Staël (1766-1817)

“If one succeeds in destroying slavery in the South, at least one government in the world will be as perfect as human reason can possibly conceive”
(“Si vous parvenez à dètruire l’esclavage dans le midi il y aurait au moins dans le monde un gouvernement aussi parfait que la raison humaine peut le concevoir”)
– Madame de Staël Holstein (1816 January 6), in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, trans. Project Vox Team (2024)

An oil portait of Germaine de Staël wearing a red and white turban and holding a sprig.
Portrait of Mme de Staël, circa 1810, by Marie Éléonore Godefroid (1778–1849) after Baron Gérard (1770–1837).

Born Anne-Louise Germaine Necker, Germaine de Staël was a philosopher, novelist, writer, intellectual, and major political actor in late 18th and early 19th century Europe. Staël’s philosophical work spanned social and political theory, aesthetics, moral philosophy, moral psychology, the reception of Kantian thought, and much else besides. Her novels featuring strong but ultimately tragic heroines became best-sellers across Europe and in the newly-formed United States. They would be translated into English immediately upon their publication in French, often in multiple American cities simultaneously (e.g., in Boston and Philadelphia) because of the great interest in her work. Staël was also active politically: she was involved in shaping the government of the new Republic following the French Revolution, and she constituted an important social and political force that challenged Napoleon’s growing power. Indeed, she so vexed Napoleon that he eventually exiled her. According to one witness, he declared: “She will never set foot in Paris so long as I live” (Fairweather 2005, 331). All of these aspects of Staël’s life and work are deeply interwoven. Her activism and her writings stretch across themes of democratic and monarchic politics, public and private morality, the moral psychology of the emotions or “passions,” literature and its function in society, national identity, individual freedom, women’s liberation, and abolitionism.  

Staël’s intellect, writings, and prominence earned her the acquaintance and admiration of a list of figures that reads like a “who’s who” of the late Enlightenment and the early Romantic era: Fichte, Humboldt, Goethe, Schiller, Byron, Gibbon, Chateaubriand, and many others. She was, without doubt, one of the leading intellectuals who fomented the transition from the late Enlightenment into the European nineteenth century, including the emergence of Romanticism. Byron captured her stature and influence with some famous lines from his “Sonnet to Lake Leman” written in 1816 (Lac Léman is the local, vernacular name for what Anglophones know as Lake Geneva): 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau—Voltaire—our Gibbon and de Staël

Leman! These names are worthy of thy shore. 

Few women at the time were compared with these leading figures of the Enlightenment. Nor was Byron alone in his admiration of Staël; many of the era’s luminaries remarked on her accomplishments, influence, and personality. She was also a highly controversial figure at times. As Mary Wollstonecraft, the famed author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, once said, she shocked her interlocutors in person because she asked “men’s questions” (Holmes 2009, n.p.). Staël’s writings and her complex life have been the subject not only of extensive scholarship but also of many biographical accounts. Indeed, several famous figures have written biographies of Staël, including Lydia Maria Child in America and Mary Shelley in England, and many more accounts of her life have appeared in recent decades. 

In the political sphere, Staël was the associate, correspondent, and rival of illustrious figures across Europe and in the new world, including Marie Antoinette, Napoleon I, Talleyrand, Thomas Jefferson, Prince Metternich of Austria, and the Russian emperor Alexander I. Her writings and her political activities through her networks made Napoleon fear her countervailing influence enough to have her books burned. In a famous quip, the French writer Victorine de Chastenay (1896, vol. 2: 455) wrote: “There were three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe: England, Russia, and Madame de Staël.” 

As a historical figure, then, Staël is far from unknown. Not least for her role in the French Revolution and the nascent Republic, as well as her helping to shape the European Romantic movement, Staël was one of the major political and cultural forces of her era. Biographers as well as scholars in political theory, history, and literature have perennially found her a rich subject of study. Yet Staël has received relatively little attention as a philosopher and is rarely taught in philosophy courses. This neglect is unfortunate, for she also left behind a body of philosophically rich texts – writings that inform and are informed by her literary and political work. This entry aims to introduce readers to Staël as a philosopher and writer. 

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1. Biography

1.1.1 Staël’s early life 

Staël was born in 1766, in the middle of the European Enlightenment, to Jacques Necker (1732-1804) and Suzanne Necker, née Churchod (1737-1794). Her father was a prominent banker and statesman who served at various times as the finance minister of France. Her mother was a woman of letters who became a prominent salon hostess in Paris after her marriage to Necker. 

Composite of Portrait of Jacques Necker (1781) (left) and Suzanne Necker and Portrait de Suzanne Curchod (Madame Jacques Necker) (right) by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis
Portrait of Jacques Necker, 1781 (left) and Portrait de Suzanne Curchod (Madame Jacques Necker) (right), by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis.

Staël’s parents, who indelibly shaped her upbringing and education, were both remarkable figures in their own right. Her mother was well-educated and came from a pious Protestant family from the mountainous Vaud region of Switzerland. As a youth, and in spite of her relatively humble family background, Churchod’s intellectual gifts and education made her a star of the social scene in the regional capital of Lausanne. Necker, likewise Swiss-born, began his career as a bank clerk. He transplanted to Paris in 1750 to join his firm’s offices there, and his stature and wealth rose through the years as a result of several profitable financial investments. In 1764, following the deaths of her parents, the 24-year-old Churchod moved to Paris. She was accompanied by her friend, Madame de Vermenoux, who was herself being pursued by Necker at the time. Vermenoux introduced Churchod to Necker, and the pair married before the end of the year. Within another two years, they had their first and only child together, Germaine.  

After Staël’s birth, her father’s career in finance continued to ascend in tandem with the success of her mother’s salon. In their family home, her mother began to regularly entertain famous guests like Denis Diderot, the editor of the most important text of the Enlightenment, the massive Encyclopedia, and also Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, the influential philosopher of nature. On Suzanne’s encouragement, Jacques entered public service. Eventually, he became finance minister of France. In fact, he held the position during two separate tenures under Louis XVI, the first beginning in 1777. In 1778, Suzanne founded a hospital in Paris, the Hôpital Necker, which still stands today under the name Hôpital Necker-Enfants Malades. Germaine grew up against the backdrop of her parents’ highly public accomplishments. And as her own intellectual gifts became apparent, the trio became well-known as an impressive and close-knit family.  

Staël’s mother had a profound influence on her, particularly through her education. Suzanne was pious and even conservative – at least by comparison to the free-thinking intellectual circles of Paris. Nonetheless, herself highly learned, she placed great emphasis on the young Germaine’s education, and expressed a desire to bring up the young Germaine “like Émile” (Gutwirth 2002). Accordingly, she modeled her daughter’s education on the pedagogical plan laid out by the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his famous 1762 work Émile, or On Education. (This work was later to influence education reform in Revolutionary France.) The philosophers of the French Enlightenment also had a much more direct and intimate influence on the young Staël’s upbringing – after all, they were her mother’s dinner guests. Throughout her childhood, prominent European intellectuals passed through their family home for her mother’s salon meetings. These meetings were gatherings of social elites at prominent private homes for dinners, entertainment, and highbrow discussions of cultural and political affairs. Later on, as an adult, Staël would come to host her own salon, stocked with a new generation of illustrious guests.  

During his tenure as finance minister, Staël’s father made the unprecedented decision to make the French nation’s finances public. The publication in February 1781 of the Comte rendu, the document detailing the state of France’s finances, led to his being pushed out of his post later that year. At this point, the family, including the now-teenage Staël, took up full-time residence at their estate in Coppet, Switzerland. Coppet was to serve repeatedly as a refuge for Staël, including during her periods of exile. 

1.1.2 Staël’s first marriage and early career 

During this time, the Swedish diplomat Baron Erik-Magnus Staël von Holstein emerged as a potential suitor for Staël. His full name reflects the fact that his family originated in Holstein, Germany, but became Swedish during the reign of Queen Christina (Fairweather 2005, 51). The Baron was personable and well-liked, eventually taking up the post of Swedish Ambassador to France. The impression of Abigail Adams is representative. In a letter of 12 May 1785, she wrote, “The first time I saw him I was prejudic’d in his favour, for his countanance Commands your good opinion, it is animated intelligent sensible affable, and without being perfectly Beautifull, is most perfectly agreeable. Add to this a fine figure, and who can fail from being Charmed with the Baron de Staël?” (via Founders Online) Despite his aristocratic title and his important role, he was not a wealthy man, and his penchant for gambling led him to accrue large debts. The terms of Staël’s marriage to Erik-Magnus became the subject of lengthy negotiations involving the Baron, Necker (Germaine’s father), the King of Sweden, and the French monarchy. At long last the negotiations succeeded, and the pair married on January 14, 1786 at the Swedish Embassy in Paris (Dixon 2007, 51). The marriage contract was signed at Versailles in the presence of the royal family (Fairweather 2005, 57). Germaine was nineteen years old, and Erik-Magnus thirty-six. Following the terms of their union, he received a large dowry from the Neckers, which restored him to solvency, and he became the permanent Swedish ambassador to France.  

An oil painting of Germaine de Staël's husband and diplomat, Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein (1749-1802). He stands in a black and red outfit looking at the viewer and gesticulating as if making a point.
Portrait of Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein (1749-1802), Swedish diplomat, circa 1782, by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller.

Their marriage appears to have been loveless, a circumstance which Staël would later reflect on through her writings. But it was amicable and marked by mutual understanding, and they each pursued other love interests without interfering in each other’s affairs. Germaine’s more liberal and democratic political attitudes and advocacy resulted in occasional friction with Erik’s diplomatic role as representative of the Swedish monarchy, which opposed the revolutionary changes in France. However, being the wife of a diplomat would turn out to have its advantages. As movement became restricted during the Revolution, Staël’s diplomatic status often permitted her to pass through border controls and escape Paris when conditions became especially difficult. In the 1790s, they began to live independent lives, but remained formally together. When Erik took ill in early 1802, Stael remained with him at Coppet until his death in May of that year. 

Meanwhile, in 1788, Staël’s father was called back to his former post as finance minister of France. One of his assignments was to put the nation’s finances in order, which was no small task. The country’s finances were approaching a crisis point, with unpaid interest on the national debt, in part due to its recent support for the American Revolution. Necker’s legacy has since become somewhat mixed. He was regarded as a competent financier, professionally successful from a young age, and highly qualified for the office of finance minister. His talents, in the judgments of one later commentator, though perfectly suited to managing the national treasury in peacetime, did not prepare him to oversee the finances of a nation during a crisis that turned to revolution and violent upheaval (Perkins 1882, 243-244).  

Necker was a moderate royalist who wished for a constrained monarchy and who recognized that public opinion was an increasingly important political force – a theme that Germaine would develop further in her own political thought. He acted on several occasions to mitigate the impending famines threatening France at the time. Another of his decisions was to double the representation of the Third Estate, comprising the lower classes, at a meeting of the Estates-General. While he sought to preserve the monarchy and nobility in a restricted form, approximately following the English style of government, his actions on behalf of the non-nobility made him something of popular hero. Yet it also earned him the enmity of the privileged. Many in the government disliked him, and so he was pushed out again on July 11, 1789. His removal contributed to the heightened tensions that led to the storming of the Bastille just three days later, on July 14. As Staël noted herself in her later analysis of the period, Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution française (Considerations on the principal events of the French Revolution), the public anger that Necker’s firing provoked was a testament to how widely he was admired by the people. 

Staël’s father was a formative influence on her, especially on her political views. Necker was a moderate and, as finance minister, tried to make France fiscally solvent. He extended the French state a large loan from his personal finances, one that was repaid (to his daughter) only after his death. It was her father’s role in the French government that brought Staël in proximity to affairs of state, and eventually drew her into politics herself.  

Indeed, as these events were taking place, Germaine was not only attempting to start her own family while launching a literary and philosophical career but also becoming active in the volatile political scene.  

Germaine and Erik Magnus had five children together. The first two, born in 1787 and 1789 respectively, died in infancy. Of the three who survived to adulthood, all were born in the 1790s, and their true paternity has remained in doubt, given Staël’s affairs with the Comte de Narbonne and Benjamin Constant. Her son Ludvig August (1790-1827) became her literary executor on her death. In that role, he oversaw the posthumous publication of the first version of Staël’s Œuvre complètes (Complete Works, published in 1821). Albert (1792-1813), who became a soldier in the Swedish army, died of wounds incurred in a duel. Their last child together, and the longest-surviving, was her daughter Albertine (1797-1838). Albertine eventually married the French diplomat and statesman, Duke Victor de Broglie, and, like her mother, moved in politically influential circles. As Staël described the match to Thomas Jefferson, in a letter of 6 January 1816, the fact that de Broglie was a friend of Lafayette, the famed hero of both the American and French Revolutions, “says everything about his political opinions.” 

Oil painting of Germaine de Staël with her daughter, Albertine. Staël has her arm wrapped around her daughter.
Mme de Staël avec sa fille Albertine, circa 1805, by Marguerite Gérard (1761–1837).

It was also in the 1780s that Germaine was increasingly trying her hand at literary and political writing. She wrote two works for the stage, Sophie (1786) and Jeanne Grey (1787), and a set of commentaries on the philosopher Rousseau, titled Letters on the works and character of J.J. Rousseau (1788).  

In this respect, Staël was following the example of her mother, who was herself a woman of letters, as well as a devout Protestant. Her father Jacques did not encourage his wife’s – or his young daughter’s – pursuing an independent literary career. All the same, in 1794, the year of her death, Suzanne penned some “Reflections on divorce” in protest to its recent legalization (in 1792). She had also written numerous shorter works and commentaries, which she had not sought to publish, presumably because it was unbecoming of a woman. Jacques, however, in spite of his own conservative attitudes, published many of his wife’s miscellaneous writings after her death. These Mélanges, or “mixtures,” as they were titled, contained her reflections and aphorisms on various topics, and came out in several volumes in 1798 and 1801. Some scholars view Staël as likewise pulled in two directions, and as struggling with “the warring currents within her, one towards female conformity and the other towards unfeminine worldly ambition” (Goodden 2008, 94). 

In May of 1789, during her father’s tenure, Staël attended meetings of the Estates-General. As revolutionary foment increased, Staël attempted to exercise her influence on French politics. Staël was a moderate, neither wishing for the continuation of the absolute monarchy of the ancien régime nor advocating for a completely democratic government. Like her father, she favored a constitutional monarchy of the kind that had been established in England in the 17th century, where a parliament would place firm limitations on the powers of the monarch without removing the king entirely. This moderate position placed her and her husband in a delicate position, needing to thread a needle between what were then the two extremes.  

A remark of Marie Antoinette’s from this period is a testament to the political influence Staël was already beginning to wield. “Count Louis de Narbonne is finally Minister of War, since yesterday; what a glory for Mme de Staël and what a joy for her to have the whole army…all to herself!” (Lever 2005, 724). The meaning of Antoinette’s comment is that de Narbonne was Staël’s lover. As he was appointed Minister of War, Antoinette could wryly suggest that Staël thereby had control over the French military. 

As Staël relates in her memoirs, Dix années d’exil (Ten Years of Exile), when that revolutionary foment turned to violence, she fled Paris, relocating to Switzerland with her parents in late 1792. In 1793, she reported spending several months in England with her lover, the Comte de Narbonne, who had himself fled France. She became pregnant, which scandalized local English society. By the summer, she had returned to Switzerland, her relationship with de Narbonne having come to an end.  

That year, public opinion in France increasingly turned against the Queen, Marie Antoinette, whose extravagant lifestyle was perceived as a strain on the national coffers. In August, Staël published a defense of Antoinette, titled Réflexions sur le procès de la Reine, par une Femme (Reflections on the trial of the Queen, by a Woman). Her aim was not to produce a legal defense of Antoinette that could be used in a court of law. Rather, she set herself the task of analyzing the politics and public opinion surrounding Antoinette’s trial, comparing them with what she knew of the Queen’s life and character, and discussing the “frightening consequences” her condemnation would have for the nation’s politics (1793, 6). Staël’s efforts to foster sympathy for the Queen, “cette illustre infortunée” (this famed unfortunate) (1793, 5), came to naught. Antoinette was executed soon after, on October 16, 1793. Staël’s long-ailing mother, Suzanne, would die the following Spring in her native Switzerland. 

1.1.3 Revolutionary period and Staël’s collaboration with Constant 

A new phase of Staël’s life began later that year when the Swiss political thinker and activist Benjamin Constant visited her in Switzerland, in September 1794. By May of the following year, now a pair, they relocated to Paris, where Staël reopened her own salon and once again became directly involved in French politics. Because of her political activities, this period continued to be tumultuous for Staël. Through letters, contacts, private clubs, and salons, she worked to influence who would be appointed to important government positions. Late in 1795, she was forced to leave Paris following her surveillance and persecution by the Committee on Public Safety. She was regarded as a threat for sheltering emigres during a time of heightened suspicion and xenophobia in France.  

During this period, Staël was at work on major pieces of philosophy and political theory. Her treatise De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (On the Influence of the Passions on the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations) appeared in 1795. A few years later, in 1800, Staël followed with another major work of aesthetics, De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (On literature considered in its relations with social institutions). 

These works were among the many circumstances that generated friction between Staël and Napoleon Bonaparte, who had emerged in the late 1790s as the dominant force in French politics. The two first met on December 6, 1797 and, over the ensuing months, their political disagreements became increasingly apparent. The Swiss-born Staël opposed both his invasion of Switzerland in 1798 and his broader imperial ambitions. Their relationship was soon to become even more tense. However, in the meantime, Napoleon left for military expeditions abroad, most notably in Egypt.  

In 1799, Napoleon returned to France, concluding a military campaign that had enjoyed at best mixed success. Nonetheless, the return of the celebrated general was largely welcomed in an embattled France that was dealing with a new war against Hapsburg Austria as well as internal political strife. As the government struggled to reorganize itself, Napoleon and his allies engineered the ratification of a new constitution that designated Napoleon as First Consul of France. This position gave him essentially dictatorial powers. This infamous event has come to be known as “the coup of the 18th Brumaire,” the subject of much discussion, including a well-known piece by Karl Marx (Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon). 

After witnessing this act of political chicanery, Staël came to regard Napoleon as a Machiavellian “prince,” effectively a tyrant using subterfuge and force to grab power and suppress dissent. As she put it in her memoirs: 

“What particularly characterizes the government of Bonaparte, is his profound contempt for the intellectual riches of human nature…he would reduce man to force and cunning, and designate everything else as folly or stupidity.” (Staël 1821, 16-7) 

For his part, Napoleon regarded Staël and her ilk, who took their inspiration from Rousseau’s liberalism, as causes of the Revolution and all the chaos it brought upon France. As far as Napoleon was concerned, this impression was confirmed with the 1800 publication of De la littérature (On Literature). The work quickly made Staël famous, but firmed up her enmity with Napoleon (Goodden 2008, 89). 

Newly subject to intimidation from a powerful enemy, Staël promised to turn away from expressly political writing. She soon began work on Delphine, a novel in epistolary form. It tells the tragic love story of the titular character, who attempts to set her cousin up with a man, only to fall in love with him herself. Though not explicitly political, the action of the novel takes place at the height of the Revolution, between 1789 and 1792. And its themes touch on questions of individual liberty and the place of women and Protestants in French society. In the novel, societal institutions are implicitly criticized for their potential to suffocate women. Staël, who aligned Protestantism with liberalism, particularly targets Catholic institutions and norms, including convents and the Church’s opposition to divorce. The publication of Delphine infuriated Napoleon. Staël had criticized the conservative mores that Napoleon wished to retain their hold in France. In doing so, she threatened to complicate France’s relationship with the Vatican, which Napoleon also wanted to keep on his side. 

Further damaging her relationship with Napoleon, Staël maintained ties with her political allies throughout this period, gathering close-knit circles of like-minded liberals who opposed Napoleon’s rule. Her own memoirs downplay the depth of her involvement. Goodden describes her as involved in a “conspiracy among a group of French senators and army generals to halt Napoleon’s increasing hunger for power” (2008, 96). Among these conspirators was Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s generals who was later to become the monarch of Norway and Sweden. All the same, Goodden observes there, Napoleon seemed to reserve a special animosity towards Staël. Others who opposed Napoleon were often treated with lenience. Whereas Staël was banished, Bernadotte, for instance, was not punished. 

Though in some cases the different treatment can be partly explained by the utility someone like Bernadotte, a skilled general, could have for Napoleon, he appeared to retain a visceral hostility towards Staël. Madame Necker de Saussure quoted Napoleon as saying, “She is not talking about politics or me, but for some reason I do not understand, people always like me less when they have seen her” (quoted in Goodden 2008, 97). Staël, for her part, provided her own explanation of Napoleon’s special hatred of her in the very beginning of her memoirs, in “Chapter 1: Causes of Bonaparte’s animosity towards me.” In her own, possibly tendential, opinion: “The greatest grievance which the Emperor Napoleon has against me, is the respect which I have always entertained for real liberty” (Staël-Holstein 1821, 2).

Whatever the complex causes, in 1803, Napoleon formally exiled Staël from Paris. According to his decree, she was to remain at least 40 leagues—roughly 120 miles or 193 km—away from Paris. Exile, however, did not silence Staël; she remained a prolific author and a powerful social and political influence. 

1.1.4 Staël’s time in exile 

“Exile led Staël to freedom, though it was meant to make her captive.” (Goodden 2008, 292). 

Newly exiled, Staël began a period of travel around Europe. This period was to endure for ten years. One of her first destinations was Weimar, where her literary idol Johann Wolfgang von Goethe resided. In December 1803, she spent time with Goethe and other major German literary figures such as Friedrich Schiller and Christoph Martin Wieland. Constant joined her there, and in February 1804, she left for Berlin, where she met the literary critic and philosopher August Wilhelm Schlegel on Goethe’s letter of introduction. This relationship was to become a significant one for Staël. In the subsequent years, Schlegel frequently traveled with her and her children around Europe. They became intellectual and literary companions, and he also served as a tutor for her children. 

However, before she was able to undertake those travels, tragedy struck. While Staël was in Berlin, her father died after a long period of ill health. She had written him a letter on April 15, not realizing that he would never read it; he had died six days earlier, on April 9. When she heard the news some days later, she traveled back to Coppet to grieve for him. 

During her time in Germany, Staël had been studying German and undertook translations of the works of the figures she had met there, including Goethe and Wieland. The first major literary fruit of this period was her novel Corinne ou l’Italie (Corinne, or Italy), published in 1807. It tells the story of two lovers: Corinne, the Italian poet, and Lord Nelvil, the English noble, traveling through Italy on a journey in part mirroring Staël’s own travels. (Staël appears to have identified with her character, and there are several portraits of Staël represented as Corinne.) Staël had traveled in Italy starting in December of 1804, along with her three children. The family was accompanied by the children’s tutor, Schlegel. Schlegel, as noted, was himself a poet and critic. During this period, he was becoming famous for his translations of Shakespeare and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as for his critical essays on literature epitomizing the Romantic movement. Over the following half a year or so, Staël kept a detailed diary documenting her travels in Italy.  

Oil portrait of Germaine de Staël as one of her novel protagonists, Corinne. She is holding a lyre and looking upward toward the skies.
Portrait of Madame de Staël as Corinne, circa 1808-1809, by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842).

Staël continued to spend time in Coppet, where she strove to maintain her connections to European intellectual culture. However, as Napoleon conquered more and more territory throughout Europe, it became no longer safe for Staël, and she was forced to leave the estate in 1810. Her travels pushed her farther east, often having to change her travel plans on short notice in order to evade Napoleon’s advancing army, and eventually came to spend time in Russia.  

In 1810, Staël began publishing the monumental De l’Allemagne (On Germany). Napoleon found the multi-volume work on German society, politics, philosophy, religion, morality, arts, and literature politically subversive and sufficiently threatening to order all ten thousand copies of it pulped in the middle of printing.  

Ultimately, however, Napoleon’s effort to suppress On Germany failed: the work became famous and was a seminal text for the French Romantic movement. It was immediately translated into English and published both in England—by Byron’s London publisher John Murray—and in America under the title Germany. Indeed, due to Napoleon’s act of censorship, the 1813 London printing was its first. 

1.1.5 Staël’s last writings and death in Paris 

In 1811, she began to work on her memoirs of her decade in exile, Dix Années d’exil (Ten Years’ Exile). In them, she details the reasons for Napoleon’s continuous animosity toward her and her journeys between Paris and Coppet, and subsequently Germany and Italy. She traveled to Stockholm the following year, and continued work there, but the book was published only posthumously, once again by her son Ludvig August, in 1818. Indeed, this period was one in which Staël used her writing to reflect on the past. Around the same time as she was working on Dix annees d’exil, she was also composing her Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution française (Considerations on the principal events of the French Revolution). 

The last years of Staël’s life were eventful for her family, and sometimes tragic. Her son Albert died in a duel in 1813. In 1816, she began making arrangements for her daughter Albertine to marry the Duke de Broglie. And Staël herself remarried, wedding Albert Jean Michel de Rocca, aged some two decades her junior, in 1816. The family returned to Coppet yet again, and the great poet Lord Byron, having fled from London, spent time with her there.  

Later that year, Staël’s health began to fail, yet she returned to Paris that winter. By the following February, she had suffered a stroke, and was confined to her house until her death, on July 14, 1817.  

In accordance with her wishes, Staël was buried at Coppet with her parents. 


Anonymous. 1882. “The Salon of Madame Necker.” The Atlantic Monthly (1857-1932) 50, no. 300 (Oct 1882), 563-8. Proquest Central.  

Chastenay, Madame de. 1896. Mémoires de madame de Chastenay, 1771-1815, edited by Alphonse Roserot. Paris: E Plun. Second edition. 

Dixon, Sergine. 2007. Germaine de Staël, daughter of the Enlightenment. New York: Prometheus Books. 

Fairweather, Maria. 2005. Madame de Staël. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.  

Fontana, Biancamaria. 2016. Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Goodden, Angelica. 2008. Madame de Staël: Dangerous Exile. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Gutwirth, Madelyn. 2002. “Necker, Suzanne.” In Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, edited by Alan Charles Kors. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Halsall, Albert W. 2004. “De l’Allemagne (On Germany) 1810“. In Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760–1850, edited by Christopher John Murray, 266-267. 2004. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn.  

“Necker, Jacques.” 2006. A Dictionary of World History, edited by Wright, Edmund. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed 9 Apr. 2024.  

Perkins, James Breck. 1888. Madame Necker. The Atlantic Monthly (1857-1932), 02, 1888. 234, (accessed February 14, 2024). 

Holstein, Madame de Staël. (1816, January 6). “Madame de Staël Holstein to Thomas Jefferson, 6 January 1816.” Founders Online, National Archives.

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1.2 Chronology 

April 22, 1766  Staël is born in Paris 
1786  Staël marries Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein 
1788  Staël publishes Letters on the works and character of JJ Rousseau 
1788  July 11 Staël’s father is exiled, then reinstated on July 16 in response to outcry 
1789  Formation of the Estates General of 1789 
1790  Staël’s father resigns and leaves France 
1792  Staël flees from Paris to Switzerland 
1793  Staël travels in England in the company of the Comte de Narbonne 
1793  Staël returns to Switzerland 
1795  Staël moves to Paris, now accompanied by Benjamin Constant 
1796  Staël publishes Treatise on the Influence of the Passions, which earns her considerable fame 
1797  On December 6, Staël meets Napoleon for first time 
1800  Staël publishes On Literature 
1802  Staël’s husband Erik dies 
1803  Napoleon exiles Staël from France on October 13; she woud be exiled for a decade 
1804  After traveling to Weimar and Berlin, Staël returns to Coppet to mourn her father, who died in April 
1804-5  Staël in Italy 12/04 to 06/05, writes Corinne 
1807  Staël publishes Corinne 
1810  Staël re-enters France, forced to leave again in October 
ca. 1811  In Coppet, under suspicion by French imperial police 
1812  Staël travels in Eastern Europe while Napoleon invades Russia 
1813  Staël travels from Russia through Finland and then Sweden; publishes Reflections on suicide; travels to England, where her On Germany, which had originally been pulped by Napoleon, appears in English translation in London 
1814  Staël meets Wilberforce in England, refocuses efforts on abolitionism 
1814  Staël returns to Paris after Louis VXIII is crowned in the Bourbon Restoration 
1815  Napoleon returns to France, and in response Staël flees to Coppet 
1816  Staël returns to Paris in the winter with her family, lives at 40 rue des Mathurins 
1816  Staël marries Albert Jean Michel de Rocca 
1817  Staël is confined to her home in Paris after a stroke on February 21 
July 14, 1817  Staël dies at the age of 51 in Paris 

2. Primary Sources Guide

Staël’s total literary output, both during her life time and posthumously, was enormous. The original, seventeen-volume collection of her complete writings was published by her son not long after her death:  

Œuvre complètes de Mme. La Baronne de Staël. Pub. par son fils ; précédées d’une notice sur le caractère et les écrits de Mme. De Staël, par Madame Necker de Saussure. 17 vols. Paris: Treuttel et Würtz, 1820. 

All of Staël’s works have been published in multiple editions, and her complete works is no exception. An updated, scholarly edition of her complete works is currently being produced by the French publisher Honoré Champion. It is divided into three series: the first (“Œuvres critiques”) contains her works on aesthetics and philosophy, the second (“Œuvres dramatiques”) her novels and plays, and the third (“Œuvres historiques”) her historical works, especially concerning the French revolution. As of this writing, the project is still in progress, though several tomes have been published, including those containing Delphine, Corinne, the letters on Rousseau, and her works on the French revolution. 

Staël’s voluminous correspondence is available in a more recent edition: Correspondance Générale. Edited by Béatrice W. Jasinski et al. 9 vols. Paris: J-J Pauvert; Hachette, 1960-2017. 

“Founders Online: Madame de Staël Holstein to Thomas Jefferson, 6 January 1816.” Accessed March 29, 2024. 

“Founders Online: Thomas Jefferson to Madame de Staël Holstein, 6 September 1816.” Accessed March 29, 2024. 

2.1 List of Primary Texts 

The following list of Staël’s individual publications indicate the wide range of her work. They are organized roughly chronologically by publication date.  

Jane Gray (1787)  

Lettres sur les écrits et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (1788)  

Éloge de M. de Guibert (1789)  

A quels signes peut-on connaître quelle est l’opinion de la majorité de la nation? (1791)  

Réflexions sur le procès de la Reine (1793)  

Réflexions sur la paix adressées à M. Pitt et aux français (1794)  

Réflexions sur la paix intérieure (1795)  

Recueil de morceaux détachés (1795), containing the following pieces: 

Épître au malheur ou Adèle et Edouard  


Essai sur les Fictions  

Mirza, ou Lettres d’un Voyageur  

Adélaïde et Théodore  

Histoire de Pauline  

De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (1796)  

Sophie, ou les sentiments secrets (1796)  

De la littérature, considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800)  

Delphine (1802)  

Du caractère de M. Necker et de sa vie privée (1804)  

Réflexions sur le but moral de Delphine (1805)  

Nouveau dénouement de Delphine (1805)  

Épître en vers, sur Naples (1805)  

Corinne, ou L’Italie (1807)  

Préface des lettres et pensées du prince de Ligne (1809)  

Essais Dramatiques (1806-1811)  

Agar dans le désert (1806)  

Geneviève de Brabant (1808)  

La Sunamite (1808)  

Le Capitaine Kernadec ou Sept années en un jour (1810)  

La Signora Fantasici (1811)  

Le Mannequin (1811)  

Sapho (1811)  

Aspasie, Camofns, Cléopatre (1811-1813)  

De l’Allemagne (1810)  

Réflexions sur le suicide (1812)  

Notice sur Lady Jane Gray (1812)  

Dix années d’exil (1810-1812)  

Préface pour la traduction d’un ouvrage de M. Wilberforce, sur la traite des nègres (1814)  

Appel aux souverains réunis à Paris pour en obtenir l’abolition de la traite des nègres. (1814) 

Réponse à un article de journal (1814)  

De l’esprit des traductions (1816)  

Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution française (1818)  

2.2 Collections of contemporary translations 

The following compendiums offer contemporary translations of Staël’s writing.  

Folkenflik, Vivian, ed. and trans. 1987. Major Writings of Germaine de Staël. New York: Columbia University Press. [Contains 400 pages of excerpts from a wide range of Staël’s writings.] 

Berger, Morroe, ed. and trans. 2000. Politics, Literature and National Character. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers. [Contains selections from five of Staël’s major works, including “Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution” (250-1), “Literature Considered in its Relation to Social Institutions,” “Essay on Fiction,” “On Germany,” and her reflections on Russian, English, and German national character.]  

Jameson-Cemper, Kathleen, ed. and trans. 2000. Madame de Staël: Selected Correspondence. Arranged by Georges Solovieff. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 

Nassar, Dalia, and Kristin Gjesdal, eds. 2021. Women Philosophers in the Long Nineteenth Century: The German tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Contains excerpts from three of Staël’s works.]  

Kadish, Doris, and Françoise Massardier-Kenney, eds. 2009. Translating Slavery, Volume I: Gender and Race in French Abolitionist Writing, 1780-1830. Kent: The Kent State University Press. [Contains “An appeal to the sovereign,” “preface to the translation,” “the spirit of translation” and excerpts from “Mirza.”] 

As part of constructing this entry, we also referenced an English version of Staël’s Réflexions sur le procès de la Reine, par une Femme (1793), translated by Anne A. A. Mini in Appendix B of their 1995 University of Washington doctoral dissertation, An Expressive Revolution: The Political Theory of Germaine de Staël: 

Staël, Germaine de. (1793) 1995. Réflexions sur le procès de la Reine, par une Femme. In An Expressive Revolution: The Political Theory of Germaine de Staël (Appendix B), translated by Anne A. A. Mini, 365-92. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. 

2.3 Letters on the works and character of J.J. Rousseau (1788) 

Published in France as Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau, it was soon published in English translation in London, in 1789. Republished in Œuvre complètes, volume 1. 

In Paris, the work had been published anonymously. All the same, “everyone was calculatedly informed of the author’s identity” (Gutwirth 1971, 100). Thus, in spite of her anonymity, it was with the publication of this work that Staël, then 22 years old, first attracted the attention of Parisian intellectual circles. In the work, Staël offers tentative, and perhaps even ambivalent, criticisms of the status of women in France — the limited civil rights and life opportunities accorded to women and of the sexual mores constraining them (101-2). Later in life, Staël revisited this early work, penning a new Preface in 1814. 

2.4 Collection of detached pieces (1795) 

This work was a collection of six miscellaneous short works of fiction and a piece on literary theory, the Essai sur les fictions (essay on fiction). The Collection was republished in Œuvre complètes, volume 2. 

The essay on fiction was an important early piece of literary criticism. Staël opens by stating that humans have two intellectual faculties, reason and imagination, and boldly declares that, of these, imagination is the more important. The text classifies different forms of fiction, and argues that its most important function is to influence our moral ideas. 

Another of these works, Mirza, dealt with a topic that Staël was to revisit multiple times during her career: slavery and abolitionism. In the preface to Mirza, Staël tells her readers that this story, like others written before she turned twenty, does not deserve the title of ‘novel’ but instead should be thought of as a sketch. (Though published in 1795, it had been written in 1786.) The text itself is framed as a letter written by a European traveler to a “Madame” about his time in Gorée, an island off the coast of Senegal known for its role in the Atlantic slave trade. While in Gorée, the European meets Ximeo, a free formerly enslaved man who runs a sugarcane plantation given to him by a European governor. After noticing a deep sadness in Ximeo, the narrator asks Ximeo about his grief. The remainder of the letter captures the tragic love story of Ximeo and Mirza, a young woman of a rival neighboring tribe. 

2.5 Treatise on the Influence of the Passions (1796) 

Staël’s De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations was first published in France in 1796.  

The treatise examines how emotions influence the happiness of people and societies, and serves as a bridge between Enlightenment and Romantic thought. It argues that the way in which a society cultivates and manages human emotions, and not merely its basis in reason, is vital to the success and stability of its political and social structure.  

Republished in Œuvre complètes, volume 3.  

In 1798, it was published in English translation in London as Treatise on the Influence of the Passions, Upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations. The original English translation, which came out in 1798, is: 

Staël, Germaine de. (1796) 1798. Treatise on the Influence of the Passions, Upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations. London: George Cawthorn. Internet Archive. [Link to English translation.] 

2.6 On Literature (1800) 

In April 1800, Staël published her most substantial and influential volume yet, De la littérature, considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (On Literature Considered in its Relations to Social Institutions). As its title suggests, this was an incisive philosophical commentary on the relationship between literature and a nation’s religious, political, and social institutions. Staël completed this feat over several years during which she was socially exiled from her Parisian social circles, a depressing alienation that partially inspired the story of Delphine. Having fallen out of favor with Napoleon prior to her exile, the publication of On Literature further inflamed the fraught relationship between the two. On Literature often advocated looking to neighboring nations for aesthetic inspiration, a practice of which Napoleon disapproved.  

Republished in Œuvre complètes, volume 4. 

The work was published in English translation in 1803 in London by George Cawthorn, who also published her Treatise on the passions. The work is available online: Volume I, Volume 2.  

Staël de Holstein, Baroness. (1800) 1803. A treatise on Ancient and Modern Literature, illustrated by striking reference to the principal events and characters of the French revolution. 2 volumes. London: George Cawthorn. 

2.7 Delphine (1802) 

Staël published the epistolary novel Delphine in 1802. The novel centers around the titular character, a widow who is charged with arranging her dear friend’s wedding, only to fall in love with her friend’s husband-to-be. The novel served as both a criticism of the limitations placed on women in high society, and also, by extension, of the socially conservative Napoleonic regime. 

Delphine was controversial not only when published, as she was exiled by Napoleon slightly after, but also when it was re-published posthumously by Staël’s son. In this second edition, her son changed the ending of the novel in response to criticism that the original ending detracted from the merit of the work. He published an alternate ending that was allegedly also written by his mother. The original version concludes with Delphine’s suicide by poison, after her lover is killed in battle. In the second ending, Delphine still commits suicide by poison, but, in the face of her impending death, she finds the courage to walk with her lover to his execution. 

Staël held Delphine close to her heart. In 1805, she wrote a piece that reflected on the moral purpose of the work. These reflections were included in the second edition of the work. 

Republished in Œuvre complètes, volumes 5, 6, and 7. 

Available in English as: Staël, Germaine de. (1802) 1995. Delphine. Translated by Avriel Goldberger. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. 

Available in a scholarly edition (in French) as: Staël, Germaine de. (1802) 2004. Delphine. Eedited by Lucia Omacini, with annotations by Simone Balayé, Paris: Editions Champion. 

2.8 Corinne (1807) 

Staël novel Corinne, or Italy was a product of Staël’s travels in Italy in an attempt to recover her health. It centers around the titular character, a poet and musician who epitomizes the beauty and grace of Italy in the eyes of the narrator, an Englishman, as he helps her tour through the country. The work was lauded for its focus on scenery, national identity, art, and, as always, political commentary. 

Some critics find that Corinne herself is Italy in this novel (Vallois and Wing 1987). As in many of de Staël’s literary works, the main character dies at the end of the novel, representing the death of free and feminine Italy’s artistic and intellectual heritage under Napoleon’s empiric rule of the nation (Law-Sullivan 2007, 69).  

Republished in Œuvre complètes, volumes 8 and 9. 

Available in English as: Staël, Germaine de. (1807) 1998. Corinne, or Italy. Translated by Sylvia Raphael. 2009 reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Available in a scholarly edition (in French) as: Staël, Germaine de. (1807) 2000. Corinne, ou l’Italie. Edited by Simone Balayé, Paris: Editions Champion. 

2.9 On Germany (1810) 

One of Madame de Staël’s most famous works, De l’Allemagne (On Germany), is a wide-ranging survey and review of German culture with a focus on the burgeoning movement of German Romanticism. It is an exploration into the country’s Republic of Letters, which she defines as works produced in literature, philosophy, the arts, and the sciences. It is this idea which serves as the guiding principle for the organization of the book, which is split into two volumes, each with two parts.  

The first part of Volume 1 investigates German society and customs, and the second part examines what she terms ‘Romantic literature’. In Volume 2, Staël considers the philosophy and religion of the Germans. She gives an analysis of the then-much-discussed philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in particular his famous doctrine of “transcendental idealism.” The nearly 900-page manuscript lauding new and foreign ideas was seen by Napoleon as dangerous. After its initial publication in Paris in 1810, Napoleon had all 10,000 copies destroyed. After a new edition was printed in London in 1813, the book became highly influential and spread across all of Europe and into the Americas. It is said to have introduced the term ‘Romanticism’ into the United Kingdom and United States, and significantly impacted the development of French Romanticism. 

Republished in Œuvre complètes, volumes 10 and 11. 

2.10 Reflections on suicide (1813) 

This work was composed in the years 1811-12 and published in Berlin in 1813, in French, as Réflexions sur le suicide, available on Gallica. In this work, written while in exile near the end of Staël’s life, Staël reconsiders her earlier view on suiide defended in the Treatise on the Passions. There, she argued that suicide can be legitimate, but in the Reflections argues it is in fact contrary to one’s moral duty. An English translation appeared the same year. 

The English version (available from Google books at this link) is: 

Staël, Madame de. Reflections on Suicide. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1813. 

2.11 Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (1818) 

Staël finished writing the Considerations shortly before her death in 1817. This extensive (approx. 750 page) work of political theory became a classic soon after it was first published in 1818; amazingly, it saw a complete English translation that very same year, and was republished in London in a second edition of 1821. The Considerations has been called Staël’s most important and influential political work, and it was the culmination of a lifetime of thought about, and personal intervention into, both French and European politics. It solidified her reputation as a promoter of liberty and as a major critic of Napoleon’s despotism. 

Republished in Œuvres complètes, volumes 12, 13 and 14. 

Available in translation as:  

Staël, Germaine de. (1818) 2008. Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution. Edited by Aurelian Craiutu. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. [This edition is a corrected version of the original 1818 English translation.] 

2.12 Dix années d’exil (1820) 

This work, Staël’s memoirs of her time in exile, was published posthumously by Staël’s son in 1820. In the first part, she recounts her experiences in the period 1800-1804, after first being banished from the area around Paris. The second part focuses on the years 1810-2, and covers Staël’s time in Coppet, followed by Austria, Russia, and finally Sweden. 

An English translation appeared soon after, as:  

Staël-Holstein, Baroness de. (1821) Ten Years’ Exile; or Memoirs of that Interesting Period in the Life of the Baroness de Staël-Holstein. London: Treuttel and Würtz.  

3. Secondary Sources Guide

Abray, Jane. 1975. “Feminism in the French Revolution.” The American Historical Review 80, no. 1: 43–62. 

Beyer, Barnet. 1916. Review of “Madame de Staël and the Spread of German Literature (Oxford University Press, 1915), by Emma Gertrude Jaeck.” The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 13, no. 24: 667-69. 

Chastenay, Victorine de. 1896. Mémoires de Madame de Chastenay, 1771-1815. Alphonse Roserot ed. Paris: Librairie Plon. 

Cohen, Margaret. 1997. Women and fiction in the nineteenth century” in Unwin, Timothy A. The Cambridge Companion to the French Novel: From 1800 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

de Bruin, Karen. 2013. “Romantic Aesthetics and Abolitionist Activism: African Beauty in Germaine de Staël’s Mirza ou Lettre d’un voyageur,” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures 67, no. 3: 135–147. 

Finch, Alison. 2000. “Foremothers and Germaine de Staël” in Women’s Writing in Nineteenth-Century France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Fontana, Biancamaria. 2016. Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Golin, Steve. 1971. “Madame de Staël: Culture as Social Control.” The Review of Politics 33, no. 3: 342–59.  

Goodden, Angelica. 2000. Madame De Staël: Delphine and Corinne. London: Grant & Cutler.  

Goodden, Angelica. 2007. “The Man-Woman and the Idiot: Madame de Staël’s Public/Private Life”. Forum for Modern Language Studies 43, no. 1 (January), 34–45.  

Green, Karen. 2014. A History of Women’s Political Thought in Europe, 1700-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Gjesdal, Kristin, and Dalia Nassar, editors. 2024. The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth Century Philosophers in the German Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Guenther, B. 2012. “Trading on Cultural Capital: Madame de Staël’s Politics of Literature.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 40, nos. 3-4 (Spring-Summer): 203-221. Project Muse. 

Gutwirth, Madelyn. 1971. “Madame de Staël, Rousseau, and the Woman Question.” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 86, no. 1: 100–109. 

Gutwirth, Madelyn, Avriel H. Goldberger, and Karyna Szmurlo, eds. 1991. Germaine de Staël: Crossing the Borders. New Brunswick (N.J.): Rutgers University Press. 

Halsall, A. W. 2004. “De l’Allemagne (On Germany) 1810.” In Christopher John Murray, editor. Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn. 

Hamilton, James F. 1977. “Structural Polarity in Mme de Staël’s De La Littérature.” The French Review 50, no. 5: 706–12. 

Hawkins, Richmond Laurin. 1930. Madame de Staël and the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Higonnet, Margaret R. 1986. “Madame de Staël and Schelling.” Comparative Literature 38, no. 2: 159–80. 

Holmes, Richard. 2009. Review of The Great de Staël, by Francine du Plessix Gray, J. Christopher Herold, Renee Winegarten, Angelica Goodden, and Madame de Staël. The New York Review of Books, May 28.ël/. 

Isbell, John. 1994. The Birth of European Romanticism: truth and propaganda in Staël’s “De l’Allemagne.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Isbell, John. 2023. “Voices Lost?: Staël and Slavery, 1786–1830.” In Staël, Romanticism and Revolution: The Life and Times of the First European (Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, pp. 200-211). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781009362719.019 

Jaeck, Emma Gertrude. 1915. Madame de Staël and the Spread of German Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Kalyvas, Andreas, and Ira Katznelson. 2008. “Embracing Liberalism Germaine de Staël’s Farewell to Republicanism.” In Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Law-Sullivan, Jennifer. 2007. “Civilizing the Sibyl: Staël’s Corinne Ou l’Italie.” French Forum 32, no. 1/2: 53–71.  

Lefebvre, Georges and Anne Terroine. 1953. Recueil de Documents Relatifs Aux Séances Des Etats Généraux : Mai – Juin 1789 / Tome 1 – I. Les Préliminaires. La Séance Du 5 Mai. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Lever, Évelyne, ed. 2005. Correspondance de Marie Antoinette (1770–1793). Paris: Tallandier. 

Marrone, Claire. 2011. “Women Writing Marie Antoinette: Madame de Staël and George Sand.” Dalhousie French Studies 94: 113–22. 

Marso, Lori Jo. 1999. (Un)Manly Citizens: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s and Germaine de Staël’s Subversive Women. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Moland, Lydia L. 2021. “Is She Not an Unusual Woman? Say More: Germaine de Staël and Lydia Maria Child on Progress, Art, and Abolition.” In Corey W. Dyck, editor. Women and Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Necker, Jacques. (1784) 1787. A treatise on the administration of the finances of France. Trans. By Thomas Mortimer. 3rd ed., 3 vols. London: Logographic Press. Gale Cengage: The Making of the Modern World. 

Pacini, Giulia. 1999. “Hidden Politics in Germaine de Staël’s Corinne Ou l’Italie.” French Forum 24, no. 2: 163–77. 

Sonenscher, Michael. 2013. Review of “Germaine de Staël: Forging a Politics of Mediation, edited by Karyna Szmurlo.” French Studies 67, Issue 2: 259. 

Takeda, Chinatsu. 2018. Mme de Staël and Political Liberalism in France. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Vallois, Marie-Claire, and Betsy Wing. 1987. “Voice as Fossil Madame de Staël’s Corinne or Italy: An Archaeology of Feminine Discourse.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 6, no. 1 (Spring): 47–60. 

Worley, Sharon. 2016. “‘War between the sexes’: Germaine de Staël’s ‘Corinne’ and Benjamin Constant’s ‘Adolphe.’” Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, no. 22 (January): 66–77. 

4. Philosophy and Teaching

Germaine de Staël’s writings are voluminous, and they span a wide range of genres. She published novels, plays, essays, and philosophical treatises, exchanged correspondence with many important figures, and exerted considerable social, cultural, and political influence through her writings. She participated in politics, but also theorized it; she wrote novels and translated poetry, but also theorized literature. This makes her a highly unusual, if not unique, figure in her time.  

In consequence, no brief entry could do justice to her enormous literary output and its many facets. Instead, in what follows we try to provide a sense of the wide range of philosophical, literary and political topics that Staël’s writings concern, while always remaining mindful that the boundaries between philosophy and other disciplines in the early nineteenth century were contested and porous at best. The reader should keep in mind that this entry provides only a sampling of the range of her philosophical works and interests. 

4.1 Overview of Staël’s political thought and writings 

As mentioned, Staël’s oeuvre is enormous. Her first writings of a political character were an optimistic engagement with the moderate liberal tradition under the wing of her father, Jaques Necker. Characteristic is her 1788 work, Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (Letters on the works and character of J. J. Rousseau). Among other things, she comments on the implications of Rousseau’s liberalism in relation to the status of women in society, as well as the sense of scandal surrounding Rousseau’s reputation. 

By 1789, Staël had already begun to extend her activities beyond political theory and involve herself directly in politics. Her political advocacy tended towards the moderate position of establishing a new government with constitutional limitations on the power of the king. During this period, her political theory increasingly departed from her father’s views. She also began one of her most important intellectual collaborations, with her fellow Swiss political thinker, Benjamin Constant. During this period, she wrote two major treatises on the passions and on literature: De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (A treatise on the influence of the passions, upon the happiness of individuals and of nations, 1796) and De la littérature, considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (The influence of literature upon society, 1800). Characteristic of both works is the way that Staël theorizes how the character of a nation-state, its government, and the will of its people affects and is affected by the topic at hand, in one case the emotions or “passions” and, in the other, literature. 

Her exile in the beginning of the new century began also a new period of literary and critical activity. She was particularly influenced by her travels around Europe and her exposure to Italian and German culture and society, which resulted in her novel Corinne, ou l’Italie and her magisterial study of German culture and Romanticism, De l’Allemagne (On Germany). Although not treatises of political theory per se, both engaged in social and political critique. This period is marked by her broadened perspective on politics through her exposure to a wider range of cultures and ways of organizing society. In this period, she also returned to her concerns about abolition and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson (see section below “Staël and abolitionism”). Finally, late in life, she looked back on the events of the prior century in her Considerations on the principal events of the French revolution (1818). 

Throughout all of these stages of Staël’s career, it is characteristic of her thought that politics and writing, the two main dimensions of her public career, were deeply intertwined. On the one hand, as indicated, her fiction had a deeply political bent. Staël’s novels often took a microscope to society and culture—especially in France, Germany, and Italy—and revealed her complex and evolving views on the status of women. As discussed elsewhere in this entry, Delphine, for example, dramatized the way conservative social norms constrained women’s freedom and happiness, earning her the ire of Napoleon. Her fiction also shows her working out an increasingly staunch abolitionist stance (see sections below “Staël and abolitionism” and “Staël on the status of women in society”).  

In this sense, Staël’s career is an embodiment of a central theme of her political and aesthetic thought: the close relationship between literature and the societal context from which it emerges. In addition to writing works of literature, she theorized about literature in works on aesthetics that were keystones of the then-nascent Romantic movement.  

In De l’Allemagne (On Germany) Staël lavished praise and attention on the German authors and literary theorists pioneering the new Romantic movement. She called on French writers to leave behind the imitation of the great works of the classical period and instead to find new material in their own lives and emotions, as well as in French culture and history. She argued that confession and faith should be used as sources of artistic inspiration and therefore emphasized Christianity rather than the stories, characters, and literary forms of pre-Christian Greece and Rome. Staël also compared imperial France to Rome in its decadence, and chastised the French for closing themselves off to cultural influences from abroad. In France, these aspects of On Germany were taken as an implicit snub to the reigning neoclassicism, a style which borrowed its subject matter and literary forms from the classical writers of antiquity (Halsall 2004, 266).  

In many of the other chapters of On Germany, Staël extols what she perceives as the prevalent “idealist” philosophy flourishing in German-speaking territories, exemplified prominently in her era by Kant and various post-Kantian thinkers. This philosophy stands in opposition to materialism, which posits that the world consists solely of material objects governed by simplistic rules—such as mechanical laws dictating the outcomes of collisions between material particles. In Staël’s interpretation, idealist philosophy opposes materialism by emphasizing the pivotal role of the human mind in shaping the perceived world, creatively interpreting it, and striving to comprehend universal laws that transcend individual facts.  

As discussed elsewhere in this entry, On Germany also illustrates how Staël’s political, philosophical, and aesthetic writings often landed her in political trouble. Napoleon found her works subversive of his imperial ambitions and conservative social views. He had the book burned in Paris and subsequently banished her from France for a decade. In the words of one scholar, this made Staël into the “archetypal independent writer battling against despotism” (Fontana 2016, 2).  

In spite her enormous stature as a theorist in her own time, in the twentieth century, scholarly interest in Staël’s political thought waned, broadly for two reasons. One is that scholarly appraisals of Staël’s politics tended to downplay its importance by viewing it as merely the outcome of her personal circumstances and psychology rather than as expressing a political vision (Fontana 2016, 2). Second, it was thought that Staël could be regarded as simply a typical instance of the broader liberal tradition, and that she promoted the views of the influential men close to her, like her father, Jacques Necker, and Benjamin Constant. Those views would include “moderation, representative government, the separation of powers, and the defense of civil liberties against arbitrary rule” (3). These ideas were philosophically and historically important, it was thought, but not unique to Staël.  

More recently, scholarly appreciation of the sui generis character of Staël’s political thought and political activity has grown. It is understood that starting in the 1790s, she began to distance herself from her father’s more moderate-to-conservative political views (Fontana 2016, 6-7). Further, that Staël’s political thought was not the product of isolated reflection from the philosophical armchair is not reason to dismiss its importance. The fact that her writing was intertwined with her attempts to influence the formation of the new French civil society after the Revolution in the years 1789-1792, and, around the turn of the century, with her opposition to what she saw as the increasing despotism of Napoleon, does not diminish its interest. Finally, it is appreciated that her exile in the first decade of the new century brought another period of literary growth and greater separation from the moderate views she had once espoused. One scholar aptly expresses Staël’s significance and complexity, writing that she isvariously viewed as a faithful disciple of Rousseau, as an inheritor of the Enlightenment, as a founder of Romanticism in France, as a woman writer who progressively freed herself from psychological dependency upon her father – Necker – and Rousseau, and as an intellectual torn between the ideals of Rousseau and Voltaire” (Hamilton 1977, 706).

Evidently, the richness and range of Staël’s oeuvre and her complexity as an intellectual makes her a recurring figure of interest and debate for scholars seeking to understand the genesis and importance of the philosophical, political, and literary developments near the turn of the 18th century. 

4.2 Staël and abolitionism 

Staël was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. In her later years, her salon was frequented by abolitionists, and emancipation was a recurring topic of their discussions. After meeting the famous abolitionist William Wilberforce in 1814, Staël published a preface for his essay on the slave trade in which she called for the end of slavery in Europe. In that text, Staël argued in particular against those who defended slavery on the grounds that the economic impact of abandoning the slave trade would be too grave: 

When it is proposed that some abuse of power be eliminated, those who benefit from that abuse are certain to declare that all the benefits of the social order are attached to it. ‘This is the keystone,’ they say, while it is only the keystone to their own advantages; and when at last the progress of enlightenment brings about the long-desired reform, they are astonished at the improvements which result from it. Good sends out its roots everywhere; equilibrium is effortlessly restored; and truth heals the ills of the human species, as does nature, without anyone’s intervention. (Kadish and Massardier-Kenney 2009, 169)  

Staël argues here that the claim that abolition would have “dire consequences” for the French economy is nothing but an illusory threat used by those who benefit from the institution of slavery (Kadish and Massardier-Kenney 2009, 169). Staël believed that the termination of the slave trade would improve France and bring about a positive consequence that ‘sends out its roots everywhere.’ Staël points to England as an example of this effect: “In the seven years since England has prohibited the slave trade, the experience has amply proven that all the fears that were manifested in this regard were illusory” (Kadish and Massardier-Kenney 2009, 169). Staël observed that, prior to England’s prohibition of the slave trade, many had voiced worries about the economic consequences of abolition, and yet their fears of economic disaster did not come to fruition after the fact.  

In another short essay, “An Appeal to the Sovereign,” written that same year, Staël appealed to religious values. She argued that if one wishes to call oneself a Christian, one is required to be against slavery: 

How could one be called Christian if one is cruel? Could not the king of France, that pious heir of St. Louis and of Louis XVI, be asked to agree to the abolition of the slave trade so that this humanitarian act might persuade the hearts of those to whom the Gospel is to be preached? Could one not ask this same agreement of Spain, which awakened national spirit on the continent? of Portugal, which fought like a great state? of Austria, whose sole concern was the well-being of the German empire? of Prussia, where both nation and king proved so simply heroic? Let us also ask this great gift of the Russian emperor, who limited his own ambition when there was no longer any outside obstacle to check it. (Kadish and Massardier-Kenney 2009, 166-167) 

Staël argues that the greatness of European nations like Russia equips them with the power to take this humanitarian action. She ends her plea by declaring that “there is no country on earth unworthy of justice” (Kadish and Massardier-Kenney 2009, 167).  

In 1816, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Staël writes, “If one succeeds in destroying slavery in the South, at least one government in the world will be as perfect as human reason can possibly conceive.” Scholars generally read Staël here as criticizing the presence of slavery in the southern states of the United States. However, interpreting this single line may prove to be less straightforward. It is possible, for example, that Staël is instead referring to the colonization by Spain of South America. 

Part of the difficulty in interpreting this line is in the translation of the original French: “Si vous parvenez à dètruire l’esclavage dans le midi il y aurait au moins dans le monde un gouvernement aussi parfait que la raison humaine peut le concevoir.” Historically, “le midi” was translated as “midday” or “south of” something. In the 12th century, however, “le midi” was used to denote “the southern countries” and in the 17th century, Staël herself, used “le midi” to refer almost exclusively to “the South of France.” In this letter, it does not seem that Staël uses the latter. Yet, if she was to use “le midi” to refer to the southern countries of America, she would be referring to Latin America. 

This alternative reading is supported by the final line of the 1816 letter to Jefferson where she writes, “Be good enough to give me some news from South America. I really desire its independence.” Additionally, further evidence can be seen in Jefferson’s response to Staël. In September of 1816, Jefferson attached a map of South America in a letter to Staël and wrote: 

You therein ask information of the state of things in S. America. this is difficult to be understood even to us who have some stolen intercourse with those countries: but in Europe I suppose it impossible…even our information of the state of things in the Spanish colonies is far from being distinct or certain; so that I can give you but a general idea of it. 

Here, Jefferson is talking about the colonization of South America by Spain. He emphasizes the difficulty in knowing what is truly happening in the South because of Spanish propaganda: 

That mendacity, which Spain, like England, makes a principal piece in the machine of her government, confounds all enquiry, by so blending truth and falsehood, as to make them indistinguishable. according to Spanish accounts they have won great victories in battles which were never fought, and slaughtered thousands of rebels whom they have never seen: and, as in our revolution, the English were perpetually gaining victories over us until they conquered themselves out of our Northern continent, so Spain is in a fair way of conquering herself out of the Southern one. 

Jefferson likens the lies employed by the Spanish to the misinformation spread by the English during the revolutionary war. The propaganda, Jefferson claims, makes it hard for him to relay to Staël an accurate description of what is happening in the Spanish colonies. In this letter, Jefferson focuses solely on Spanish colonization in South America and does not address slavery in the south of the United States.  

However, the reading which says that Staël is speaking about the southern states also has textual support. First, before talking about the South, Staël tells Jefferson she has publicly supported America. Additionally, the French text is often translated as “If you succeed in destroying slavery in the South at least one government in the world will be as perfect as can be conceived by human reason.” Given that the subject of the preceding sentence is America, it seems Staël is saying that if America can abolish slavery, then it will be the most perfect government. This sentiment aligns clearly with her frequent praise for America. However, it is possible “vous” might be the impersonal “you” and should be translated, instead, as “one.” If this is the case, the subject of this sentence becomes less clear.  

We certainly know that Staël spoke out against slavery throughout her life. In this letter to Jefferson, we see that Staël’s was also vocal in criticizing colonization. While there is evidence that she is calling on America to end slavery in its southern states here, we believe there are interesting conversations to be had about the translation of this letter- even in just a single line of her writing. 

4.2.1 Staël’s philosophical evolution and her family’s abolitionist legacy 

These strongly pro-abolition views, grounded in her conception of the basis of universal human rights in human reason, were the result of a philosophical evolution from her youth. It is interesting to see how they evolved over time.  

Staël’s earliest views on slavery were doubtless influenced by her father, Jacques Necker. After being forced to resign from his position as Director of the Royal Treasury to Louis XVI, Necker continued his work on economics and published A Treatise on the Administration of the Finances of France in 1784, which was translated into English in three volumes over the following years. Here, Necker expressed his disgust with slavery in the French colonies: 

The colonies of France contain as we have seen, near five hundred thousand slaves, and it is from the number of these wretches, that the inhabitants set a value on their plantations. What a fatal prospect! And how profound a subject for reflection! Alas! How inconsequent we are, both in our morality, and our principles. We preach up humanity, and yet go every year to bind in chains, twenty thousand natives of Africa!… In short, we pride ourselves on the superiority of man, and it is with reason that we discover this superiority, in the wonderful and mysterious unfolding of the intellectual faculties; and yet a trifling difference in the hair of the head, or in the colour of the epidermis, is sufficient to change our respect into contempt. (Necker [1784] 1787, 329) 

Necker denounced the treatment of enslaved people in the colonies on the basis of their innate humanity. He accused France of hypocrisy for its cruel treatment of enslaved people. Yet, as a mercantilist economist, Necker initially warned France against pulling out of the slave trade because of the potential economic impact. In 1789, however, in his opening speech to the Estates-General in Versailles, Necker called for an end to the slave trade in Africa: 

Perhaps a day will come, gentlemen, when…you will cast a compassionate glance on this unfortunate people which has quietly been made into a barbaric object of trafficking; on these men who are like us in the faculty of thought and, above all, in the sad faculty of suffering; on these men, however, who we, without pity for their cries of pain, accumulate and pile up in the bottoms of ships to then go, full sail, to present them to the chains that await them. […] Already a distinguished Nation [i.e., England] has given the signal for an enlightened compassion […] and this superb cause will not delay in appearing before the tribunal of all Nations. […] Misfortune – misfortune and shame upon the French nation if she were to fail to understand the price of such a position, if she did not attempt to show herself worthy of it, and if such an ambition was too great for her!” (Lefebvre and Terroine 1953, 336; Vox translation)

As noted, Necker’s call was for the end of the slave trade, a subject of growing activist pressure in England. He did not, at this point, go so far as to call for the abolition of slavery. Nonetheless, he defended the equality of enslaved people with Europeans and condemned the brutality they endured under the rule of France. He spent the last years of his life fighting for abolition. 

Staël’s early writings show how her early views on slavery and abolition were, like her father’s, not as explicitly abolitionist as her more mature views. Staël scholars place her initial entry into the slavery debate between 1784-1786, around the time she wrote and published Mirza. Her early works focused primarily on mitigating the inhumane treatment of enslaved people, without openly demanding abolition.  

Mirza deals directly with features of slavery and depicts the tragic love story between a formerly enslaved man and his mistress. The story takes place in Gorée, a slave trade island off the coast of Senegal. Here, the European narrator meets an enslaved man, Ximeo, who has been freed “through the generosity of his governor” (Kadish and Massardier-Kenney 2009, 154). In the beginning of his journey, the narrator learns that Ximeo was given a sugarcane plantation by a European governor who believed that “such an example would incite Africans to grow sugarcane, and that, by drawing their territory into the free trade of sugar, Europeans would no longer take Africans away from their homeland and make them suffer under the hideous yoke of slavery” (Kadish and Massardier-Kenney 2009, 154). This picture of slavery highlights the importance of its role in the world economy. Likewise, later, when Ximeo is speaking about his experience as an enslaved person, he says “I realized that a product of our country, neglected by us, was the sole cause of cruel suffering… May my unfortunate compatriots renounce primitive life and devote themselves to work in order to satisfy your greed” (Kadish and Massardier-Kenney 2009, 156). Once again, slavery is seen in terms of its economic role. Additionally, Ximeo seems to suggest that the people of Senegal have some ability to escape slavery if they ‘renounce primitive life’ and, instead, devoted themselves to work. 

It should be noted, however, that we cannot easily extract Staël’s views on slavery from the opinions put forth by her fictional characters. Unsurprisingly, scholars disagree on how to read texts like Mirza. Perhaps Staël’s use of a male, European narrator is meant to depict the common view of men in France and other European countries during this time. Or, perhaps these perspectives reveal that Staël initially held a moderate view on the question of abolition. What we can say is that the presentation of the slave trade and the proposed solution to slavery seen in Mirza reflect a position like the one taken by her father earlier in his career, insofar as the issue of slavery is primarily understood in terms of its economic function rather than in terms of the humanity of the peoples affected by it. As we have seen, however, it is clear that by the end of her life, Staël rejected arguments which defended slavery by using this framework.  

Significantly, Staël’s work for abolition set an example for her son, Auguste De Staël, to follow. He published many works arguing against slavery and, in 1822, he founded the Committee for the Abolition of Trafficking. He famously brought back chains and necklaces used on enslaved people from Nantes in order to display the realities of slavery to the citizens of Paris. His efforts, like his mother’s and grandfather’s, played an essential role in the end of slavery in France. 

4.3 Staël on literature 

A version of Staël’s De la littérature, considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1803) was published in English by George Cawthorn in 1803 (two volumes) under the title A Treatise on Ancient and Modern Literature. The following section references copies of this English publication that appear in HathiTrust: Vol 1 (University of Iowa copy), ; and Vol 2 (Harvard University Widener Library copy), 

Madame de Staël was keenly attuned to the literary culture of her time. In addition to writing her own novels, poetry, essays, and plays, she read extensively, viewing literature as inseparably tangled with “the destiny of man” (Staël 1803, vol. I, 56). And literature, for Staël, was not separate from philosophy. Indeed, Staël’s conception of literature is so broad that she seems to omit only the physical and experimental sciences from its domain. Included is everything from “the dogmas of Philosophy” to “the effusions of Imagination” (Staël 1803, vol. I, 3). In this sense, her view of literature is akin to a modern view of “letters,” as when we now speak of “arts and letters.” 

Despite her expansive definition of literature, Staël insisted that only certain kinds of literature exhibit genuine value. For her, literature is of enduring value when it puts forth knowledge, and this happens only when the work is intermingled with philosophy (Staël 1803, vol. II, 131) Without this intermingling, literature had “no aim but to amuse the leisure hours of life and fill up the void of the mind” (Staël 1803, vol. II, 130). Moreover, the worst kinds of literature were those “cultivated by men removed from all affairs of consequence” (Staël 1803, vol. II, 130). This is not to say that Staël did not value aesthetic beauty in literature; rather, she believed the value of beauty as fleeting, disappearing with its novelty. What sustained the worth of a work of literature was its philosophical contribution.  

Staël’s commitment to the political capacities of literature is evident in her critical writings on it. Her 1800 work, On Literature, was a comprehensive analytical work examining the mutual influences between literature, on the one hand, and religion, manners, and laws, on the other. In Volume I, Staël wrote in dedicated chapters about the mutual influences between local social institutions and local literary traditions, attending in turn to Greek, Latin, and English literature. In Volume II, she attended to the influence of politics on national literary traditions.  

Notably, throughout the two volumes, Staël characterized literary works not as singular artistic entities but as exemplars of a national literature. For example, she described Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther as an “excellent work of German literature,” and she characterized the larger category of German literature as romantic and imaginative, excelling in its “delineations of the tender passions of the mind.” Staël’s philosophy of literature attributes such differences in the artistic qualities of national literatures to differences in national political structures. The delicate, imaginative nature of German literature can, for instance, be traced back to a society structured by a feudal political system. She writes that Federation, by contrast, is a political system “very favourable to happiness and liberty” (Staël 1803, vol. II, 5-6). The literatures of Germany, she writes, are for this reason distinguished from those of the English: being governed under a feudal system, the people are more detached from public affairs than they would be under a federal system, and therefore freer to make literary pursuits. German literature, then, “bears that distinguished character which stamps it as the literature of a free people” (Staël 1803, vol. II, 5-6). This means that German works are more preoccupied with beauty than English works, and as a result, Staël remarks that German productions are less practically useful than English productions — since their work has no influence over the institutions of their country, they are free to think without objectives (Staël 1803, vol. II, 9).  

Staël’s characterization of German literature as presented in her works On Literature and Germany (De l’Allemagne) was influential on the reading public. Her writings on the nature of German literature described it in similar terms to those used by the early Romantic School in Germany: it had “imagination, feeling, enthusiasm, morality, religion, simplicity, and philosophy” (Jaeck 1915, 44). Staël’s depth of engagement with German literature and culture are remarkable given that she did not acquire proficiency in the German language until around 1802 (45). Prior to that, Staël interacted with German literature only through translations. 

Why did Staël write so extensively on German literature? In some ways, her purpose was to awaken the French to the beauties of German literature, in hopes that French culture might escape the narrowness and stagnation she saw in it. Jaeck (1915) writes, “In the mutual exchange of ideas, she felt that the French would gain more from an understanding of German genius than the Germans would in subjecting themselves to the good taste of the French, because taste is inferior to genius” (119). Her writings were undoubtedly influential among the French, but also had the unexpected effect of introducing Germany to itself, and thus reigniting a previously dimming national pride (115). Onlookers saw Staël’s writing as enabling Germany to regain confidence in itself. In his 1808 letter to Staël, the famous writer Goethe remarks: 

The French police, intelligent enough to see that such a work would increase the confidence of Germany in itself, wisely had it destroyed; but while a few rescued copies slumber, the Germans are waking up and saving themselves without such intellectual stimulus. […] The Germans will hardly recognize themselves in it, but they will find therein the safest measure of the immense progress which they have made. (Jaeck 1915, 116) 

Writing on the influence of Germany in France, Jean Paul Richter commented on Staël, “she can perform a far better service for still another nation, for the German people itself. […] Only in the eye of a foreign observer a complete view of oneself can be obtained… Through foreign peculiarity one’s own distinctive character is discerned and ennobled.” (Jaeck 1915, 115). Back in France, Staël was praised, perhaps surprisingly, as a patriot for her writings on Germany. After her death, Albert Sorel wrote, “De l’Allemagne is one of the most patriotic actions ever accomplished by a French writer” (119). Staël wrote Germany in hopes that she might push France toward progress, even though she suffered “the bitterest persecution” for doing so, primarily at the hands of Napoleon.  

This dedication to continuous progress offers a glimpse into Staël’s larger worldview. Throughout her written works, she maintains a persistent interest in human progress and the perfectibility of the human race (Staël [1800] 1803, 1:59). On Literature is a testament to Staël’s devoted admiration for human progress. In it, she traces literary history from classical Greek and Latin sources to the masterworks of the eighteenth century, offering what she terms “unequivocal proofs of the successive progress and improvement of the human understanding” (Staël [1800] 1803, 1:2). She writes at the beginning of Volume I, “I cannot bring myself to think that this grand work of moral nature has ever been abandoned: in the ages of light, as well as in those of darkness, the gradual advancement of the human species has never been interrupted” (Staël [1800] 1803, 1:59).  

Some have attributed this persistent optimism to Staël’s Protestant faith (Jaeck 1915, 28). In Delphine, she writes: “The Reformation is that epoch of history which has most effectively promoted the ‘perfectibility of the human race.” 

Staël frequently surrounded herself with others who shared her interest in human progress. She famously held literary salons that gathered prominent writers interested in foreign literature, many of whom were dissatisfied with French traditions and seeking “higher ideals of life and humanity.” Regulars in this circle included Marmontel, the journalist Jean Suard, the Marquis de Pezay, and the writer Morellet (Jaeck 1915, 30).  

4.3.1 Women and literature 

Staël was interested in the role and fate of women in literature, writing both theoretically and by personal experience of the difficulties faced by women who pursue, and achieve, literary notoriety. Her views on women in this arena are complicated, and she points out a somewhat paradoxical relationship between women and literary works: “Generally speaking, it would certainly be far better if women would devote themselves wholly to domestic virtues; but a strange caprice in the judgment of men with respect to women is, that they esteem a total inattention to essential duties more pardonable in a female than the crime of attracting attention by distinguished talents” (Staël [1800] 1803, 2:142).

At the time, it was demanded of women that they devote themselves to domestic duties like child-rearing and maintaining the home. Yet, even a woman who failed in these “essential duties” through idleness alone was judged less harshly than a woman who neglected her domestic duties in order to seek renown for her literary talents Staël claimed. The judgment facing a woman who succeeded in employing her merits to gain literary acclaim was so severe, in Staël’s view, that “Their success is as absolute as their failure” (Staël [1800] 1803, 2:142). 

4.4 Staël on the status of women in society 

Through her fiction and philosophical treatises, Staël crafts a theory that celebrates femininity, while simultaneously critiquing the societal structures that limit women’s fulfillment and political involvement. Broadly speaking, Staël believes that a woman’s happiness is intricately tied to being loved fully, but that such love, given existing societal structures, comes at the cost of intellectual and political independence and acclaim. 

4.4.1 Theory of female liberation 

At the time that Staël was writing, in the peak years of the French Revolution, early French feminism was animated over the issue of legal and political equality for the sexes. At the advent of the French Revolution in 1789, the image of a traditional homemaking woman had given way to a more militant feminist approach found in pamphlets that circulated in France at the time. The writers of these pamphlets were actively involved in the Revolution, and in the aftermath, were advocating for educational improvements, economic equality, and voting rights, all squashed under the Napoleonic Code (Abray 1975, 47). Women such as Olympe de Gouges, who declared the rights of women in 1791, were prominent leaders of the early feminist movement in Revolutionary France. Many of these women were executed by guillotine for their messaging (50). In this sea of tumultuous events, Staël’s use of the novel and more implicit methods to communicate her beliefs about the Revolution and gender equality, coupled with her social status, aided in ensuring her endurance on the political and literary scene. 

De Staël’s own views on gender freedom had two components: freedom from the oppressive institution of marriage and freedom from social institutions such as monarchy. The two were intertwined, and intimately informed by Staël’s own life experience, including her first marriage, which was politically advantageous to both families but which condemned her to a loveless partnership.  

Staël’s extensive set of writings, from her correspondence with lovers to her philosophy to her fiction, betray not just the tension between intellectual and romantic fulfillment but also between feminist political equality and romantic fulfillment. Her work indicates that she finds her two desires, personal freedom and emotional intimacy, to be diametrically opposed in practice, especially in post-Revolutionary French society. In particular, she deplored the fact that men took the central roles in Enlightenment philosophy and politics, neither of which included avenues for women’s direct participation.  

In Part VI, Chapter 10 of Considerations on the Principles of the French Revolution ([1818] 2008), Staël explicates this idea through a discussion of inequality in practice, and how this inequality implies a dearth of liberty: “In a country where women are at the bottom of every intrigue, because favor governs everything, the morals of the first class have nothing in common with those of the nation.” The morals in such a country, ruled by arbitrary governance, transform “women into a sort of third factitious sex, the sad production of a depraved social order.” Staël blames this arbitrary governance on men, seduced by “the greed of power… to commit all the crimes which sully history.” She posits that this “venom of power, which has corrupted so many men during so many ages, has undergone at last, by representative governments, a salutary inoculation.” Even so, the limitations on women and men in post-Revolutionary France indicated that the venom of power had not truly been vanquished. For, “it is in free countries only that the true character of a woman and the true character of a man can be known and admired” (736). 

In this context, Staël turned to speech and literature, which she saw as two “key features of democratic society that facilitated the spread of Enlightenment values” (Worley 2016, 77). Notably, these two features became “deadly weapon[s]” in societies that lacked protections of egalitarian norms, weapons that were ideal for women to leverage (Berger 2000, 250-1). 

4.4.2 Staël on Women’s Fulfillment and Self-Realization 

Staël believed that happiness for women is found in their being perfectly loved. However, social expectations condition finding love on conforming to gender roles that limit, among other things, political participation. This presents a conflict for women who seek expression or self-realization in intellectual or political pursuits, and many of her works explore these tensions and conflicts. This element is visible in particular in her two major novels, Delphine and Corinne. 

In Delphine, the titular character is frank and superior in soul and spirit. She represents a type of woman that alarms society, in a world where women are not supposed to be passionate or follow their interests. Interestingly enough, Staël declines to identify her character as a model for others to follow. She blames Delphine for her extensive moral failings, at the same time as she acknowledges the difficult position that society places women in. Notably, Delphine is a character who does not re-marry after she is widowed, even though she does fall in love with a supporter of the old regime, Leonce. Delphine exercises personal freedom insofar as she is able to do so. But she never attains true fulfillment or happiness because the man she loves is simply “incapable of real emotional reciprocity or sacrifice for love” (Marso 1999, 96). In this sense, Delphine’s refusal to accept Leonce’s hand exactly because “he felt it was a sacrifice to give it,” was an acceptance that she may never be perfectly loved (Staël, Delphine 1995, 438). Yet she would rather not be loved at all than remain stuck in an oppressive marriage. Delphine’s boldness and conviction do not suffice to bring her fulfillment, and she commits suicide at the end of the novel.  

The titular character in Corinne suffers a similar fate. Corinne is flamboyant, vivacious, and successful, unlike her quiet, docile, and submissively feminine half-sister Lucille. Corinne and Oswald love each other. Yet Lucille is Oswald’s intended, and eventual, wife. Despite the seemingly strong love between Corinne and Oswald, Corinne, just like Delphine, rejects the shackles of marriage and instead pursues her career. She subsequently dies of a broken heart. Corinne’s central struggle is one Staël confronted throughout her life: balancing success as an intellectual figure with the demands and expectations of femininity. In Corinne’s case, her death of a broken heart echoes an earlier sentiment in Delphine, that what women need for happiness is to be perfectly loved.  

It seems that Staël’s belief that women were only happy and fulfilled when perfectly loved was limited to the political circumstances she found herself living in. Staël “nowhere presents woman’s lot as being…either morally endurable or materially satisfactory” (Gooden 2008, 26). Her view of politics and women, discussed in the following section, indicates that there may be merit to the argument that Staël truly believed that women would actually be most fulfilled in an environment when they could achieve true personal freedom, not just emotional intimacy. However, the restrictions of her time seemed to make that impossible, with women being codified as second-class citizens (Gutwirth 1991, 44). This is implied one of Delphine’s exclamations in the novel, where she states: “If I were a man, it would be as impossible for me not to love freedom, not to serve it, as it would be to close my heart to generosity, to friendship, to all the truest and purest of feelings” (Staël [1802] 1995, 470). 

A couple of years later, she echoes the sentiment in Corinne, where the titular character asks her beloved: “If society did not bind women with all manner of chains while men go unshackled, what would there be in my life to keep anyone from loving me?” (Staël [1807] 1998, 271). It seems, then, that women need not just to be perfectly loved, but to also be in a political and societal space that grants them true personal freedom. The problem is the shackles Staël mentions, which include society’s imposition that women submit to domesticity in order to be loveable in the first place. Therefore, the choice of personal freedom seems ipso facto to be a choice to be unlovable to men, preventing true female fulfillment.  

4.4.3 Women and Politics 

Staël’s theory of connection between politics and women ties back to her dual conception of freedom – in essence, she argues that for women to be truly free, they must be free from gendered societal norms and free to participate fully in politics. In this construction, female participation in politics is essential for true freedom. Staël finds it not just to be essential for female freedom, but rather for the existence of a proper, engaged, and active citizenry at large. As a believer in the Enlightenment ideologies that underpinned the French Revolution, “de Staël unflinchingly and multifariously extended the principles of liberalism to the cause of women” (Finch 2000, 31). 

Staël was calculated in her arguments about why women ought to be politically equal. Rather than shy away from accusations of women being too emotional, she actually embraces the stereotypes that women are more compassionate, generous, self-sacrificing and loving than men. She argues that these attributes are actually evidence as to why women should be active citizens, because it would make them more involved. She sees this not as some “essential characteristic,” but rather “as a political fact,” fighting against the idea that there are innate differences between the sexes (Marso 1999, 81). Rather, she posits that “learning to love with passion, compassion, generosity, and sympathy,” which is something that women are taught to do, “is the superior education for citizenry” (95). Building on Rousseau’s work, in which he argues that men are unaware of how to be proper citizens because they have not learned how to love and respect others, in On Literature Staël finds that this lack of emotional sophistication results in a tendency of men to “simplify calculations,” unlike women, who “are the ones at the heart of everything relating to humanity, generosity, delicacy” (Folkenflik 1987, 204). Ultimately, she was steadfast in her belief that women should be engaged in politics and argued that their feminine attributes, the ones that were seen as weak, were actually a strength in the political landscape. 

This bid for female emancipation was in contrast with Staël’s political environment, the French Revolution, which disenfranchised women. Many of Staël’s works criticize the reality of the French Revolution, whether indirectly, as with her novels, or directly, through works like Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution. In particular, Staël expresses disappointment throughout her works that “the Revolution was supposed to create a moral citizen for public life, but had failed miserably by zealously designating that only men should be citizens and in constructing a hyper-masculinist conception of politics” (Marso 1999, 81). This exclusive construction of woman and citizen, as well as the emphasis on ideals of republican motherhood and removal of feminine attributes from politics, discussed in her Réflexions sur le procès de la Reine, par une Femme (Reflections on the Trial of the Queen, by a Woman), is antithetical to Staël’s understanding of a proper democratic system and precluded by the creation of a proper republic. In particular, she disdained the emotional detachment encouraged by the French Revolution in politics. She writes that “whoever knows how to love, could never cause suffering” (Staël [1793] 1995, 376). She expects anyone with this ability to extend it to the public sphere in their duty as a good citizen. She cites her father as an extraordinary statesman, because he was “sincere and impassioned” in every “circumstance of his life,” whether it be his marriage or his political office (Staël [1818] 2008, 259). In sum, she asserts that “he who is capable of true and profound emotion is never intoxicated by power; and it is by this, above all, that we recognize in a minister true greatness of soul” (259). The Revolution’s removal of the involvement of passion and love in politics not only removes women from the political sphere, destroying their access to freedom, but barricades it from its true motivations. 

It seems, then, that Staël’s various works of fiction were in certain ways reflections of herself or her ideal, namely, women who pursued political and personal freedom rather than their romantic suitors. Delphine and Corinne are criticisms of the “institutional subjugation of women,” in which Staël examines “the issue of (male) spiritual impotence” that prevents them from extending their emotion into politics and in turn considers “the pressures which society brings to bear on the [female] individual of exceptional gifts” (Gooden 2000, 75). 

Delphine is littered with thinly veiled criticisms of the wrongs the revolution “propagated through the silencing of its women” (Marso 1999, 79). For example, Delphine’s suitor, Leonce, when she gets too involved in discussing politics, turns on her. “He informs her that her political ideas are merely the product of enthusiasm, as well as foreign to the true nature of woman: woman should cultivate a respectful distance” (Gooden 2000, 40). 

In a similar vein, in Corinne, Oswald, who was supposed to be a source of freedom and solace for Corinne, requires her to subjugate herself, her success, and her national identity to him. Corinne chooses to die of a broken heart rather than limit her freedom in this way. In Corinne’s half-sister Lucy, who takes her place, Staël describes the fate of most women in the political landscape of her time: “stoic self-sacrifice” and being “coerced into accepting a traditional gendered role in society” (Worley 2016, 76). 

4.5 Love and the Passions 

Staël’s major work on the passions, or emotions, is her Treatise on the Influence of the Passions, Upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations, published in English translation in 1798, two years after it had come out in France. (Page references in this section refer to this English translation.)  

In the Treatise Staël discusses how passions affect the happiness of individuals and societies. She defines a passion as that which “absorb[s] all the other affections of the soul; and its pleasures, as well as its pains, result only from the entire development of its power” ([1796] 1798, 69). She defines love, love of glory, friendship, and filial piety, and how these impact individual relationships and social systems.  

4.5.1 Love of Glory 

According to Staël, the love of glory – the desire to achieve fame, celebrity, or recognition of one’s character and achievements — only acquires influence on people in the midst of society. Although the passion of glory – the emotional force of the desire for public recognition – appears to depend on the appeal of enjoying celebrity and good reputation, true glory is more than mere celebrity. Namely, true glory attaches only to those with genuine virtue or genius. Glory itself is not what is of value, but the virtue or genius which underlies it. So-called “friends of glory,” or those who pursue true glory, offer their talents in service of the human race, measuring their personal happiness by the extent to which they benefit humanity. One application of her thinking about the passion for glory is an analysis of monarchy, where the king or queen is taken as a repository of glory and status. She argues that some ways of justifying social structures like monarchy can undermine the status of elevated figures. Traditionally, the status and “glory” of the monarch ultimately derived from a higher power; they were thought to rule by divine right. Staël argues that, absent a divine justification, the status of kings must be grounded on public suffrage, but in that case their status will be undermined. The reason is that the people will realize that they are themselves responsible for the “glory” of the monarch, and will no longer celebrate or be awed by it.  

Later in the chapter, Staël again reminds the reader that the passion of glory is only preserved by virtue and that it is virtue that is of value, not glory. She sees the achievements of “great” figures as additions to the stock of human knowledge which then become available to the masses. The masses, in turn, become less dependent on the “great” figure. Human progress, for Staël, is in part a matter of humanity’s decreasing reliance on a few “great” figures. She writes: “The more the mind is allowed to expatiate in the future career of possible perfectibility, the more we see the advantages of understanding surpassed by positive knowledge, and the spring of virtue more powerful than the passion of glory” (57). In other words, Staël appears to think that when we fix our attention on the goal of the future perfection of humanity, we are better positioned to appreciate the importance of virtue. Accordingly, we become less concerned with pursuing the fleeting glory of the present moment. Her critique of glory in this way is not meant to deter the friend of glory from offering their talents in service of humanity, but instead to analyze their motives and to “lop away that which is of the very essence of the passions, –subjection to the power of others” (72). 

Staël ends the chapter turning from the passion of glory, which has to do with gaining general recognition from the many, and towards the pursuit of love, which in her view is necessarily concerned only with the people closest to one. She writes that “Love is no longer a blessing that can be enjoyed by him who has long been governed by the passion for glory” because the nature of Love “prevents it from uniting with the whole of human destiny” (70).  

4.5.2 Love 

Staël frames her analysis of love by outlining what love is not: common, control, flirtation, and beauty. She states that love is “that absolute devotion of our being to the sentiments, the happiness, the destiny of another, as the highest idea of felicity which can exalt the hope of man” (130). Staël believes that lovers ought to reject selfishness and embrace sacrifice as they support their beloved’s happiness. Given the context of the greater work, it seems likely that Staël would encourage lovers to cultivate other passions in such a way that they contribute to their beloved’s happiness. 

Staël writes that “Men have but one object in love, while the permanence of the sentiment is the basis on which the happiness of the woman depends. In a word, men are loved, because they love” (152). Staël states that, “Love is the sole passion of women…The history of the life of women is an episode in that of men” (146). She further states that men, despite their praise of morality, often suspend morality in their interactions with the fair sex, by forming commitment and attachments that they then do not honor: 

They can pass for virtuous, although they have caused the most cruel pains which human power can produce in the soul of another. They may pass for honesty, although they may have deceived the fair sex. In a word they may have received from a woman such marks of attachment as would bind to each other two friends, two companions in arms, and which would disgrace the party who should prove himself capable of forgetting them. They may have received these from a woman, and disengage themselves from the obligation by imputing all to love; as if one feeling, one additional gift, diminished the value of all the rest. (147) 

Put more plainly, Staël believes that “women are more bound by the sympathies of the heart; but with men these ties are not so sacred” (148). Men instead often rely on the imagination’s ability to conjure up memories of past scenes to firm up emotional attachments. A sense of moral duty to a woman can be instilled in men, but it is dependent on his ability to count on her fidelity to him. But, for both men and women, jealousy is particularly biting because it “blends pride and tenderness (143).  

4.5.3 Friendship 

A major difference for Staël between love and friendship is that “Friendship is not a passion, for it does not deprive you of a due dominion over yourself” (219). Further, friendship “impresses us with the sense that we require a return from others; and in this point of view, it makes us feel, in a great measure, the pains that attend love, without promising us the enjoyment of the vivid pleasures which love is wont to inspire” (219). Because love is focused on stirring happiness in the heart of another, its pleasures are more closely related to its efforts. Friendship, on the other hand, is not self-perpetuating, but defined by reciprocity. Since friendship relies on a relation to another person, an absence of reciprocity in a friendship can lead to suffering of the kind that may attend an amorous relationship. This is especially troubling when one realizes that perfect reciprocity between friends is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Staël also analyzes cases in which friends have turned into lovers. She writes, “should love happen to ensnare them, there then arises an indescribable kind of sentiment, a mixture of selfishness and of self-love, which makes either a man or a woman, whom friendship unites, perceive but little pleasure in the passion that possesses them: these sorts of connections do not subsist long, or they soon break off altogether” (228). Love and friendship are incompatible and often lead to the loss of the friendship that inspired the love in the first place. This is in part due to the tendency of passion to (as it were) inebriate individuals and distort appearances. 

4.5.4 Of Filial Piety 

“The most sacred of the moral elements of the world are the ties that bind together parents and their children” (233). Putting filial piety in conversation with love and friendship, it is clear that for Staël the parent-child relationship is accompanied by the greatest sense of duty. She argues that mutual, but not reciprocal, enjoyment can characterize the relationship between children and parents. Staël writes, “The conduct of children towards us is never estimated from what we require of them, but from what we are accustomed to expect.” (235). This dynamic imbues the parents with an esteem that keeps their children at a distance. Yet, if a parents’ love for their child is not to become corrupted with selfishness, they must not see this dynamic as involving a sacrifice for which they are owed the child’s gratitude. “The heart aims at equality, and when gratitude is changed into real tenderness, it drops its character of deference and submission. He who loves, imagines that he is no longer indebted; he rates benefits much lower than sentiment…”(235). This can help to explain why the child develops into an independent self on the basis of their parents’ instruction. Parental investment in this person is not for themselves, but rather for their children. 

4.6 Kant and German philosophy 

In her work On Germany, Staël discusses an impressive variety of writers, poets, dramatists and philosophers, covering everyone from Schiller and Goethe to Fichte and Kant. Her discussion of Kant is amazingly succinct. In just a few pages, she manages to convey much of the range of Kant’s thought, especially in his Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781. She characterizes his attempt in the Critique to overcome the limitations of what she calls the two great systems of his day, the sensation-focused thought of Locke and the “idealism” of Leibniz, seeking also to find a path of reconciliation between them (Nassar and Gjesdal 2021, 39-40, 48). She notes that for the critical Kant, metaphysics can teach us nothing beyond the bounds of experience, and that it is important to banish metaphysical elements or aspects from religious questions concerning, e.g., the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. The latter idea is connected with Kant’s discussion in the famous Antinomies of Pure Reason section in the Critique. Staël highlights the Antinomies as one of the most important sections of the long treatise. The idea also connects with Kant’s famous line in the preface to the second (1787) edition of the Critique that he had to “deny knowledge in order to make room for faith” (or belief: glauben in the original German) concerning God, freedom and immortality.  

Unlike many interpreters of Kant, Staël places considerable emphasis on the question of how a new philosophical position—like Kant’s “transcendental idealism” in the Critique—ought to be expressed. As every student of the Critique knows, Kant clearly thought that existing philosophical language was insufficient. There are two aspects to this idea. First, Kant understood that unlike Latin or French, in his day German was still a language in its philosophical youth—indeed, throughout the Critique, he will often provide a Latin term or phrase to guide his readers in understanding the meaning he intends with his German words. (Hegel famously said that he still had to teach philosophy to speak German years later.) Second, and more importantly, Kant believed that his new philosophy required him to create a huge variety of neologisms. The list is voluminous, including “analytic” and “synthetic” judgments, a new meaning of a priori, “sensibility,” “forms of intuition,” “the transcendental aesthetic,” and much else besides. Even readers who are steeped in the language of the early modern philosophy that led to Kant’s revolution in 1781 struggle to navigate the bewildering array of new terms that he employs. Staël strongly objected to this approach, arguing that the invention of so many new terms was philosophically unnecessary. At times, her wit may make us doubt her seriousness on this issue. Any student of Kant might chuckle when reading her remark that Kant has written “the most irritating neologisms.” She then adds that we already have words for everything, so why invent new ones? But she is indeed serious, and she takes the question of language seriously as a philosophical issue. She writes, “Kant takes words for ciphers in his metaphysical treatises, giving them whatever value he wishes without worrying about their meaning in common usage. This seems to me a serious mistake. The reader’s attention is exhausted in the comprehension of the language, and never gets to the ideas; the known never serves as a step toward the unknown” (Folkenflik 1987, 313-14) .

This criticism raises a question that is often ignored in Kant scholarship: having written short Latin works in his early (“pre-critical”) years, Kant’s choice to use German for his magnum opus is clearly significant. One would imagine that the choice would help readers to follow his arguments, since the vernacular would have been more widely available than the old scholarly language of Latin, especially in the late eighteenth century. Staël underscores the oddity of Kant’s choice to employ a huge range of new terminology when writing in the vernacular, a choice that hinders his readers from understanding his work. Did he think that was required because his philosophy was revolutionary? Perhaps, although the fact that Kant’s first Critique is littered with parentheses in which he provides a Latin word or phrase could be an indication that his readers would potentially be confused by his use of (often novel) German. Needless to say, the obscurity of German philosophy would become a major element of the new century as the works of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel rose to prominence. Most importantly, Staël’s criticism of Kant’s approach toward the expression of philosophical ideas helps us to understand her own attitude toward philosophy. As a writer with an immense range—her work encompasses treatises, novels, poetry, essays, correspondence, etc.—and with a large readership for many of her works across two continents, Staël seemed to think that philosophical questions ought to be broached and discussed in a manner that makes them accessible to a wide audience. Borrowing from her criticism of Kant, Staël sought to enable her readers to grapple with ideas themselves, without having to spend all their time in “the comprehension of the language” that she employed. Her readers might even take this as a criterion of philosophical excellence and employ it when assessing her presentation of ideas throughout her many works. 

5. Correspondence

Unless otherwise noted, all correspondence referenced in this section can be found in the nine-volume Correspondance Générale (1960-2017, edited by Béatrice W. Jasinski et al.). 

5.1 Jacques Necker 

Staël and her father, Jacques Necker, corresponded continuously from early in her life until his death in 1804. Their letters reveal the close relationship between father and daughter and their deep personal affection for each other, Staël characteristically referring to her father as “cher ami” (dear friend) or “mon ange” (my angel).  

Staël’s letters to her father are among the longest and most detailed letters she wrote. As she herself put it, she thought of these letters to her father as a kind of diary or journal of her life. From Maffliers, she begins one letter of October 1, 1803 with “Je recommence mon petit journal, cher ami” (I am recommencing my little journal, dear friend). Later that month, from Paris on October 17, she writes: “Voilà où en était mon pauvre journal, cher ami…” (This is where my poor diary was, dear friend). 

They thus provide a fascinating window onto her travels around Europe and her impressions of esteemed personages. For just one of many examples, here is Staël writing to her father after meeting Schiller, Wieland, and Goethe in Weimar, Germany (dated December 18, 803): 

Schiller et Wieland ont de l’esprit d’une maniere très supérieure dans l’ordre des idées littéraires, mais Schiller surtout sait si mal le français qu’il fait des efforts pénibles a voir pour s’exprimer. Non pas Wieland, mais Goethe et Schiller ont la tête remplie de la plus bizarre métaphysique que tu puisses imaginer[…] Je vais dans quelques jours a Iéna, […] pour voir Goethe et quelques professeurs.  

(In the order of literary ideas, the minds of Schiller and Wieland are very superior, but Schiller in particular knows French so poorly that it his efforts to express himself are difficult to watch. Goethe and Schiller, though not Wieland, have their heads full of the most bizarre metaphysics that you could imagine. […] I am going to Jena in a few days […] to see Goethe and some professors.) 

Surprisingly, Staël was rather unimpressed with Goethe at their first meeting. Staël was a longtime fan of the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s story of the passionate young artist Werther, who is driven to suicide when it becomes clear that he can never be with his beloved, Charlotte. The sensitive, passionate hero evidently represented something of an artistic and romantic ideal for Staël, which the real, middle-aged man fell short of. As she relates in a letter to her father (dated December 25, 1803):  

Goethe me gâte beaucoup l’idéal de Werther. C’est un gros homme sans physionomie, qui veut être un peu homme du monde, ce qui ne vaut rien a demi, et qui n’a rien de sensible ni dans le regard, ni dans la tournure d’esprit, ni dans les habitudes; mais c’est du reste un homme très fort dans l’ordre de pensées littéraires et métaphysiques qui l’occupent. (12/25/1803) 

(Goethe has rather ruined the ideal I had of Werther. He’s a large, featureless man, who may well be a member of the elite [un homme du monde], though that counts for half nothing, and who possesses nothing sensitive [sensible] either in his expression, in his way of thinking, or in his habits. But he is, in any case, a man who is very good in the realms of literary and metaphysical thought which occupy him.) 

5.2 Goethe 

Staël made two attempts to make contact with Goethe before finally meeting him in late 1803, in Weimar. As recounted above, in her Correspondence with her father, she reports being initially disappointed with the figure cut by this famed literary figure. 

As the editors of the Correspondance General note (5:163), Goethe was, at this time in his life, in a period of less than robust health, and had become ill and overweight. Six years later, when he had turned 60, he had lost this weight and regained some of his vigor, and became “le beau vieillard olympien célèbre par tous les visiteurs” (the beautiful, olympian old man celebrated by all his visitors). 

Their correspondence during Staël’s time in Weimar consists mainly of brief notes, since they were meeting regularly for dinners and discussions. The picture they paint makes it clear that Staël’s first impression of Goethe’s character was drastically altered as she spent more time in conversation with him. Having been learning German at the time – according to her own avowals, expressly for the purpose of reading Goethe’s works in their original language – she undertook to translate several of his works into French. She wrote many letters to Goethe brimming with admiration over his poems and other writings, and sent her translations along with them, to solicit his feedback. Among the poems she translated were Der Gott und die Bajadere, Geistesgruss, and Die Braut von Korinth, some of which appeared in the 17th volume of her original complete works – though her translation of Geistesgruss was misattributed to Schiller (1:206). 

Eventually, Benjamin Constant joined Staël in Weimar, and joined her in social gatherings with the intelligentsia there. By all accounts, they enjoyed several brilliant evenings together, sometimes accompanied by the Schillers or by Wieland. As Staël wrote in 17 February, 1804: “Je vous remercie de la plus heureuse soirée que j’aie passée hors de ma patrie, de la plus brillante qu’on puisse passer nulle part.” (I thank you for the happiest evening that I have spent outside of my own country, and the most brilliant that one could spend anywhere.) 

By the end of that February, Staël was preparing to leave for Leipzig, and invited Goethe to join herself, Schiller, and Constant for a farewell dinner. In his journal, Constant wrote of this evening: “Soirée et souper avec Goethe et Schiller. Je ne connais personne au monde qui ait autant de gaité, de finesse, de force et d’étendue dans l’esprit que Goethe” (5:249). (An evening party and supper with Goethe and Schiller. I know no one else in the world whose mind has as much gaiety, finesse, vigor, and breadth than Goethe’s.) 

In April, now writing from Berlin, Staël thanked Goethe for a letter of introduction to Wilhelm Schlegel, “la societé la plus intéressante que j’ai rencontrée a Berlin” (the most interesting society that I have found in Berlin). Staël alluded to reuniting with Goethe and Schlegel there, and made a small joke about “stealing” one of Goethe’s ideas in order to develop it in her own writing, a plaisanterie she had also made to others, like Jacobi. Though Staël had no intention to actually attribute their ideas to herself, it appears Goethe took her words at face value, and was irritated by it. Moreover, in addition to this small faux pas, Staël soon learned that her father had died. As a result, Staël left the region for Switzerland soon after writing the letter, and the reunion did not take place. She and Goethe would not see each other in person again. 

Staël’s experiences with German culture in Weimar and in Berlin left a lasting impression on her. They were to inspire her to write her monumental work De l’Allemagne, in which she treated the full range of recent German literary and philosophical culture and argued for its importance. The thinkers she had met and conversed with, including Schiller, Wieland, Schlegel, and of course Goethe, figured heavily throughout the work. 

5.3 Benjamin Constant 

Staël and Constant wrote each other voraciously for the duration of their relationship. However, Staël had letters in her possession destroyed at various points in her life because of the worry that they might be used against her politically. As such, of their letters, only two from Constant and forty from Staël remain, coming mainly from the period 1812-1816 (Jameson-Cemper 2000, 94), though very few letters remain., Their correspondence was marked not just by their rather tumultuous relationship and financial concerns, but also by its illumination of the dramatically shifting political landscape in which both Staël and Constant were major players.  

For example, after Napoleon was exiled to Elba, Constant recognized that Napoleon would have to surrender his tyrannical ways. He devoted himself to writing up a new Constitution for Napoleon, on the occasion of his return from exile in Elba. In her April, 30 1815 letter to Constant, Staël delivered her objections of this Constitution with a focus on the need to preserve liberty. She observes that the point of a Constitution is to give voice to important principles that we should master within ourselves, and that we should not be beholden to or controlled by it. 

5.4 Thomas Jefferson 

In 1807, Jacques Le Ray de Chaumont sent Jefferson a copy of Corinne, and also conveyed to Staël Jefferson’s first letter addressed to her. This marked the beginning of a series of eight letters between the two, the last of which was sent from Staël to Jefferson shortly before her passing in 1817.  

The correspondence between Staël and Jefferson sheds light upon the fascinating relationship between two momentous figures, covering the personal (such as Staël’s son Auguste’s desire to visit the United States to “make a pilgrimage toward reason and freedom”) and the global (the War of 1812 is the pressing topic, and there is even an interlude where Jefferson details the state of South American geopolitics, replete with a map).  

Interestingly, the letters reveal a disagreement between the political philosophy of Staël and Jefferson. Shortly after the United States declared war against the United Kingdom in the War of 1812, Staël wrote to Jefferson, who had retired after two presidential terms, to highlight her disappointment at Jefferson for ostensibly aligning himself with Napoleon against Britain. (Staël had not written back to Jefferson for five years.) Fearing Napoleon’s ambition, she asserts that he will turn on the United States once England has been defeated, plunging the world into a despotic universal monarchy. She took a more sympathetic and pragmatic view toward England. To her, the English were vastly outnumbered by the French; whatever abuses they committed were unintended consequences of the means of resistance they were forced to employ. Also, she viewed England as the last remaining barrier against Napoleon’s tyrannical and barbaric despotism. 

Jefferson disagreed with Staël, drawing a distinction between individual and state. To him, Napoleon would eventually pass away, but if left unchecked the principles of English government (which he disagreed with) would endure forever. He repeatedly emphasized the necessity of the war against England, asserting that England had forced the hand of the newly formed United States. However, he continued to desire Staël’s intellectual agreement, even sending her a pamphlet that advocated for the current position of the United States government. 

Another notable point is Staël’s denunciation of slavery. According to her sixth letter to Jefferson, she thought that if slavery in the South was abolished, the United States government would be the most perfect one rationally conceivable. (see quote opening this entry) 

Overall, the correspondence between Staël and Jefferson is a rich demonstration of Staël’s commitment to liberalism, her curiosity and knowledge of global affairs, and the respect she commanded among world leaders. 

6. Connections

The Biography and Correspondence sections above show how Staël’s life put her in connection with an astonishing range and variety of distinguished personages. Here, we mention a few other connections with individuals who may not have had close personal contact with her, but who were nonetheless influenced by her life, work, and thought. 

6.1 Nísia Floresta 

Floresta is known for pioneering the cause of women’s liberation, education, and equality in Brazil in the 19th century. Often called “Brazil’s first feminist,” she was also known as “the Brazilian de Staël.” Staël’s name appears across Floresta’s works, accompanied by laudatory descriptions of her as an “illustrious author” and “transcendent talent.” Like Staël, she wrote travel diaries in addition to works advocating for extending civil liberties more widely, and also took up the cause of abolition in Brazil. In her Opúsculo humanitario of 1853, Floresta also engages with Staël’s views on divorce and its causes and effects on the family, referring to Staël as “one of the two premier French writers of our century.” 

6.2 Auguste Comte 

Auguste Comte is a 19th century French philosopher best known for founding the philosophical movement known as positivism. In 1849, he released a proposed revision to the calendar, called, fittingly enough, the Positivist calendar (Calendrier positiviste), which can be found in a 1993 reprinting on Gallica at this link. Each of the months is named after a great historical figure which sets the theme for the days of that month. In this way, the calendar as a whole is a celebration of humanistic achievement across politics, the arts, and the sciences. The eighth month of this calendar is known as “Dante” and the days are named after a representative of modern epic poetry. In one version of the calendar, the 24th day of the month of Dante is dedicated to Madame de Staël, who finds herself among such poets as Milton, Cervantes, and Chaucer. In another version, Staël finds herself honored, instead, on the 19th day of the tenth month, known as “Shakespeare,” among the likes of Goethe, Racine, Voltaire, and Madame de Sevigné. 

6.3 The Adams Family 

The Adams family (including former American presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams and former First Lady Abigail Adams) was an important political family in the U.S during the 18th and early 20th century. Staël was a frequent topic of discussion amongst the Adams. John Quincy Adams, the 6th U.S president, in particular, recommended and sent many copies of Staël’s works to his father, John Adams; mother, Abigail Adams; and wife, Louisa Catherine Adams. In letters written between the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, these members of the Adams family discussed Delphine, A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions, Upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations, and The Reflections Upon Peace 

7. Online Resources

Rosenblatt, Helena. 2022. “Napoleon’s Nemesis: Madame de Staël and the Origins of Liberalism.” Besterman Lecture, University of Oxford. YouTube, 48:45. 

Rosenblatt, Helena. 2019. “Germaine de Staël, Benjamin Constant, and the Foundations of Liberalism.” The Research Group on Constitutional Studies Lecture Series, McGill University. YouTube, 1:28:14.