An interview with Biancamaria Fontana, author of Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait

Germaine de StaelGermaine de Staël (1766–1817) is perhaps best known today as a novelist, literary critic, and outspoken and independent thinker. Yet she was also a prominent figure in politics during the French Revolution. In her new book, Germaine de Staël: A Political PortraitBiancamaria Fontana sheds new light on this often overlooked aspect of Staël’s life and work, bringing to life her unique experience as a political actor in a world where women had no place. Recently, Fontana took the time to answer some questions about her book.

Though she is probably better known in France than in the English-speaking world, Germaine de Staël is already the subject of various biographies and literary studies. Why write another book about her?

BF: Staël’s reputation is indeed very high in her capacity as a novelist and literary critic; but her political activities and ideas are not so well known. Only her reputation as Napoleon’s vocal opponent has survived. But during the French Revolution, when she was in her early twenties, she was a very prominent political actor who tried to unite political factions and to promote the cause of modern representative government, though of course she could not sit in the National Assembly, except as a spectator; she was also barred from becoming a minister like some of her (male) political friends who owed their positions in government to her. As to her works on political theory, they are more original than it is generally assumed: she addressed novel issues such as the role of public opinion in modern society, the character of national cultures and the prospects of European unification.

She seems to have led a very glamorous life, frequenting castes and royal courts, associating with the high aristocracy, dining with monarchs…or is this just a modern fantasy?

BF: No doubt wealth was a very important factor in Staël’s life: her father, Jacques Necker, was a Swiss banker who became minister of the king of France; when she married at nineteen in 1786 she had one of the largest dowries in Europe, and, unusually, she remained in control of her own fortune even after her marriage. Her social position was also the source of much hostility: aristocrats despised her, as the daughter of a rich parvenu, while radical revolutionaries assumed she must necessarily be an agent of reaction. Although she did live in castles and palaces, she herself did not care much about high life; what mattered to her was being independent, and especially being able to associate with the people she regarded as politically and intellectually interesting, including some sovereigns old and new. One must not forget that hers was an age of extraordinary social mobility (think of Napoleon!), in which personal qualities proved often more important than rank and social status.

To what extent was her intellectual reputation conditioned by her gender? Can she be described as a feminist?

BF: The fact that she was a woman has certainly led even serious historians to assume that her political views were derivative and echoed those of the men close to her (while the reverse was often true). Similarly commentators tend to describe her as an over-active salon hostess and to regard her political canvassing as backstage intrigue. She was very conscious of the fact that being a woman made her more vulnerable to public attacks (indeed she was often the target of sexual insults and calumnies), and took great care to avoid any occasion for scandal. But she did not spend much time complaining about such limitations: she was very pragmatic and took them in stride, making the most of the opportunities offered to her. She was not a militant feminist like, say, Mary Wollstonecraft, but she gave an extraordinary demonstration of what a politically minded woman was capable of.

We tend to consider celebrity as an essentially contemporary phenomenon. Yet in the book you describe Staël as uneasy about her own celebrity. Was this really already an issue in the 18th century?

BF: The development and greater freedom of the press in the 18th century, and especially during the French Revolution, did promote the phenomenon of celebrity, as writers and artists, generals and politicians competed for public attention. Indeed some contemporary observers were very worried by what they saw as the replacement of true moral and intellectual distinction with ephemeral fame. Staël was especially concerned with the decline of aesthetic and moral standards, as she considered the quality of public discourse an essential precondition for the political development of modern societies. She was also embarrassed by the fact that her unusual situation made her famous, before she had the opportunity to “deserve” to be known by the wider public. All her life she tried very hard to merit the status she finally achieved, that of a major international intellectual figure.

What, if anything, can we learn from her views on politics?

BF: Staël is generally described as a “liberal” thinker, someone who supported the values of freedom, moderate government and the limitation of power against the authoritarianism of both monarchical and popular regimes. This of course is broadly speaking true; however what is really interesting about her views is not the fact that she defended a set of abstract values, but that she showed how difficult it was, in any real context, to put them into practice: how can you be a liberal when faced with political instability, international economic crisis, terrorism or military conquest? What I find especially prophetic about her writings is the fact that she saw popular opinion as the true source of the stability and legitimacy of any political system. The question she could not stop asking herself was: what does really give shape to collective mentalities and sentiments? Is it education, cultural or religious identities, or simply the ephemeral influence of fashionable views and ideologies?

This is probably a bit far fetched, but while preparing this book you must have spent some time trying to get inside her world; what would have been like, in your view, to be in her company, as a friend or social acquaintance?

BF: She was, by all accounts a fascinating conversationalist, a great flatterer, but also impossibly overbearing if you had anything to do with her at close range. Her energy, her relentless activity and appetite for company could be exhausting. However she was an extremely loyal friend, especially to women. She was very generous, did not take offence easily, and during the difficult years of the Revolution helped and supported the less fortunate of her acquaintances, including some who had never been especially nice to her. When Marie Antoinette was on trial, she took the risk of publishing a pamphlet in her defense, in spite of the fact that the queen had always treated her with disdain. Even in the writings of those contemporaries who disliked her, you cannot find a single episode in which she acted in a mean or resentful manner.

Biancamaria Fontana is professor of the history of political ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Her books include Montaigne’s Politics (Princeton), Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind, and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society. Most recently she has written Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait.