May 2, 2012

Book: Madam De Stael by Maria Fairweather

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:41 am

How would you consider a person who supported the enemy when your own country was at war with another country? What would you feel about a person who acted childishly selfish, even at the age where she had several children  and demanded unquestioning obedience from everybody? What would you think of a woman who had each of her children by different men, and kept writing passionate love letters to three men at the same time, telling each one how she feels the greatest passion for him and that feels pain that he is ignoring her? How would your feelings change if I told you that while writing to these absent men, she was flirting with any man in sight? What would you think of her if she pined for her father and wished that she had been born in another family so that she could have him as her lover?

Madam De Stael was all these but a lot more, besides. She is not as well known as William Pitt, the Prime Minister of Englnad during Napoleanic times, Napolean himself, Tsar Alexander of Russia or Voltaire, but influenced the power structure of many countries.

She was Swiss born; her father M. Necker, married a Swiss nanny, Suzanne Necker and Germaine (called Minette by her parents) was their only child. She was not beautiful by any standards and that created a huge insecurity all her life and made her run after every man she met. Her father became a very powerful man in France, and served as a minister during the Ancien Regime and also post Revolutionary France. He was considered a great intellectual but ultimately was sent in disgrace to live out the rest of his life in Switzerland.

Germaine refused an offer to marry William Pitt as she refused to leave her beloved France and married instead Stael, and became Madame de Stael. The marriage was doomed from the start. She had her first child with Narborne, a public figure in France who was a friend of her father?s and was exiled during the revolution, only to come back as a Minister with Napolean. She even saved his life once.

But her abominable manners, the ridiculous low cut outfits even when she was forty and above (in those days it was not the new thirties and besides, public was a lot prudish on dresses then) and her refusal to conform to the feminine model all caused great discomfort with men. But her razor sharp intellect, her good intentions were also very much visible. She rescued her husband and several of her lovers from debt and put up the expenses of all of them from her father’s  and
later, her own  fortune.

She was so influential that Napolean exiled her to 40 leagues or greater from Paris initially and later, from France altogether, fearing her influence on the public.

She hobnobbed with Madame Recaimer, a great beauty of her times and one who supported her even when it was politically dangerous to do so. Madame Recaimer was herself exiled briefly for her loyalty.

She had her second child by Benjamin Constant. She never consented to marry him; nor did she  consent to let him go, throwing emotional tantrums and even pursuing him to his aunt’s house and shrilly harangue him to come back to her and live with her,  while she was courting countless others. She married Rocca finally after Stael died and had her last child by him.

She hobnobbed with royalty: was  on close terms with Swedish Kings, Russian Tsar Alexander, with Wellington who defeated Napolean, with the two brothers of Napolean himself, especially his brother Joseph, who remained faithful to her in friendship even as Napolean considered her the greatest enemy and even feared her formidable intellect.

The book is very interesting in an unexpected way. Madam De Stael’s own story is not great in its personal details, except her very casual attitude to sex and relationships, but the backdrop of history is fascinating. You get a ringside view of the ancien regime of Louis XVII and the French Revolution,  the siege of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror that followed. It is interesting to see how Tallyrand changes colour like a chameleon to stay sweet with successive regimes and abandons Madam de Stael when she had always helped him and even saved his life once.

The description of Tsar Alexander as a caring and liberal young man is described with an explanation of how he turned autocratic and ruthless, inspiring the December revolt later is described (even though the later part does not have anything directly to do with the subject matter of the book). This makes for interesting reading.

The power politics of Sweden, Russia, England, Italy and France are well told, and you get a different perspective of history.

The Swedish king Gustav III and his assassination is covered, as is the growing influence of de Stael and how it influenced post war arrangements after France under Napolean was defeated by the Allied force.

In all this, juxtaposed nicely, is de Stael’s personality. The author does not hide the warts of her major subject and in fact, describes them so dispassionately that you even feed hatred for her,  for being selfish, for being childish and even  intolerable under some circumstances.

It is a fairly good book if you are interested in the history of nations at the crucial juncture of Bourbon monarchy being overthrown by the Revolution, the ascension to the throne and the abdication of Napolean followed by the reeatablishment of the Bourbons on the throne of France.

Let us say a 7/10

— Krishna


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