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.

Delphine is a novel in letters, with a number of narrators, of whom the central one is Delphine, a young woman of an ardent and generous temperament, left widowed and wealthy at the age of 18. She is attracted to Léonce and he to her, despite their differences. He is a product of the aristocracy with severe ideas of honour deriving in part (or so we are to understand) from his Spanish background. Not even his reading in modern philosophy and morality, or the tuition of a modern Englishman, has affected his desire not to stray from the path of order and tradition. Above all, Léonce is a conformist, extremely critical of anyone who disobeys the public rules of decorum. It is his unhappy fate, however, to have been touched by romantic notions of spontaneity and generosity, the very qualities that Delphine possesses in abundance, but which society represses and reprehends, particularly in women. Public opinion – the opinion of a society that he despises – matters intensely to Léonce. Here are the seeds of the lovers’ tragedy, which is also implicitly the tragedy of France, caught as it was in the early 1790s between a desire for the new and an obstinate adherence to the old order, between the desire for freedom and resistance to the concept of individual liberty. In particular, as de Staël knew very well, the Revolution betrayed the cause of women as soon as its first phase was over. Napoleon’s rule, in force by 1802, was not designed to teach men or women – particularly women – that their freedom mattered.

We can’t quite take Léonce as a representative of the Ancien Régime, for he is himself a field of conflict. And so, too, is Delphine, who seems to be trying to work her way towards a style of liberalism that has no name. De Staël is not much concerned with the Revolution as it affected the lot or prospects of the poor (although she comes out against slavery). What interests her is what happens within a particular aristocratic party-giving social group, touched but not stirred by new ideas. The detailed descriptions of high society derive from experience: some of the novel’s ironies about the social and moral behaviour of the upper crust must reflect the perceptions of Germaine’s father Necker, the director-general of finance, who had a front-row view of a class unable to transform itself in time.

Delphine, at the centre of her social world, is subject to endless scrutiny and speculation. Like Burney’s Cecilia, she wishes to use her money well and to treat it as her own, but of course she is seen as marriage material, and her sexual life or lack of it piques curiosity and gossip. She wishes always to act generously, nobly, with perfect sincerity and has high ideas of friendship – so she is taken advantage of and abused. In the first part of the book, we see her heroically getting herself hooked by others, and recognise that there is an imperfection in her youthful zeal. The reader, it seems, is expected to respond critically to Delphine’s flights: if she is to some extent a self-portrait of her author it is not an uncritical one. Delphine’s imperfections are, however, high imperfections, like those of her important predecessors, Julie and Clarissa.

Delphine can also be seen as a reconsidering of Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678). Even the ending of the latter – a retreat into a convent – is played with and rejected in one of the many possible endings that pile up on one another in Delphine’s turbulent finale. The famous reserve of the Princesse is not emulated by Delphine, who wishes to be open – but so in the end did the Princesse, and her aveu proved disastrous – as indeed, in a different way, does Delphine’s openness, her acknowledgment of her feelings. ‘Delphine’, a female dauphin of an invisible realm, is also a ‘delphic’ oracle, perhaps, looking towards a future when women as well as men may have the freedom to act both morally and according to their feelings; and when they will not be prevented from shaping their own destiny or shaping the world. As the story progresses through its historical time, signs of such a future begin to appear. Divorce was (briefly) admitted in Revolutionary France and is a central topic here. But divorce in itself cannot answer to Delphine’s desire for a just society, in which no wrong is done to another for one’s own gratification.

In the first part of the story, Delphine’s heroic generosity and Léonce’s rigid horror at any hint of impropriety combine to make him reject her after their engagement. He marries the pious Matilde, daughter of Delphine’s false and scheming best friend, Mme de Vernon. Léonce is bitterly unhappy in his marriage, but her own feelings of a higher duty as well as her promise to the dying and repentant Mme de Vernon prevent Delphine from either permitting Léonce to commit adultery with her or to leave his wife under the new divorce law in order to marry her. But Delphine’s compromise – that Léonce may visit her every evening for four hours (to read poetry etc) – is not much short of the forbidden adultery, as she comes to recognise.

The personal was always the political in the later 18th century’s fables. The novel’s relationship to major European novels of its time or shortly before – Julie, Clarissa, Werther – is spelled out by Avriel Goldberger in her crisp Introduction. De Staël’s Essai sur les fictions (1795) makes it clear that she had studied fiction with great intensity and thoroughness; her novel-writing exhibits the skill of a well-versed critic who knows all her predecessors’ works very well – indeed, the novel sometimes smacks a bit too much of novelness rather than novelty. What Goldberger leaves out is Delphine’s place in English literature. The novel has strong connections with the ‘Jacobin’ novels of Charlotte Smith, William Godwin, Amelia Opie and Thomas Holcroft. The use of engagements and marriages as symptoms of the state of society belongs peculiarly to Charlotte Smith as a Revolutionary subject. To Smith, too, must be given the credit for the genre to which Delphine belongs: the historical novel set in a very recent time, dealing not with important heroes and villains, princes or generals but with ordinary people in the midst of a crisis.

Smith’s novel Desmond (1792) is set in the springtime of the French Revolution, and an unhappy marriage and an impossible union function emblematically at the centre of her tale. In The Banished Man (1794), Smith writes more sombrely about the Revolution’s violence and failure, as de Staël does in the latter part of Delphine. In both of Smith’s novels about the French Revolution we meet characters recognisable in de Staël: the reasonable Enlightenment man, the enthusiast, the bigot, the stubborn reactionary, the inane society lady. De Staël’s central characters – the tortured aristocrat, the generous heroine and the man of republican reason – are shadowed forth in Thomas Holcroft’s Anna St Ives (1792). It would seem that de Staël, who loved England and English literature, had made an extensive study of current fiction during her intervals of exile there. Her novels fit in with the great tradition of Continental fiction, but they also have a place in the line of peculiarly British fiction experimenting with or reacting against the new ideas.

Delphine has a peculiarly intimate relation to Frances Burney’s Camilla, which was published in 1796. (Burney’s novel of 1814, The Wanderer, partly repays the compliment, for that novel seems in part a commentary on Delphine, in part a retort to it.) In Camilla, the heroine is constrained by her family’s and friends’ fear of public opinion. Camilla, who is by nature mercurial, spontaneous and generous, must be taught to be calculating, to think about how to ‘act naturally’ and to avoid the censure of the man she wishes to love her. This maddening beloved, Edgar, is a catalogue of criticisms arising from his own insecurity. Like de Staël’s Léonce, he slights the free and open nature of his beloved, who is more generous and more adventurous about the world than he is. As Goldberger remarks, in de Staël’s novel the conventional roles of the sexes are reversed, with the male all terrified punctilio, hemmed in by social propriety, and the heroine adventurous, freedom-loving and open-hearted. This is true – but the paradox is already present in Burney’s novel.

Both novels ask similar questions. What is the role of sincerity in human relationships? Can a woman think, act and feel for herself? To what extent can any human being be guided by personal feelings and not the opinions of others? Why should female chastity be the ultimate point of morality, and female sexuality the constant source of censure? If the ending of Burney’s comic, edgy, difficult Camilla is ‘happy’ rather than ‘unhappy’ that is a question of convention; the very last part of the novel, when Burney’s heroine is apparently dying, and another character commits suicide, is nearly as horrific as the ending of Delphine, where poison and the firing-squad put an end to heroine and hero.

The issues raised from the very beginning of Delphine – the conflict between feeling and worldly wisdom, between conformity to things as they are and an individualism that might challenge those things – are the issues that dominate Sense and Sensibility, which may well be in part a response to Delphine. It is Austen’s darkest, most uncomfortable novel; the discomfort comes across even in the recent film version with its Neoclassical blue interiors and green spaces. The modern reader who picks up de Staël’s book is likely, however, to sense a more striking connection between Delphine (at least its first books) and Austen’s story Lady Susan. It has been believed (since B.C. Southam published Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts in 1964) that Austen wrote the first version of this story in 1793-4. The version that we have, however, is a manuscript on paper with a watermark of 1805 – proving it to be post-Delphine. In this form, Austen’s story is very possibly a reworking, even a parody, of aspects of Delphine, to which it is faithful in its epistolary mode, and in the breaking off into third-person narrative at the end. The villainous feminine charmer who can twine everyone around her finger and blind them to her real motives and lack of heart has almost the same name in both novels: Sophie de Vernon and Susan Vernon.

Madame de Vernon is one of the most successful of de Staël’s characters, and the most complex. In her magnificent and slightly ironic self-defence, at her partly repentant end, Mme de Vernon accuses her society and its treatment of women, both within the paternal family and in arranged marriages, of teaching her the dissimulation she has made the standard of her existence. Mme de Vernon is always known by the reader to be a snake, and yet we, too, feel her attraction: ‘It seems as if she would be perfectly lovely if her health could become better one day, and if she dressed like other women. That day never comes, but one believes in it. Imagination is led to enhance the natural effect of her charms.’ Here is one of the pleasures of the novel – its analytic language, its play of description and its witty observation. There are a number of epigrams:

It is coquettish to talk to a man about his feelings, even for another woman.

Misfortune is endured through the power of reason, but reason can never create a single pleasure for us ...

Only the fortunate can afford scruples.

a woman’s views, like her choice of company, cannot be too aristocratic.

He ... is a man who finds out from other people whether or not he is happy.

Then there are what might be called demi-epigrams: remarks that tease thought rather than issue in resolved paradox or antithesis. Such demi-epigrams are often observant challenges to certain sets of implied beliefs, like Mme de Vernon’s commentary on the effects on her of a bad marriage: ‘Constant sterile suffering, hours on end spent in the company of an unworthy person, spoil one’s character instead of perfecting it.’ The Protestant man of reason rebukes Léonce’s invocation of chivalry in an implicit answer to Burke: ‘the illusions that once inspired grand virtues are not powerful enough at present to revive them. Those wavering memories cannot sustain us.’ It’s true that the novel is usually more convincing in its opinions than in its emotions, but as a work of social observation it reminds one occasionally of Proust: ‘Gathered in that room were the most formidable women of Paris, by virtue of age, aristocracy, or piety; there was not one among them who had freed herself of these three categories of high honour out of the wish to be amicable.’

Delphine doesn’t smack of novelness only in its relation to so many of its predecessors: it has a similar relation to novels yet to come. De Staël can even remind us of Tolstoy, and if we think her history will stay in the drawing-room we are in for a shock at the violence and the public action that come after the sixth book. Like Tolstoy (and like Charlotte Smith who initiated this genre and so indirectly enabled Tolstoy to make use of it), de Staël moves from peace to war, following the people whose lives and hopes are inevitably intertwined with the events and ideas of a particular historical time. Like Tolstoy – or like Victor Hugo – she deals with both banal and terrible conditions, following her hero and heroine into the rough tribunal, where Delphine pleads for her friend as Germaine de Staël once, more successfully, had pleaded for a friend of her own. Like Tolstoy, she shows her characters on the execution ground. The scene of Léonce’s end is a surprise – one might not have thought this novelist could pull it off – but de Staël becomes strangely convincing in showing him as he provokes the reluctant firing-squad, shouting insults at them, until at last they react: ‘one of them picked up the gun he had thrown down, and said since that’s what he wants, let him be satisfied. He fired. Léonce was hit and fell dead.’

The lovers die at the time Germaine de Staël made her escape from Paris, as if their death was a witness to the death of her own hopes. Yet this is an apocalyptic novel of the Enlightenment. Apocalypses are more often produced by persecuted or unhappy minorities in need of visions of future justification, but here, too, the suicide of the heroine and the violent end of the hero mark the end of what was imperfect; their travails point to a way ahead, free of reaction, false patriotism and false standards. The last line of the novel is the inscription on the lovers’ tomb: ‘No one answers me, but it may be that someone hears.’