Madame de Staël’s Ideas on Liberty


Madame de Staël as Corinne, 1807

The French word “Liberté” has two possible translations in English: “Liberty” and “Freedom”. Freedom is the ability to make unrestrained decisions, whereas liberty is freedom granted by external rule. Freedom is a natural, sometimes impulsive yearning to break free, whereas liberty is an enduring state which may take the form of a political or personal doctrine, which Madame de Staël (1766-1817) rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and opposed to Napoleon’s despotism. The semantical distinction between the two terms helps to clarify Staël’s guiding notion of liberalism as an individual as well as a political philosophy.

Madame de Staël lived through one of the most unstable episodes of political history, namely, in close succession, the French Revolution, the Directoire and the French Empire. She died in 1817, when the reign of Louis XVIII had restored the Bourbon dynasty in France. As the daughter of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s minister of finance, who was repudiated and disgraced only to be called back and acclaimed as a national hero several times, she saw political change at close range, tampered by the fickleness of public opinion. She experienced the swaying mood of the crowd, little bent to reason and prompt to violence, and saw the importance of education to encourage an enlightened freedom of expression.

Staël inherited from the Lumières a belief in the perfectibility of the human mind. She vouched for the pursuit of knowledge through self-improvement, the influence of others, and more particularly the influence of “otherness” in a pioneering pan-European venture. At Coppet, her father’s estate in Switzerland, Staël invited writers and thinkers from all over Europe to promote ideas of combined cultural richness. Coppet was the setting of an anachronous international think tank from which emerged, among other works by her friends, Staël’s controversial and influential De l’Allemagne which celebrated cultural differences in a manner quite ahead of its time.[1] This reunion of intellectuals was modelled on the Parisian salons of the time but differed in that Staël hosted people from diverse cultural and social backgrounds and different political parties. Her aim was to counter a tendency to confine oneself to the close and the familiar, which she condemns in her novel Delphine, where in the stifling ambiance of ultra-conservative salons minds stagnate in prejudice and disguised immorality.

Coppet (Mme de-Staël) : Lac de Genève, Swiss National Library, nbdig-19550

The ideas that fostered in Staël’s European gathering at Coppet initiated a literary and political movement which bridges a gap, as Roland Mortier describes, between the Enlightenment and Romanticism: “Madame de Staël occupe une position charnière entre le XVIIIe et le XIXe siècle, entre lumières et romantisme. Loin de les opposer, son œuvre témoigne de leur continuité.”[2] Staël admired early German Romanticism and its treatment of emotions: by confronting Reason with Emotion she introduced French Romanticism. From her discussions at Coppet and common publications with Benjamin Constant emerged the fundamentals of French Liberalism. Staël’s definition of Liberalism abides by the philosophy of the Enlightenment tempered with the acknowledgment of emotions and cultural diversity, and the expression of individual freedom.

 The Freedom of the Press and Madame de Staël’s Editorial Authority

Portrait de Napoléon dans son cabinet de travail, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812

Portrait de Napoléon dans son cabinet de travail, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812

Napoleon was not pleased with the ideas of Madame de Staël. The conflict between Staël and Napoleon was all the more furious for what they had in common (other than a strong personality): both aspired to spread a political ideology, and both understood the importance of the press. As Simone Balayé often underlines, Staël was of a naturally political mind.[3] She sought to improve and diffuse her ideas through various modes of circulation involving intellectual exchange in letters, social gatherings, and publication under many forms: novels, articles, treatises, political pamphlets, correspondences. She also made good use of propagandist writing. Napoleon also wished to “guide” public opinion through the press, by resorting to restriction and monologue. He restored censorship and suppressed most French periodicals, including the Publiciste (1797-1810), a Parisian journal whose editor, Jean-Baptiste Suard, was a personal friend of Madame de Staël and published under her volition several letters and articles written by herself and her friends.

Staël hailed England as a model in its mode of government, and especially in the fact that the freedom of the press was respected, and influenced the ruling of the country. She felt the lack of this liberty in France in the frustration of not being able to publish freely,[4] and more particularly in the impossibility to defend herself when publicly criticized:

La découverte de l’imprimerie, loin d’être, comme on l’a dit, la sauvegarde de la liberté, serait l’arme la plus terrible du despotisme (…) lorsque la réputation de chacun dépend d’une calomnie répandue dans des gazettes qui se multiplient de toutes parts sans qu’on accorde à personne la possibilité de les réfuter.[5]

Staël was an early critic of mass manipulation through the media. However, one could argue that she produced a comparable effect at publication level in the diffusion of her own work, under cover of business skills. Her literary success, fame, and social connections endowed her with prerogatives in the publishing world:

As to Madame de Staël, I can say nothing, and perhaps your bargain is off. At any rate, I can venture to assure you that the hope of keeping her from the press is quite vain. The family of Œdipus were not more haunted and goaded by the Furies than the Neckers, father, mother, and daughter, have always been by the demon of publication. Madame de Staël will therefore write and print without intermission.[6]

William Gifford’s jocoseness is entirely justified. Staël was not an editor, but she could negotiate her own rules and conditions with the most prominent members of that profession. In London, Jean-Gabriel Peltier published her novel Corinne in 1807, Henry Colburn, who had only just started business under his own name, published De la Littérature in 1812, and John Murray, also editor of the Quarterly Review (1809–1967), De l’Allemagne in 1813. In a letter to Murray she coyly peppered the negotiation by suggesting competition: “Répondez-moi un de ces jours sur mes diverses propositions à l’égard de M. Constant, lettres sur Rousseau, Delphine, &c. Parlez à Colburn, mais quand vous voudrez; je ne suis pas pressée.”[7]

Murray and Staël’s correspondence was made of tough bargaining over financial agreements[8] dipped in social pleasantries and cordial invitations. Murray was clearly aware of the advantages of his connection with the authoress, whom he was not shy of mentioning to one of his relatives at the end of 1813: “I am in the habit of seeing persons of the highest rank in literature and talent, such as Canning, Frere, Mackintosh, Southey, Campbell, Walter Scott, Madame de Staël, Gifford, Crocker, Barrow, Lord Byron and others.”[9]

Peltier, also editor of l’Ambigu (1802 – 1818), disliked Staël. He lost her custom, as we can infer from a note in self-justification which borders on sarcasm slipped in his periodical:

Madame la Baronne de Staël Holstein étant arrivée à Londres va publier sans doute elle-même les belles réflexions sur le suicide qui sont sorties de sa plume et qu’elle avait fait imprimer à Stockholm quelque temps avant son départ de Suède ; ainsi le Rédacteur de ce Journal retire l’annonce qu’il avait faite de leur réimpression.[10]

Peltier’s comments confirm that Staël did not need to cater to the taste and approval of an editor to publish her work, rather that she might publish herself if such were her wish.

Madame de Staël dodged Napoleon’s censorship by publishing abroad. I used examples from England but her work was published in Switzerland, Germany and Sweden as well. Her social position eased her dealings with her editors, among whom she favoured those who could logroll their/her publications with reviews published in their own periodicals. She defied the French Emperor by wielding the banner of liberty, but used of her own power to impose on the publishing world. This calls into question the role of the editor – can one think of Staël as an editor if we disregard the professional title but consider the content of the job in terms of influence and authority? It also encourages a discussion around Staël’s conception of liberty, not only as a political movement but as an ideology. Finally, if the Groupe de Coppet did not issue a periodical during Staël’s time, today, and since 1929, the Société des études staëliennes meets every year at Coppet and publishes a literary journal, les cahiers staëliens. One might ask if Staël is not effectively an editor, posthumously.

Eloise Forestier, 21/03/2017


[1] The Latin/Roman culture was considered superior to Teutonic Romanticism. Critics of the time praised Madame de Staël’s introduction to German literature and philosophy but were baffled by her eulogistic tone (see Reginald Heber’s article Madame de Staël Holstein’s De l’Allemagne in the Quarterly Review, Jan 1814, Vol. 10 n. 20, pp. 355-409)

[2] Roland Mortier. « Madame de Staël et l’héritage des ‘Lumières’ » in Clartés et ombres du siècle des lumières: études sur le XVIIIe siècle littéraire, (Genève : Librairie Droz, 1969), p. 125.

[3] Among others, Simone Balayé. Madame de Staël. Ecrire, Lutter, Vivre, (Genève : Librairie Droz, 1994).

[4] She suffered from the ban and near-destruction of De l’Allemagne in 1810, which she published in London in 1813.

[5]Germaine de Staël-Holstein. Œuvres posthumes de Madame la baronne de Staël-Holstein, « Considérations sur la Révolution Française » (Paris : F. Didot Frères, 1838), p. 210.

[6] Samuel Smiles: Memoirs of John Murray (Letter by William Gifford to John Murray, July 12, 1813) p. 314.

[7] Ibid. p. 316

[8] These were sometimes conducted by her son.

[9] Ibid. p. 266.

[10] J-G Peltier, L’Ambigu, 20 June 1813.