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.

As one follows his hesitant and restless career, his compulsive gambling and even more compulsive sexuality (not only was he regularly torn between two women: they were generally supplemented by numerous prostitutes), his first marriage to a woman nine years his senior whom he never loved and found ugly, his aggressive attitude to the authorities he served, including the Duke of Brunswick, and his unremitting financial squabbles with his father – who insisted that Constant make over part of his inheritance for the support of his own second family – one is tempted to read his guilty, passive and aggressive attitude toward his father as even more thoroughly determining of Constant’s life than Wood claims. It may only have been Juste’s death that allowed Benjamin to become someone.

Wood has provided a thoroughly researched and intelligent narrative of Constant’s life. Whether he has penetrated to the essence of this elusive man whom we – like his contemporaries – are inclined to find at once repellent and thoroughly compelling is another matter. That might take a more leisurely, novelistic approach. Here is a man who manages to appear the supreme egotist, while seeking a kind of extinction of the ego. A passage in the unfinished novel Cécile – which recounts under the thinnest fictional veneer the story of Constant and Charlotte – is remarkably suggestive. The narrator and Cécile rendezvous at the Bal de l’Opéra where, both wearing masks, they stay till eight in the morning. The narrator can still recall the intense pleasure of the occasion: ‘The feeling of being alone in the midst of a vast crowd, unknown to everyone, sheltered from all curious eyes, surrounded by people from whom we wanted to hide, and separated from them by a fragile and yet invincible barrier, this way of living uniquely for one another, amidst these waves of the multitude, seemed to us a closer union, and filled our hearts with pleasure and love.’ A man obsessed with masks and dedicated to exposing the hidden truth conceives of his pleasure as something that takes place behind the mask, in a space of unknowing.

Disappearing is always a temptation for Constant. As he wrote in his diary in 1804, after a typically wild scene with Madame de Staël: ‘Either I will have to kill myself, or seize the first moment that I can to sever my life from hers with the least possible pain, while remaining her friend, or else disappearing from the earth.’ His hesitations tend to resolve themselves into temporary and useless disappearances: escapades, long trips, hidings-away. Along with the word ‘incertitude’, a recurring term in the diary is ‘ajourner’, ‘to put off to another day’. His passing interest in Pietistic or Quietist religion – resignation to God’s will – corresponds to a temptation to abandon the hopeless struggle with his conscience and guilt and relinquish any attempt to find a clear direction to his life. ‘I didn’t have the depth of egotism that such a character seems to indicate, however: while being interested only in myself, I was only weakly interested in myself,’ he wrote near the start of Adolphe. There is no Romantic egotistical sublime here, but rather a self-punishing, even self-annihilating attention to the self. As Constant’s early mentor and correspondent Isabelle de Charrière wrote to him, with characteristic acuity: ‘I have noticed that when you express a feeling, it is on the point of disappearing.’ This comes as close as anything to defining the uncertainty principle that inhabits Constant’s perpetual self-analysis: when you locate its object, the object appears to vanish.

The repeated fantasies of escape recorded in Constant’s diary acquire a more affirmative aspect as they are subsumed into what Wood calls ‘the problematics of freedom’, at the centre of his political as well as his fictional concerns. Constant may have been unable to achieve freedom either in his fiction or during much of his life, but he became the most complex and perhaps the most creative theoretician of freedom in 19th-century France, and in the last part of his life, he was an eloquent exponent of liberal thought in the Chamber of Deputies.

Constant’s model of liberalism was constructed against the experience of the competing tyrannies of his lifetime: the Jacobin ‘Republic of Virtue’, Napoleon’s bogus usurpation of the Rousseauist ‘general will’, the Bourbon Restoration’s attempt to revive hereditary privilege and arbitrary rule. He was intent above all to preserve individual rights against the abusive claims of successive regimes to the moral regeneration of the French. He called for a neutral state, tolerant of private interests and religious diversity (his Protestantism was a significant factor in his liberalism), for an impartial judiciary, and a free press to ensure the public attention to politics that alone could penetrate the many masks of tyranny. One could at times mistake him for a classical British liberal (he spent the happiest years of his youth as a student at Edinburgh University), and theoretician of constitutional monarchy, but his liberalism is not so easily categorised, as Stephen Holmes noted in his fine Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism. It was, not simply a vision of the laissez-faire state guaranteeing the French bourgeoisie the right to get rich – as François Guizot was famously to propose during the July Monarchy – but a subtle argument about different interests creatively competing with one another within a context defined by the public interest.

After welcoming the French Revolution – even, momentarily, its radical Jacobin phase – and steadfastly opposing Napoleon’s imperial tyranny, Constant looked to the Bourbon Restoration as the chance to develop a constitutional monarchy that would faithfully adhere to the rights guaranteed by la Charte. The initial disappointments of the Restoration caused him to do an about-face and join Napoleon on his return from Elba – a bad move that tainted Constant for some time to come. But his political journalism made a mark, and in 1819 he was elected deputy for the Sarthe (later, he represented Strasbourg). It was the beginning of his political career: he became a celebrated orator and leader of the opposition, fighting the ultras, urging an extension of the suffrage, campaigning against the slave trade and for Greek independence. The symbol of dedication to individual liberties and to an active ideal of freedom in a context where successive regimes continually subverted them, he, more than anyone else, incarnated the parliamentary Left. He also continued to write and began to publish his nearly life-long study of religion. On 30 July 1830, already seriously ill, he was carried on a litter to the Hotel de Ville to acclaim the advent of the Citizen King, Louis-Philippe – who appointed him to the Conseil d’Etat, and gave him 200,000 francs to pay off his gambling debts. He died in December 1830, aged 63, too soon to witness the disappointments of the new regime. His funeral cortège, led by the ageing General Lafayette, was an event.

The collapse of the Communist states and the intellectual bankruptcy of French Marxism have led to a renewal of interest in Constant’s liberalism. But the version of the ‘problematics of freedom’ that continues to attract most readers is still Adolphe. That slim and haunting novel tells the story of its hero’s prolonged unsuccessful attempt to end his liaison with Ellénore, with whom he is locked in an emotionally ambivalent and destructive relationship, whom he no longer loves but does not want to hurt – and eventually kills through his hesitations, guilt and passive aggression.

Adolphe is generally considered a masterful example of the roman d’analyse, an unsparing account of the narrator’s emotional and psychological condition, including his self-deceptions, impure motives, and the gap between action and intention. It is written in the concise, elegant language of the classical moralistes, a language which seeks to define, with unremitting exactitude, each elusive and barely avowable motive lying behind our behaviour. Constant’s analytic language doesn’t merely contribute to that peculiarly French enterprise of ‘la connaissance du coeur humain’: it is itself a protagonist of the fiction. As Ellénore says to Adolphe in her testamentary letter, ‘You are good; your actions are noble and devoted: but what actions could ever efface your words?’ Words, not deeds, are what wound, what create situations that become, in Adolphe’s term, ‘irreparable’.

What the novel ultimately demonstrates, however, is the futility of the language of analysis. Adolphe’s capacity to see through an apparent motive to its hidden, less flattering underside, both during the mutually torturing affair with Ellénore and in his retrospective narration, never produces a course of action that would extricate him from his self-cancelling muddle. And this is one of the peculiar triumphs of the novel: that the masterpiece of the roman d’analyse should also be its critique. As Adolphe warns us, ‘Man’s emotions are confused and mixed; they are composed of a multitude of varied impressions which escape observation; and language, always too blunt and general, may perfectly well designate them, but never can define them.’ The uncertainty principle once again.

Adolphe’s situation is probed relentlessly, only to demonstrate that homo analyticus is a seriously disabled creature. ‘I hate that vanity that is concerned only with itself while recounting the harm it has done, which has the pretension of making itself pitied in describing itself, and which, soaring indestructible in the midst of ruins, analyses itself instead of repenting.’ an imagined reader of Adolphe’s narrative remarks in the novel itself. In this judgment, Adolphe’s guilt lies not only in his failure to treat Ellénore properly, but also – and perhaps even more – in his claim to speak of it. The ultimate act of egotism may be the claim to have survived, and to be able to tell of it.

The letters by which the narrative of Adolphe is framed – they seem to have been added just before the novel’s publication in 1816 – confirm our sense that this is one of the most effective cases of masochism in literary history. They tell us that Adolphe has never been able to make good on the liberty he achieved so painfully, and has wasted the rest of his life. As a confession, Adolphe begs for punishment as much as for exculpation. It is astonishing to learn that Constant gave public readings of his manuscript in various Paris salons before publication – as Rousseau had done years before with his Confessions. Victor de Broglie (husband of Albertine de Staël, probably Constant’s daughter) gives an account of one such reading, at Madame Récamier’s, where Constant broke into sobs as he neared the end:

everyone present, already very moved, began crying as well; soon the room was full of weeping and moaning; then suddenly, as the result of a psychological mechanism which is not unusual according to doctors, his convulsive sobs turned to nervous and irrepressible laughter, so that if anyone had entered the room at that moment and chanced upon the writer and his audience they would have been hard put to know what to think, or to deduce the cause from its effects.

To reread Adolphe against the background of Constant’s biography is also to realise how much the novel represents the hard-won discipline of art. For all its analytic acuity Cécile remains very close to Constant’s and Charlotte’s story. Adolphe – which probably developed from the same ur-roman now lost – marks a conquest over personality: Adolphe and Ellénore are not simply Constant and Madame de Staël, and the first-person narration is shown to be incapable of achieving a superior ‘metalinguistic’ truth. This most disillusioned of novels has the rigorous impersonality of a geometric proof.

Isabelle de Charrière makes brief appearances in both Adolphe and Cécile, in the guise of an older woman whose free spirit and original wit, experience of disappointment and contempt for convention make her a young man’s most important mentor. Constant was 19, she 46, when they met. ‘Her intelligence captivated me,’ Constant wrote in Ma vie.

We spent days and nights talking to each other. She was very severe in her judgments on all those she saw around her. I was by nature very given to mockery. We suited each other perfectly.

Some years following the period of their intense friendship, he wrote to her: ‘You will always be the dearest and strangest of my memories.’

Born in 1740 to a rich and aristocratic Dutch family (in which French was the preferred language), Isabella van Tuyll van Serooskerken, known as Belle de Zuylen, lived at ease in Slot Zuylen. A seemingly endless parade of suitors (or imagined suitors) presented themselves, and then disappeared, either deemed unsuitable by her father, or scared off by Belle’s formidable wit and independence. One of the more durable of the ‘épouseurs’ was the young James Boswell, who on first meeting her composed some doggerel beginning:

And yet just now a Utrecht lady’s charms
Make my gay bosom beat with love’s alarms.
Who could have thought to see young Cupid fly
Through Belgia’s thick and suffocating sky?

Boswell went so far as to write to Rousseau, asking his advice on a possible marriage to Belle, but the sage did not reply. Boswell could never quite bring himself to a declaration – though he seems to have wanted Belle to admit she loved him – and eventually settled for a safer, more conventional wife. Belle meanwhile carried on a secret correspondence with Constant’s uncle, Constant d’Hermenches, a well-known libertine (thought, by some ill-informed contemporaries, to be the author of Les Liaisons dangereuses) and sardonic wit who clearly fell in love with her but, himself married, could not be a suitor and, according to the contemporary code of libertinage, was only permitted to seduce married women, not upper-class maidens. By the age of 30, Belle was willing to settle for marriage to her brother’s tutor, the Swiss Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière, and to settle down in a ‘reasonable’ but boring life near Neuchâtel.

Isabelle de Charrière’s existence is minutely detailed in this fine biography by C.P. Courtney, which is three times longer than Wood’s life of Constant, yet eminently readable, in large part because it is filled with quotations from her vast and enlivening correspondence. In particular, the letters to Constant d’Hermenches and, later, to his nephew reveal a mind of exceptional analytic power. She was philosophically well informed and combined intense moral seriousness with a frank sensuality – always, it seems, sublimated: she appears to have gone to bed neither with Constant, nor with his uncle. She probably chose Charrière more to escape than fulfil her sexuality. As was so often the case for 18th-century women writers, correspondence provided the original model for her novels: the Lettres neuchâteloises (1784), Lettres de Mistriss Henley (1784), the Lettres écrites de Lausanne (1785), whose second part, Caliste (1787), became her most famous work – and Trois Femmes (1796). She also wrote plays, verse, musical compositions and political pamphlets, as well as other novels.

Recent critics have reclaimed Madame de Charrière for the French literary tradition. Much of her fiction offers the quiet, intimate realism of the tableau de genre, a satiric but loving portrayal of the daily world of the upper-bourgeoisie where small things and small gestures carried a large significance. As Jean Starobinski puts it, her reader must ‘listen to faint rustlings. In this narrow world and in this comfortable class, a woman’s destiny turns on allusive signs, through a succession of visits, balls, conversations: important revelations must be deciphered from impalpable clues. One note from the harpsichord resounds like a full orchestra.’ Caliste is in some ways atypical, a profoundly melancholy, proto-Romantic tale of perfect love lost through the man’s hesitations, and his imprisonment in convention. It has obvious affinities with Adolphe, though Caliste is a heroine of a charm and magnanimity that Constant could never have imagined.

Isabelle de Charrière’s life, following her marriage and up until her death in 1805, was confined and mostly unhappy, and her relations with Constant never really recovered from his liaison with Madame de Staël, whom she considered a vulgar upstart. Earlier, in 1764, after a disappointing clandestine meeting with Constant d’Hermenches – a meeting that had none of the intimacy of their correspondence – she wrote to him again: ‘Eh bien,’ she said in the letter, ‘écrivons’ – ‘Well then, let’s write.’ This perhaps was the most satisfactory way to express the frustrations of a confined existence.