Friday, August 19, 2011

A Fire in Her Soul

Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Stael (Reading Program)
Mistress to an Age: 
A Life of Madame de Stael 

"The soul is a fire that darts its rays through all the senses; it is in this fire that existence consists; all the observations and all the efforts of philosophers ought to turn towards this Me, the centre and moving power of our sentiments and our ideas."

This is a marvelous introduction to an amazing woman who participated in the beginnings of Romanticism. Madame Germaine de Stael charmed the intellectuals of her age with her salon. This book, called by Dame Rebecca West 'a cornucopia of good reading," is above all the biography of a great woman. Madame de Stael was courageous and prolific in her contacts with important personages of her age. A prolific letter writer, she also wrote novels and drama. In the 1790s she established a salon at Coppet in Switzerland, and there gathered round her a considerable number of friends and fellow-refugees, beginning the salon which at intervals during the next 25 years made the place so famous. However, in 1793 she made a long visit to England, and established a connection with other emigrants: Talleyrand, Narbonne, Montmorency, Jaucourt and others. 
 The most brilliant period of her career began in 1794, when she returned to Paris after the Reign of Terror; her salon, known for its literary and intellectual figures, flourished, and she published political and literary essays, notably A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations (1796), an important document of European Romanticism. In 1803 Napoleon, who resented her opposition, had her banished from Paris, and she made the family residence in Coppet her headquarters. 
 She would also travel to Germany in part as a result of this exile from Paris by Napoleon. I found her liaisons, which were legion, fascinating and of particular interest her connections with the classical liberal philosopher and novelist Benjamin Constant. This is an excellent introduction to the age and to a vibrant woman who helped make the age more memorable. Probably her most important work is Germany (1810), a serious study of German manners, literature and art, philosophy and morals, and religion. Her other writings include novels, plays, moral essays, history, and memoirs.  

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