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Joanne Wilkes, Lord Byron and Madame de Staël: Born for Opposition. London: Ashgate, 1999. ISBN: 1-84014699-0. Price: £42.50 (US$74.95).

  • Jonathan David Gross

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  • Jonathan David Gross
    DePaul University

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When Lord Byron praised Madame de Staël, he did so in decidedly ambivalent terms. On the one hand, she was Europe's greatest living writer.  [1] On the other, she was a "very plain woman....with her pen behind her ears and her mouth full of ink".  [2] Joanne Wilkes' Lord Byron and Madame de Staël: Born for Opposition effectively explains how gender exerted a decisive influence on each writer's political and literary career. This important new study also adds a much-needed continental perspective on Byron's politics, and effectively places Staël's praise for English political institutions in the context of one of its harshest critics.

Lord Byron and Madame de Staël defines "influence" and "intertextuality" in interesting ways. For Wilkes, tracing "influence" is a matter of seeking not only literary affinites, but exploring the impact and divergent interpretations of these "shared experience[s]." Intertextuality is not simply text-based. For Roland Barthes, all texts bear the traces of "other texts"; "every text is a new texture of past citations." "Intertextuality," as Barthes explains, "is obviously not limited to a problem of sources or influences," but includes "unconscious or automatic citations" (p. 12). Given Staël and Byron's prodigious memory, "unconscious" citation becomes an important way of considering the impact of one writer on the other.

Byron is as much a European as an English author and both Staël and Byron benefit from the continental perspective on romantic politics which Wilkes' study provides. The very titles of their works Corinne, or Italy, De L'Allemagne, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Don Juan, Beppo, and the Venetiandramas (Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari)—provide evidence that Staël and Byron were "citizens of the world" (a phrase Wilkes uses for her third chapter title). Their cosmopolitan perspective may have led them to create similar heroes and heroines, "protagonists whose temperaments, talents and experiences elevate them beyond the sphere of ordinary mortals" (p. 17). Each writer not only critiqued political leaders (Napoleon and George III), but became directly involved in political life. Cultivating a political salon that made her feared by Napoleon, Staël influenced the careers of Louis de Narbonne-Lara and Benjamin Constant. Byron followed his three speeches in the House of Lords in 1812-13 with support for Italian and Greek emancipation in 1821 and 1824. Wilkes explores how Byron and Staël strove to make a political impact as writers, noting how their effort to do so was affected by their gender. In this sense, Wilkes builds on the important work of Michael Foot's The Politics of Paradise (1985), Malcolm Kelsall's Byron's Politics (1985), Charlotte Hogsett's The Literary Existence of Germaine de Staël (1987), and Madelyn Gutwirth's Madame de Staël, Novelist (1978). She correctly notes how Staël influenced her own comparative project, since Staël herself pioneered the study of comparative literature, as George Brandes has argued (p. 15).

Wilkes' first chapter considers the strong demarcation of the social roles of the sexes in such works as Delphine, Corinne, Childe Harold, and the English cantos of Don Juan. She begins by considering Rousseau's influence on Staël and Byron. Staël's first published work was entitled Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau. Byron also expressed an interest in the Genevese philosopher in Childe Harold III, in part because he found himself compared to Rousseau continually; he commented on, and denied, the comparison in his journal "Detached Thoughts." For Staël, the relationship with Rousseau would prove more important. Rousseau circumscribed the literary and political role he thought women should play, and thus provides a strange model for the proto-feminist Staël. Wilkes notes that Rousseau's relegation of women to the private sphere "exerted tremendous influence on French society and political life throughout Staël's lifetime" (p. 26), and Staël accepted the separation of women from public life (p. 28). She praised domesticity, women's dependence on men, and the institution of chivalry; she also praised England for its rigid demarcation of sex roles. Staël's father, Jacques Necker, reinforced many of these attitudes which the dutiful daughter explored in her close reading of Rousseau's Lettre a Mr. D'Alembert sur les spectacles (1759). Wilkes shows how Staël's effort to view women's political role as a purely moral one was complicated by her own efforts to exert direct political influence herself as a salonnière: she manoeuvered men into positions of power and sought to control France's political fate (p. 33). Corinne is able to "create a world in [her]own heart[]" and thus her inner resources make her immune from ignorance, envy and hate. If a woman's life is one in which "the feelings are the only events, and the affections the only interests," then it is incumbent on men to be faithful. In "Some Reflections on the Moral Aim of Delphine," Staël considers what happens when they are not. The varied and public activities of men make women vulnerable to infidelity. Are women innately dependant upon love? Staël does not have an answer to this question, Wilkes suggests. Whether innate or not, however, love is the only outlet for women which society offers. Delphine explores the effects of this double bind on one particularly talented woman. If Staël could idealize the marriage state in England, Byron exposed its limitations in Don Juan. By exploring the hypocrisy of aristocratic marriages in the English cantos of this poem, Byron implicitly challenged Staël's depiction of English mores. Wilkes discusses Lady Adeline and Henry Amundeville at some length, comparing Lady Adeline with Lady Edgermond of Corinne. These textual comparisons are welcome and enlightening, though she does not (perhaps to be consistent in her approach) consider that Byron modeled these characters on Caroline and William Lamb. Byron's bitter satire of their marriage reflects his jealousy of Lamb's devotion to her husband. Byron asked Caroline Lamb if she loved him better than William. When she hesitated, he declared that he would wring "that little obstinate heart."  [3]

Though capable of histrionic moments himself, Byron was particularly critical of Staël's self-dramatizing tendencies and was only half joking (as she recognized) when he stated that her novels had a pernicious moral effect on young girls. Guilty of the cant of exaggerated emotion (p. 47), Staël corrupts a generation of French youth. One of the highlights of this chapter is her explication of how such corruption functions in Donna Julia's letter. It has long been recognized that this letter owes something to Staël's own theories about gender; what Wilkes makes clear is that Julia's letter is a parody of Staël's theories. Julia's famous phrase, "Man's love is of his life a thing apart," echoes lines from both Treatise on the Passions and Corinne. More generally, Wilkes shows how Rousseau's Julie (in La Nouvelle Heloise) may well have been Byron's inspiration for his choice of Julia as the heroine of canto I of Don Juan. Wilkes also shows how three texts—Staël's study of Rousseau, La Nouvelle Heloise, and Corinne—can help us read the first canto of this poem as a critique of Rousseau and Staël's "sentimental anatomy." Precisely why Byron lumped Rousseau and Staël together, in other words, is far clearer after reading this chapter. Passages that later appear in Don Juan, Canto I were first underscored by Byron in Teresa Guiccioli's copy of Corinne (a point reiterated four times [pp. 11, 50, 60, 117] in this 200-page study). If Staël believes the barriers to durable love relationships are social, Byron assumes that they are innate in love itself, which is fickle, ephemeral, and illusory: for Byron, the fierceness of love contributes to its transience.

Chapter Two begins with the interesting observation that Corinne was the female Childe Harold, or, as Madelyn Gutwirth has put it, the Byronic hero for women. If the Byronic hero conveys an impression of "laconic inscrutability," Corinne distinguishes herself by her communicative skills as an improvatrice. Both the Staëlian heroine and the Byronic hero share the fate of finding that their brilliant potential is not realized. Where Staël's heroines are the victims of others, however, the Byronic hero is self-destructive, a difference Wilkes attributes to gender. Wilkes demonstrates the passivity of Staël's heroines by reminding readers of Staël's own comparison between Corinne and Dido, dying for love of the departing Aeneas. Byron's heroes are far more active. In the Giaour, male agency leads to guilt; in The Corsair, Conrad has made the decision to take to a career of piracy (p. 66); in The Bride of Abydos, Zuleika exists to fulfill male needs (p. 67). Conrad, Selim and the Giaour are "propelled by masculine codes of behaviour," Wilkes asserts (p. 68). Discussions of Sardanapalus and The French Revolution provide a fitting close to this chapter, which considers a ruler who rejects wars of conquest. Astarte shows that "gender characteristics are at least partly independent of sex" (p. 72). In The Edinburgh Review, John Croker Wilson accused Byron of being an "undoubting adorer of Power" whose supreme hero is Napoleon. Wilkes shows how Byron celebrates male power and masculinity in Manfred and in Childe Harold III as well. Unlike Byron, Staël did not identify with Napoleon's scornful attitude towards others. Staël writes,

He considers a human creature like a fact, or like a thing, but not like a fellow-being. He does not hate, any more than he loves: for him, there exists nothing but himself, and all other creatures are ciphers.

p. 79

In The French Revolution, she considers Napoleon's irony as his defining characteristic, but her analysis of his cynical estimate of human beings goes far beyond this, and for good reason. "Bonaparte is not only a man, but a system, and, if he were right, the human race would no longer be as God has made it. One must therefore examine him as a great problem, whose solution matters for the thought of all ages". Byron was unconvinced by Staël's analysis: Staël said that Napoleon "'was a System/And not a man' I don't know what She meant—/Did She?" (CPW 2:124).The chapter closes with comparisons between the end of Childe Harold IV (stanzas 179-83), and the passage on the sea in Corinne, and between each writer's response to the French Revolution. Byron's most extended discussion of the latter occurs in Childe Harold III, and follows his description of Rousseau as a writer of love. Rousseau's frenzied misanthropy and self-delusions lead naturally to the delusions of the French revolution itself: "the Revolution was so radical, so given to overturning all traces of the past, as well as so fuelled by 'self-willed ambition,' that the inevitable consequence was the reconstruction of 'dungeons and thrones'" (p. 92). Staël's firsthand experience of the French revolution led her to conclude that the best government for France was one with "Two chambers of representatives, along the lines of the British House of Commons and Lords" (p. 94). She alternated between supporting a constitutional monarchy and a republic, depending on what situation France was in at the time; a monarch's power should always be limited, she believed. While some of the plot summaries of Byron and Staël become tedious in this chapter, the summaries of each writer's political beliefs pay off. Of works published in English, this book contains the most sustained and nuanced discussion of Staël's political thought (see esp. pp. 94-5).

Anguished by their exile, both Staël and Byron nevertheless believed in the importance of cultivating a cosmopolitan outlook, a topic Wilkes explores in her third chapter. Corinne and On Germany introduce the cultures of Italy and Germany to other nations in the same way that Childe Harold IV presents Venice to British readers. Napoleon imposed standards of homogeneity on Europe—French taste, literature, art and legal systems—which Staël saw as inimical to this cosmopolitan point of view. As early as the Preface to Delphine, and throughout On Germany, Staël recognized that French literature stood in danger of ossification. In Corinne, she used the Comte d'Erfeuil to expose the baneful effect of French cultural chauvinism by making him completely unresponsive to Italy's society and culture. In Byron's letter to Hobhouse, which begins Childe Harold IV, Byron speaks of the "fire of [the] genius" of the Italians at the same time as he criticizes British politicians for "the carnage of Mont St. Jean, and the betrayal of Genoa, of Italy, of France, and of the world" (Wilkes p. 81). Delphine's Henri de Lebensei, who is cosmopolitan, tolerant, and open-minded, and Byron's speaker in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Beppo, both represent the benefits of grasping more than one culture. Wilkes points out how Staël's three novellas—"Mirza", "Pauline" and "Zulma"—are set in exotic locations, while Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage moves from Europe to Albania and Turkey; the very settings of these works invite cultural comparisons. The real focus of this chapter, however, is on Corinne and Childe Harold IV, for both works contain extended comparisons of England and Britain.

Wilkes points out that Napoleon controlled Italy at the time Corinne was written and that she was careful to set her novel just before his conquest of 1797. In Book 7, chapter one of Corinne, Staël alludes to a sonnet by the Italian poet Filicaia (1642-1707), but Staël removed the translation of this sonnet for fear of censorship. This same poem finds its way into Childe Harold IV (42 and 43). Such intertextual moments add to the strength of Wilkes very commonsensical thesis that these two works deserve a sustained comparison. Such a comparison reveals that both Staël and Byron honored the contributions of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli who are buried at Santa Croce; that both celebrated monuments such as St. Peter's, the Coliseum and the Pantheon; and that both shared a passion for the cause of Italian independence. Where Staël uses Oswald and Corinne's contrasting attitudes towards the Coliseum to contrast British and Italian points of view, however, Byron uses the same location to invite comment on his own developing moral character: "Have I not had my brain sear'd, my heart riven,/Hopes sapp'd, name blighted, Life's life lied away?" (CPW 4:135). Corinne cannot escape the debilitating effects of her mobilité—a word she actually uses in Corinne—whereas Byron's hero seems to triumph over it. "The speaker's mental and emotional engagement with the Coliseum in Childe Harold IV helps him to overcome his pessimism over his own state and, on a more general level, to see a positive side to the inexorable passing of time" (p. 126). The chapter closes with sustained discussions of the treatment of Venice in Corinne and in Marino Faliero, The Two Foscari, Beppo, and Don Juan XVI. Where Staël sees the British as free of venality and self-interest in their political life, Byron points out the limitations of the British political system by offering a sustained portrait of Henry Amundeville and his political milieu (p. 153). His opinions recall those of William Lamb, son of Lady Melbourne.

The final chapter of this rigorous study treats Byron's comments on Staël in the Pope-Bowles controversy. Staël was clearly more optimistic than Byron in her view of historical progress and this difference in sensibility may have led him to criticize her metaphysical approach to the French revolution in her posthumously published work, Considerations. Where Staël praised "enthousiasme" in Germany, Byron became increasingly suspicious of sensibility in Don Juan; he turned what was once "romantic" to "burlesque." Both Byron and Staël attacked their age's pernicious advancement towards social conformity, but Staël also explores the corrosive effects of "irony" on human aspirations. The two ideas are not unrelated for Staël saw, far more perceptively than others, that the French used ridicule to justify the status quo, and to encourage complacency, a feeling that the age of Louis XIV could not be improved upon. Staël criticized Voltaire's flippant attitude towards human suffering in Candide, and had he she lived to read Don Juan she may well not have liked it. Vigny, for example, dismissed Don Juan as a "vile collection of jests" (p. 163). Wilkes rescues this masterpiece by referring to it as a heterogeneous poem.

Inductive in her approach, Wilkes does not force conclusions to fit pre-conceived theories. She allows the reader to be surprised by the complexity of these authors' thoughts. Essentially optimistic, for example, Staël sometimes shares Byron's dark sense that the decline of "enthousiasme" will lead to an increasingly pervasive self-interest; "the practice, and acceptance, of brutality and injustice; the vulgarizing of language, taste and manners" (p. 173). Irony is permissible as long as it is not directed at human ideals (p. 175), Staël argues, and Byron failed this test on more than one occasion (but usually in works penned after her death and so beyond her critical purview). The chapter closes with a sustained comparison of Byron and Staël's ideas about liberty and freedom. Wilkes argues that both words have an "existential and a political sense" (p. 176)." One of the best features of Wilkes' study is the way in which she moves throughout the corpus of each writer to provide detailed comparisons of their published statements on wars of foreign domination, freedom of worship, Marie Antoinette, Lord Castlereagh, Catherine, Napoleon, and the French Revolution. After finishing the two-hundred tightly written pages of this scholarly monograph, the reader comes away with a renewed sense of how much Byron and Staël have to teach us about love, life, and oppositional politics. There are very few scholars who have read the complete works of both Lord Byron and Madame de Staël. For those who have, this study will provide fresh insight into points of comparison between these erudite and allusive authors; others will find themselves introduced to two liberal authors who resisted the tyranny of Napoleon and have much to teach "citizens of the world" in the twenty-first century.

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