Examples that the pen may not be mightier than the sword litter history. A fairly famous case is the duel between Germaine de Staël and Napoléon, whose war of words cost the author her most fervent desire — to stay in Paris and hobnob with the literary set. She might have been able to do just that had she not published her novel Delphine in which she portrayed well-known society darlings as politically charged characters.
This was a brazen act in 1802, which helped make the book “a howling success.” Henry Dwight Sedgewick, who wrote a lively biography chronicling the flirtatious life of Juliette Récamier, de Staël’s best friend, offers proof that the book enjoyed acclaim by way of a hyperbolic article printed in the Journal de Paris. In it, editors asked why no one was attending the theater or mass; why the cabbies were complaining of too few fares; and why there was so little movement in Paris. “It is because all Paris is at home reading Mme de Staël’s last novel,” was their answer.
As the reviews poured in, the accolades were accompanied by offenses: her stance on divorce, a disregard for Catholicism and a condemnation of the existing government among them. She might have been given a pass in producing a book that condemned the new political regime had this been the first time the writer had crossed Napoléon — but it was not. Some say she had been holding a grudge since the first days of his Republic when she had fantasized about marrying him.
“She entertained an ambition to be the first woman in France, and perhaps, in the beginning, hoped to be seated, as it were, on an intellectual throne, impalpable, metaphysical beside him, the foremost man and the foremost woman in Europe,” Sedgwick writes; “but Bonaparte, both in politics and personally, found her unattractive.” This did little to curb de Staël’s pushiness. Emboldened by her notoriety at the success of the book, the author made herself a thorn in Napoléon’s side; and by the end of 1803, he had had enough, demanding that she leave Paris. As was a standard punishment at the time, he sent her into exile, forbidding her to come within forty leagues of the city.
Sedgewick quotes Napoléon’s minister of police as saying his hand was forced because she simply would not behave: “It had been impossible to…prevent her from meddling with everything, from stirring up trouble everywhere; she wished to advise, to lay down plans for the future, to direct everything; whereas, the Emperor, on his part, believed himself equal to his own job.”
With her friends despairing, de Staël had no choice but to make haste to the Château de Coppet, her family home on the shores of Lake Geneva. Being exiled did little to slow her literary ambitions as she continued her research for a book on Germany that she knew would make the country’s brilliant minds known in France. She traveled to Wiemar where she interviewed Goethe and Schiller. She invited August Wilhelm Schlegel to Coppet, and he came.
During a visit soon after her friend was banished from Paris, Récamier found de Staël just as filled with an ebullient interest in life, literature, politics and love as she had ever been: “her emotions were constantly overflowing their banks,” her friend reported. De Staël’s excitement ramped up significantly when her book De l’Allemagne (Of Germany) was ready for printing. She petitioned Napoléon’s regime and was granted permission to take up residence a bit closer than the forty leagues from Paris that her sentence demanded.
She rented the Château de Chaumont, which stands majestically on a bluff above the Loire River and began receiving the best and the brightest in Parisian society, just as she had before she was run out of Paris. But this good fortune would not last long because de Staël’s visions of grandeur that the book would make Napoléon and France so proud of her that she would finally be celebrated by the intellectual elite were thwarted by Napoléon. His minister of police informed her that the book had been suppressed, that all copies had been seized and that she was ordered to leave France at once.
“Mme de Staël was stricken as by a thunderbolt,” Sedgewick notes, which is clear in this excerpt from a pained letter she wrote to Récamier: “I had counted on the effect of my book to support me. And now six years of effort, of study, of travel are almost wholly lost…” Against the advice of her friends, Récamier decides to visit de Staël to comfort her. This results in her own exile — also a “forty leagues from Paris” banishment.
Relegated to a town that had no theater, no library and no music save for the organ in the church, she regretted the rash decision to visit the woman who was by then being called a “contagion of the awful disease of the Emperor’s displeasure” by everyone who was anyone in society. De Staël would remain the reputational equivalent of the plague until Napoléon’s first abdication on March 31, 1814, when emigrés and Royalists were finally able to return to Paris.
The socialites flocking back to town included de Staël and Récamier, both of whom immediately reopened their salons, though De Staël had just over three years to enjoy her acclaim as an authoress and salonnière in Paris because a cerebral hemorrhage took her out when she was just 51 years old. Philip Mansel called de Staël “one of the genuine liberals of the day,” a distinction that did not serve her well during such a politically charged time. Perhaps her story serves as a cautionary tale for celebrities who believe their ideas give them a head for politics.
In nearly every biography and memoir published about or by the characters who peopled the ruling class when Napoléon came to power, the sentence of exile in differing “leagues from Paris” was handed down by the Emperor. Some were banished only ten leagues, while others were sent twenty leagues away. It seems his desire to punish de Staël was on the higher end of the scale, a harshness that might be explained by the fact he had an “aversion to public speakers and writers,” as Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne writes in the Emperor’s memoir.
That must have only referred to writers who crossed him, as he was an avid reader of texts that would shore up his confidence as a dictator. After Napoléon was defeated during the Battle of Waterloo, his abandoned carriage was seized. Along with a cache of diamonds, a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince was found in the coach. “Many writers have dreamed up republics and kingdoms that bear no resemblance to experience and never existed in reality,” Machiavelli states at the beginning of Chapter 15, maintaining that the gap between how people actually live and how they ought to live is a consequence of human behavior, and any leader who behaves as he believes people should rather than as people do brings catastrophe on himself.
The chapter theme is “What men and particularly rulers are praised and blamed for.” There were as many perspectives about Napoléon’s ideas as there were people discussing them at the time — praise and blame swirling around him like a gyre. As is proven by how people like de Staël felt about him, the blame was particularly acute in a circumference that encircled Paris about forty leagues in every direction.