I may have overstated in the title. Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne de Staël-Holstein (hereafter referred to as Germaine to save us all considerable time), was a formidable woman, and made herself the canker on Napoleon’s tongue, but she may not have been his worst enemy. At least no worse an enemy than, say, I don’t know, Russia. Nevertheless, she was a bee in Napoleon’s bicorne hat. (A hat that was purchased at auction one year ago for $2.4 million, by the way. I hope you didn’t miss your chance to buy it or the always useful lock of Napoleon’s hair, which sold for a mere $50,000. You have to stay on top of the ads or these deals will pass you by.)1
But let’s talk about Germaine.
In 1786, when Germaine was twenty years old, newly married, and making her debut into society, she was presented at Versailles to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. The custom was to make three curtsies, kneel, and kiss the hem of the queen’s dress. Germaine tripped on her own dress during the third curtsy and “fell flat on her face.”2 This was not a cute little Jennifer Lawrence stumble with a quick recovery. This was a woman splayed out on the floor, in front of basically every important person in France, requiring “a gaggle of courtiers” to get her back on her feet.2 A whole gaggle, you guys; that’s probably an embarrassing amount of help. In the moment her face hit the floor, a gauntlet was inadvertently thrown; those bound to love her began loving her then, for grace (not the physical kind) under pressure and the humor she showed through the incident, while those determined to hate her decided she was too uncivilized to be tolerated.
I know this is starting to sound a bit like a Taylor Swift song, but read on and you’ll see we’re moving into Adele territory.
No one, not even Germaine herself, would argue that she was good at minding her own business. Ever. She was loud, tall, sturdy in frame and conviction. You know that person at a cocktail party who barges into your conversation and takes it over without regard for whatever was already being discussed? Germaine de Staël was that person. And you would have been glad to have her intrusion, not only to help extricate you from whatever awkward small talk you’d been enduring, but because she was smart and vivacious and captivating. Conversation was an art form to her, and while she could be a bit of a bully, she took her conversational skills seriously and used them to put people at ease, to entertain, and, perhaps even more often than she intended, to make people examine their own views of the world.
Germaine’s father, Jacques Necker, was France’s Director General of Finance before and during the French Revolution, making him second in power only to King Louis XVI. Fun fact about Louis XVI: he lost his head to the guillotine in January 1793.
The 18th-century French Revolution was a fascinatingly dangerous time for absolutely everyone. Necker was clearly very close to the king and his financial decisions, which were galvanizing the revolutionaries. (You’ve heard of Marie Antoinette saying “Let them eat cake,” right? She reportedly said that famous phrase — though scholars argue she did not — about the armed women who stormed Versailles demanding lower costs for bread, and the phrase became a symbol for how out of touch the monarchy was with the French bourgeoisie. Marie Antoinette was guillotined, as well.) Necker, on the other hand, was exiled a couple of times but escaped the revolution with his life. This is almost disappointing, given the prevalence of the guillotine at the time and the fact that Necker has the word “neck” right in his name. Seems like a missed opportunity.
Thanks in part to Necker’s status in the royal court, Germaine’s childhood — indeed, her entire life — was extraordinarily privileged. To give you an idea, at one point her father loaned 2.5 million livres (somewhere around 50 million dollars today) of his own money to the royal treasury. I don’t know how many of you have millions handy that you could loan to a country (I know you’re saving up now for that lock of Napoleon’s hair), but such was life for the Neckers.
Surely you’re wondering how many things this uber rich woman could possibly be pissed off about, besides having to wear skirts that are long enough to trip over. I’ll give you five and promise you that this list should be much longer.
1. The men in her life shaped and in many ways controlled it: her father (whom she adored), King Louis XVI (who could have saved her from exile if he’d kept his head and his throne), her husband (more about him in a minute), her lovers (I never said she was chaste), her sons, and the list goes on. Such circumstances are common among women throughout history, but this male domination was intense for Germaine because of her money and status. She never was able to fly under anyone’s radar.
2. She was traded like a horse: forced to marry Eric Magnus de Staël Holstein so that Sweden could gain part of an island in the Caribbean. Now, while there were surely times when my parents would have traded me in marriage for a pack of gum, suffice it to say most of us get to choose our life partners and can pause now to consider how deeply upsetting our lives would be if we couldn’t. Baron de Staël was 30 years old when the marriage was first arranged; Germaine was 12. She always found him distasteful and boring, but she had no choice.
3. She was never considered physically attractive. Oh, boo-hoo, you’re saying, suck it up, Germaine, and get on with your life. But this matters, especially if you’re living in a time when it’s considered more important for a woman to be physically attractive than educated, well-spoken, smart, political, or anything else that might help her feel valued. (Wait — am I still talking about the 18th century or is this perhaps also a fairly accurate description of the 21st?)
4. She searched her entire life for true, passionate love, and believed she’d found it more than once, only to be rejected and betrayed. (You’re hearing Adele in your head right now, aren’t you?)
5. And oh yeah, the series of incidents in which Napoleon Bonaparte, self-appointed Emperor of France and wearer of the previously mentioned very wide and expensive hat, exiled her from her beloved Paris and eventually, from all of France.
Why did Napoleon need Germaine out of the country, you ask? The short (pun intended) answer is that he had a Napoleon complex. (Is that too obvious a thing to point out?) Napoleon’s antagonism toward Germaine is a classic example of him compensating for his small stature by being far too aggressive; he was deeply uncomfortable with Germaine’s family connections, her social and political sway, and the fact that she had the nerve to be female.
Napoleon needed people to like him and Germaine made it clear that she neither liked nor respected him. When Germaine’s son, Auguste, asked Napoleon to allow Germaine back into Paris, Napoleon said, “Paris is…where I live. I don’t want anyone there who doesn’t like me.”3 I don’t know if anyone took a poll of Parisians about this matter, but it seems to me that the man who had appointed himself Emperor and led France into a 16-year series of wars may not have been as popular as he might have believed. Germaine was one of very few people to speak truth to power and point out Napoleon’s errors.
Germaine was first exiled from Paris in 1796 because it was rumored that she supported a restored monarchy in France. Some time later she returned to Paris, only to be exiled again for associating with Girondists, who’d fought to end the monarchy. It seemed she couldn’t take a side without being wrong.
Though Germaine likely never saw it this way, exile gave her some much-needed freedom to openly criticize Napoleon as well as explore other cultures. She demanded that Napoleon’s government pay back the money her father had loaned to France. She wrote letters, essays, novels, and books extolling her diverse and quite modern beliefs. She refused to write compliments to Napoleon or his government, refused to be silent.
Even Napoleon’s close friends and some family members sided with Germaine, but his beef with her was personal and impossible to legitimize. Nevertheless, she kept sauntering back into Paris, only to be found and ejected once again. She just kept trying, apparently thinking Napoleon would tire of the exercise. He did not, and their weird dance continued for 12 years. When she wrote De l’Allemagne, her masterpiece on Germany, containing her argument that France should integrate other cultures, Napoleon destroyed all 5,000 print copies and the typesetters’ lead fonts.2 Today’s equivalent would be burning all paper copies and dismantling the hard drive of the computer on which it was written. Even Adele can’t write a song sad enough to encompass the anger and loss any writer would feel after such childish destruction.
What must life have been like for Germaine? Imagine being married to a man you don’t love, raising children with another man you thought you loved but who would eventually betray you, seeking love with others who would also scar you, running the most successful salons4 of your time, writing prolifically on subjects integral to your time yet relevant centuries later, and, on top of all of that, being repeatedly forced to leave your home country. Other aspects of her life were difficult, but Germaine never fully recovered from having to leave her beloved France; she called exile “a form of hell” and “death in miniature.”5
That’s not a very sunshiny note to end on, and yet there it is. The most colorful and influential lives are not always happy ones.
I’m barely scratching the surface here, dear readers, so I hope that you will pick up the books listed at the end of this article, as well as the many fascinating books written by Germaine herself. This is another woman who should have been (and who made it clear that she most certainly was) pretty pissed off. And another that should be remembered. I hope one day to see Germaine de Staël’s hat purchased at auction for a million dollars more than Napoleon’s.
1 Klein, Christopher. “Napoleon’s Hat Fetches $2.4 Million at Auction.” History in the Headlines. 18 Nov. 2014. History.com. 10 November 2015.
2 Gray, Francine du Plessix. Madame de Staël: The First Modern Woman. New York: Atlas and Co., 2008. 26.
3 Diesbach, Ghislain de. Madame de Staël. Paris: Librairie académique Perrin, 1983. 400.
4 Salons were gatherings, often in a person’s home, where people (primarily women, who weren’t allowed in some of the public places where similar discussions might take place) could talk about politics, philosophy, and literature.
5 Balayé, Simone. Madame de Staël. Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1979. 53 and 57.