Ought not every woman, like every man, to follow the bent of her own talents?
The quote above comes from Madame de Staël (1766-1817), a politically engaged woman of letters, who survived the French Revolution and was exiled more than once by Napoleon.
Celebrated for her conversational eloquence, Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Madame de Staël-Holstein - as was her full name - produced literary works, both critical and fictional, that made their mark on European Romanticism. She travelled a lot and met many politicians, artists and writers and was renowned for her cosmopolitanism and her discrete feminism.
Germaine Necker was the only child of Jacques Necker, a prominent Swiss banker and Director-General of Finance under King Louis XVI of France, and Suzanne Curchod, also of Swiss birth, who hosted one of the most popular salons of Paris.
Born and raised according to the liberal principles of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, she would regularly join her mother’s salon. At the age of 13, she had already read Montesquieu, Shakespeare and Dante.
When she was 20-years-old, a marriage was arranged with Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, a Swedish diplomat to France.
In 1788, she published her first work, Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J.J. Rousseau [Letters on the works and character of J.J. Rousseau].
De Staël gradually became more involved in politics and, in May 1789, joined the meetings of the Estates-General in Versailles, a general assembly representing the French estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners.
At that time, the French government faced a major economic crisis in which her father played a prominent role. After a conflict, Louis XVI dismissed and banished him, which caused a great upheaval among the Parisian population and resulted in the storming of the Bastille, the very start of the French Revolution. Necker, now also attacked by Revolutionists, had to flee for Switzerland.
Madame De Staël stayed in Paris, where the privileges as the consort of an ambassador protected her. This allowed her to continue her salon, frequented by moderates (among them the politically active bishop Talleyrand) as well as monarchists.
After the French Constitution of 1791 was announced in the National Assembly, she decided to stay away from politics. ’Fine arts and letters will occupy my leisure’, she announced.
After the declaration of the French Republic on 21 September 1792, cruel atrocities of the Revolution were raging high and De Staël tried to flee with her full entourage. Her carriage was stopped and the crowd forced her to go to the Paris town hall, where Robespierre, resided, one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution. He had her detained and interrogated, but eventually, she was allowed to leave the city with a new passport.
De Staël would later reflect on the Revolution in her novel Delphine, looking back on the arrests, violence and the fate of the émigrés.
De Staël met Napoleon twice. She concluded that he was ‘a ruthless tyrant who regarded individuals as pawns on a chessboard which he controlled’.
In Considérations sur les principaux événemens de la révolution françoise [Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution] she states: '[Bonaparte] constantly intimidated me more and more. I had a confused feeling that no emotion of the heart could act upon him.'
After the publication of De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales [The Influence of Literature Upon Society], her first philosophical approach to Europe, it became clear that the first man in France and De Staël were not likely to get on. Napoleon did not like her cultural determinism and generalisations. For him, a woman should stick to knitting.
Bonaparte is not only a man, but a system, (...). One must therefore examine him as a great problem, whose solution matters for the thought of all ages.
Madame De Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution
Meanwhile, De Staël’s extensive network of connections, which included foreign diplomats and known political opponents, made Napoleon suspicious of conspiracy. In October 1803, he forced her into exile without a trial. She left for Germany ‘out of pride’, in the hope to be able to return as soon as possible.
De Staël visited Weimar, Leipzig and Berlin, talking with many prominent people. Goethe referred to her as an ’extraordinary woman’, while Schiller complimented her intelligence and eloquence.
When her father died in April 1804, she took her family to his estate in Switzerland.
In December 1804, De Staël travelled to Italy where she further developed her theory of the difference between northern and southern societies. These travels became the basis for her book Corinne, ou L'Italie [Corinne, or Italy], in which she listed all Italian works of art that were plundered by Napoleon and taken to France. Once more, Napoleon had her sent her back to Switzerland, where her home became a debating club for other banned people hostile to Napoleon. Stendhal described it as ‘the general headquarters of European thought’.
For a time, she was constantly on the move and working on one of the most influential works of the 19th century, De l'Allemagne [On Germany]. Based on her conversations with Goethe and Schiller, she presented the idea of Germany as an ethical and aesthetic model, praising its literature and philosophy.
She was determined to publish the book in France, as she also called French political structures into question, indirectly criticising Napoleon. For this, De Staël was exiled once again.
After four months of travelling, she arrived in Sweden, where she started to write Dix années d'exil [Ten Years' Exile], describing the people she had met and the things she had seen. She did not finish the manuscript, but instead set out for England, where she met with Lord Byron.
For Byron, she was Europe's greatest living writer, ‘with her pen behind her ears and her mouth full of ink’. He also wrote she was ‘sometimes right and often wrong about Italy and England - but almost always true in delineating the heart, which is of but one nation of no country, or rather, of all.’
In May 1814, right after Napoleon went into exile on the island of Elba, De Staël returned to Paris, started to write again and revived her salon. However, when news came of Napoleon's return to French soil in 1815, she once again fled to Switzerland. After Napoleon’s final defeat and abdication, she set out for Italy for the sake of her health. Despite her increasing ill health, she returned to Paris, where she died on 14 July.
Her political legacy has been generally identified as a stern defence of Republican and liberal values: equality, individual freedom - especially for women, and the limitation of power by constitutional rules.
All her life, De Staël insisted that she needed politics to survive. Although her opinion on the propriety of female political engagement varied at times, she often and openly declared that denying women access to the public sphere of activism and engagement was an abuse of human rights.