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Germaine de Stael

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Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait
By Biancamaria Fontana
Princeton University Press – £24. 95

          It is a cult, but one yawns in church.

What I particularly like about Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait, is the fine fact that it addresses the very nitty-gritty, head-on, a mere few pages into what is clearly, a most well-researched thesis. There’s no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

To be sure, some might readily argue that Germaine de Stael’s idiosyncratic independence of mind was a reaction to the fractious events taking place in France at the time. As Richard Bourke, author of Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke states, this book is ”a captivating portrait of a fascinating figure caught up in the whirlwind of events.”

Quite possibly best known (today) as a novelist and literary critic, lest it be said it was Stael’s political outspokenness that perhaps best captures her all-round milieu within the parameters of the French Revolution.

The banker’s daughter who became one of Europe’s best-connected intellectuals, Stael was an exceptionally talented woman who achieved a degree of public influence to which not even her ”wealth and privilege would normally have entitled her.” Indeed, when the lives of so many around her were destroyed, she succeeded in carving out a unique path for herself, thereby ensuring her views and thoughts were heard – initially by powerful men within her immediate vicinity, and later by the European public at large.

All of which the Professor of the History of Political Ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Biancamaria Fontana, has instinctively captured. That her previous books include Montaigne’s Politics, Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society, such instinctive writing ought hardly come as a surprise.

Each of Germaine de Stael’s nine chapters (as well as Introduction and Conclusion) are written with a knowledge that nigh borders on the very dissection of the subject’s ideological belief(s).

A most pertinent example of this being Stael’s mode of necessary compassion within the general gambit of revolution, which Fontana captures perfectly in chapter six (‘Condemned to Celebrity’): ”In a revolutionary crisis it is claimed over and over again that compassion is a childish sentiment, opposed to those actions that are necessary to the general interest, and that it must be set aside, with all effeminate emotions, unworthy of men or state or chiefs of parties; it is on the contrary during a revolution that pity must become a rule of conduct. Where justice is well established, one can do without mercy; but a revolution, whatever its aim, suspends social order, and it is then necessary to go back to the source of all laws, in a moment in which legal power means nothing.”

Again, no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

In the words of Ruth Scurr (author of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution): ”An important and original book about a prominent female intellectual who took the measure of the French Revolution in both theoretical and practical terms. Fontana argues convincingly that Stael’s political ideas have been overlooked or underrated in previous treatments of her life and work.”

David Marx

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