Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier: A True Friendship

Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier became friends when Madame de Staël, whose first name was Germaine, was selling her father’s home in Paris. Her father was Jacques Necker, a prominent and popular banker and statesman who served as Director-General of Finance under Louis XVI. He was selling his rue du Mont Blanc home because he had moved to Switzerland.

Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier

Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier. Public domain.

During the negotiations for the house, Madame Récamier’s husband, Jacques-Rose, introduced her to a woman whom she did not know. He then left the woman alone with her and it was from this first meeting that a friendship developed between the two women. Madame Récamier later wrote of this important meeting:

“Her costume was peculiar: she wore a morning-gown and a small dress-hat trimmed with flowers. I took her for a foreigner. I was struck with the beauty of her eyes and her expression. I was not able to analyze my feelings; but it is certain that I thought more of finding out, or rather guessing, who she was, than of addressing to her the usual commonplaces, when she said to me with an impressive, graceful manner, that ‘she was truly charmed to know me; that her father M. Necker,’ — At these words I recognized Mme. de Staël. I did not hear the rest of her sentence. I blushed, and felt extremely embarrassed. I had just been reading her letters on Rousseau, which I exceedingly admired. My looks were more expressive than my words, as she both attracted and intimidated me. I felt at once her superiority and her genuineness. As for her, she fixed her large eyes upon me, but with a friendly scrutiny, and paid me some personal compliments, that would have been too exaggerated and direct, had they not seemed to escape her unconsciously, thus giving to them an irresistible fascination. My embarrassment did me no harm. She understood it, and expressed the hope that she might see a great deal of me when she returned to Paris; for she was on the point of leaving for Coppet. This interview was but a passing one; but it made a deep impression upon me. I only thought of Mme. de Staël, so much did I feel the influence of that strong and ardent nature.”[1]

Perhaps the reason that Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier became friends was because they had several things in common. For instance, they both married much older men. In the case of 20-year-old Germaine she married 37-year-old Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, a Protestant attaché of the Swedish legislation to France. Her marriage was an arranged one because although she had been courted by William Pitt the Younger and by the fob Comte de Guibert, she had not accepted their offers of marriage. That resulted in her parents taking matters into their own hands. Madame de Staël and her husband both gained certain benefits with their marriage on 14 January 1786: He received 80,000 pounds and was confirmed as a lifetime ambassador to Paris while she acquired the status of an ambassadress.

Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein in 1796. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Like Madame de Staël, Madame Récamier, whose first name was Juliette, was also much younger than her husband. She was 15 when she married 41-year-old Jacques-Rose. He was a powerful man just like Madame de Staël’s husband, but in Jacques-Rose’s case he was a prosperous banker. Unlike Madame de Staël’s husband, Jacques-Rose was well-known to Juliette long before their marriage as he visited with her family frequently. Moreover, there were accusations, still unproven to this day, that he was Juliette’s natural father having supposedly had sexual relations with her mother, Madame Bernard.

Another thing the two women had in common was that Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier had plenty of male admirers. For example, Madame de Staël was pursued by several powerful men, such as Count de Narbonne-Lara, (a French nobleman, soldier, and diplomat) and Adolph Ribbing (a Swedish count and politician). Madame Récamier was likewise pursued by influential men. In her case the Duke of Wellington was enthralled by her beauty as was Prince Augustus of Prussia. In fact, the Prince proposed marriage to her despite Juliette already being married.

Prince Augustus of Prussia with portrait of Madame Récamier by
François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard in the background. Painted by Franz Krüger, circa 1817. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Both Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier also experienced problems with an over-zealous lovers. In Madame de Staël’s case she was pursued by Benjamin Constant, a Swiss-French political activist and writer of political theory and religion. She did not initially find him appealing and even wrote that he was “outstandingly ugly” perhaps because “he was said to be half blind and wiry with a pot-belly. He also had shocking red hair …[and] was also endowed with a caustic tongue, freckled face, blue-grey eyes, a nervous tic and poor posture.”[2]

“[W]hen not with her, he busied himself by writing to her, sometimes sending as many as five letters a day. He also embraced some strange ideas about how to demonstrate his passion for her. One idea involved him once smashing his head against her chimney when she asked him to leave her room; another time, he attempted suicide to prove his love for her.”[3]

Madame Récamier was likewise pursued by an overly enthusiastic admirer. In her case it was Lucien Bonaparte, younger brother to Napoleon Bonaparte. Lucien was described as “conceited, politically ambitious, articulate, bombastic and filled with bravado.”[4] Despite both her and him being married, he fell madly in love with Madame Récamier practically at first sight. She attempted to dampen his fervor for her, but he was desperately passionate writing her numerous corny love letters with him referring to himself as her “Romeo” and calling her his Juliette.

Lucien Bonaparte by François-Xavier Fabre (1800). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another thing Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier had in common was that were loyal friends to one another. This was demonstrated by Madame de Staël after Jacques-Rose lost his fortune followed shortly thereafter by the death of Madame Récamier’s mother. Madame de Staël at the time had been exiled by Napoleon and was living in Coppet, Switzerland. Yet, despite the distant she understood how heartbroken Madame Récamier was and immediately sent a heartfelt letter to her friend that came right to the point:

“Dear Friend – How much I feel for your grief! How much I suffer from not seeing you! Is it not possible then to see you, and must my life pass thus? I know of nothing to say. I embrace you, and weep with you.”[5]

Madame Récamier was likewise there for Madame de Staël in her time of need. It happened after Napoleon banished Madame de Staël because of her opposition to him and she was then forced into exile. She went to Coppet to live out a lonely existence and while there she wrote to Madame Récamier and request she visit Coppet. It was a scary prospect for Madame Récamier to do so as Napoleon was also watching her and fraternizing with her banished friend would result in her being sent into exile too. Nonetheless, Madame Récamier could not resist her dear friend’s sad appeals and at great peril to herself arranged for a visit to Coppet only to find that even before she arrived Napoleon had banished her too.

Madame Récamier. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

It was somewhat surprising that Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier became such good friends because in many ways the women were opposites. Whereas Madame Récamier embodied grace and poise, Madame de Staël was a klutz. In fact, according to Francine du Plessix Gray, a French-born American Pulitzer Prize-nominated author:

“[T]wo weeks after her marriage, Germaine, Barrone de Staël, made her official debut into society by being presented at the court of Versailles. … Germaine arrived a bit late, as was her wont, and began the ceremonial three curtsies; the tradition was that upon the third curtsy the lady being presented had to kneel before the queen, and kiss the hem of her dress. On the third curtsy, Germaine, quite clumsy by nature, stepped on her own train, lost her balance, and fell flat on her face to the floor. A gaggle of courtiers rushed to the throne to pick her up.”[6]

They were different in personality too. Whereas Madame Récamier tended to be shy, quiet, unpretentious, agreeable, and charming, Madame de Staël was outspoken, talkative, and loud. Henriette Knebel, governess and companion to Princess Caroline Louise of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, mentioned Madame de Staël’s noisy tendencies describing her as “extraordinarily voluble, but clear and pleasant. … She is a woman of the world and mostly addresses herself only to the most distinguished members of society.”[7]

The two women’s natural tendencies also appeared to be opposite when they attended masked balls. Although Madame Récamier was generally timid and Madame de Staël an opinionated extrovert, when they attended a masked ball their personalities seem to completely switch:

“Mme Récamier … became entirely self-possessed under this disguise, and was able to converse much more freely. Mme. de Staël, on the contrary, lost much of the enthusiasm and eloquence which made her so incomparable a talker.”[8]

In looks Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier could not have been more different. Madame Récamier was lauded for her beauty and considered the epitome of femininity, humility, and grace. This was demonstrated in 1804 when a famous German dramatist, August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue, traveled to Paris. Having heard from others about Madame Récamier’s attractiveness, he claimed he was already “prepossessed” against her, but that opinion didn’t last long:

“It was at the opera that my curiosity was first gratified. ‘There sits Madame Recamier,’ said a neighbor, and I very naturally turned my head suddenly towards her box, which he pointed out. My eyes sought her in the front row, more brilliant in diamonds than in beauty; but there she was not to be found. Withdrawing from the public gaze, like a violet in the grass, this lovely female sat with her hair unadorned, in the plainest white dress, and the graces of modesty clung to her as to their sister. She seemed to blush at being so beauteous.”[9]

Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier

Juliette Récamier 1801 by Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In contrast, Madame de Staël was not a great beauty and might have even been more accurately described as “frumpy.” She also frequently gave off a manly appearance partly because of her behavior and partly because she dressed in unusual fashions. Indicative of this was what Paul Barras, a French politician during the French Revolution and the main executive leader of the Directory regime of 1795–1799, once said of her after she was arrived at event accompanied by Constant:

“I will not decide … which of the two brought the other – which was the man and which was the woman; for, whatever calumny may have said, I protest here, to the honor of Mme. de Staël, that I never knew really to what sex Mme. de Staël belonged. The virility of her figure, her face, her countenance, her manner of dressing, the strength of her intellectual conception, her vigor and exuberant energy, would rather have led to me to think she belonged to our sex, if she had not given undoubted proofs of her own by various acts of maternity.”[10]

Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier were also different from one another in another way. They viewed love somewhat differently. In Madame Récamier’s case she reported that Prince Augustus was the only man who ever made her “heart beat,” but Madame de Staël was a great romantic. She loved love and therefore constantly fell into it with someone. Moreover, of love, Madame de Staël reportedly once said, “I always loved my lovers more than they loved me in return,”[11] and in a letter to Madame Récamier she also wrote, “In matters of the heart, nothing is true except the improbable.”[12]

Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier

Madame de Staël in her turban by François Gerard. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another obvious difference between the two women had to do with Napoleon. Whereas Madame Récamier concealed her dislike for him and operated against him behind the scenes and in nearly imperceptible ways, Madame de Staël was vocal and defiant in her indignation towards him. She was also unwilling to hide her political sentiments and they differed greatly from his, which also subjected her to his constant scrutiny and wrath. In addition, around the end of 1797, Madame de Staël noted that she had seen Napoleon several times in Paris and then later wrote that she found him to be a self-centered, unsympathetic, and ruthless tyrant who thought himself superior to everyone else. She further stated:

“Far from recovering my confidence by seeing Bonaparte more frequently, he constantly intimidated me more and more. I had a confused feeling that no emotion of the heart could act upon him. He regards a human being as an action or a thing, not as a fellow-creature. He does not hate more than he loves; for him nothing exists but himself; all other creatures are ciphers. The force of his will consists in the impossibility of disturbing the calculations of his egoism; he is an able chess-player, and the human race is the opponent to whom he proposes to give checkmate. His successes depend as much on the qualities in which he is deficient as on the talents which he possesses. Neither pity, nor allurement, nor religion, nor attachment to any idea whatsoever could turn him aside from his principal direction. … nothing could triumph over my invincible aversion for what I perceived in him. I felt in his soul a cold sharp-edged sword, which froze the wound that it inflicted.”[13]

Despite their many differences, Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier remained close and loving friends throughout their lifetime. When Madame de Staël returned to Paris at the end of 1816, her appearance had vastly change. She was not longer the enthusiastic, talkative, and combative woman she had always been but was instead suffering “debility” and complained of constant tiredness. She lingered through the winter, spending her days resting in bed.

Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier

Engraving of Madame de Staël. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Madame Récamier came daily to her friend’s bedside and remained supportive as much as possible throughout her illness. When Madame de Staël passed on 14 July 1817 Madame Récamier was extremely sorrowful and unable to control her tears. Her adopted daughter, Madame Lenormant, stated:

“I will not try to portray Mme. Récamier’s grief. With her capacity for loving, death did not weaken the warmth of her attachment. Mme. de Staël now became to her an object of worship, and she bent all her energies to perpetuate the memory of so dear a friend.”[14]

References:

  • [1] A. Lenormant and I. M. Luyster, Memoirs and Correspondence of Madame Récamier. (Boston: Roberts Brother, 1867), p. 12.
  • [2] G. Walton, Napoleon’s Downfall: Madame Récamier and Her Battle with the Emperor (London: Pen and Sword History, 2020), p. 97.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 97–98.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 36.
  • [5] A. Lenormant, and I. M. Luyster. 1867, p. 63.
  • [6] F. Du Plessix Gray, Madame de Stael: The First Modern Woman (New York: Atlas & Co. Publishers, 2009), p. 25–26.
  • [7] C. Blennerhassett and J.E.G. Cumming, Madame de Staël: Her Friends, and Her Influence in Politics and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 17.
  • [8] A. Lenormant, and I. M. Luyster. 1867, p. 44.
  • [9] A.F.F. von Kotzebue, Travels from Berlin, through Switzerland, to Paris in … 1804, tr. from [Erinnerungen aus Paris] (London: T. Gillet, 1804), p. 205–6.
  • [10] The Nation (New York: The Evening Post Publishing Company, 1895), p. 8.
  • [11] F. H. Gribble, Madame de Staël and Her Lovers, History of women (London: J. Pott, 1907), p. 254.
  • [12] J. C. Herold, Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Staël, Grove Great Lives (Grove Press, 2002), p. 401.
  • [13] The British Review and London Critical Journal XII (London: J. Hatchard, 1818), p. 364.
  • [14] A. Lenormant, and I. M. Luyster. 1867, p. 119–20.

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