The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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September 27, 2010

Le Chateau de Coppet

In 1784, during his first exile from the French court, M. Necker purchased a lovely manor house about ten miles from Geneva, the Chateau de Coppet, a few hundred yards from Lake Leman, which has been associated with Madame de Stael ever since. Originally built in the fifteenth century and restored in the seventeenth, it was, and still is, a light, airy, welcoming house surrounded by a beautifully wooded park, with a distant view of the Alps. The house came with a title, an eighteenth century custom that pertained to many chateaux in Europe. Germaine's parents were now Baron and Baroness Necker.
-- from Madame de Stael:  the first modern woman,
by Francine du Plessix Gray

I don't know very much about Madame de Stael, except that she was an early nineteenth century novelist, and kept a literary salon, and was (appararently) a polar opposiste of Jane Austen. But since she is the most famous resident of my sister's village near Geneva, and since her pretty rose-colored chateau (which is still in the family, eight generations later) is open to visitors, I thought it would be fun to visit it and to read about her while I'm in Coppet. 

Here's what I've learned so far:  she was born in Paris in 1766, the only daughter of Jacques Necker and his wife, Suzanne. Her father was a wealthy Swiss banker who rose to great power and prominence as the Director General of Finance for France under Louis XVI; her mother was the daughter of a Protestant minister in the village of Crassier (where my sister first lived when she moved to Switzerland). M. Necker bought the chateau as a pied-a-terre for his wife when she returned to Geneva to visit her family, and it later became a home in exile for both M. Necker and his daughter.  Germaine was educated by her 'high-strung, hyperanxious mother,' who created a famous literary salon in Paris to support her husband's ambitions. M. Necker was regarded as the second most powerful man in France, and introduced some necessary economic reforms, but he also succumbed to vanity and issued reports that mis-stated the dire state of the French treasury.  Until the end of his career, he was honored and respected by the French people, but fell in and out of favor with the King, who dismissed him and then recalled him several times.

Seeking a Protestant nobleman in the Catholic French court, the Neckers arranged a marriage for Germaine (one of the wealthiest heiresses in Europe), when she was 12, with a Swedish nobleman, Eric Magnus de Stael Holstein, eighteen years older, who became the Swedish ambassador to the French court and graciously waited until Germaine was 18 to marry her.

Germaine grew up in the French court, and created her own literary salon in Paris (and later in Coppet). She also began writing plays and literary and social criticism. She had one child with Baron de Stael (a daughter who died in infancy) and four more with her lovers and her second husband, who was 22 years younger than she was. She was in Paris at the time of the French revolution, and only reluctantly fled to Coppet during its worst moments ('Better dead in Paris than live in Switzerland!') I haven't gotten this far in the biography I brought with me, but the guide at the chateau told us that Germaine de Stael later clashed politically with Napoleon and was exiled to Coppet; when this did not 'shut her up,' as the guide said, he also forbade members of French society from visiting her here (this tactic didn't work, either.)

The description of the chateau above is a very apt one; the large-ceiling rooms are light and open, and filled with family portraits, busts, and beautiful old furniture. We saw a lofty entrance hall, the salon, Madame de Stael's bedroom, the room where her friend, Madame de Recamier would sleep when she visited, a beautiful library with 8000 books brought to the chateauu by a later generation, and a dining room complete with a washing room (with its own fountain) for guests to wash their hands in before eating. We also saw a portrait gallery and were taken through the family history down to the present owner (who is an eligible bachelor, by the way).

Now that I've been to the chateau, I'm lookng forward to reading the rest of the biography (and getting to the juicy bits).  Madame de Stael hated 'the infernal peace' of Coppet, but I'm rather fond of it!

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