As committed intellectuals, Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant provide us with an interesting insight into a turbulent period of Europe’s history at the turn of the nineteenth century. And their fight for liberty remains highly topical today.
From their first meeting in 1794 until they drifted apart in 1811, ‘the couple lived through a turning point in the Age of Enlightenment,’ explains Léonard Burnand, Director of the Benjamin Constant Institute (Faculty of Arts). ‘The tumultuous Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras saw the emergence of a new Europe.’ So the chatelaine of Coppet and the native of Lausanne were writing and fighting in the eye of a veritable storm.
The year 2017 marks a double anniversary, namely 200 years since the death of the author of Corinne and 250 since the birth of the author of Adolphe. ‘Born in 1766, Germaine de Staël grew up in the salon of her mother Suzanne Necker, the wife of Louis XVI’s finance minister Jacques Necker. In other words, practically on the lap of Diderot and D’Alembert. She was the child prodigy of intellectual Paris,’ says Léonard Burnand. Benjamin Constant’s younger years were rather more adventurous and involved extensive travels through Germany and Scotland.
They met on 18 September 1794 at Montchoisi (in Lausanne). ‘I met a man of considerable wit here this evening. His name is Benjamin Constant. Not all that good looking, but extremely brilliant,’ she wrote that same evening. For his part, the writer was dazzled and immediately fell ‘passionately in love’ in his own inimitable manner, as he confessed much later in Cécile.
In the name of liberty
Having arrived in Paris in 1795 during the Revolutionary period, they ‘wanted to act and shape the course of events’, points out Léonard Burnand. This intellectual complicity was based on the concept of freedom. Far less famous than his companion at the time, the native of Lausanne became involved in politics. But in 1803, Germaine de Staël was banished from the French capital by Napoleon. Accompanied in her exile by Benjamin Constant, she converted her chateau at Coppet into a centre of resistance to the Emperor and despotism in all its forms. Her salon became a hotbed of liberalism. The lovers, who mastered several languages, also served as cultural mediators and introduced, for example, the French-speaking public to German Romanticism.
So what were they fighting for? The abolition of the African slave trade, the defence of cultural diversity, religious tolerance, and even the freedom of the press. In addition, Germaine de Staël had the audacity to assume a political persona and spread her ideas at a time when women were relegated to the private sphere. As a result, Napoleon could never tolerate that this foreigner – a woman and a Protestant to boot – should express her opinions on current affairs. For his part, Benjamin Constant, particularly in Adolphe, asked how an individual can remain free under the gaze of the outside world. Ultimately, their vision of a united but diverse Europe remains as topical as ever. And unsurprisingly, their commitment to various causes chimes with current preoccupations too.
A stormy relationship
The couple were often in a state of crisis. ‘There was a meeting of minds, but not always of hearts,’ is how the Director of the Benjamin Constant Institute puts it. She, a possessive, jealous, and highly demanding woman, captured all the attention. He, a hesitant and tormented soul, found it hard to live up to her expectations. Although their correspondence was almost entirely destroyed by Albertine – the daughter they are rumoured to have had – a lovers’ contract between the two, dated April 1796, has survived to this day. This extraordinary document starts with the words: ‘We hereby promise to devote our lives to each other […].’ Benjamin Constant survived his friend by 13 years, but retained an emotional attachment to her memory.
The cantonal and university library, based at the University of Lausanne, has extensive material on the writer and man of politics. Some writings were created in code to deter curious servants. And even more surprising are the ‘spin-off products’ – things like fans and snuffboxes with the image of Benjamin Constant – which were even available back then. The first editions of the major works of Germaine de Staël have also been preserved, along with translations, pirate versions, and both illustrated and extremely rare volumes.
Germaine de Staël et Benjamin Constant, l’esprit de liberté (Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant, the spirit of freedom). Dir. Léonard Burnand, Stéphanie Genand and Catriona Seth (Perrin, Martin Bodmer Foundation, 2017).