Never mind the neighbours

Margaret Anne Doody

In England during her exile of 1792, Mme de Staël was puzzled as well as offended that Frances Burney, who was then 40, should have felt it necessary to obey her father’s instruction no longer to associate with the adulterous Baronne. Mme de Staël remarked in some puzzlement to Susanna Phillips, Burney’s younger sister: ‘But is a woman under guardianship all her life in your country? It appears to me that your sister is like a girl of 14.’ Frances herself, although she bowed to the need to preserve not only her own but her father’s reputation, was not happy about the restriction: ‘I wish the World would take more care of itself and less of its neighbours. I should have been very safe, I trust, without such flights, & disturbances, & breaches.’

In Delphine, her long, sometimes exasperating and now curiously timely novel, de Staël, who had escaped Paris during the September massacres of 1792, examines flights, disturbances and breaches, both private and public. Her work is centrally concerned with the restrictions under which women labour, always under the guardianship of an officious society that wishes not only to monitor and admonish but to pull down or degrade those who stand out by their merit or originality. The cold-shouldering of the aristocratic Baronne de Staël by the (at best) middle-class Burney père and fille is reflected in the novel, as is the more pointed and hurtful shunning of her at one of the Parisian salons. Even in France, even among the aristocrats of the Ancien Régime – where more leeway was allowed in sexual behaviour than was customary in England – women were under surveillance. The coming of the Revolution, with its hopes for a new sort of equality, also provoked demands for a new morality. It is these changes in manners and possibilities that de Staël explores in Delphine, a novel set in France in the Revolutionary period.

It was the first of two novels by Anne Louise Germaine, Baronne de Staël-Holstein, née Necker. Published in 1802 when its author was 36, it is at the same time a long fatal love story, a political drama, a historical novel, an Enlightenment apocalypse, and a female philosophe’s analysis of social and moral conditions. A Swiss by descent and at heart, de Staël is a warm disciple of that other Swiss philosophe Rousseau, but a disciple who reinterpreted and reformed his doctrines. To placate Napoleon, de Staël asserted that her novel was apolitical. Napoleon was not deceived: he banned it and exiled its author. No novel set in the period of the French Revolution can be anything but ‘political’ in the true sense, and de Staël signals her knowledge of this in her Preface. Honest writers, she says, ‘speak to the France of silence and enlightenment, to the future rather than the past’. The country was entering a new period of tyranny (domestic and national), of belligerence and repression. The hopes of the early 1790s had temporarily vanished. But within the silence there remained, she hoped, a hidden adherence to enlightenment. It was not only to France but to a Western World which still carried the seeds of enlightenment – of the Enlightenment – that de Staël addressed her novel.

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