Madame Germaine de Stael 

Portrait of Madame Germaine de Stael

Madame Germaine de Stael was a French woman of letters, political theorist and literary hostess. She was born on 22nd April 1766 in Paris, France and died on 14th July 1817 in Paris France aged 51.

Major Works

Lettres sur les Ouvrages et le Caractère de J.-J. Rousseau (Letters on the Works and the Character of J.-J. Rousseau) (1788)
De l’influence des Passions sur le Bonheur des Individus et des Nations” (A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations) |(1796)
“Delphine” (1802) 
“Corinne ou l’Italie” (1807) 
“De l’Allemagne” (Germany) (1810)

Biography Timeline

Germaine de Staël-Holstein (known to history as Madame de Stael) was born on 22nd April 1766 in Paris, France as Anne Louise Germaine Necker. Her father was Jacques Necker a banker from Geneva, Switzerland who was finance minister to the French King Louis the Sixteenth. Her mother was Suzanne Churchod the daughter of a French-Swiss pastor who held literary salons in her home. Her mother wanted her daughter to be educated with principles derived from Calvinism and the ideas of the writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Germaine visited the salons every Friday and met such luminaries as Edward Gibbon, who she wanted to marry aged 11, and the Encyclopaedists Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert.

1781: In May her father publicises the country’s budget thus upsetting the King and he is dismissed from his post.

1783: Aged seventeen she is courted by William Pitt the Younger, who would later become British Prime Minister but she disliked the idea of living in England.

1784: The family move to a new house, Chateau Coppet, on the edge of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. 

1785: The family return to Paris.

1786: She writes the romantic drama “Sophie, ou les Sentiments Secrets”. After her not wanting to marry anyone her parents finally arrange a marriage for her with Baron Erik Magnus Stael von Holstein who is an attaché at the Swedish Legation to France. The ceremony takes place on 14th January at the Swedish Embassy but is seen as a marriage of convenience for both sides.

1787: She writes the five-act tragedy “Jeanne Grey”.

1788: Her “Lettres sur les Ouvrages et le Caractère de J.-J. Rousseau (Letters on the Works and the Character of J.-J. Rousseau) make her well known in literary circles when it is published. It discusses both Rousseau and Montesquieu. In December her father persuades the King to double the number of deputies from the Third Estate (Commoners) to gain support to raise taxes to support the revolutionaries in America.

1789: She watches events the Estate-General first-hand during May. After an argument with the King her father is dismissed but is reappointed the next day after the people of Paris threaten to rise up against the Royal family. She is present on 26th August at the National Constituent Assembly which proclaims the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. She becomes the mistress of Louis de Narbonne, one of the King’s ministers. She publishes the anti-Catholic novel “Delphine”. 

1790: Her son Auguste is born. “Jeanne Gray” is published. In September her father resigns from government and heads off with his family to Switzerland without the money he had previously loaned to the public treasury in 1778.

1791: Following the new constitution she resigns from her political post in the National Assembly. She does however play a crucial role in getting Comte de Montmorin the post of Minister of Foreign affairs and her lover the Comte Louis de Narbonne as Minister of War.

1792: Her son Albert is born. Many ministers are removed and even killed and Louis de Narbonne himself fleas to England in August. During the September massacres she tries to flee, describing herself as an Ambassadress, however she is captured and taken to the Paris Town Hall and questioned publicly by Maximilien Robespierre and is sent home. Later she decides to retreat from Paris to the family home at Coppet in Switzerland because of the political situation.

1793: In January she makes a four month visit to England to be with Narbonne and becomes pregnant. The novelist Fanny Burney’s father refuses to let his daughter continue her acquaintance with such a wicked woman. She publishes a defence of Marie Antoinette called “Réflexions sur le Procès de la Reine” (Reflections on the Queen’s Trial).

1794: She returns to Coppet and then to France at the end of the Reign of Terror and sets up a new salon. Her new lover, the Swiss author and politician Benjamin Constant, introduces her to German culture.

1795: In May she moves to Paris with Constant and then they go to stay with Mathieu Montmorency in Ormesson-sur-Marne in the suburbs. She rejects the right of resistance proposed for the new Constitution.

1796: Her daughter Albertine is born with the father allegedly being Benjamin Constant. She begins publishing several political essays in particular “De l’influence des Passions sur le Bonheur des Individus et des Nations” (A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations) in which she praises suicide. The work is read by Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. She begins reading works by Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel. She creates the literary Club du Salm in the Hotel de Salm.

1797: She becomes formally separated from her husband. She meets Napoleon Bonaparte on 6th December. 

1798: She meets Napoleon again at a Ball on 3rd January. She is forthright in her views against his planned invasion of Switzerland and thereafter he ignores her and her letters.

1800: In January Napoleon appoints Constant as a member of the Tribunat, one of the four French Assemblies. She writes “De la Littérature Considérée dans ses Rapports avec les Institutions Sociale” (Treatise of Ancient and Modern Literature and the Influence of Literature upon Society) which deals with nationality, history, and social institutions. Napoleon starts a campaign against the work. He did not like her idea that a person’s culture defines them and he declares “a woman should stick to knitting”. 

1802: She publishes her novel “Delphine”. Napoleon forces Constant into exile on account of his speeches which he thinks are written by de Staël. In August Napoleon is elected First Consul for life after a rigged referendum.

1803: She forms part of the liberal resistance to Napoleon and is banished from anywhere inside 40 miles of Paris but her protection of Jean Gabriel Peltier, who plotted to kill Napoleon incenses him, and in October she is exiled without trial. She moves to Coppet. In December she visits Goethe and Schiller in Weimar in Germany escorted by the Englishman Henry Crabb Robinson who is studying at the University of Jena.

1804: In Berlin she meets August Wilhelm von Schlegel who is lecturing there on literature and thereafter he becomes her constant companion and counsellor. She appoints him officially as tutor to her children on a large salary. She receives the news of the death of her father which affects her deeply.

1805: She visits Italy with Schlegel and returns to Coppet in June. She creates the Coppet Group with people from all over Europe including fellow exiles such as Madame Recamier and the writer and diplomat François-René de Chateaubriand.

1806: She lives for a while with Constant in Auxerre, France.

1807: She publishes the novel “Corinne ou Italie”. In the winter she moves to Vienna accompanied by her children and August Schlegel who gives lectures there.

1808: Benjamin Constant marries Charlotte von Hardenberg on the 5th June but is too scared to tell de Stael.

1810: She publishes her most important work “De l’Allemagne” (Germany). Napoleon assumes it is an anti-French work and all copies are seized and destroyed in France. She moves back to France pretending she wants to emigrate to the United States and moves into the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire in the Loire valley but is discovered and asked to leave again in October. August Wilhelm von Schlegel is also asked to leave Switzerland as an enemy of French literature.

1811: She becomes privately engaged to Albert de Rocca, a wounded veteran officer, but does not marry him until 1816.

1812: In May she visits Austria where she meets Metternich and then moves on to Russia, Finland and Sweden. She only manages to leave Moscow a few weeks before Napoleon and his army arrive. In Stockholm, she begins writing her “Ten Years Exile”.

1813: In June she arrives in England where she receives an enthusiastic reception. She meets Lord Byron, who admonishes her for being more anti-Napoleonic than liberal, and the chemist Sir Humphry Davy.

1814: In March she has dinner with the abolitionist William Wilberforce and devotes her remaining years to the fight for the abolition of the slave trade. Her son Albert is killed in a duel with a Cossack. In May She returns to Paris on restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy. During the Hundred Days when Napoleon returns to France from Elba, she escapes to Coppet. She writes “Considérations sur la Révolution Française” there.

1815: After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo she again visits Italy in October.

1816: She spends the summer at Coppet, where she is visited by Lord Byron and they become firm friends. She spends the winter in Paris although her health is now beginning to decline. Constant asks her to pay of his debts and she declines. She uses her influence on the Duke of Wellington, whom she had met in 1814, to reduce the size of the Army of Occupation. She continues to hold her Salons despite the French Government being suspicious of her motives.

1817: On 21st February she suffers a stroke and becomes paralysed and confined to her bed.

Germaine de Staël died of a stroke on 14th July 1817 in Paris, France and was taken to her home at Coppet in Switzerland for burial. “Considérations sur la Révolution Française” (Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution) is finally published in 1818.

Further Information

List of works by Madame de Staël.

Scroll to Top