The pleasure of not being there

Peter Brooks

  • Benjamin Constant: A Biography by Dennis Wood
    Routledge, 321 pp, £40.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 415 01937 0
  • Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen): A Biography by C.P Courtney
    Voltaire Foundation, 810 pp, £49.00, August 1993, ISBN 0 7294 0439 0

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.

Charlotte promised that she would keep the marriage secret until Madame de Staël left for the United States (which she never did). Constant was put under the obligation of spending the whole summer with de Staël, in order to be witness to her grief and rage, and was permitted to rejoin his wife only in the fall. He did manage to sneak away to Charlotte in June, when de Staël travelled to Lyon to see the famous Talma do Hamlet, but when summoned to join her, Constant meekly complied. Where upon Charlotte showed up at the Lyon hotel where the two were staying and asked for her husband back – the husband in return ordering her to go away. Charlotte then composed – and sent off – an eloquent suicide note. When it reached them, Constant and de Staël rushed across to her hotel and found her writhing in pain – presumably she had swallowed poison. She was nursed back to health, Constant accompanied her to Paris – but then returned to Coppet, to serve out the rest of his three-month ‘sentence’. Besides, he had left precious manuscripts there – which he now smuggled out, in case de Staël’s vengeance should light on them. Meanwhile, he appealed to his generous aunt, Anne de Nassau, to write to de Staël, begging her to give him his freedom.

‘He has been weak enough to put up with that servitude out of consideration for the pain you claim to be suffering and your histrionic grief,’ Madame de Nassau wrote. It was a good sentence, perceptive of the faults and vulnerabilities on both sides, and nicely turned. It could almost have come from Adolphe, the novel Constant had begun writing. But Adolphe, for all its inner torment, doesn’t stage the soap operas. That’s not its style, and from the elegant concision of Constant’s writing one can get a sense of how distasteful he must have found the scenes with Madame de Staël (‘scenes as violent as they were shocking and base’, wrote his aunt), though no doubt they were also in some way necessary to his agitated soul. Years later Balzac would produce a telling portrait of the self-torturing romantic loves of George Sand, Franz Liszt and Marie d’Agoult in the (relatively little-read) novel, Béatrix. It’s hard to know who could have done justice to the upper-class intellectual-bohemian melodrama played out in and around Coppet – perhaps Goethe’s troubling novel The Elective Affinities comes closest.

Dennis Wood ends the chapter in which he records the incidents of 1808-9 with the death of Constant’s father in 1812, and an entry in Constant’s diary that followed it: ‘Worked. My father would have been pleased with my book.’ A sad line, since Juste de Constant had never been just or loving toward his son, who spent much of his life desperately trying to win recognition and affection from the man whom Gibbon once described as monstrum nulla virtute redemptum – a monster unredeemed by any virtue. Wood is right to insist on the emotional difficulties that attended Constant’s life from the start: the death of his mother from post-partum complications, and a hopeless relationship, both propitiatory and hostile, with a father who was at once distant and emotionally demanding. In a perceptive if slightly laboured chapter that draws largely on the clinical work of John Bowlby, Wood describes Constant’s childhood – which included learning Greek at the age of five from a sadistic tutor – and its role in forming a personality characterised by an obsession with death, by uncertainty and indecision, and by a general detachment that could also be described as indifference to all around him. Any reader of Adolphe will immediately recognise that Constant was a pitiless analyst of his own character.

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