Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Jane Austen and Madame de Stael

Collection of Geri Walton
I am sure that most readers will find the title of this post somewhat puzzling, although (as will be seen) there is a Goethe connection. Since we are now officially in 2018 (I begin writing this post late on New Year's day), an earlier posting would have been more appropriate, as the death year of  Madame de Staël was 1817 and Austen 1816. I didn't notice that there was much commemoration last year, in the Anglo sphere in any case, concerning Madame de Staël. It was a piece online by M.D. Aeschliman connecting the two writers under a horrible title –– "Two Great Literary Women in Light of Today's Sexual Harassment Scandals" –– that drew my attention to this confluence. (It seems typical of our time that historical figures are drafted to serve as exemplary of contemporary concerns.)

Paula Byrne's recent book on Jane Austen and the theater brought out Austen's considerable knowledge not only of theater and theatrical practice but also of the plays of the German playwright Kotzebue and of his English translator's works. In an earlier post, I wrote about Austen's knowledge of The Sorrows of Young Werther and speculated that she may have been familiar with Hermann und Dorothea. The first time I read Elective Affinities, many years ago, I suspected that Goethe may have been familiar with her novels of manners. As far as we can tell, however, he seems not to have directly mentioned her name, although his library in Weimar did contain a copy of a novel by Fanny Burney, a major influence on Austen.

Goethe of course knew Germaine Necker de Staël. Initially, before he met her, one of her writings found favor in his eyes. He translated her Essai sur les fictions of 1795, which appeared in Die Horen in 1796. Later, after her banishment by Napoleon and because of her anti-Napoleon activities, one imagines that he might have ignored her completely, except that she made a point of visiting Weimar at the end of 1803 and setting up a salon there. His diary entries indicate that they met, but Nicholas Boyle gives the impression that he tried to avoid her invitations.

As I wrote in an earlier post, she was also in Weimar in 1814 with Benjamin Constant, who was squiring her around Europe. Constant was one of the first Europeans to articulate a right to freedom of speech and argued –– unlike most of the philosophes –– that it was not the role of government to regulate morals or to mold public virtue through education or to "improve" or "enlighten" citizens. Goethe sent back to Karl Ludwig von Knebel Benjamin Constant's anti-Napoleonic treatise De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation. In his letter to Knebel Goethe said that he had not been able to read it; indeed he resisted the ideas in it.

I just read Goethe's translation of the 1795 essay by de Staël, entitled "Versuch über die Dichtungen."  She makes some very interesting observations, especially about the difference between tragedy, historical writing, and the modern novel. Tragedy and historical writing are about larger-than-life figures, and even tragic figures are taken from history. True, writers of tragedy can select characters from outside the higher classes of society, but the aim is the presentation of "strong conditions." There is no room for the "Schattirungen einer zarten Seele."

Denn wenn die Geschichte uns bedeutende Umstände bewahrt, so bleiben doch dazwischen ungeheure Lücken, in welchen vieles Unglück, viele Fehler Raum haben, woraus doch die meisten Schicksale der Privatpersonen bestehen. Dagegen können die Romane mit so viel Gewalt und so ausführlich Charaktere und Empfindungen mahlen, daß keine Lecture einen so tiefen Haß gegen das Laster und eine so reine Liebe für die Tugend hervorbringen könnte.

As demonstrated by the above quote, there is a strong moralistic element in her analysis. Good novels allow readers to draw a purer, higher moral lesson than can be achieved by a try, didactic work. And while love has always been a favorite subject of novelists, it is the portrayal of those troubling passions –– ambition, pride, greed, and so on –– that can even bring a change of heart to a person who is not very moral. She has closely read the novels of Fielding and Richardson, along with Godwin's Caleb Williams, and awaits a "new" Richardson who would portray the other passions. In 1795, of course, the new Richardson was waiting in the wings, namely, Jane Austen.

A couple of amusing quotes from Madame de Staël's visit in 1803–1804 to Weimar. Schiller wrote to Goethe, who was in Jena, as follows: "The only defect is her quite extraordinary volubility. One must be turned  into a listening machine to be able to follow her. I get on very badly with her in consequence of my want of facility in the French language, but you will find it easier to carry on conversation, as you have more practice in it ..." She finally met Goethe on Christmas eve of 1803, at Anna Amalia's. According to the  testimony of Bottiger, she was disappointed by Goethe's outward appearance, as she had imagined a Werther, grown perhaps a little older. She is supposed to have said "Je voudrais mettre son esprit dans un autre corps."

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