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


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

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

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

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

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