I can think of no other period that rivals the French Revolution and its aftermath for sheer historical thrills. It was a time in which hope was mingled with despair and ambition with brutality – when what you thought or simply who you were could mean the difference between life and death. Germaine de Staël was one of the very few women who could be described not just as occupying a front-row seat at this drama but having a starring role in it. She was brought up at court as the only child of Jacques Necker, finance minister to Louis XVI. Celebrated for her sparkling intelligence, she published her first work under her own name in 1788 at the age of twenty-two, two years after her marriage to the Swedish ambassador to the French court, a nondescript man largely chosen as a husband because he would allow her to shine.
Over the next years, as friend or mistress to a host of ministers and men of power, she watched the Revolution unfold with an almost palpable sense of frustration at her inability to influence it directly. One of the recurrent themes of her political writing is the inadequacy of the