Mistress to an Age!
Our book today is just about as fine an example of an intelligent, readable popular biography as can be produced in our imperfect world: Christopher Herold’s 1958 National Book Award-winning life of Madame de Stael, Mistress to An Age, which both sold like hotcakes when it first appeared but also satisfied most of the critics; the long-suffering old grampus at the Saturday Review called it “as remarkable, as biting as that legendary figure herself.”
That legendary figure was born Anne Louise Germaine Necker in Paris in 1766 and grew up in a wealthy, intellectually thriving home that was also loud and chaotic, and the family’s opulent Swiss estate of Coppet, on Lake Geneva, early on became a symbol for her of regrouping, of concentration, and, whenever possible, of calm. In what would be a lifetime of passionate love affairs and even more passionate public jousting with, among others, Napoleon Bonaparte, she would need as much calm as she could find.
At age 20 she married a buffoon named Baron Erik Stael von Holstein – a business transaction conducted entirely by her parents and in which affection, to say nothing of actual love, never played even a small part (“Happiness will come later,: she wrote, “will come at intervals; may come never”). She was a very wealthy young woman in her own right; having a husband connected to the worlds of high diplomacy gave her one of the only social caches she lacked.
Shortly after the marriage, she began her literary career in earnest, turning out book reviews, literary columns, pamphlets, plays, and a string of best-selling novels that remain breathless fun reading even today. She was thus already a noted public intellectual when the French Revolution broke upon her comfortable, chatting world like a thunderstorm. And if it proved a shock to her senses, a fundamental denial of her belief in the salutary effects of talk and reasoned, modern discourse, then the advent of Napoleon Bonaparte was very nearly a calamity. She could retire to relative safety at Coppet, but she wasn’t cut out for safety; she craved it her whole life, but she couldn’t abide by its strictures.
So began the celebrated war of wills between herself and the dictator of France, and the most entertaining thread running through Herold’s account is his insistence that those two titanic wills were far more alike than either plump little autocrat would have liked to admit. This parallel wasn’t by any stretch new when Herold made it, but his evident joy of it – and his golden prose – make it the highlight of his book:
If Germaine’s salon in the rue de Grenelle had been the meeting place of an opposition party, he would not have feared her. It was, however, something much more elusive and dangerous. Germaine could not head an opposition, since she was disliked by as broad a spectrum of political groups as was Bonaparte himself. The most prominent of her regular guests were drawn not from among the enemies of his regime but from its elite – his ministers, officials, generals, and family. It was this which disquieted him. In Madame de Stael’s house the schoolboys were encouraged to be disrespectful of their master; they unlearned the fear on which his power rested; they were corrupted by the ideas that undermined his discipline. Just as Germaine thought that to Napoleon nothing was sacred, so Napoleon thought that to Germaine nothing was sacred; they disagreed on what was sacred, but they shared a common hatred of sacrilege.
Once her virtuous husband died, Madame de Stael’s personal life became a labyrinth of lovers, ex-lovers, disaffected children (her own and other people’s), intrigued adventurers, mouthy hangers-on, and distraught friends. She was one of the most unconventional figures of an unconventional time (Lord Byron famously commented that she had the brain of a man but – “alas!” – the heart of a woman; nobody in his immediate circle dared to point out that the same could be said of him), and if these personal tangles could quickly descend into incomprehensibility (as indeed they frequently do in de Stael biographies, both in English and in French). Fortunately for his readers, Herold is always ready to pause and clear things up with his signature affectionately caustic style:
The situation in the autumn and winter of 1808-1809 may be recapitulated as follows: (1) Germaine refused to give up Benjamin, who, unknown to her, had married Charlotte; (2) Charlotte refused to give up Benjamin, who was living with Germaine; (3) Prince August refused to give up Juliette, who was living with her husband; (4) while clinging to Benjamin, Germaine was dying of despair over O’Donnell’s treachery and trying to regain the affections of Prosper de Barante; (5) Barante was explaining his love to Juliette Recamier; (6) Juliette, without depriving Prosper of hope, did nothing to fulfill it; (7) Germaine, in her letters to Juliette, suggested that Juliette was alienating Prosper’s affections; (8) all correspondence between Juliette and Germaine ceased in November 1808.
He’s also unfailing in his ear for the minor anecdotes that so neatly fill out a portrait like this, like this funny little moment finding an exasperated Madame making her way through the admittedly confusing world of English country houses:
From October until Christmas 1813 Germaine spent a large share of her time in a round of calls at the great country homes. One day, invited to Lord Liverpool’s estate at Coombe Wood, she missed her way; only after she had visited what seemed half a dozen wrong Coombes did she reach the right one, on foot and after nightfall. “Coombe here, Coombe there, we have been through every Coombe in England,” she muttered as she sat down at table.
But his mastery of every stray quip and comment his subject ever made is just a wonderful extra; Herold always returns to his central appreciation for de Stael’s most important aspects:
What made her unique was that she sought essentially moderate goals by the most passionate means. Rarely was love more exalted than by her; yet the goal was not the agonizing passion she new but the quiet happiness that eluded her. In politics and literature she never pursued extremes but always saw herself as mediator, as a channel of communication: “The circulation of ideas is, of all kinds of commerce, the one whose benefits are most certain” – thus she declared in one of her last writings, her noble essay on “The Spirit of Translation.”
“This work is not offered as a ‘definitive biography,’ Herold tells us, perhaps in a move to circumvent the eight or ten Napoleonic scholars of his day who might have looked askance at the unabashedly crowd-pleasing tone of Mistress to an Age – circumvent, but not apologize, as his immediate elaboration makes hilariously clear:
In the first place, despite the impressive literature and documentation already published on Madame de Stael and her friends, a still larger mass of material remains unknown; in the second place, definitive biographies can be written only about people who are quite dead. Sometimes, to be sure, they still show some feeble signs of life, but the definitive biographer gives them the coup de grace.
This is every bit as delightful a book on the fifth re-read as it is on the first encounter, and I was recently very happy to find an edition I like much better than the sturdy but inappropriately binary old Time-Life paperback that gave the book its widest circulation in the US book market: this one has instead a typically evocative painting by the great cover-illustrator (and long-time Cape Cod seasoner, until his death 2003) Bill Teason, who could always manage to make even a still live somehow pulse with life. I’m hoping there’s a lot of life left in this copy, since I’m sure I’ll be re-reading it again next year.