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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

And Delphine has no refuge but death in the wilds of America

Germaine Necker, born in 1766, daughter of the celebrated Swiss banker and future minister of France, a child of precocious intelligence and eager sympathies, reared amid the brilliant society of her mother's _salon_, a girl whose demands on life were large--demands of the intellect, demands of the heart--enamoured of the writings of Rousseau, married at twenty to the Swedish Ambassador, the Baron de Stael-Holstein, herself a light and an inspirer of the constitutional party of reform in the early days of the Revolution, in her literary work opened fresh avenues for nineteenth-century thought. She did not recoil from the eighteenth century, but rather carried forward its better spirit. The Revolution, as a social upheaval, she failed to understand; her ideal was liberty, not equality; and Necker's daughter was assured that all would be well were liberty established in constitutional forms of government. A republican among aristocrats, she was an aristocrat among republicans. During the years of Revolutionary trouble, the years of her flights from Paris, her returns, excursions, and retreats, she was sustained by her zeal for justice, her pity for the oppressed, and her unquenchable faith in human progress.

A crude panegyric of Rousseau, certain political pamphlets, an _Essai sur les Fictions_, a treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and Nations (1796), were followed in 1800 by her elaborate study, _De la Litterature consideree dans ses Rapports avec les Institutions Sociales_. Its central idea is that of human progress: freedom, incarnated in republican institutions, will assure the natural development of the spirit of man; a great literature will be the offspring of progress and of freedom; and each nation will lend its lights to other nations to illuminate the general advance. Madame de Stael hoped to cast the spell of her intellect over the young conqueror Bonaparte; Bonaparte regarded a political meteor in feminine form with cold and haughty aversion. In 1802 the husband, whom she had never loved, was dead. Her passion for Benjamin Constant had passed through various crises in its troubled career--a series of attractions ending in repulsions, and repulsions leading to attractions, such as may be discovered in Constant's remarkable novel _Adolphe_. They could neither decide to unite their lives, nor to part for ever. Adolphe, in Constant's novel, after a youth of pleasure-seeking, is disenchanted with life; his love of Ellenore is that of one whose passions are exhausted, who loves for vanity or a new indulgence of egoism; but Ellenore, whose youth is past, will abandon all for him, and she imposes on him the tyranny of her devotion. Each is the other's torturer, each is the other's consolation. In the mastery of his cruel psychology Constant anticipates Balzac.

Madame de Stael lightened the stress of inward storm by writing _Delphine_, the story of a woman of genius, whose heroic follies bring her into warfare with the world. The lover of Delphine, violent and feeble, sentimental and egoistic, is an accomplice of the world in doing her wrong, and Delphine has no refuge but death in the wilds of America.[1]

[Footnote 1: In the first edition, Delphine dies by her own hand.]

In 1803 Madame de Stael received orders to trouble Paris with her torrent of ideas and of speech no longer. The illustrious victim of Napoleon's persecution hastened to display her ideas at Weimar, where Goethe protected his equanimity, as well as might be, from the storm of her approach, and Schiller endured her literary enthusiasm with a sense of prostration. August Wilhelm von Schlegel, tutor to her sons, became the interpreter of Germany to her eager and apprehensive mind. Having annexed Germany to her empire, she advanced to the conquest of Italy, and had her Roman triumph. England, which she had visited in her Revolutionary flights, and Italy conspired in the creation of her novel _Corinne_ (1807). It is again the history of a woman of genius, beautiful, generous, enthusiastic, whom the world understands imperfectly, and whom her English lover, after his fit of Italian romance, discards with the characteristic British phlegm. The paintings of Italian nature are rhetorical exercises; the writer's sympathy with art and history is of more value; the interpretation of a woman's heart is alive with personal feeling. Madame de Stael's novels are old now, which means that they once were young, and for her own generation they had the freshness and charm of youth.

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