Napoleon’s Bête Noire

Mme de Staël’s works are once again being read, but she deserves to be remembered as a realist as well as a fabulist

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This portrait of Mme de Staël, a copy of one by François Gérard, shows her in 1810, still exiled by Napoleon

Staël studies are burgeoning. Her fiction and literary criticism are once again being read (though the novels will always be prosy), and university departments increasingly give her political theory the attention she thought it was due (even if the reverence she felt for the opinions of her pompous father Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker twice put in charge of the French nation’s finances, makes some of it less boldly experimental than it might otherwise have been). One of the great merits of Biancamaria Fontana’s excellent survey is to trace with patient lucidity the independence of her political thought, despite the disabling circumstances of her being a woman, her father’s daughter and Napoleon’s bête noire, at a time when any one of these things might have sufficed to curtail such an endeavour.

She was a compulsive wordsmith, writing more freely than was prudent for her times, with the inevitable consequence of exile and disfavour. Fontana shows what a travesty it is to claim, as has recurrently been proposed, that there is little novelty in her work, and that she simply reformulated established liberal tradition as expressed by any number of the influential males to whom she was close. She was far more original than that; and if she appeared unforgivably strident to some, she had a lot to be noisy about.

Staël was both extremely Anglophile and profoundly European, managing these twin tendencies with an agility and aplomb that some in modern politics might envy. Not that she herself had any apparent desire for office or even suffrage, at least on the evidence of her writings: she was seemingly content to rehearse the belief that her sex was properly constrained, rightly destined to provide men with loving support rather than entitled to set any overt or covert practical challenge to their sense of innate superiority. (Her uncritical worshipping of Necker, whom she regarded as a semi-divine conduit between God, the divinely-invested French king and the French nation, was probably at the root of this.) Yet she also knew what she herself was worth, and found ways of declaring her capacity for developed political thought despite all the establishment disfavour it invited. Her instinct was to support a degree of reform that put her at odds with traditionalists such as Necker, and which would thoroughly enrage Napoleon, but which she refused to temper.

Fontana ascribes to her an idea of government that was essentially non-elitist, though one may feel that this was more a theoretical than a genuine conviction of the actually distinctly elitist Staël: perhaps the truth is that her lifelong admiration for the British way of doing things blinded her to the extent to which even tacit acceptance by the populace of noblesse oblige created and creates its own essential conservatism. (When in England, it is true, she consorted by choice with Whigs, not Tories.) Or perhaps, more practically, Staël recognised the essential conservatism without feeling the need to lay it bare. For someone so regularly lampooned in her own day for a lack of delicacy that now appears rather endearing, she could, when she chose, be surprisingly restrained, as capable of subtly suggesting as of declaring outright what she thought the facts of a matter might be. Yet to the irritation of her enemies and even some of her supporters, she often chose stridency when discretion would have suited her purpose better.

Fontana, who calls those aspects of representative regimes that cannot easily be captured within explicit frameworks “liquid” elements, encourages us to see Staël as acutely mindful of their curious compulsions — almost akin to Keats’s “negative capability”, perhaps. On the other hand, Staël may in certain cases simply have been determined to idealise a state of affairs that closer scrutiny would have revealed as no more perfect than other political models. French writers of the Enlightenment had favoured an often uncritical Anglophilia, for instance, and it is quite possible that Staël saw as little need as they to call the native character into question. She certainly liked what she saw as British anti-authoritarianism, which, implicitly or otherwise, she set against the growing despotism of Napoleon’s rule. It was, in truth, the idealist Staël who chose to see England as a kind of dream model of truly functional representative government sustained by deliberation and debate. It would have needed a Voltaire to be summoned from the grave to depict the often infantile travesties of that model presented in the House of Commons.

But she was a realist as well as a fabulist. If it was the fabulist who in the Réflexions sur le procès de la Reine made Marie-Antoinette as blameless as she appears in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (though only Staël has her as both pro-republican and free of blemish in the latter respect, a kind of Elizabeth II avant la lettre), it was the realist who in one of her writings described the widespread phenomenon of abstention, that popular neglect which divests elections of their intended role as expressions of a people’s will. Yet the realist knew that politics of every hue relies on credulousness as well as credibility. Through years of exile Staël resigned herself pragmatically to accepting imperfect states of being as to a greater or lesser extent the human norm, while remaining certain that, in Fontana’s words, governments must always act as reliably and transparently as circumstances permit; for this is the compact that civilised leaders make with the led, and without it the door opens to fascism, dictatorship and other forms of evil. On a liberal interpretation this practical truth finds expression as much in the loose confederation of peoples that nations over the different continents have at various points in their histories arranged (and which the crude expansionism of the French Revolutionaries and, following them, the parodic feudal empire of Napoleon traduced) as in the individual nations themselves. It is an interpretation which indeed makes the analyst of culture Staël become a great European, however certain she remained that Paris, from which she had been so unceremoniously ejected by Napoleon, was properly the centre of the civilised universe. This year in particular we might profitably pay heed to that Europeanism, as much outside the university as within.