. It was only after ten hours deliberation that the commune decided to spare her life, and Tallien was appointed to accompany her beyond the borders. While at Coppet she was continually devising schemes to get her proscribed friends in Paris out of danger. Coppet became in those days and years the home of many of the proscribed whose escape she had effected. She did not return to Paris for three years–the years of the "reign of terror." It was during these years that she made her first visit to England, and joined that famous colony of French refugees at Michleham in Surrey.

During those three years of her absence what tragic events had transpired. The king and queen had been executed. Thousands of noble men and women had fallen [Page 688]  victims to the guillotine. Robespierre himself had fallen, and a new figure had appeared upon the scene. Bonaparte was the hero of the hour. The directory had been established, and peace seemed spreading her wings over weary France. Madame de Stael watched with eager interest the career of Bonaparte. She hoped, as thousands hoped, that this rising genius who had suppressed insurrection and conquered invading armies, would bring repose to France; but when the high-handed overthrow of the directory was followed by the consulate, and Bonaparte made himself first consul, she recognized the hand of imperialism and tyranny, and in her salon, crowded with thinking men and women, she did not hesitate to criticise Napoleon's policy, and to talk the boldest liberalism. The hostility between Napoleon and Madame de Stael is notorious. Never were two persons more out of harmony with each other. He hated a literary woman. He despised women who had opinions differing from his own. Madame de Stael as leader of the principal salon in Paris, where they discussed politics and favored a republic, was an obnoxious person to Napoleon. She published about this time a work on "Literature," which abounded in the most liberal political sentiments. Napoleon was annoyed; he wished to silence her. The only way he could diminish her influence was to get her out of Paris. This he did by banishing her. She retired to Coppet, but not to seclusion and solitude. Coppet became one of the famous intellectual centers of Europe. Generous hospitality and devotion to her friends were her most marked characteristics. Friends came and lingered at Coppet for months at a time, and there was a constant coming and going of distinguished literary people. Among the famous guests at this period were Benjamin Constant, who was in exile, Camille, Jourdan, Sismondi, the historian of Italy, her life-long friend, Matthieu de Montmorency, Mme. Necker de Saussure, who was her earliest biographer, Madame Krudner and Madame de Recamier.

During these years of exile she visited Germany and Italy, those countries furnishing material for two of her most celebrated works.

Many of the German literati received her cordially, Schiller especially; others were disturbed by her peculiarities, and others disliked her. Her vivacity and volubility startled the quiet temperament of the Germans. They were not used to this kind of women. The narrow views they at that time entertained of woman's intellect did not at once accept this woman of genius, of enthusiasm and self-assertion. It was on the whole an excellent thing to happen, that a gifted French woman should invade German complacency and prejudice. She gained in breadth of mind by contact with the great intellects and the literature of another nation, and they were compelled to learn that a high order of intellect is possible to woman.

Her travels in Italy gave to the world "Corinne," which was published in 1807. Its appearance was one of the greatest literary events of the day. Sainte Beuve says: "As a work of art, as a poem, the romance of Corinne is an immortal monument." Another critic says: "There was but one voice, one cry of admiration throughout lettered Europe on its appearance." Even at Edinburgh it created enthusiasm. Jeffrey pronounced its author "the greatest writer in France since Voltaire and Rousseau." We, at the close of the nineteenth century, make a different estimate of this romance. We say it is too sentimental, too idealistic. But we must remember fiction has changed greatly since the day Corinne was written, ninety years ago. There had been then no George Eliot, Thackeray or Dickens. Even George Sand had not appeared, and the Waverley novels had not been written. It was the era of "The Sorrows of Werther," and we should compare "Corinne" with this work of Goethe before we criticise its sentimentality. One characteristic of the book, which gave it great value in its day, is the description of works of art, and of churches and monuments in Rome. In an era in which there was little travel, when a guide-book was unknown, when Italy was a region of romantic mystery to most of the educated people throughout the remainder of Europe, what an interest this book must have created.

The success of "Corinne" irritated Napoleon. Though he was at war with half the nations of Europe, though forcing conscriptions and arranging treaties with con- [Page 689]  quered nations, all this did not prevent his eagle gaze from following Madame de Stael. The publication of "Corinne" was followed by a new decree of banishment. She buried her chagrin and vexation in literary work, for she was now writing her "Germany." When that work was ready for publication she submitted it to the imperial censors, who, after cutting out a few passages, consented to its publication. But the work was hardly out of press when an order was issued by Napoleon, or his minister of police, to destroy it, and the whole edition of ten thousand copies was literally chopped into pieces, and the author was ordered to leave France within three days. The officer who brought her the message demanded the manuscript of the book. Her son, during the absence of the mother, with remarkable presence of mind, gave to the officer a rough copy, which had fortunately been preserved, instead of the perfect one, and thus the work was saved to the world. Madame de Stael was nearly crushed by this blow. She wished to escape to America, but permission to leave was refused her by the minister of police, who, in handing the letter of refusal to her son, said: "Does she think that after we have been fighting Germany eighteen years she can print a book without mentioning us?" He added: "The work deserved to be destroyed, and its author ought to be sent to the prison at Vincennes."

Madame de Stael retired to Coppet, but persecutions did not cease. Friends who visited her were banished from France, among them Schlegel, Madame de Recamier and M. de Montmorency. She was forbidden to drive over two leagues from Coppet. The surveillance became unendurable. She resolved to flee to England. As every port was blockaded, she was obliged to make her escape through Russia, which Napoleon was on the point of invading. She has given in her "Ten Years of Exile" a vivid account of the secret departure of herself and family, and of the flight through Switzerland, Austria, Russia and Sweden. When she reached Moscow there was the most intense excitement, as they were daily expecting the arrival of Napoleon's armies. She left Moscow, she says, "while the din of war filled the air, and the whole empire seemed tremulous under the tread of armies." After nearly a year's journey she reached England, and she was received in London with great èclat.

In England she published her "Germany," having carried the precious manuscript with her in her flight through many lands. "In less than a year it appeared in German, French and English, from the presses of Heidelberg, Hanover, Bremen, Paris, London and Edinburgh." It created great excitement in the literary world. All the great scholars in Europe acknowledged its power. Goethe says: "It was a powerful engine which made a wide breach in the Chinese wall of prejudice which had divided Germany and France." The book was published safely in Paris, for Napoleon was no longer in power. The Russian campaign had failed, and Napoleon had abdicated, and Madame de Stael returned to her beloved Paris, which she had not seen for more than ten years. She was at Coppet when the defeat at Waterloo occurred, but she would not return to Paris at once. She did not wish, she says, "to witness the second invasion, and Paris bristling with six hundred thousand foreign bayonets."

The summer of 1816 was one of the most brilliant seasons at Coppet, and it was the last she spent there. The following, written by Stendal (Bayle), may give us an impression of the gatherings that made Coppet famous. This was written soon after her death:

"There was here on the coast of Lake Geneva last autumn the most astonishing reunion. It was the states general of European opinion. The phenomenon rises even to political importance. There were here six hundred persons, the most distinguished of Europe. Men of intellect, of wealth, of the greatest titles–all came here to seek pleasure in the salon of the illustrious woman for whom France weeps today." The Review Politique, 1880, says: "It was a parliament whence came forth political doctrines, a race of statesmen, a school of thinkers, which have filled with their combats, their triumphs or their defeats, more than half a century of our history."

Probably no woman has ever had a more positive influence over political thought of her times than Madame de Stael. [Page 690] 

During her last season in Paris, our countryman, Mr. Ticknor, called on her. Though prostrated by illness, she discoursed eloquently on America, and her face grew luminous as she said: "You in America are the advance guard of the human race–you have the future of the world." She died in Paris, July 14, 1817, but fifty-one years of age.

I have given but a glimpse of the career and character of one of the most remarkable women of modern times–a unique character, combining the highest gifts of intellect with the woman's heart of tenderness, sympathy and devotion. Doubtless she had faults, but remembering her noble and lovable characteristics, we may hesitate in passing trivial judgment upon this remarkable woman, who was one of the profoundest ethical thinkers, "the leader of the reaction against the materialistic philosophy of the Revolution"–a woman whose intellect towered so high that a century full of great names has not obscured it. To the women of today she has great significance. She inaugurated a new era of vigorous writers among women, of which the present century has furnished many examples. Every gifted woman who has nobly used her talents has brightened this era for us, and we acknowledge Madame de Stael one of the great women of the past, whose fame and whose triumphs illumine the world today.

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Mrs. Helen Philleo Jenkins is a native of New York. She was born in 1835. Her parents were Dr. B. Philleo, of Huguenot ancestry, and Eliza Bensley Philleo. She was educated at Fairfield Academy, N. Y., and at Utica Female Seminary. She has traveled extensively in her own country and twice through Europe. She married Mr. Dean M. Jenkins, of Buffalo, N. Y. Her special work has been in the interest of the educational and the political enfranchisement of women. Mrs. Jenkins has written "A Mother's Letters to a daughter," and many articles on the women's suffrage question. She was one of the prime movers in the organization of Woman Suffrage Associations in Buffalo, N. Y., in 1867; in Pittsburg, Pa., in 1871, and in Detroit, Mich., in 1887. In religious faith she is a Unitarian. Her postoffice address is No. 517 Fourth Avenue, Detroit, Mich.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom