Her Own Woman

Review: Biancamaria Fontana, ‘Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait’

Germaine de Staël
Germaine de Staël / Wikimedia Commons

According to Biancamaria Fontana, professor of the history of political ideas at University of Lausanne, most of the histories of the French Revolution fail the Bechdel test when discussing Germaine de Staël (1766-1817), the daughter of Jacques Necker. He was one of a series of France’s financial controllers who tried to right the severely listing ship of the state but could not convince the royals, the nobles, or the clergy to pay any taxes.

Not that Fontana ever mentions the Bechdel test, but she does write that Staël, novelist, literary critic, and political theorist, is usually mentioned either for her allegedly scandalous behavior or in connection with the famous men in her life—Necker, Louis de Narbonne, and Benjamin Constant, among others. What is emphasized is her relationships with these men and how dependent her writings were on theirs.

Fontana will have none of this:

As to her posthumous reputation, historians have often ridiculed her political ambitions and assumed she was always led by her "infatuation" with some more or less deserving male personality. They have also diminished her political role, downgrading her backstage canvassing to feminine intrigue, and reducing her contribution to that of a somewhat overambitious and hyperactive salon hostess. The fact that she was a moderate, rather than a revolutionary militant, has not helped, since she could not be cast in the role of victim or challenger of a male-dominated system. . . . On the whole, while gender is obviously relevant to the shaping of Staël’s career and reputation, the way in which she lived her limitations was so peculiar, so deliberately self-fashioned, that it does not lend itself to any stereotyped classification and must therefore be taken on its own terms.

Fontana’s main purpose in writing this book is to show how Staël was her own woman, especially in "the evolution of her views in the years 1789 to 1800," during which, when not fleeing the guillotine or in exile, she took part in France’s "political life" and wrote about it.

The first two chapters of the book, covering the years 1789-1792, dragged for me: the first chapter focuses on her father, Necker, and the role of public opinion; the second on her efforts to get Narbonne the job of war minister, the controversies about how militant France should be with her neighbors, and the merit of the new constitution. Staël thought public opinion was essential for the running of government but hard to ascertain, especially when the press degenerated into propaganda mouthpieces for the various factions and traded in rumor more than facts.

The book comes alive in the fourth chapter wherein Fontana notes (quoting Staël), "The ‘chimerical system of equality’ that inspired the Jacobins was a kind of ‘political religion’; like all religious doctrines, it was bound to be reinforced, rather than destroyed, by persecution and martyrdom." Staël, as noted, was a moderate. She tended toward the constitutional monarch side of the conflict but blamed that wing for squabbling amongst itself and being intransigent.

In a passage that reminds one of present-day politics, Fontana speaks of Staël’s view of partisanship:

Partisanship was essentially a "passion without any kind of counterweight" . . . . [and] also a self-defeating disposition, since the unbending attitude of factions was often a major obstacle to the enactment of effective and useful political strategies . . . . Whoever was moved by the spirit of party—she concluded—would prefer to fall, dragging down his enemies with him, rather then sharing any part of his triumph with them.

More frightening was how "a mass of honest, ordinary men, sincerely convinced of the legitimacy of their conduct" because of extreme partisanship "could commit odious and even criminal actions" and "justify atrocities and murders when they were committed in the name of a cause."

In the end, Staël’s experience reflects that the work of moderate intellectuals who find themselves involved with politics has a "limited impact upon reality." "All her life," Fontana writes of Staël, "she argued patiently with sovereigns, ministers, and generals, affecting to ignore their lies and duplicity, hammering on regardless, in the hope that some shred of reason might filter through to them."

Fontana does not claim Staël was as major a figure as, say, Rousseau or Voltaire, but she was her own thinker—and about more than her men.