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Madame de Stael: The First Modern Woman
Synopses & Reviews
"A writer of scintillating style and resonant substance," (Publishers Weekly), bestselling author Francine du Plessix Gray chronicles the incandescent life of the most celebrated woman of letters of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era.
The daughter of the second most important man in France, Louis XVI's Minister of Finances, Jacques Necker, Madame de Staël was born into a world of political and intellectual prominence. Later, she married Sweden's ambassador to the French court, and for a span of twenty years, she held the limelight as a political figure and prolific writer. Despite a plain appearance, she was notoriously seductive and enjoyed whirlwind affairs with some of the most influential men of her time. She always attracted controversy, and was demonized by Napoleon for her forthrightness, the sheer power of her intellect, and the progressiveness of her salon, which was a hotbed for the expression of liberal ideals. The emperor exiled her, on and off, for the last fifteen years of her life.
Madame de Staël—force of nature, exuberant idealist, and ultimate enthusiast—waged a lifelong struggle against all that was tyrannical, cynical, or passionless in her time, and left Europe a legacy of enlightened liberalism that radiated throughout the continent during the nineteenth century.
"Novelist, philosopher, salonnire and a woman whose political genius was 'worthy of the wiliest D.C. lobbyist': Germaine de Stal (1766 — 1817) lived many lives during the chaotic years of French history from the Revolution through the machinations of Napoleon. NBCC Award — winning author Gray (Them: A Memoir of Parents) chronicles her subject's combination of charisma and historical circumstance, manifest in de Stal's celebrated salons, impassioned literary tracts and iconoclastic personality. More than the quintessential cosmopolitan, de Stal saved lives during the Terror and launched careers. Yet before marrying her inept husband, she said, 'I regret that I have not joined my fate to that of a great man; it is the only possible glory for a woman.' Despite repeated exile from Napoleon's France, de Stal was as linked to the political workings of Parisian society as any of her male contemporaries. Faithful to de Stal's incessant energy, Gray follows her movements at a forceful pace, masterfully commanding a wide cast of characters while streamlining the frantic narrative of her subject's life. The reader trusts Gray completely, but wants more of the peerless de Stal." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
She was sturdy, she dressed eccentrically, she couldn't keep her mouth shut. She was sometimes called a talking machine. She was madly enthusiastic about sex: Some said that was because she was so plain she was absolutely delighted to be chosen by almost any man. That talking thing? That turned out to be a blessing, since she was born into France's ancien regime, when Louis XVI was king, Marie Antoinette... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) his pretty queen, and lively conversation was valued more than almost any other social attribute. Germaine de Stael, nee Necker — the subject of this brief interpretive biography — was lucky in her choice of parents, too. Her father, Jacques Necker, was the only foreigner in King Louis' cabinet. Necker was Swiss, Lutheran, enormously rich and in charge of France's finances. (Little Germaine grew up to be one of the wealthiest women in Europe.) Her mother, a rather icy Protestant who didn't value fun very much, presided over the most esteemed salon in Paris. She did it from a sense of duty. On one occasion, a group of guests who came early snooped around the drawing room and found, tucked among the furniture cushions, cards with witty remarks and pertinent questions already written out. This happened more than 200 years ago, and the story is still told. The French aristocracy had plenty of money, sophistication to burn, and a mean streak a mile wide. Growing up, Germaine was more than high-strung. Rebelling against her mother's strict methods of pedagogy, she went through a major nervous breakdown, which meant, in the end, that she was allowed to be taught in the way she wished. She inhabited a world that's hard for us to comprehend. Paris was divided — just under the king — into the clergy; nobles; doctors, lawyers, professors, professional men of all kinds; and finally the rabble, mobs of urban peasants rushing around the city. They lived on bread and soup and washed their linens — if they had any — in the Seine. The royal family was isolated from it all, well-intentioned, perhaps, but totally out of touch with the larger world. Germaine grew up. She married the Swedish ambassador to France, had a child with him and kept on talking: to friends who lounged about watching her get dressed, to the 15 or so onlookers who were in the room when she had her first baby, to the guests of her countless salons, which had easily surpassed her mother's in elegance and wit. She embarked on a series of affairs, then wrote a screed on the value of a constitutional monarchy (which was the last thing the monarch wanted to hear about). From then on, she was exiled, on and off, to her family's estates in Switzerland. The French Revolution began, and continued, in waves. Germaine had a new lover, Monsieur Narbonne, with whom she had two children. Many wealthy French fled the country, to Switzerland, to England. Germaine, widely known for her selflessness and generosity, rented a huge house in England, where squadrons of emigres lived off her largesse, while they waited to be honorably summoned back to France by the next regime. She and her friends crossed many borders, in many disguises, while the government sorted itself out with a maximum of confusion and the king and queen lost their heads. What a life she lived! Another (very unattractive) suitor, Benjamin Constant, failing to seduce her, faked taking a fatal dose of opium; onlookers smirked, but that gambit did the trick. She covered him with kisses and they became lovers. Some years later, Napoleon gained power, and that tiny autocrat absolutely detested the ever-blabbing Madame de Stael. He sent her into exile again — to Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland. She mourned the loss of her beloved Paris, but took to writing nonstop, building her reputation as Europe's foremost woman of letters. She wrote incessantly, talked without pause, took a lover half her age, had a baby in secret, right under the noses of her family. Even after a severe stroke, tormented by bedsores, she kept up with her entourage, her loyal circle of friends. Francine du Plessix Gray does a marvelous job in "Madame de Stael," filling us in on the French Revolution as though it were (almost) easy to understand, recognizing de Stael's faults (delusions of grandeur, mostly), while steadfastly commending her talents, her sweet nature, her generosity. I loved this book! Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can may be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Bestselling author du Plessix Gray chronicles the incandescent life of the most celebrated--and one of the most controversial--woman of letters of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era.
About the Author
Francine du Plessix Gray is the author of Them: A Memoir of Parents, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; At Home with the Marquis de Sade, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; and numerous other works, including a biography of Simone Weil in the Penguin Lives series. She lives in Warren, Connecticut.
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Biography » Historical