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

  • Jonathan David Gross

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  • Jonathan David Gross
    DePaul University

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. On the other, she was a "very plain woman....with her pen behind her ears and her mouth full of ink". 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. 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 ...