The AIWC will be organizing a tour in English at the Bodmer museum’s temporary exposition of Mme Germaine de Staël who died 200 years ago and, though perhaps not known by you, she has not been forgotten by the Genevois.
Mme de Staël was a bi-national French-Swiss lady of letters who epitomized the European culture of her time. She gained fame by maintaining a salon for leading intellectuals primarily in Coppet. Her writings include novels, plays, moral and political essays, literary criticism. history as well as poems. By the age of 21 Germaine de Staël had written several literary works and under the influence of her father, she adopted political views favoring the French Revolution.
Born in 1766 in Paris, Germaine was the daughter of Jacques Necker, a reputed, yet controversial, Swiss banker who became Director of Finance to King Louis XVI. Her mother, Suzanne Necker, was equally famous in the salons of philosophic society. While Madame Necker was beautiful and stylish, Germaine was plain and plump. Mother and daughter did not have a good relationship though as a child, Germain was seen in her mother’s salon, listening to and taking part in conversation with a lively intellectual curiosity which remained her most attractive quality.
From the age of 16 her parents decided that it was time for her to marry. Being of Protestant faith in France did not offer her many options. Finally in 1786 she married the Swedish ambassador in Paris, Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein, a marriage of convenience which ended in a formal separation in 1797.
Mme de Staël was regarded by contemporary Europe as a personal enemy of Napoleon. With Constant and his friends she formed the nucleus of a liberal resistance that so embarrassed Napoleon that in 1803 he had her officially banished from Paris. All these years she had been protected by her husband’s diplomatic status. From then on she made her headquarters in Coppet where she compiled her book “Ten Years’ Exile”.
In 1816 Lord Byron resided with her in Coppet and a strong friendship developed between the two. After Byron’s departure she returned to Paris for the winter and although she was not well received and suspected by the government, she held her salons throughout the winter and spring. After 1817 she became an invalid and died in July of that year.
Germaine de Staël is remembered today more for her political ideas than her literary work. She had a clear vision of wider issues and achievements of civilization. It may be said that she helped the dawning 19th century to take stock of itself .
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