Gillian Tindall

A Meeting of Minds

Germaine de Staël & Benjamin Constant: A Dual Biography


Yale University Press 343pp £20 order from our bookshop

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.

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