Germaine de Stael was one of the early feminists who championed women’s right to self expression. Hailed as an important intellectual of her time, she was also ridiculed as ‘man woman,’ because she was strong willed, decisive and took a definite stand on issues close to her heart. She was dominating and bossy and knew how to influence people to further her own ends. There were three different facets to her character – political, intellectual and sexual- distinct and running side by side.
Germaine’s one disappointment was that she failed to inspire Napoleon to envision her goals. At the outset, she was willing to proclaim Napoleon as great, provided he considered some of her ideas to turn France into an outstanding nation. A confirmed misogynist, Napoleon not only spurned her ideas but laughed at her attempts to influence him. He hated loud mouthed, self opinionated women and was immune to her charms. He preferred docile, submissive creatures like his wife Josephine or his mistress Mario Walewski.
“Who is the greatest woman in history?” she asked him.
“It is the woman who has borne the most children,” he replied, making her seethe with frustration.
Germaine had a striking personality but was by no means beautiful. She was on the pudgy side with an enormous bosom, and her deep necked attire revealed much of her bulging breasts. On one occasion, he peeped into her cleavage and had the impertinence to ask how many children she had suckled.
As Napoleon’s power grew turning him into a ruthless dictator, Germaine’s opposition to him escalated. She turned her father’s chateau at Coppet into an intellectual power house and a refuge for those who opposed Napoleon. She forcefully incited opposition against him. Her salon in Paris became a prominent political centre. She was constantly at loggerheads with the regime in France and encouraged her friends Talleyrand, Narbonne and Benjamin Constant to speak against government proposals.
Napoleon considered her an enemy of the State. She was exiled three times from France, for short periods between 1803 – 1812. He persecuted Germaine at every possible opportunity, as he was aware of her great influence on anti-Bonapartists. Her book on Germany which introduced German Romanticism and Philosophy to France was seized by Napoleon’s police in 1810, as being UnFrench and subversive, and burned. It was subsequently published in London in 1813.
Germaine put together a coalition that brought down Napoleon. Treaty negotiations between Russia and Sweden were mediated through her.
She came back to Paris only after Napoleon abdicated. Attempts to usher in Constitutional Monarchy were framed in her salon in Paris.
Germaine was also an accomplished writer, though she never became as popular as her contemporaries Fanny Burney and Jane Austen. She did her finest writing in exile. Her books Delphine and Corrine or Italy were well known. Corrine published in 1807 made a great impact on women outside France. Corrine became an international symbol of Romanticism. Many famous women modeled their lives on the protagonist of this book. Germaine also had good friends among the Intelligentsia of Europe like Byron, Schiller, Goethe, Chateaubriand and others.
Germaine was born Anne Louise Germaine Necker in Paris on April 26, 1766. Her father Jacques Neckar a Swedish protestant, was Director of Finance under Louis XVI, but was dismissed in 1788. Germaine was his only child and he loved her very much, calling her his little ‘Minette.’ Her mother Suzanne Curchod a French intellectual was very dominating and showed no affection for her daughter. Germaine disliked her mother intensely.
Germaine was married to Eric Magnus Stael von Holstein a Swiss nobleman who was eighteen years her senior. Through her father’s influence, he was made Permanent Ambassador to France. Germaine was now Baroness de Stael, the richest heiress in France. But they separated a few years later, giving her the freedom to dally with a succession of men. She was a sensual woman and of the five children she bore only one was sired by her husband. Viscount Louis Narbonne was the father of her two children Auguste and Albert. She had many brief flings.
But the love of her life was Benjamin Constant, French author and political leader and their affair lasted on and off for seventeen years. Theirs was an intellectual and romantic bonding, exciting but also exhausting. Constant was the father of her daughter Albertine.
He described Germaine as a demanding lover and an attention seeker. “Everybody’s entire existence, every hour, every minute, for years on end, must be at her disposal or there was an explosion like all thunderstorm and earthquake together.”
Her last lover was Lt. John Rocca, twenty years her junior. When her husband died in 1802, she married Rocca secretly. This was not known until after her death. She bore him a son.
During her last years, this witty, voluble, bold woman began to abuse opium and was laid low with severe stomach pains. She suffered a stroke, and passed away on July 14, 1817, Bastille Day. She was just 51 years old. Her husband died six months later from TB.
During her lifetime Germaine weathered many political upheavals - the last years of the Monarchy, the French Revolution, Napoleon’s rule and post Napoleon years. Napoleon said of her, “How does it happen that all who speak to her come to like me less and less.”