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Monday, June 23, 2008

Germaine de Staël & Benjamin Constant

By Renee Winegarten
(Yale University Press, 343 pages, $35)
Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant, champions of liberty and republican government in Paris during the revolutionary tumult of the late 18th century, are superbly captured in Renee Winegarten's "dual biography." But it is unsettling to revisit their lives, even in Ms. Winegarten's eloquent telling.
[An Affair to Remember]

It is dismaying to think, for instance, that the once celebrated literary works on which their fame rests – epistolary, political, historical, philosophical and novelistic – have long since disappeared from the reading lists of all but scholars. And it is frustrating to discover, upon learning more of their biographical detail, that the pair's long-standing friendship – or love affair, or political partnership, or whatever the alliance was – inspires so little sympathy.

Germaine de Staël, the Paris-born daughter of a Genevan banker (Jacques Necker, who would become Louis XVI's finance minister), was throughout her love life "always throbbing with energy," Ms. Winegarten writes. She was "always active, always demanding in her expectations and her quest for reassurance that she was as loved as she wished to be. This mostly futile quest led to her bizarre strategy of juggling two or more love objects, soul mates or suitors at the same time." Benjamin Constant, also of Swiss parentage, was by contrast "usually cautious, a lifelong gambler who calculated the risk." His strategy of threatening suicide with the aim of seducing women was perfectly artificial.

When Constant and de Staël met in Paris in September 1794, two months after the end of the Reign of Terror, both were in their late 20s and both were married, though he was in the process of getting a divorce and she was already notorious for her romantic adventuring. Still, it took Constant some years before he succeeded in becoming de Staël's lover, and thereafter he did not hesitate to plan a mercenary marriage for himself with another heiress, even in the couple's periods of greatest intimacy. Age did not wither nor custom stale his odious self-absorption.

Yet their affair lasted on and off for nearly 20 years. De Staël had other lovers, too, of course: At 46, she had a child by a man young enough to be her son. I doubt that either she or Constant ever knew what real love could be. What bound them together was a shared passion for the ideals of the French Revolution.

Both of them came from an upper-middle-class Swiss background, but they were essentially French in temperament and inclination. When they met, Constant had not suffered any of the Terror's perils; he had sat out the worst of it in Germany, where his military father had obtained for him a court post with the duke of Brunswick. In that far-right milieu, Constant had secretly felt a brief admiration for Robespierre as the necessary fiend to bring on the needed day of social equality.

De Staël, as the cooperative wife of the Swedish minister to France, survived the havoc of the Terror, from which even diplomats were not always secure. During the hectic period that followed, that of the Directoire, she maintained a popular Parisian salon with Constant as her new ally. Both she and Constant hoped for a brief time that Napoleon, when he seized power in 1799, would become the savior of what was good in the Revolution. It did not turn out that way.

Constant was a good friend of the Abbé Sieyès, the perennial constitution drafter who became second consul in Napoleon's first consulate, and Constant was made a member of a group that advised the government on new legislation. Eventually Napoleon soured on even this limited body, though, resenting the mildest criticism of his total executive power. Constant soon lost his only political post.

But he knew when to keep his mouth shut and did not incur the dictator's wrath – unlike de Staël, who in her salon made witty barbs at the expense of the self-appointed emperor and his family, insults that rapidly found their way to the imperial ear. Her lack of self-restraint resulted in her being exiled, not from France, but from Paris, which was just a bad.

Both of the figures in Ms. Winegarten's narrative are confounding, and both, Ms. Winegarten says, came to feel "mature regrets" late in life. But to me Constant presents the harder puzzle. How do we reconcile the many expressions of his "mad" love for the different women scattered through his amorous life? There is the so-called "testament" to de Staël: "I have been the happiest of men during the four months I have spent with her, and that I consider it the greatest happiness of my life to be able to make her happy while she is young, to grow old gracefully along with her and to arrive at the end of it all with the being who understands me and without whom there would be no interest, no feeling on this earth." And yet only two years later he wrote to an aunt of his desire not to let slip the chance of obtaining an heiress to replace de Staël.

Which was the true Constant, so ironically named? I think both. I can believe almost anything of the man who could view the daily horror of the guillotine from the safety of Brunswick and deem, however briefly, Robespierre as the savior of mankind. Plenty of Germans felt that way about Hitler.

My impression of de Staël is altogether different. It strikes me that, in each of her many love affairs, she was totally, if temporarily, in earnest. And certainly from her precarious position in Paris during the Terror she risked her life to assist the escape of aristocratic friends. If her defiance of Napoleon did little to bring him to his ultimate downfall, it was a pleasant example of human fearlessness. She was faithful, at least, to her ideals.

Mr. Auchincloss is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Headmaster's Dilemma."

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