Biographer/novelist/journalist du Plessix Gray (Them, 2005, etc.) brings her personal and professional expertise in French culture, letters, politics and history to a short biography of the celebrated liberal writer and political provocateur.
The vivacious and scholarly daughter of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s director general of finance, Germaine de Staël (1766–1817) gained notoriety as the flamboyant doyenne of salons she hosted in her elegant homes in pre-Revolutionary France. An early and ardent champion of women’s rights, the unhappily married Staël also enjoyed a series of sexual liaisons with a procession of suitors young and old enchanted by her wealth, charm, intelligence, candor and liberal ideals. She eventually drew the ire of Napoleon Bonaparte, who took umbrage at the progressive views she espoused in her prolific writings in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Staël’s forthright condemnation of the emperor might well have drawn harsh punishment, but she was careful to cultivate powerful protectors, including his foreign minister; Napoleon had to settle for periodically exiling her from Paris in the latter years of her life. Du Plessix Gray delivers insightful passages on Staël’s addiction to opium, noting that it was commonly used for medicinal purposes throughout Europe in the late 18th century and that the French iconoclast shared her affinity for the drug with such fellow writers as Coleridge, Baudelaire, Dickens, Poe and Keats. For all her flair and élan, Staël remains a shadowy figure here. Upstaged by her biographer’s musings on Necker, the French Revolution, her nonstop parade of lovers and the insecurities of Bonaparte, Staël never stands at the forefront of her own life story. Still, the book is likely to find an audience among devotees of French politics, literature, feminism and salon culture.
Serviceable but ultimately uninspiring.