There are many anecdotes about the woman known as Madame de Staël. Born Anne Louise Germaine Necker in Paris, France, but of Swiss origin, Madame de Staël’s father was Jacques Necker, a prominent Swiss banker and statesman who also served as the Director-General of Finance under King Louis XVI of France. Her Swiss mother was named Suzanne Curchod and was a no-nonsense woman who had no regard for practical jokes.
Madame de Staël and her father had an extremely close relationship. Part of their closeness was because they were compatible intellectually and had many traits in common, but they also loved the ridiculous. Their love the ridiculous is demonstrated by the following anecdote that happened one morning.
During breakfast, Madame de Staël did everything to get her father’s attention without her mother seeing, but not matter what she did she was unable to obtain even a glance from her father. Fortunately, Madame Necker was called out of the room. While she was absent, Madame de Stael’s threw her napkin through the air, her father caught it, and tied it around his head. He then began dancing around the table. Madame Necker’s footsteps put and ended to their fun as both Necker and his daughter “hastened back to their chairs like truant school-children, forgetting to observe that they were betrayed by the father’s wig, [still sitting on top of his head].”
Another experience with Madame de Staël’s father happened in 1800. It was when Napoleon Bonaparte marched across the Alps to Italy. Necker invited Napoleon to breakfast with his family, and as Madame de Staël was Necker’s daughter, Napoleon also met her. She was enthusiastic when meeting him and managed to wrangle a private audience with him. Although there are variations about what really happened and how the animosity between Napoleon and Madame de Staël first began, one version claims that at the audience Madame de Staël “delivered a political lecture on her views … advised him in regard to his administration; and, finally, urged him to take [George] Washington for his model.”
Napoleon listened to her lecture on the art of governing, and when she was finished, he complimented her on her mothering skills and then asked whether she educated her own children. He then glanced at his watch, stated that his army was waiting, and abruptly departed. Napoleon’s sarcastic behavior stayed with Madame de Staël and thereafter she made it her life’s work to pursue him and criticize him with her pen.
Madame de Staël married the Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, an attaché of the Swedish legation to France. Their marriage proved unhappy. It ended with a formal separation in 1797, but they remained married until her husband died in 1802. Her marriage resulted in the birth of five children including a daughter named Albertine.
When Albertine was an adult, she and Madame de Staël went to London for a visit. Among the important people of society that the women met were two dandies: George Bryan “Beau” Brummell, an iconic figure in Regency England who was considered the arbiter of men’s fashion, and his friend, William Arden, 2nd Baron Alvanley, described as “strongly built, corpulent man, with round red cheeks, and a very little nose.”
The dandies in general “disliked literary people, and persecuted and mystified Madame de Staël … damnably.” In fact, Brummell once decided to play a practical joke on Madame de Staël and Albertine. Brummel lied and told Madame de Staël that his friend Alvanley earned an income of £100,000 annually. He also told her that Alvanley was in desperate need of a wife and extremely vain. Supposedly, Madame de Staël then praised Alvanley for his handsomeness and attempted to forge a match between him and her daughter.
Madame de Staël was also an author and wrote many books, including two popular novels, “Delphine” and “Corinne.” The young daughter of a country clergyman read the English translation of these novels and was so affected, she wrote to Madame de Staël offering to assist her. Madame de Staël wrote back declining the girl’s offer. The girl was not deterred. She went to London and stayed with a friend, who introduced her to Madame de Staël. The friend told Madame de Stael in French the young girl’s determination to serve her, so Madame de Staël finally agreed. Her admirer was so overcome with joy, she practically threw herself at Madame de Staël’s feet. Madame de Staël then said:
“You may think … it is an enviable lot to travel over Europe, and see all that is most beautiful and distinguished in the world; but the joys of home are more solid; domestic life affords more permanent happiness than any that fame can give. You have a father — I have none. You have a home — I was led to travel because I was driven from mine. Be content with your lot; if you knew mine, you would not desire it.”
With that, Madame de Staël dismissed her admirer. These wise words were enough to make the young girl reconsider her life. She returned home and thereafter led a “life of great respectability, and her friends consider that her cure was wrought by the only hand by which it could have been effected.”
Madame Necker educated her daughter according to the principles of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, as a young child, Madame de Staël visited her mother’s salon regularly. There she met intellectuals and the most brilliant of men, and it was during this time that Madame de Staël developed a love of literature. Because of this, when Madame de Staël resided at Coppet with its colonnades of oaks, sycamores, and elms, the litteratii collected in the evening and a portion of someone’s manuscript that was in progress was often read aloud to the group.
One evening, Professor Dragg’s History of Religion was selected for reading. From the start, the manuscript was slow moving, and “age after age rolled away over the professor’s tongue.” Interminable and dry would have been the best words to describe Dragg’s work. In fact, it was so boring the political writer Pierre Étienne Louis Dumont fell asleep.
Dragg continued to drone on and on, and Madame de Staël could do nothing to escape as the professor appeared to oblivious to everyone’s boredom. Finally, just as the Professor with great eloquence ended one chapter and began the next, “Dumont stirred and snorted.” It was enough to rouse Madame de Staël. She immediately clapped her hands and cried, “Mon Dieu! Voyez Dumont! Il a dormit pendat deux siècles!” (“My God! Look at Dumont! He slept for two centuries!”) Dumont then opened his eyes and thankfully for everyone in the room, Dragg shut his manuscript.
- Blennerhassett, Lady Charlotte Julia von Leyden, Madame de Staël, Volume 1, 1889
- Byron, George Gordon Byron Baron, Life, Letters, and Journals of Lord Byron, 1839
- Dallas, Eneas Sweetland, Once a Week, Volumes 10-11, 1864
- Ireland, William Henry, The Napoleon Anecdotes, Volume 1, 1822
- Sadler, Thomas, Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence, Volume 2, 1869
- Timbs, John, Anecdote Lives of the Later Wits and Humourists, Volume 1, 1874