Who has not heard of Madame de Staël? Hers is one of those names that haunt the pages of history, with a whiff of flamboyance and French one-upmanship, long before one places her in the clear context of the more officially famous: Napoleon, say, or the headless Louis XVI, or the equally headless Robespierre. Today, getting on for two hundred years after her death, a fairly substantial body of opinion on her has developed, both favourable and otherwise. To some she is a great woman writer, novelist and intellectual, whose real achievements were for a long time unfairly neglected because of her rackety public image. To others she remains, as she was to a number of her contemporaries, la trop célèbre, a tiresome, noisy woman given to intrigues and to interfering in politics but constantly swayed by her emotions. Some see her as one of the early founders of the Romantic movement, a fighter for liberty of thought; others think that her relentless pursuit of both information and ideas owed more to her ambition and self-image than to real intellectual stature. To our grandparents she was a shockingly enviable figure, who had four children by three different men, none of them with her boring Swedish husband, and was mainly significant for hosting a glittering salon. Today, inevitably, she has become something of a feminist icon, struggling (like Mary Wollstonecraft at the same period) for rights that women did not then even begin to possess.
In addition, her disastrous relations with Napoleon, who referred to her as ‘a bird of ill-omen’ and pursued against her what this book calls a Corsican vendetta, mean that her fans and foes tend to divide along Napoleonic lines. Those who think that the Corsican, in spite of his faults,