Revolutionary Passions

Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant: A Dual Biography by Renee Winegarten

Books France History

Mme de Staël and Benjamin Constant remain two of the most significant and beguiling thinkers produced by the revolutionary age. Yet until now, no full-length account has been written about their notorious affair, and it is this gap that Renee Winegarten sets out to fill. She has every reason to do so. The liaison dominated Constant’s and Mme de Staël’s lives for 17 years between 1794 and 1811. It exercised a major influence on their thought and writings, and encompassed an impressive walk-on cast including Napoleon, Talleyrand, Goethe and Byron. Its story illuminates the history of Europe at one of its most important and dramatic junctures.

The book begins slowly, not helped by frequent chronological shifts of gear. It makes some sense to begin with the first meeting between Constant and Mme de Staël, in Switzerland on September 18 1794, but this necessitates some confusing flashbacks to fill in the protagonists’ early lives during the complex period of the French Revolution. It also grates that the protagonists, who are known to posterity by their surnames, are referred to throughout as Germaine and Benjamin, like characters in a romantic ­novel. But the book soon gets into its stride, helped by the fact that the story it tells is so extraordinary, culminating in Mme de Staël’s years as a one-­woman opposition to Napoleon, her exile from Paris, her triumphant return at the dictator’s fall, and her early death in 1817.

Of the pair, Mme de Staël has always been the better known. Her novels Delphine and Corinne helped found the Romantic movement, while her non-fictional De l’Allemagne introduced contemporary German literature and philosophy to the rest of Europe. The prodigiously talented daughter of Louis XVI’s celebrated finance minister, Jacques Necker, all her life she remained a champion of constitutional government and political liberty.

Winegarten underlines her eccentricities — she was immensely emotional and self-dramatising, and a compulsive talker — but also her sterling qualities. Her courage and generosity were remarkable. During one of the French Revolution’s most ghastly episodes, the September massacres, she hid several fugitive friends in her home. Briefly taken into custody, she was almost killed by the crowd on the steps of the Hotel de Ville. As she later recalled, “A man aimed his pike at me … if I had fallen down at that moment my life would have been over.”

Mme de Staël’s courage was undimmed a decade later when she defied Napoleon, who had swiftly decided that both her writings and the brilliant Parisian salon she hosted were subversive. Winegarten is perceptive on the hostility Mme de Staël’s rare position as an independent female public figure aroused throughout her life, and from Napoleon in particular. In 1803 he banished her from the capital city. In 1810 he sent his ­minister of police, General Savary — a sinister figure with an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney — to confiscate her masterpiece, De l’Allemagne.

Constant’s reputation as a major liberal thinker has recently been revived, but he remains less familiar than Mme de Staël to a general readership. In many ways, he was quite as remarkable as her, although morally considerably less attractive. He was devouringly ambitious, frequently inconsistent, lecherous and a compulsive gambler. Politically, he moved from Jacobin sympathiser during the Revolution, to liberal dissident alongside Mme de Staël under the Napoleonic regime. He came near to ruining his reputation during the Hundred Days. Having compared Napoleon to Attila and Genghis Khan in March 1815, the very next month he rallied to the returning Emperor, ostensibly on a promise that henceforth liberty would be ­respected, but more probably through sheer opportunism. Yet he did make amends after Waterloo, emerging as a parliamentary champion of the poor, who were confronted by the rapacious capitalism of France’s expanding industrial and banking dynasties.

Constant’s attitude towards women was deplorable. He initially threatened — and half-heartedly attempted — to commit suicide if Mme de Staël did not become his mistress, yet within two years was finding her burdensome. As he put it in his roman à clef, Adolphe: “She was no longer an aim: she had become a tie.” Marriage to a docile, submissive wife, rather than an affair with a tempestuous ­female writer, he decided, was the best solution for his personal life. Eventually, in 1808, he found and married a suitable candidate — though he did not dare to tell Mme de Staël for another year. In a splendid example of poetic justice, Constant’s hopes of marital bliss were soon disappointed. By 1812, he was writing in his diary: “I got married in order to sleep with my wife a good deal and go to bed early. I never sleep with her, or hardly ever, and we stay up until 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Winegarten generally does justice to the remarkable partnership between Constant and Mme de Staël. She emphasises that despite its ultimate failure, it left as its monument a series of books that have enriched ­European politics and culture for the last two centuries. Above all, in an age dominated by reactionaries, dictators and demagogues, Mme de Staël and Constant helped lay the foundations of modern liberalism.