Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, Baroness de Staël-Holstein, better known simply as Madame de Staël, was born on April 22, 1766. She was Swiss born, but lived much of her life in Paris. Her father was the finance minister to Louis XVI and her mother swanned over one of the most exclusive literary and intellectual salons, which brought her into the highest circles of society. She was an early advocate of women’s rights, a writer, a chief opponent of Napoleon, and the lover of the powerful men of the day, including a bishop and a count.
She was married off to a Swedish diplomat who was 17 years older than her and penniless, but he was also a nobleman, which was just what her parents wanted. The marriage lasted just 11 years but allowed her to circulate with respectability in society. She opened her own salon. She was no great beauty, but she was a great wit with an intellect equal to any of her distinguished guests. Her first book was Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J.-J. Rousseau (1788). She was particularly fond of Rousseau’s idea that passionate love did not impinge upon virtue. This was convenient for someone with such a variety of lovers.
During the outbreak of the Revolution, she allied herself with the centrist position, earning the distrust of both extremes. She advocated liberty, tolerance, and limits on military power. This won her no friends among the rising tide of Napoleon’s supporters. She fled to England, returned a year later, and then was exiled by Napoleon. While in England, she dedicated herself to writing literary essays about the idea of zeitgeist, or the concept that literature must reflect the spirit of the times. Back in France, she published two novels, Delphine and Corinne, early examples of Romanticism. Her salon was a breeding ground for ideas contrary to those of Napoleon, and he ordered her to stay 150 miles away from Paris. She traveled extensively in Germany and rubbed elbows with all the great thinkers, such as Schiller and Goethe. She moved to Russia and then England. She was finally able to return to France after Waterloo. She then threw herself into the abolition movement. She died of a stroke in 1817.
Today’s expression, une nation n’a de caractère que lorsqu’elle est libre (oon nasEun nah duh caracktehr kuh loreskell eh leebruh), is a Mme. de Staël quotation. It means “a nation only has character when it is free.” I think all the changes in North Africa and the near East this year would have fascinated Germaine de Staël. She would probably be lighting up the blogosphere advocating for greater liberty for all and opposing tyrants wherever she found them. I wonder what she would have thought of Sarkozy?