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spirit of frivolous negation, appeared to her in the light of a prophet
of perfection; and she saw in the approaching meeting of the States
General a first step towards the realization of his views. These radiant
ideals were destined to be suddenly and painfully obscured by the events
of the Terror. Her only contribution to literature during that time was
her celebrated and impassioned defence of the unhappy Queen. Public
events so fascinated her attention that she had no leisure for any other
thought. Two sentences in her _Réflexions sur la Paix_, published in
1794, reveal this preoccupation.

“During the reign of Robespierre,” she says, “when each day brought a
list of devoted victims, I could only desire death, and long for the end
of the world and of the human race which was witness to, or accomplice
in, such horrors. I should have made a reproach to myself even of
thought, because it was separate from sorrow.” In another passage she
exclaims: “Oh appalling time, of which centuries will barely dim the
trace; time which will never belong to the past!”

Nevertheless, Robespierre had hardly fallen, before her ever vivid faith
in humanity revived in full force. She looked for safety to the faction
which divided extreme revolutionaries from extreme reactionaries, and
refused to believe that it could only act as a buffer. Its moderation
was partly caused by exhaustion; yet Madame de Staël, always optimistic,
maintained that having no passions it must have convictions, and that
the trumpet-call of liberty would summon it to the front. In this she
was mistaken; but in the course of her observations on public events
she uttered one remarkable prophecy. “France,” she wrote, “may remain a
republic; but to become a monarchy it must first submit to a military
government.”

In 1790 she published her work on _The Influence of the Passions upon
Human Happiness_. This was originally to have been divided into two
parts. The first portion was to be devoted to reflections on man’s
peculiar destiny; the second, to the constitutional fate of nations. We
have to concern ourselves with the first alone, as the second, which
would have required an immense and minute knowledge of ancient and modern
governments, was never even begun.

In Madame de Staël’s view the true obstacle to individual and political
happiness lay in the force of passion. Neutralize this, and the problem
of government would be solved. Happiness, as she conceived it, was to
consist in having hope without fear, activity without anxiety, glory
without calumny, love without inconstancy—in a word, ideal good with
no admixture of evil. The happiness of nations would consist in the
combination of Republican liberty with monarchical calm, of emulation
among talents unaccompanied by factious clamor, of military spirit in
foreign affairs, and a law-abiding tendency in domestic matters. She
concluded by saying that such an ideal is impossible of attainment, and
the only achievable happiness is to be acquired by studying the true
means of avoiding moral pain. To the discovery of this spiritual Nirvana
her work was directed. The subject, as is evident, was a sterile one,
since it dealt with abstractions that have no corresponding realities. To
say that men and nations would be prosperous and contented without some
particular institution or defect, is the same as to say that a human face
would be beautiful without features. A blank surface is conceivable as
a blank surface, but not as a physiognomy; and to speculate concerning
ideal humanity divorced from social systems, imposes on thought the most
futile exercise that ever occurred to an enlightened mind. Such being the
case, it is not surprising that Madame de Staël should eventually have
abandoned her self-imposed task. Even as much of it as she accomplished
landed her on a moving morass of conclusions of which the essential
nullity must have been evident to herself before anybody. For the rest,
her analysis of the various passions is admirable. One wonders as one
reads how a young woman could have reached so perfect a comprehension
of the springs of human action. The penetration displayed is unerring,
and only equalled by the masculine vigor of touch. A good example is
the following: “Truly great men are such as have rendered a greatness
like their own less necessary to successive generations.” And here is
another striking passage: “A revolution suspends every action but that
of force. Social order establishes the ascendancy of esteem and virtue,
but a revolution limits men’s choice to their physical capacities. The
only sort of moral influence that it does not exclude is the fanaticism
of such ideas as, not being susceptible of any restraint, are weapons
of war and not exercises of the mind. To aspire to distinction in times
of revolution one must always outstrip the actual momentum of events,
and the consequence of this is a rapid descent which one has no power of
staying. In vain one perceives the abyss in front. To throw oneself from
the chariot is to be killed by the fall, so that to avoid the danger is
more perilous than to face it. One must of one’s own accord tread the
path that leads to ruin, since the least step backwards overturns the
individual but does not hinder the event.”

This is a very good example both of the clearness of Madame de Staël’s
thought and the careless confusion of her style. She introduced
metaphors just as they occurred to her, without any preparatory
gradations of thought.

The second section of the work is devoted to the examination of natural
affections such as family love, friendship, and pity. Here, again, the
analysis is delicate and true, but the mind, fatigued by the futility of
the theme, recoils from such minute dissection of emotion. Passion, being
comparatively rare, is always interesting, but sentiment does not bear
prolonged contemplation.

Finally come the remedies to be applied to the evils worked by passion.
They consist in philosophy, in study, and the practice of benevolence,
joined, if possible, to a child-like faculty of extracting from each
hour just the amount of happiness that it contains. With this lame and
impotent conclusion the book practically ends, for all the remaining
reflections do not avail to place in any clearer light the uncertain and
colorless thought of the writer.

Her next work was that on _Literature Considered in Relation to Social
Institutions_. Its object was to establish the continuous progress and
ultimate perfectibility of the human mind, and the happy influence
exercised by liberty upon literature.

The theory of the authoress was that the progress of philosophy, _i. e._
thought, had been gradual, while that of poetry had been spasmodic.

Art, indeed, offering, by its early maturity, an awkward contradiction
to her system, she proceeded to get rid of it by describing it as the
product of imagination rather than of thought, and by adding that its
plastic and sensuous qualities rendered it capable of flourishing under
systems of government which necessarily crush every other form of
intellectual activity. To prove the perfectibility of the human mind, she
then had but poetry and philosophy. To the latter she assigned the really
glorious future, while the former she regarded as finished. She was the
first of the Romanticists, in the sense that she preferred the poetry
of the north to that of the south; and her predilections in this line
carried her so far, that she placed Ossian above Homer. She considered
that the early forms of poetry—in other words, mere transcripts of
material impressions—were superior to those later creations in which
sentiment enters as an element. And this idea, which seems at first
a contradiction to her theory of perfectibility, was really intended
to confirm it. For, in her view, the value of literature consisting
exclusively in the amount of thought that it contained, introspective
poetry became a mere bridge which the mind traversed on its way to wider
horizons.

Madame de Staël was not only not a poet herself, but she was incapable of
appreciating the higher forms of poetry. In her excursions through the
regions of literature, she was always in pursuit of some theory which
would reconcile the contradictions of human destiny. Man, regarded as
socially perfectible, being her ideal, she was in haste to classify and
relegate to some convenient limbo the portions of a subject which did
not directly contribute to her hypotheses. Having disposed, therefore,
of poetry and art, she undertook to consider literature from the point
of view of psychology. She was only pleased with it when self-conscious
and analytical. Dante probably perplexed her, and she evoked to condemn
him the perruqued shade of “Le Goût.” Shakespeare she applauded, as
might be expected, chiefly in consideration of _Hamlet_; while Petrarch
pleased her principally because he was harmonious; and Ariosto because he
was fanciful. The true significance of the Renaissance escaped her. She
sought for the origin of each literature in the political and religious
institutions of the country where it arose, instead of regarding both
literature and social conditions as simultaneous products of the national
mind. Her erudition was inadequate to her task, and the purpose of her
works, by warping her judgments, contributed to make them superficial.
While pronouncing the English and French drama to be essentially
superior to the Greek, she characteristically preferred Euripides to
his two mighty predecessors. The grandeur of the dominant idea of Greek
tragedy—that of an inevitable destiny, against which man struggles in
vain—appears to have escaped her altogether. This is not surprising,
since such a conception was entirely opposed to her own order of mind and
to the age in which she lived. The root of all the social theories then
prevailing was the value of the individual. Man was not a puppet of the
gods, but the architect of his own fate. To lose hold of ideal virtue
was to become incapable of governing or being governed; and ideal virtue
was a definite entity which anybody might possess who chose. This—rather
crudely stated—was Madame de Staël’s point of view. Her enthusiasm
rejected all idea of limited responsibilities. The ethical value of the
Æschylean trilogy—the awful sense of overhanging doom which pervades
it—did not appeal to her, because it tended to the annihilation of the
struggling soul. In other words, she liked _self-conscious_ drama, and
was attracted to Euripides by his creation of artificial situations, in
which interesting personages had room and leisure to explain themselves.

With Aristophanes she was frankly disgusted; from her didactic
standpoint, because of his pronounced indecency; and on artistic grounds,
because he attacked living individuals instead of creating characters
like Tartufe and Falstaff. To his beauties she remained entirely blind,
and this, perhaps, is to be explained by her deficiency in the æsthetic
faculty. It is said that Châteaubriand first taught her to appreciate
nature, and Schlegel to perceive the loveliness of art. Chênedollé
complained that she had lived for years opposite Lake Leman “without
finding an image” in regard to it; and she herself once frankly admitted
that of her own accord she would hardly open her window to gaze on the
bay of Naples, while she would go a hundred miles to converse with a new
mind.

Its defects admitted, we may own that Madame de Staël’s work contains
many charming chapters. If, true to her theory, she provokes her reader
by preferring the Latin poets to the Greek ones, and Quintilian to
Cicero, simply because of their later date; if she persists, rather than
modify her views, that the sterile scholasticism of the Middle Ages was
not a real retrogression, and strangely overlooks, in her admiration for
Christianity, the intellectual benefits which man owes to the Arabs; on
the other hand, she has flashes of admirable insight. The chapter on the
invasion of Italy by the barbarians, and the part played by Christianity
in fusing the two races, is very suggestive. But, unfortunately, it is
suggestive _only_, and sins by a sketchiness which, more or less, mars
the whole book. This was one of Madame de Staël’s defects. She abounded
in ideas, but failed either in the power or the patience to work them out.

Two other interesting chapters are those on the “Grace, Gaiety, and
Taste of the French Nation,” and on “Literature in the Reign of Louis
XIV.” The peculiar social influences which, among successive generations
of courtiers, produced the best writers of France, are very happily
described; but here again the conclusions are indicated rather than
developed. Madame de Staël stated her conviction that the palmy days of
French wit were over, and that the literature of the future, if it wished
to flourish, must invest itself with greater gravity.

Convinced that the moment had come for the dramatist to pack up his
puppet-show and despatch it to a museum of antiquities, she laid down
rules for an ideal republican literature, and prescribed strong emotions,
careful analysis of character, and a high moral tone as indispensable
ingredients. She was in fact one of the first to admire and write that
appalling product, the novel with a purpose.

Anything duller than _Delphine_ it would be difficult to imagine.
From the first page to the last there is hardly one line of genuine
inspiration. All is forced, exaggerated, overstrained. The misfortunes of
the heroine are so needlessly multiplied, that they end by exasperating
the reader; and the _motif_ of the book—the contrast between conventional
and moral ideals—fails in true dramatic interest. The plot is as follows:
Madame de Vernon has a daughter, Mathilde, beautiful and sanctimonious,
whom she desires to marry to Léonce de Mondoville, a young Spaniard of
noble birth and aristocratic prejudices. Madame de Vernon has in the
whole world one friend, Delphine d’Albémar, a miracle of grace, wit,
and beauty, who does acts of unheard-of generosity, and generally by
some evil chance accomplishes them at the moment when they lead to
unlucky results for herself. She is a young widow, and has been left
by her elderly and devoted husband a fortune, of which she proceeds to
divest herself as rapidly as possible. One of her favorite objects of
charity is Madame de Vernon, who does not deserve her pity, since the
pecuniary embarrassments under which she suffers arise from her love
of card-playing, and general mismanagement. But Delphine adores her
friend, who is represented as extremely charming, and is in some respects
a well-drawn character. Her life is one long act of dissimulation. She
masks her cynicism cleverly, under an appearance of indolence, which
dispenses her from ever taking inconvenient resolutions, or appearing
agitated by events which should—but do not—move her. She has some faint
affection for her generous dupe—Delphine; but not enough to be prevented
from taking every mean advantage of her. There is some difficulty in
arranging Mathilde’s marriage, on account of the want of a dowry.
Delphine hastens to supply this, and then the bridegroom elect, Léonce,
appears on the scene. He is described as divinely handsome. The cold and
pietistic Mathilde falls in love with him immediately (as was her duty,
since he was to be her husband), but so, unfortunately, does Delphine.
What is still worse, he is by no means attracted by his _fiancée_, but
reciprocates the young widow’s passion. Then the drama begins. Madame
de Vernon, while seeming to see nothing, sees everything. Mathilde is
really blind. Delphine is agitated, but resolved, if possible, to be
happy. This, by the way, is the only gleam of common sense that she has
throughout the book. Unfortunately, she manages to compromise herself
(of course quite innocently) by espousing the cause of a pair of guilty
but repentant lovers; and Madame de Vernon cleverly uses the awkward
positions in which she places herself, in order to detach Léonce from
her. He marries Mathilde and is madly unhappy. Delphine pours out her
feelings in long letters to her sister-in-law and confidant, Mademoiselle
d’Albémar, letters which she writes, by the way, on recovering from
fainting fits, or when lying in bed, or when on the verge of distraction.
The whole of the novel is told in letters, and is proportionately
long-winded and unnatural.

Not long after the marriage Madame de Vernon dies, and on her death-bed
confesses her perfidy to her victim. Then the mutual passion of Delphine
and Léonce enters upon a new and harrowing phase. They determine to
remain technically virtuous, but to see one another constantly—of course
unknown to Mathilde. This unnatural situation—unnaturally prolonged,
becomes unbearable through its monotonous misery.

Finally Mathilde discovers the state of the case and conjures Delphine to
separate herself from Léonce. Madame d’Albémar consents, and disappears.
Léonce is then described by his confidant as being on the point of
madness. He alternately loses consciousness, and rushes about with
dishevelled hair and distraught looks. Delphine goes to Switzerland, and
there proceeds to compromise herself anew, this time beyond recall, for
the sake of a rejected lover who had behaved disgracefully to her.

She had taken refuge in a convent of which the superioress, Madame de
Ternan, turns out to be the aunt of Léonce. This lady is something of the
same sort as Madame de Vernon—except that her egotism, although quite as
systematic, is not so base. But it can become so on occasion, and, as she
is rather fond of Delphine and anxious to keep her with her to solace her
old age, she plays into the hands of Madame de Mondoville (the mother of
Léonce) and cleverly contrives to make Delphine take the veil. Barely has
this been done when Léonce appears and claims her as his own, Mathilde
having in the meanwhile died. Then is the exhausted reader harassed
anew by a fresh spectacle of poignant anguish. A Monsieur de Sebersci
suggests that Delphine should break her vows, quit her convent, and join
Léonce, pointing out that, thanks to the Revolution, they can be quite
respectably married in France. Delphine is horrified at first, but Léonce
having announced the firm intention of putting an end to his existence
if she remains a nun, she finally escapes and joins him. One begins to
hope that they are going to be happy at last, when the “purpose” of the
book presents itself. Madame de Staël was anxious to prove that social
conventions may not be braved with impunity, but overtake and crush the
nature which defies them. Delphine throughout had listened to no voice
but that of her conscience and her heart; she is consequently the victim
of calumny. Léonce is principally swayed by passion. He defies society
in the end to possess Delphine, but has no sooner induced her to break
her vows for him than he begins to feel the stigma of the act. He leaves
her, and seeks death on the battle-field. Death spares him, but he is
arrested as an aristocrat and condemned to be shot. Delphine follows him,
and by her eloquence wrings a pardon from the judge. Léonce, enlightened
by the approach of death as to the nothingness of the world’s opinion, is
prepared to live happily at last with the woman whom he still professes
to adore. But all at once the order for his release is rescinded and
he is taken out to die. Delphine accompanies him, and talks all along
the road. Indeed, she is superfluously eloquent, from the first page of
her history to the last. When Léonce has been strung up by her to the
highest pitch of exalted feeling, she takes poison and dies at his feet.
He is then shot; and the lovers are interred in one grave by Monsieur de
Serbellane, who has appeared again in the last chapter, after having
been the primary though unwitting cause of his unhappy friends’ woes.

It is difficult to understand why critics like Sainte Beuve should so
warmly have praised this novel. No doubt it shows talent, especially
in the analysis of mental struggle; but it is false from beginning to
end. All the characters want vitality, although some of the qualities
attributed to them are described with penetration and force. Delphine and
Léonce talk too much, and faint too much, and are simply insupportable.
Finally, the book is drearily monotonous and unrelieved by one gleam of
poetry or humor.

_Corinne_ is a classic of which everybody is bound to speak with respect.
The enormous admiration which it excited at the time of its appearance
may seem somewhat strange in this year of grace; but then it must be
remembered that Italy was not the over-written country it has since
become. Besides this, Madame de Staël was the most celebrated woman,
and, after Napoleon, the most conspicuous personage of her day. Except
Châteaubriand, she had nobody to dispute with her the palm of literary
glory in France. Her exile, her literary circle, her courageous opinions,
had kept the eyes of Europe fixed on her for years, so that any work from
her pen was sure to excite the liveliest curiosity.

_Corinne_ is a kind of glorified guide-book, with some of the qualities
of a good novel. It is very long-winded, but the appetite of the age was
robust in that respect, and the highly-strung emotions of the hero and
heroine could not shock a taste which had been formed by the _Sorrows
of Werther_. It is extremely moral, deeply sentimental, and of a deadly
earnestness—three characteristics which could not fail to recommend it to
a dreary and ponderous generation, the most deficient in taste that ever
trod the earth.

But it is artistic in the sense that the interest is concentrated from
first to last on the central figure, and the drama, such as it is,
unfolds itself naturally from its starting-point, which is the contrast
between the characters of Oswald and Corinne.

Oswald Lord Nelvil is a young man of exquisite sensibility and profound
melancholy. He comes to Rome (after distinguishing himself heroically
during a fire at Ancona) accompanied by a young Frenchman, the Count
D’Erfeuil, whom he has casually met. One of the first sights which greets
them on their arrival in the Eternal City is the triumphal procession of
“Corinne” on her way to be crowned in the Capitol. She is a musician, an
improvisatrice, a Muse or Sibyl, with all the poetry and passion of Italy
stamped upon her radiant brow. In the midst of her improvisation she
exchanges glances with Lord Nelvil, and the fate of both is sealed. He is
intended to be a typical Englishman imbued with a horror of eccentricity
in women. His ideal of the sex is a domestic angel, and he feels bound to
disapprove of Corinne, who lives alone, though young and beautiful, and
offers the spectacle of her various talents to the profane view of the
crowd. The Count D’Erfeuil mocks at everything, and is the most amusing
character in the book; feels no scruples about knowing Corinne, and,
having quickly discovered that his reserved English friend pleases her,
he persuades that gentleman to call on her also. Corinne speaks English
wonderfully, and allows Lord Nelvil to divine that there is a mystery
about her past. Once she betrays great agitation on hearing the name
of Edgermond, which is the patronymic of a certain Lucile, whom Lord
Nelvil’s father had destined him to marry. Grief at the death of this
father is, by the way, the ostensible cause of his persistent melancholy,
but he also vaguely hints at remorse. He promises that he will one day
confide his history to Corinne, who on her side prepares herself to
tell him hers. But as she greatly fears the effect of it on him, and is
deeply in love, she puts off the evil hour, and, in order to keep him
with her, offers to be his cicerone in Rome. Together they wander among
the ruins, visit the galleries, and drive on the Appian Way. Corinne
explains everything, discourses on everything, and Oswald interrupts her
with exclamations of rapture at her wit and learning. This novel form of
courtship lasts for some weeks, and finally the lovers proceed to Naples.
Corinne persuades Oswald that there is nothing at all extraordinary in
such conduct in Italy, where everyone, according to her, may do as he
likes. But the Count L’Erfeuil makes remarks which, although intended
to be merely flippant, are sensible enough to convince Lord Nelvil that
he must either marry Corinne or leave her. He is very much in love, or


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Online LibraryBella DuffyMadame de Staël → online text (page 12 of 17)