oh I assure you, cried she, he is the best of men

This letter was sent from Juniper Hall Dorking Surrey in 1793:

“When J learned to read english J begun by milton to know all or renounce at all in once J follow the same system in writing my first english letter to Miss burney after such an enterprize nothing can affright me J feel for her so tender a friendship that it melts my admiration inspires my heart with hope of her indulgence and impresses me with the idea that in a tongue even unknown J could express sentiments so deeply felt my servant will return for a french answer J intreat miss burney to correct the words but to preserve the sense of that card best compliments to my dear protectress Madame Phillipe.”

The writer is Madame de Staël, who is learning English by reading Milton. Perhaps a method that is not as abstruse as it sounds, for who is more Latinate than Milton? And by our etymological roots shall we embrace each other, brothers and sisters.

I began this thread by thinking of an encounter that did not take place: the one between de Staël and Austen. We know that Austen was invited to meet de Staël in September 1814 and refused – although we know this from Austen’s brother, whose memoir of her is intended to project an image of such respectability that she could be excused for the offence against it that consists in being a genius.

The visit in 1814 was the second time de Staël visited England. The first, when the note was written, happened because her lover, Narbonne, had chosen to exile himself in England. As it happened, her coming to see Narbonne put her in proximity to another lover, Tallyrand. Fanny Burney, in 1793, was famous as the author of Evilena and Cecilia. As a girl, she’d known Samuel Johnson. As a woman, she was to know Napoleon Bonaparte. But in 1793, she was not to know de Staël for too long, after Burney’s father disclosed that de Staël was Narbonne’s lover. .

One would think that Burney’s father’s influence would not be so decisive to a woman who was, as Burney was, 41. In fact, meeting the Juniper Hall circle led to the daring act that divided her life in two and got her out from under her father’s wishes – for among them there was a genteel but poor French soldier named D’Arblay, a former aide de camp to Lafayette. He tutored her. He married her. Her father did not attend the wedding.

Her letters about the émigré set are fascinating, and revolve around her point of view:

“New systems I fear in states are always dangerous if not wicked. Grievance by grievance wrong by wrong must only be assailed and breathing time allowed to old prejudices and old habits between all that is done….”

Therre is a famous passage in a letter from Burney, one of those anecdotes so beloved by Calasso – perhaps he includes it in The Ruins of Karsch. At the height of Burney’s fascination with de Stael, she attended a dinner – this was after the execution of Louis XVI had depressed the spirits of the émigré group, who saw it as the end of their own lives. It was in the shadow of the execution of the King that Burney’s romance with D’Arblay was enacted –perhaps it was only through the tragic glamour cast on the group by a grief at once so public and so existentially and financially devastating that allowed the 41 year old Burney, the obedient daughter whose sense of respectability had been reinforced, as by Pavlovian shocks, when she attended George III’s wife at court, to burn down her scruples and actually marry the poor French officer. In any case, she sat next to de Stael at the table:

”M. de Talleyrand opened at last with infinite wit and capacity Madame de Stael whispered me How do you like him Not very much I answered but I do not know him Oh I assure you cried she he is the best of the men.
I was happy not to agree… “

De Staël was a writer in the sense that Voltaire was a writer – she mixed her experience into her writing and her writing into her experience so as to make a sort of scroll of her existence. Unlike Voltaire, however, whose observations were still rooted in a Plutarchian sense of character, de Staël had a sense of larger groupings – she had a sociological imagination, rather than a moraliste’s. She was one of the first person to understand literature not as an ornament of character or a fund of moral observations, but as a form of social self-reflection. Perhaps she owes part of this idea to Herder. In 1793, she had not yet formed it. While the king was on trial in Paris and Narbonne was considering going back and testifying for him – which would have put an end to Narbonne - de Staël was writing on the passions. The stars form their constellations for the wise shepherd, and themes fall helplessly into speech on the page when one has a Gnostic sense of history: de Staël read part of her book to Fanny, the part entitled: On happiness.