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September 30, 2010

'A tomb in which you can get mail'

That's the wonderful phrase that novelist and literay and political saloniste Germaine de Stael used to describe her exile from France during the reign of Napoleon. {'I can smell Mme. de Stael from a mile away,' he said, seated in the bathtub....He hit the bathwater with his first, splashing brother Joseph from head to foot. 'Advise her not to block my path,' he added. 'Or else I shall break her. I shall crush her. Let her keep quiet, it's the wisest course she can take.'} Napoleon's 'paranoid hatred' of Germaine de Stael led him to plant spies in her salons and in the town of Coppet, and to take measures against her sons and her friends.

During her exile, Madame de Stael bore a child secretly with her much-younger lover (and later, second husband), Jean Rocca:

Germaine, looking sallow, haggard, deformed, managed to hide her growing bulk under voluminous skirts and shawls; she was only too aware of the ridicule she might suffer it it became known that she'd been impregnated at the age of forty-five by a man young enough to be her son, and she spent the last months of her pregnancy ingeniously hiding her condition.  Intimates and closest friends, ...even her children, were led to think that she was suffering from an attack of dropsy.

... the following fact must be taken at face value, since no one in her family ever denied it. On April 7, at Coppet, in the sole company of her physician and Miss Randall, Germaine gave birth to a boy without the rest of her family...knowing anything about it. After a few days spent with his parents, the infant was taken by a doctor friend to a village near the town of None, where he was baptized... as 'Louis Alphonse, son of Henriette, nee Preston, and of Theodore Giles, of Boston,' (these parents' name were purely fictional). The infant remained in the care of the pastor and his wife, and Germaine did not see him again for another two years.
She later traveled to Russia and Sweden to escape from Coppet and to work against Napoleon. {'It is certain that no person did more than she to promote Sweden's participation in the war against Bonaparte, and that Sweden played a crucial role in the French Emperor's defeat.') She also wrote Dix annees d'exil (Ten Years in Exile), the book that Francine du Plessix Gray considers 'some of the finest prose she ever wrote.'

With Napoleon's defeat in Russia, she was finally able to return to Paris and re-open her salon there ('and a brilliant one it was'). But the reaction of the new King to her politics was very different ('We attach so little importance to anything you do, say or write that the government will not allow anyone to hinder you in any way in your prospects and mysteries') and friends found her 'utterly changed.' She even offered to go to Elba to rescue Napoleon from the threat of assassination (he was grateful).

That last summer in Coppet -- 1816 -- was like the last act of a great opera. The hostess surpassed herself in entertaining her guests, for she provided them with the most talked-about man in Europe, Lord Byron. Byron, who would describe Mme. de Stael as 'the first female writer of this, or perhaps any age,' lived that summer across the lake from Coppet, finishing the Third Canto of his Childe Harold. Outcast by all members of Genevan society except Germaine's circle, he created high drama when he first appeared at her house: Upon the majordomo announcing his name as he walked into Germaine's living room, one of the female guests fell to the floor in a dead faint and had to be carried out...

The numerous guests were squeezed uncomfortably at the dinner table, which was far too small to accommodate such a multitude. But according to those who wrote nostalgic memoirs of that last grand Coppet summer, it would have been difficult to find more brilliant talk in any other house in Europe. 'She has made Coppet as agreeable,' Byron said about Germaine and her domain, 'as society and talent can make any place on earth.'

I've just finished reading this short biography of Madame de Stael, and it was very enjoyable to read and learn more about her while I've been in Coppet. I love to read biographies, and there's sometimes something appealing about a shorter, very readable, less intense style ...{'His letter made it clear that he was breaking off all relations with her and never wished to see her again. Thus ended the last (might some readers join the author in a sigh of relief?) of Germaine's many infatuations.') ... especially when you're not, initially, overly interested in the subject.  

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1 comment:

Vintage Reading said...

Interesting - I've been reading Maria Edgeworth novels and Madame de Stael is mentioned several times and I knew nothing of her life until I read your posts.

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