Liberty Matters

A Woman’s Words


On January 22, 2019, French president Emmanuel Macron quoted Germaine de Staël in a speech given at Aachen to mark the signing of a new Franco-German treaty. He mentioned the emotion he felt when he recalled something Staël said: "When my heart is looking for a word in French and can't find it, I sometimes look for it in the German language."[31] A fine sentiment for a true European, and one who had actively promoted cross-border friendship like Staël, except that, according to academic specialists questioned as part of a TV investigation,[32] whilst she might have been sympathetic to the idea, she apparently left no trace of having actually ever said or written this; nor has the Elysée palace come up with a source. This paradoxical anecdote—one can only rejoice at Staël being quoted by France's top statesman but deplore that words are being put in her mouth—ties in with Aurelian Craiutu's claim that her actual contributions to political thought are underappreciated. I believe gender has much to do with this state of things,[33] and I would like to stress this by looking at an early work, absent from Prof. Craiutu's essay, which gives an insight into how Staël developed her rejection of fanaticism and the spirit of party but defended the idea that emotions might have a place in politics.
The brief text I want to deal with came out in August 1793 under the title Réflexions sur le procès de la reine,or Reflections on the Queen's Trial.[34] The queen was of course Marie Antoinette, who since August 2 of that year, when she was removed from the Temple where the royal family was being held, had been in solitary confinement in the Conciergerie, often the antechamber of the guillotine in those troubled times. When Staël took up her pen, the widowed queen's fate was uncertain and rumors abounded. Would she be held indefinitely? Would she be sent back to her native Austria, perhaps as part of an exchange of prisoners?[35] Would she be put on trial? Staël sought, by her text, to avoid the last of the three possible occurrences.
The pamphlet shows Staël's belief in the power of rhetoric. She hoped her text could stop the revolutionaries from giving in to violence. She believed extremist statements had corrupted the people of France and hoped that her reasoned words could be heard above the fray.
Staël stated something which can still teach us lessons in our time of "post-truth" and "fake news": public opinion, which, as A. Craiutu rightly points out, was an important force in her eyes, can be manipulated. Marie Antoinette, because she was a woman and attracted numerous gender-based attacks, was wrongly accused of having bankrupted France and of many other crimes. Staël's interest in virtuous enthusiasm made her invite the reader to identify with the deposed queen as a human being, a daughter, sister, wife, or mother, someone who had suffered, for instance, by having her children taken away from her. This reinstatement of emotion as a possible power for good in judgment and politics is one aspect of Staël's thought which has often been underestimated or misunderstood—A. Craiutu rightly underlines, in his essay, that she saw enthusiasm as a possible cure for fanaticism.
In the passage to which I have just referred, Staël was aiming her message at other women. Elsewhere in the text, Staël addressed the revolutionaries. Though at pains to point out that she had no professional take on the matter and was not a lawyer, she posed an important question which had been at the heart of Enlightenment debates at least since Beccaria published his On Crimes and Punishments in 1764: that of making the punishment fit the crime. She showed that in Ancien Regime France the queen had no official role or power and suggested that it would therefore be wrong to put her on trial in the same way as you would try someone with recognized political agency like the late king. She stressed that Marie Antoinette had wronged nobody and that many people would be prepared to stand up and admit to having benefitted from her private generosity. This distinction between a reviled public figure and a benevolent individual is in some ways reminiscent of how Rousseau, one of Staël's tutelary figures in intellectual terms, had presented himself in works like his Dialogues.[36] Staël's contention, again one which still holds true, was that, as judges, we owe it to humanity to be generous when deciding upon the fate of fellow human beings. This led her to call for unity beyond the spirit of party: whatever one's politics, she contended, there are cases in which the common good demands we should all come together and be cool-headed and fair. This is something Staël exercised in her private life. For instance, she was immensely generous toward exiles of all political opinions to the extent at times of risking her personal safety: misfortune entitled anyone to her disinterested support.
Staël and Marie Antoinette had met on several occasions, though by all accounts they never really had time for each other. Staël simply signed her 1793 brochure "Par une femme," "By a woman," claiming that revealing her identity would be of no service to the cause she was defending but also that she had firsthand knowledge of what had gone on at court.[37]
What the writer saw in the queen's fate was a threat to the place women might be allowed in politics: one of the Revolution's first major engagements was the march of the women on Versailles in October 1789, which had led to the royal family being brought to Paris. The Revolution was becoming less and less favorable to any implication of women in the public sphere and more and more violent, far from the ideal regime the liberal-minded aristocrats with whom Staël consorted had been dreaming of.[38] Staël, like the queen, paid the price of her visibility, being attacked in pamphlets and caricatures but also exiled from France. Towards the end of the piece, the author once again spoke to members of her sex:
Je reviens à vous, femmes immolées toutes dans une mère si tendre, immolées toutes par l'attentat qui serait commis sur la faiblesse, par l'anéantissement de la pitié, c'en est fait de votre empire si la férocité règne, c'en est fait de votre destinée si vos pleurs coulent en vain.[39](I return to you, women all sacrificed through such a tender mother, all sacrificed by the attack which would be committed on weakness, by the annihilation of pity. Your rule is over if ferocity reigns. Your fate is sealed if your tears run in vain).
Staël's only arms were her words. She was eloquent even in this hastily drafted text. As her Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution shows, she came to consider that the Revolution was a political necessity against which no action taken by the king or queen could have had any effect:
The Queen, Marie Antoinette, was one of the most amiable and gracious persons who ever occupied a throne: there was no reason why she should not preserve the love of the French, for she had done nothing to forfeit it. As far, therefore, as personal qualities went, the King and Queen might claim the hearts of their subjects; but the arbitrary form of the government, as successive ages had moulded it, accorded so ill with the spirit of the times, that even the Virtues of the sovereigns were overlooked amid the accumulation of abuses. When a nation feels the want of political reform, the personal character of the monarch is but a feeble barrier against the impulse. A sad fatality placed the reign of Louis XVI in an era in which great talents and profound knowledge were necessary to contend with the prevailing spirit, or, what would have been better, to make a fair compromise with it.[40]
Staël was reflecting with hindsight in the Considerations. In the Réflexions sur le procès de la reine, she was writing on the spur of the moment and hoping for action rather than taking stock of events. She was horrified by the death of Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793, and in the Considerations recalled it as an act of barbarism:
The assassination of the Queen, and of Madame Elizabeth,[41] excited perhaps still more astonishment and horror than the crime which was perpetrated against the person of the King; for no other object could be assigned for these horrible enormities than the very terror which they were fitted to inspire.[42]
Staël was dejected that her pamphlet had had no effect, that her rational words had not swayed her audience. As she wrote to fellow author Isabelle de Charrière, it had been a useless effort and indeed one which increased her vulnerability as a target in the revolutionaries' eyes. By executing Marie Antoinette, they had, as Staël predicted, turned the queen  into a martyr, an enemy more dangerous in death than in life[43]—again, an example worth thinking about in the current climate.[44] The queen's execution was, as I have written elsewhere, a triple defeat "for words, for women, for liberty."[45]
Clearly, then, as A. Craiutu contends in his essay and as the title of a session held at UNESCO in Paris on June, 22, 2017, stated, Germaine de Staël is a "woman for our times."[46]
[31.] The sentence Macron attributed to Staël was the following:'Lorsque mon cœur cherche un mot en français et qu'il ne le trouve pas, je vais parfois le chercher dans la langue allemande.'
[33.] A. Craiutu writes: "Gender might play a role in this regard." (Staël's bicentenary went unmarked in the USA).
[34.] My references are to Staël, Réflexions sur le procès de la reine (1793) in Catriona Seth, Marie Antoinette. Anthologie et dictionnaire (Paris: Robert Laffont, "Bouquins," 2006), pp. 150-67.
[35.] This is what later happened to Marie Antoinette's only surviving child, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte (1778-1851), "Madame Royale," subsequently the "duchesse d'Angoulême": in 1795 she was sent to Vienna, to her mother's family in exchange for French prisoners of war.
[36.] The dialogues were published posthumously in 1782 as Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques. See, e.g., Philip Stewart's critical edition in Rousseau's Œuvres complètes, Raymond Trousson and Frédéric Eigeldinger, dir., (Geneva, Slatkine, and Paris: Champion, 2012), vol.3.
[37.] Staël's identity was rapidly discovered and, in defiance of all diplomatic conventions, the Swedish embassy was violated as a result—her husband was the Swedish ambassador in Paris.
[38.] On the increasingly male turn the Revolution took, see Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
[39.] Réflexions sur le procès de la reine, p. 167.
[40.] Considerations, pp. 46-7.
[41.] Marie Antoinette's sister-in-law, younger sister of the late Louis XVI, "Madame Elisabeth," was also guillotined. She died on 10 May 1794.
[42.] Considerations, p. 361.
[43.] "[…] en l'immolant vous la consacrez à jamais. Vos ennemis vous ont fait plus de mal par leur mort que par leur vie" (by sacrificing her, you are consecrating her forever. Your enemies have done you more harm through their death than through their life), she wrote, Réflexions, p. 164.
[44.] This resonates clearly with Staël's vision of fanaticism as formulated by A. Craiutu in his essay: "[F]anatics reject concessions and choose intransigence. They prefer taking their enemies down with them to triumphing with them.'
[45.] See Catriona Seth, "Germaine de Staël and Marie-Antoinette," Germaine de Staël. Forging a Politics of Mediation, Karyna Szmurlo, ed. (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2011), pp. 47-62; here p. 62.
[46.] See Madame de Staël. Femme de notre temps. Actes du colloque organisé à l'occasion du bicentenaire de la mort de Germaine de Staël, Romancière et essayiste (1766-1817), jeudi 22 juin 2017, Maison de l'UNESCO.