Madame de Staël: A Pioneering Feminist and Social Critic Who Defied Patriarchal Culture

During the French Revolution in the 18th century, numerous eminent personalities emerged, yet exceptional women were scarce. When they transcended the shackles of traditional patriarchal culture and emerged, they displayed extraordinary valor, intellect, and tenacity in the world. Madame de Staël (1766-1817), this cultural colossus who adorned French history with myriad epithets: trailblazer of the European Romantic literary movement, pioneer of feminist literature, social critic, political activist, and “ideologist” “Queen,” was also hailed as one of the most brilliant women of her era.

A gifted woman nurtured in a salon

The original name of Mrs. Starr was Anna-Louise Germain Necker, affectionately known as Germaine, born in Paris in 1766. Her father, Jacques Necker, hailed from a bourgeois family in Switzerland. Through astute investments in public bonds and grain trading, he amassed a fortune, becoming a prosperous banker and a newly anointed aristocrat. Louis XVI appointed him as the treasury’s general manager, a role he fulfilled twice as the Finance Director of France. Germaine’s mother, Susanna Cochod, was the daughter of a Swiss priest. She possessed both beauty and intelligence, and she established an exquisite salon in Paris, where she frequently hosted encyclopedists, court dignitaries, and notable figures of the time, aiding her husband’s social ascent and fostering connections in society. Even in her infancy, Germaine often found herself nestled on her mother’s lap, observing the literati who frequented the salon. Those intellectuals regarded her as an amusing curiosity. Under her mother’s personal guidance, Germaine acquired a diverse range of cultural and artistic pursuits, such as English, Latin, mathematics, dance, music, elocution, and oratory, fostering erudition and versatility that were exceptionally rare among girls of her age.

In 1786, at the age of twenty, Germaine acquiesced to her parents’ wishes and married Baron Starr von Holstein, the Swedish ambassador to France. She assumed the role of an ambassador’s wife and came to be known as “Mrs. Starr.” Several years later, Mrs. Starr, following in her mother’s footsteps, inaugurated her own salon on Avenue Barker in Paris. Distinguished individuals active in politics at the time, including Lafayette, Mirabeau, Condorcet, Brissot, and Barnave, became regular patrons of her salon. She also frequently hosted envoys and diplomats from various embassies, such as the newly independent Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Gouverneur Morris, the American envoys to Paris. Her salon held significant standing as an esteemed venue for entertainment, discourse, and information, often inviting guests under the guise of a writer and critic. Many literary luminaries elevated her salon’s prominence, surpassing those run by her mother and predecessors.

The primary reason behind the popularity of Mrs. Starr’s salon resided in her extraordinary talent, expansive knowledge, and captivating conversation. Furthermore, she possessed a remarkable pen and authored several exceptional works at a tender age. In 1786, she penned the three-act poetic drama “Sophie’s Emotional Secret,” followed by the five-act poetic tragedy “John Gray” in 1787. Notably, her publication in 1788, “On the Character and Works of Rousseau,” garnered her immense renown. In this work, she expressed her deep admiration and fond recollections of her spiritual mentor Rousseau, solidifying her reputation within the literary world. Around 1795, she also released short stories such as “Adelaide,” “The Story of Paulina,” and “Julma,” alongside a literary treatise entitled “On Fiction.” Her works “On Passion on the Personal” and “The Influence of National Happiness,” published in 1796, are hailed as significant contributions to European Romanticism. These achievements were first unveiled to the audience within the confines of her salon.

Romantic love born from unhappy marriages

As the sole daughter of banker Necker, Mrs. Starr grew up in a privileged familial environment. It seemed she had transcended the constraints imposed on women in traditional French society, embodying independence and free-spiritedness. Her father’s elevated status and wealth, coupled with her own intellect and erudition, garnered her a host of admirers. However, she encountered numerous tribulations in her married life. At a young age, she fell in love with Viscount Mathieu de Montmorosi, who gained fame through his involvement in the American Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, her Swiss Protestant parents vehemently opposed their union, unwilling to have a Catholic son-in-law. The dissolution of her first love left her in such agony that she composed the tragedy “Montmorosi” as a tribute to her lost love. While her parents had hoped she would marry William Pitt, a young man residing in France who later ascended to British Prime Minister, she declined his proposal, citing Britain’s involvement in the war with France.

In 1786, Mrs. Starr succumbed to familial pressure and married Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, the Swedish ambassador to France. However, this union did not bring her the happiness she sought. Her husband was unfaithful, and she found solace in the arms of other men, seeking emotional and intellectual connections that were lacking in her marriage. One of her significant romantic relationships was with Benjamin Constant, a prominent Swiss-French writer and politician. They shared a deep intellectual bond, engaging in passionate discussions on politics, philosophy, and literature. Their relationship, marked by intense emotions and intellectual collaboration, lasted for many years, although they faced numerous obstacles and separations.

Mrs. Starr’s personal experiences, including her unhappy marriages and her unfulfilled romantic desires, greatly influenced her writings. She delved into themes of love, passion, and the complexities of human relationships in her works. Her novel “Delphine,” published in 1802, explores the challenges faced by a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. The protagonist, Delphine, seeks love and fulfillment outside her marriage, grappling with societal expectations and the consequences of her actions. This novel, inspired by Mrs. Starr’s own experiences, resonated with readers and sparked discussions about women’s roles and choices in society.

Political activism and exile

Apart from her literary pursuits, Mrs. Starr actively participated in political affairs during a tumultuous period in French history. She witnessed the French Revolution unfold and its subsequent phases, including the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Mrs. Starr held liberal and republican views, advocating for political and social reforms. She used her salon as a platform to engage in discussions on democracy, individual freedom, and the rights of women.

However, her outspokenness and criticism of Napoleon’s regime led to her exile from France. In 1803, she was ordered to leave the country. Mrs. Starr spent the next decade in Switzerland and various other European countries, continuing her intellectual pursuits and engaging with prominent thinkers and writers. During this period, she wrote influential works such as “Germany” (1810), an exploration of German literature and philosophy, and “Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution” (1818), a comprehensive analysis of the revolution and its consequences.

Legacy and impact

Madame de Staël’s contributions to literature, philosophy, and political discourse were significant. She played a pivotal role in shaping the Romantic literary movement and was regarded as one of its leading figures. Her writings explored themes of individual freedom, the complexities of human emotions, and the role of women in society. She challenged societal norms and advocated for greater rights and opportunities for women, making her a pioneer of feminist literature.

Furthermore, Mrs. Starr’s salon was a vibrant hub of intellectual exchange, bringing together thinkers, writers, and politicians of the time. Her salon fostered discussions and debates that influenced the cultural and political landscape of France. Through her writings and activism, she left a lasting impact on European intellectual thought and continues to be studied and celebrated for her contributions to literature and women’s rights.

Madame de Staël, born Germaine Necker, was a remarkable woman of the French Revolution era. She defied societal expectations, excelled in literary pursuits, and engaged in political activism. Her salon provided a platform for intellectual discourse, while her writings explored themes of love, freedom, and the role of women in society. Madame de Staël’s legacy endures as one of the most influential women of her time, leaving an indelible mark on literature, philosophy, and the fight for women’s rights.

  However, the development of the revolution greatly disappointed Mrs. Starr. Among the leaders of the new government, the vast majority are male chauvinists who reject women. They believe that women’s vocation is to take care of their husbands, children, and manage housework. Therefore, even in the Declaration of Human Rights, they define women as “passive citizens” and exclude them from public social life.
  Although Mrs. Starr experienced various risks and was ostracized during the Revolution, she still did not give up her enthusiasm for political activities. She often used her salon to provide a gathering place for moderates, republicans, writers and critics, and to express their voices through the salon. She also used her status as the ambassador’s wife to protect many liberal critics who were being pursued and funded their escape abroad, so she was also included in the list of dangerous persons. In September 1792, when she discovered that she was under surveillance, she immediately fled to Copet Castle, Switzerland, where her father lived. In the following years, the castle became Madame de Staal’s refuge for French exiles. She believes that political power is not the coercion and oppression of force, but the influence exerted by wisdom, emotion and learning, and the power of ideas. Therefore, she often puts into words what she sees, hears, feels, and thinks. She has written treatises such as “Reflections on the Queen’s Trial”, “A Letter of Agreement on Peace Issues with Mr. Pitt and his French Compatriots”, “On the Relationship between Literature and Social Systems”, etc., covering the aspects of social systems, social revolution, religious customs, and public policies. It conducts in-depth and systematic thinking and criticism on aspects such as love and marriage, literature and art, culture and education, and expresses the unique insights of an intellectual woman.
Napoleon’s political opponents

  In world history, Napoleon was an all-powerful hero, but his empire only lasted for more than ten years and eventually collapsed. People tend to focus on the several “fatal” battles that the Napoleonic Empire experienced, but in fact, the reason for the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire was also due to the promotion of an invisible force-this is known as the “Queen of Thoughts” Mrs. Starr’s continued anti-war propaganda and lobbying disintegrated the combat effectiveness of his generals.
  In 1797, when Napoleon defeated the powerful Austrian army on the Italian battlefield and returned home triumphantly, Mrs. Starr, like the ordinary people of Paris at that time, welcomed the returning hero with great enthusiasm. She expected the young general to rescue France from the chaos of the Revolution. She used her connections to actively make friends with Napoleon, and even fantasized about being a female counselor in his new government to realize her political ambitions.
  Napoleon had already heard of Madame de Staël, but he disliked women who were passionate about politics. After several conversations, Napoleon became even more disgusted with this aggressive woman, so he sent his brother to send a message to Mrs. Starr, hoping that she would remain silent about his activities. Mrs. Starr discovered that Napoleon had changed and his ambitions were constantly expanding: first he revised the republican constitution and changed the title of “First Consul” to “Consul for Life”; then he planned a “referendum” to change the French The Republic became an Empire and assumed the crown of the French Emperor. Then some bad comments about Napoleon came from her salon: she said that Napoleon was cold and selfish, lacked sympathy and compassion, and would do whatever it took to achieve his goals; she said that Napoleon continued to do things in the name of “defending France.” All foreign wars are launched to centralize power; she said that Napoleon was not the son of revolution but a tyrant who stole the fruits of victory under the banner of revolution; she also said that in the eyes of tyrants, there seemed to be only two kinds of people, namely those who worked for him and those who dared to do themselves Living, the latter kind of people, even if they do not directly hinder the tyrant’s war of aggression, will be regarded as potentially harmful elements, and they will be brutally suppressed and eliminated… Mrs. Starr’s remarks soon reached Napoleon’s ears
  . , which made him feel immeasurable danger. He also discovered that his subordinates, Generals Bernadotte and Moreau, often visited Mrs. Starr’s salon… He determined that Mrs. Starr was a formidable female conspirator and an ominous bird. The salon was the rallying point for the opposition.
  In December 1802, Mrs. Starr published the novel “Delphine”. The book focuses on describing the story of a talented woman who hopes to find a happy life through love, but suffers hypocrisy, fraud and cruel persecution. It expresses women’s claim for independent personality. The novel was a bestseller in Paris as soon as it was published. Napoleon seized on this as an excuse, saying that her novel promoted liberalism and divorce, praised Britain and Protestantism, and violated French social, political and religious concepts. Immediately afterwards, an “expulsion order” was issued to her-Mrs. de Staal was not welcome in the capital and must stay away from Paris. From then on, Mrs. Starr embarked on a wandering journey of exile.
The world sentiments of an exiled female writer

  Mrs. Starr, who was accustomed to a life of feasting, singing, dancing, and revelry, suffered all sorts of hardships that were worse than death after being exiled. Fortunately, she had her father to stay in the castle in Copet, Switzerland, and made many friends there. Friends in politics and academia. They elaborated on their views on society and literature through conversations, discussions, and correspondence, and tried to establish a pluralistic, romantic new literary system.
  However, Switzerland was also under Napoleon’s control, and the imperial police were determined not to let Mrs. Starr live a stable life. As her cultural activities in Kopet increased, she came under increased surveillance and her letters were censored and withheld. All the friends who were close to her were exiled one after another, and other friends gradually became alienated and became silent. Mrs. Starr felt like she was going crazy. In order to break the confinement, she regarded traveling, making friends and writing as remedies to improve her predicament. Her first destination was Germany.
  In December 1803, Mrs. Starr came to the ancient cultural city of Weimar in Germany. As she wished, she visited Goethe, the cultural giant she admired, interviewed the widow of the great poet Schiller, and was also interviewed by Duke Carl August, the son of the regent. of warm hospitality. When she learned that many members of the royal family had seen her “Delphine,” she was flattered, and her frustrations along the way were swept away. The greatest joy in Berlin was to meet the young scholar August Wilhelm Schlegel, who was recommended by Goethe through a letter. She hired him as a tutor for her children at a high salary, and they later became lifelong friends. In April 1804, when Mrs. Starr learned of the death of her father, she interrupted her journey in Germany and returned to Switzerland for the funeral.
  In order to divert herself from the extreme grief of losing her father, Mrs. Starr wrote a book for her father, “The Character and Private Life of Herr Necker.” In the book, she described her father’s early struggles, happy marriage, successful career, prominent political achievements and peaceful later life. The death of her father made Mrs. Starr feel that she was also surrounded by the breath of death. She suffered from pain, anxiety, insomnia, and often relied on opium to maintain sleep.
  Mrs. Starr realized that she was not the only one who was exiled, but also many Europeans died on the battlefield. These family feuds and national disasters were all caused by Napoleon’s bellicosity. If his military empire was not completely overthrown, There will be no peace in the world. To overthrow his powerful empire, we need to unite the anti-war forces of various European countries to be effective. So she came up with a grand plan, which was to mobilize extensively in those anti-Napoleonic countries in Europe and unite them to defeat Napoleon. Angelica Gooden, a professor at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said in the book “Mrs. de Stahl: Dangerous Exile” that Mrs. de Stahl was considered a dangerous person because she dared to criticize the dictatorship and was exiled, but in exile she Spreading her anti-dictatorship and anti-war ideas wherever she goes has created new dangers for her political opponents. The reason why she became an outstanding writer is that she went into exile because of her writing. She still insisted on writing in exile, and she left a true record of her exile and unique insights in her writing.

  In December 1804, Mrs. Starr visited many famous cultural cities in Italy, leaving her footprints in Rome, Turin, Naples, Venice, Florence and Milan. Based on what she saw during her travels, she created the beautiful novel “Corina in Italy”, which is known as “an extraordinary European romantic work”. The book tells the story of the love between a Scottish lord and a beautiful Italian poetess. The story is the main line, introducing the beautiful scenery, cultural customs and literary and artistic achievements of various parts of Italy.
  Austria was also Napoleon’s old enemy. In 1807, Mrs. Starr visited Vienna again, met with many royal officials and generals who opposed the Napoleonic Empire, and received warm hospitality from the Austrian royal family. Viennese people considered her a close friend.
  In the spring of 1810, Mrs. Starr’s masterpiece about Germany was finally completed. This book, entitled “On Germany” (full name: “On Germany and German Customs”), was banned by the Napoleonic government for “glorifying political enemies” when it was published. After several twists and turns, it was published in the UK for the first time three years later. English version available. This three-volume work is rich in content and is divided into four parts: “On Germany and German Customs”, “On Literature and Art”, “On Philosophy and Morality” and “On Religion and Zeal”. At that time, the French thought that they were the cultural center of the world and looked down upon the cultural achievements of surrounding countries. Mrs. Starr used a lot of pen and ink to introduce in detail the outstanding works of German literature, poetry, drama, painting, etc., in order to correct the ignorance and arrogance of the French.

  During her years of exile, Mrs. Starr proudly called herself a citizen of the world and developed a cosmopolitan sentiment of harmonious coexistence of multiple ethnic groups. In her treatise “On Germany”, she first proposed the concept of an “all-European community of thinkers”. She said: “European elites are scattered all over the country and have never met each other before. Once they meet, the whole world cannot stop them from getting to know each other. It is not their religious beliefs, similar views or research fields that attract them to each other, but their worship of truth that makes them cherish each other. .” This universal sentiment that transcended nations and countries later received widespread response in the European intellectual circles.
  In 1812, when Napoleon led the army to attack Russia, Mrs. Starr’s carriage was also advancing towards Russia, and arrived in Moscow and St. Petersburg before Napoleon. Along the way, she met with Russian governors, mayors and generals, and visited them twice. Tsar Alexander I, discussed with them strategies to defeat Napoleon. In Russia, she was warmly entertained and helped by the great poet Pushkin. At that time, many reporters and commentators reported and commented on Mrs. Starr. Some people expressed doubts about this woman from the enemy country. Pushkin said to them: “Mrs. Starr is ours, don’t touch her!” Later he He also wrote this brave and unyielding woman into his works to praise her.
  Subsequently, Mrs. Starr went to Sweden from Russia via Finland, and met Swedish Crown Prince Carl Johan (originally known as Bernadotte, who was one of the eighteen marshals of the Napoleonic Empire, but was dismissed due to incompetence in the war; also Mrs. Starr’s salon (an old friend here) to discuss strategies to defeat Napoleon. Afterwards, he arrived in London and visited military and political figures such as General Wellington, then commander of the British Army, and Wilberforce, a politician who advocated the abolition of slavery in Britain. He persuaded the British to give up their continued attack on the United States in order to concentrate their forces. Against Napoleon…

  In the history of the war, we have seen the number of generals and troops from various countries in the Sixth Anti-French Alliance, but few people know Mrs. Starr’s achievements in this war. In fact, like a strategist who united horizontal and vertical forces during the Warring States Period in China, she has been active on the international stage with her personal foresight and foresight, trying to unite all anti-war forces. Many of the letters Mrs. Starr wrote to US President Jefferson and cabinet minister Gallatin seeking support were later included in “Selected Letters of Madame de Staal”, and her activities became known to the world.
A great personality that transcends victory and defeat

  In May 1814, when Napoleon was exiled to the Island of Elba, Madame de Staël was finally able to return to Paris. After 10 years of separation, things have changed and people have changed. Although she reopened the salon to receive old friends and new friends, she was not happy at all. What upset her was the restored monarch Louis XVIII. She looked with dismay at his corpulent, sickly body: “He in the wheelchair was the image of the old monarchy, pulling from the front, pushing from behind… when you need so much help to sit in an armchair. , how can you ascend the throne?” What made her most unbearable was that the streets of Paris were filled with soldiers from the multinational Allied forces occupying Paris. She asked herself, although Napoleon’s tyranny had been overthrown, where had the freedom gone?
  In March 1815, Napoleon sneaked back to Paris and established the “Hundred Days Dynasty”, and Mrs. Starr fled to Copet. Napoleon did not forget this woman, he sent someone to find her and proposed reconciliation. Mrs. Starr recalled her father’s last words: “Raise your head in the face of adversity, and don’t let anyone in the world trample you underfoot, no matter how powerful he is.” She replied to the messenger: “Live to see the emperor’s final fall. “In July of that year, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and “finally collapsed.” According to the book “Madame de Stael: The Dangerous Exile”, after Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena, the person who bore the most grudge was neither Marshal Bernadotte who betrayed him nor the Duke of Wellington who defeated him. But Mrs. Starr, who has a close relationship with these two people. He said in his memoirs: “Her house in Copet Castle became a veritable arsenal. The enemy she targeted was me, and she won her status there.” During the years of being imprisoned on the isolated island, in order to kill the loneliness and boredom One day, Napoleon found Mrs. de Staal’s novel “Corinna in Italy”, which he had banned, to read. He felt that this woman’s voice, smile, and sharp language were still stimulating him. He threw the book away, then picked it up and read it again. “I want to see the ending because it’s an interesting piece of work.” Then he concluded, “You have to admit, she’s a brilliant, very outstanding, spirited woman, and she’s here to stay.” This is Starr Madame’s most powerful enemy – Napoleon’s evaluation of her after his defeat.
  On February 21, 1817, Madame de Staal attended the reception of the Chief Minister organized by Louis XVIII. When she went downstairs, she accidentally fell and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. July 14 was the 28th anniversary of the French Revolution, and she died on this day at the age of 51. During her lifetime, she was writing two books, both of which have not yet been completed. One is “Thoughts on the French Revolution”, a commentary on major historical events, and the other is an autobiographical memoir “10 Years in Exile.” These two posthumous works were later compiled and published by her son.

  In these two works, Mrs. Starr narrated Napoleon’s process from coming to power to his demise, as well as her own political differences with Napoleon, and used her personal experience to accuse the imprisonment and persecution of people by the tyranny of Napoleon’s empire. She said: “As far as Bonaparte’s personal history is concerned, everything I have said is not based on speculation. For it seems to me that the malicious slander that was later directed at him was greater than the flattery that was first faced by him. Flattery is more despicable and worse. I am proud of myself because when I evaluate him, I maintain the same position as I evaluate other public figures, only looking at what they bring to the prosperity, brightness and morality of the country. Bonaparte Ba’s persecution of me has not affected my view of him, I can guarantee that.” After analyzing the reasons for Napoleon’s rise to decline, she raised a series of questions: How should politicians exercise power? Is there a balance between violence and justice, between expression of popular opinion and optimal government? How far can the revolution go? How can humans find their way to happiness in society? Her question remains a fundamental question in political science that is difficult to answer.

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