Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks teaches comparative literature at Yale. His most recent book, Body Work, was reviewed here by Terry Eagleton.

The pleasure of not being there

Peter Brooks, 18 November 1993

Benjamin Constant was a Swiss Protestant patrician and a cosmopolitan, but many episodes of his life fall somewhere between soap opera and boulevard farce. For instance on 5 June 1808, the 41-year-old Constant married Charlotte von Hardenberg (her second marriage had been annulled, his first had ended in divorce), but married her secretly, then took extraordinary precautions to prevent anyone knowing he was married, living apart and visiting Charlotte only clandestinely. The problem was Germaine de Staël, with whom Constant had been locked in a tempestuous on-again, off-again affair for some 12 years. How to tell the grand lady of Coppet what he had done – and how to stage manage the scene that was bound to ensue? He spent most of the summer of 1808 visiting Madame de Staël in Coppet – where she held court during her banishment from Paris by Napoleon – but never summoned up the courage to break the news. Come the next spring, another try. In May 1809, Constant and Charlotte travelled to the vicinity of Coppet, Constant lodging in Ferney while Charlotte took a room in the inn at Sécheron. Charlotte sent a note, signed ‘Charlotte Constant de Hardenberg’ to de Staël, who promptly ordered her carriage and confronted Charlotte in her bedroom that very evening – and stayed until four in the morning.

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