On October 8, 1813 Germaine de Staël complained to her friend August Wilhelm Schlegel that despite everything London had to offer, her son and daughter were bored. « [I]l n’y a point de ressources du tout dans l’esprit de mes enfants, » she declared, « ils sont éteints. Singulier effet de ma flamme1 ». This is a striking, and strikingly harsh, statement, revealing both bewilderment and disappointment. It was also largely unfounded. Albertine in particular was widely admired for her intelligence and spirit. What, one wonders, prompted Staël to make this brutal claim ? In this essay, I explore the relationship between Staël and her daughter Albertine in terms of the « mother‑daughter knot ». The concept of the knot is intended to highlight the complicated nature of this relationship. As Victoria Burrows points out, the structuring of knots is « relational and ambivalent ». Feminist scholars risk « omitting the fact that [the mother‑daughter relationship] is often infused not just with love, joy and sharing of identities, but also aggression, ambivalence, and even hate2 ». The existence of clashing myths of good and bad mothers which have long been a feature of motherhood in the patriarchal West not only contributes to maternal ambivalence but also puts considerable strain on the mother‑daughter relationship all the way through adulthood3. The result is a « haunting » that affects both mothers and daughters4.
The work of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein offers helpful insight into the psychological intricacies of the « mother‑daughter knot ». In contrast to Freud, Klein put aggression rather than libido at the heart of psychoanalysis5. In her important essay Love, Guilt and Reparation, she draws attention to the intimate entanglement of love, guilt, and the drive to make amends. This entanglement originates in the child’s relation with the mother and continues into her own motherhood. « [T]he attitude of a mother to her child has much in common with her feelings as a child towards her own mother », Klein maintains. « Unconscious death‑wishes which the child bears towards her mother are carried over to her own child when she becomes a mother6 ». Staël’s complicated relationship with her own mother is well documented7. To the precocious child, Madame Necker was both a figure of authority and a rival for her father’s affection. Although the adult Staël resented her mother’s meddling in her private affairs, she undoubtedly loved her. It stands to reason that Albertine, as Staël’s only living daughter, had to carry the burden of this relationship.
The question of Albertine’s legitimacy added another level of complication to her upbringing. Officially raised as the daughter of Erik de Staël‑Holstein, Albertine’s biological father was probably Benjamin Constant. There is no doubt that Staël knew about the rumors swirling around her relationship with Constant. Possibly in an effort to quell the gossip, she commissioned a portrait of herself and her daughter while the latter was still a child. The only image portraying her explicitly as a mother, Marguerite Gérard’s painting Madame de Staël et sa fille dated 1805 depicts the eight‑year old girl with blond curls held back by a blue silk ribbon. As her daughter Louise later wrote in her memoir, Albertine the red‑head had to wear a blond wig until she turned twelve, presumably to avoid speculations about her parentage8. The painting may therefore be seen as a calculated expression of maternal self‑fashioning that seeks to disguise the more scandalous aspects of Staël’s private life.
In the absence of primary evidence, it is impossible to determine how the mother’s unorthodox life‑style affected the daughter. What seems certain, however, is that Staël’s celebrity made an already problematic situation even more challenging. As Louise would write in her diary, reflecting on her mother’s lot : « C’est une grande difficulté que d’être la fille de Mme de Staël9 ». It was the difficulty of the mother‑daughter knot, I suggest, that prevented Albertine from reaching her potential as a writer in her own right. In what follows, I provide a brief account of Albertine’s life and then take a closer look at the factors that hampered her emotional and intellectual development. To do justice to the image of the knot, I examine Staël’s and Albertine’s entangled life in terms of separate but intertwined strands, thereby underscoring the intricate nature of their relationship.
Albertine was born in Paris on June 8, 1797. Until she was a few years old, she spent most of her time at Coppet in the company of her grand‑father Jacques Necker. Unlike her brothers, she did not get the benefit of a structured education outside the home, a fact she would deplore later on. From her brothers’ tutors she was able to snatch scraps of learning that was advanced but rather haphazard. Her real education was life with her famous mother. From childhood Albertine witnessed the animated social life at Coppet and was introduced to the major dissident intellects of the day. Her charm and vivacity attracted universal praise and gave rise to great hopes about her future. Fille de l’exil, as Chateaubriand aptly called her, Albertine accompanied her mother on her various extended stays abroad, beginning with the first journey to Germany in 1803 and ending with the adventurous odyssey across Eastern Europe to escape Napoleon. At nineteen, she married the French nobleman Victor de Broglie.
As a married woman and mother of four, Albertine divided her time between the Château de Broglie in Normandy, the family residence in Paris, and Coppet. Eager to assist her husband’s career, she hosted a political salon that predominantly catered to liberals, although literary guests were welcome as well. Besides raising her children and her half‑brother Alphonse de Rocca, she translated a few works from English into French and took part in various philanthropic activities. For several years, she penned incisive political commentaries which her husband subsequently incorporated into his memoirs. Judging from her correspondence, her main interest in the second half of her short life was religion. To a significant degree, her turn towards an increasingly austere and uncompromising Protestantism was the result of several painful losses including, most tragically, the premature death of her beloved daughter Pauline at age fourteen. Albertine was just forty years old when a sudden brain fever carried her off in 1838. She left behind three children who went on to make their marks in politics, letters, and religion and a husband who outlived her by 32 years. Her biography has yet to be written.
In many ways, Albertine’s life resembled that of her grand‑mother more than that of her own mother. Like Suzanne Necker, she was a devoted mother and wife – « a deserving person », as the Duchess de Dino laconically put it –, and there was not the slightest trace of scandal clinging to her10. Endowed with a keen intellect and considerable social graces, Albertine sought neither fame nor notoriety. « She is reserved and simple », her acquaintance Lady Morgan observed, « and not the least what you would suppose Madame de Staël’s daughter to be11 ». The Irish novelist was not alone in assessing the daughter through the lens of the mother. « Less illustrious than her mother, she has left a purer name, more endearing recollections », another contemporary wrote after Albertine’s premature death. « Who would not prefer the esteem and affection felt for the Duchess de Broglie to the celebrity of Madame de Staël12 ? » The question is whether Albertine ever harbored a secret desire for greatness. If so, she failed to achieve it. Her « failure », if failure it really was, was largely due to her deliberate decision to eschew fame in an effort to make « reparations » on behalf of herself and Staël.
In Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau, her first important work, Staël devoted an extended section to the topic of raising children. The letter on Émile contains a personal address to the writer’s daughter which deserves to be scrutinized for the light it throws on Staël’s theory of parenting. She wrote :
[O]ui, ma fille, j’écouterai pour toi les leçons de Rousseau : son éloquente bonté te répond de mon indulgence : […] oui, je t’assurerai des jours de bonheur, dans cet âge où l’imagination ne craint rien de l’avenir, où le moment présent compose toute la vie, où le cœur aime sans inquiétude, où le plaisir se fait sentir, tandis que la peine est encore inconnue. Le bonheur de l’enfant dépend de sa mère : hélas ! un jour peut‑être je te presserai vainement contre mon sein ; mes caresses ne feront plus renaître le calme dans ton âme. Jouis donc, jouis de ces courts instants, d’une félicité qu’on cesse de désirer en cessant de la goûter, et qui ne laisse après elle ni regrets ni repentir. […] Si je meurs avant d’avoir vu le succès de mes soins, tu me devras du moins les beaux jours de ton enfance ; et ce doux souvenir te fera chérir ma mémoire et respecter le génie sublime que raffermit mon esprit dans la route que mon cœur étoit impatient de suivre14.
This fulsome celebration of childhood as an earthly paradise, which is framed as a tribute to Rousseau, is an interesting combination of romantic naivety and hard‑headed practicality. On the one hand, the writer recognizes that the child’s happiness depends predominantly on the mother. On the other, she views maternal care in terms of a transaction : her love is expected to yield a return, and the daughter owes the mother gratitude for her labors. Ostensibly devoted to the well‑being of the young child, the narcissistic overtones of the passage cannot be ignored15.
The address demonstrates how Staël the mother wanted to be seen by her readers. As such, it should not be taken as an indication of her real maternal practice but, like the Gérard painting, as another instant of maternal self‑fashioning. Alternatively, we might read it as a jibe at Staël’s own mother. Supposedly a passionate advocate of Rousseau, Suzanne Necker’s mothering style bore little resemblance to Staël’s idyllic depiction of indulgence, happiness and unconditional love. Nor does the depiction seem to be a very faithful mirror of Staël’s own parenting, which was dictated as much by the child’s needs as her own. Staël the mother was tender, her cousin wrote, but reserved. She deliberately avoided showering her children with praise. Having survived the loss of her adored father, she tended to hold back in her expressions of maternal tenderness : « Pourquoi donc tant s’attendrir sur ce que la mort doit briser16 ! », she supposedly remarked.
Not surprisingly in view of this restraint, Staël commented relatively rarely on her children in her letters, and children do not play an important part in her published writing. A comparison between her observations on her sons and her daughter is nonetheless illuminating in that it hints at the special place Albertine occupied in her mother’s heart. No other child, it seems, filled Staël with such pride and joy. She was delighted with Albertine’s intellectual development and early on noticed similarities with herself. The six‑year‑old girl was Necker’s daughter in miniature, she wrote to her father from her first trip to Germany : the same fear of boredom, the same need for movement and company. It was odd, she added, that so strange a character thus reproduced herself17. Elsewhere she described Albertine as a little angel. « Ce sera moi doublée pour toi » she added, « quand je reviendrai18 ». Though intended as a compliment and a consolation to the aging Necker, Staël’s observation inevitably spelled psychological difficulties for her daughter. How could Albertine become « the daughter of a mother who expected that daughter to mirror the mother’s own exceptional identity », to quote Katherine Jensen, « but always in miniature and without ever surpassing her mother’s social or artistic achievements19 » ? It is here, in this knot of intimate and contradictory attitudes and impulses, that Albertine would become inextricably entangled.
There can be no doubt : Albertine’s relationship with a being that at times seemed supernatural in her ability to affect those around her was exceedingly complicated. In her childhood journal Albertine brooded over her feelings toward the person she simply calls « ELLE », in capital letters, as if referring to a being of a higher order. « [J’]ai quelque chose pour ELLE qui n’est pas simple », the thirteen‑year‑old recognized. « Mon amour‑propre même est attaché à ELLE, le désir que j’ai de plaire, tout cela se mêle à ELLE, tous mes penchants me paraitraient mauvais si je ne l’y mêlais pas 20.... » This entry demonstrates Albertine’s extraordinary closeness to Staël. Everything about herself, it seems, was bound up with her mother : her feelings, her inclinations, even her sense of self‑worth. While it is natural for children to admire their parents, at a certain age the need for separation and independence tends to make itself felt. In Albertine’s case, this need was never acknowledged, much less successfully worked through.
Staël’s thinking and feeling certainly had an overwhelming effect on her children. There was something « majestic » and « divine » in her demeanor towards those she loved, Albertine observed, whether in happiness or in anger. When Staël made her daughter happy, she was « une image de la bénédiction de Dieu21 ». Even when dissatisfied, she supposedly did not raise her voice. A single look or word sufficed to reduce the recipient to quivering remorse. The effect was devastating : « La conscience, l’âme est troublée et l’on voit en soi mille torts inconnus22 ». The notable restraint Albertine describes here stands in stark contrast to Staël’s well‑known fits of passion, a contrast that must have been confusing, if not disturbing, to her children. Elsewhere in her diary, Albertine describes the experience of watching her mother suffer in quasi‑religious terms :
Il n’y a aucune douleur qui égale celle de la voir souffrir ELLE. On éprouve un mélange d’admiration et de pitié qui déchire l’âme. On comprend, autant qu’une créature peut donner l’idée d’un Dieu, ce que devait éprouver les disciples de J.C. en le voyant sur la croix et l’on s’explique pourquoi Dieu a choisi la vertu souffrante pour se manifester aux hommes […]23.
To witness her mother in the paroxysm of pain was both uplifting and heartbreaking. Either sensation resulted from a worshipful attitude that seems to have been oblivious to the reality behind the ideal. Staël’s suffering was not only superior to all other suffering – it was so powerful as to evoke a comparison with Jesus Christ, which obviously relegated Albertine to the status of devoted disciple. No wonder that Auguste and Albertine struggled with perennial feelings of inadequacy24.
Like her own mother, Staël expected a lot from her daughter. Albertine’s precocity made her proud, anxious, and eventually jealous. « Ma fille aussi est une charmante société », she reported to Necker, « et j’ai quelquefois peur qu’un developpement si extraordinaire ne menace sa santé. Je t’assure qu’elle aura beaucoup plus d’esprit et surtout de graces que moi25 ». Was she perhaps afraid that her daughter might eventually outstrip her ? As Albertine grew older, there are indeed indications that Staël may have begun to think of her as a rival26. Purportedly conscious of her own troubles as a person of stature, she intentionally refrained from encouraging Albertine in her footsteps. « [M]ême dans la conversation, tout en la trouvant très‑spirituelle, elle l’a détournée de l’imitation », her cousin writes, « soit qu’elle jugeât, avec raison, qu’on ne pouvait que lui être inférieur dans son propre genre, soit parce que son genre ne lui plaisoit pas dans une autre. Elle n’aimoit pas les copies. Les échos m’ennuient, disoit‑elle27 ». Even if Staël’s explanation was true, which is doubtful, she could scarcely have felt comfortable in the presence of someone who was beginning to outshine her own talent for conversation.
As a result of her mother’s preoccupation with her own genius, Albertine found herself in a paradoxical situation. Expected to be extraordinary, she was given little outright encouragement. Take the following anecdote, related by the Genevan writer Jean Antoine Petit‑Senn in the Magasin pittoresque. In the course of an animated philosophical discussion at Coppet, Albertine unexpectedly intervened so eloquently that she managed to rally the entire assembly to her side. Her mother reacted with displeasure. When the eighteen‑year‑old Albertine asked why, Staël responded : « Parce que vous venez d’oublier que je vous ai défendu d’avoir plus d’esprit que votre mère28 ». Although Staël may have been joking, the exchange demonstrates her need to take charge of the conversation. Even if apocryphal, the anecdote throws light on how Staël was seen by her contemporaries. And what are we to make of the following remark she allegedly made to her daughter : « Tu as l’imagination des fous et pas celle des poètes29 ». Such a pronouncement, delivered by an internationally celebrated writer and literary expert, would clearly have been extremely disheartening to a girl desiring to try out her hand at writing.
Albertine was too loyal a daughter to ever reveal her ambivalence towards her mother openly. After Staël’s death, she went to great lengths to either lock up or destroy incriminating correspondence. She and her brother commissioned, and carefully edited, a first hagiographical biography which portrays Staël in terms of a superior woman and mother. Neither Auguste nor Albertine ever wrote a memoir of their famous mother (an interesting omission in itself, considering Staël’s laudatory portrait of her father), but the available sources complicate the idealized image they sought to propagate. In all likelihood, both Auguste and Albertine continued to feel « psychologically possessed » by their overbearing mother even beyond her death30. Once the myth of the superior woman is recognized as such, we can begin to unravel the various strands of the mother‑daughter knot.
Albertine’s sense of inferiority vis‑à‑vis her formidable mother was probably the result of her own sensitivity as well as the latter’s ambitions for those closest to her. Consider the following statement in Albertine’s Mémoires of Auguste : « Madame de Staël était peu sujette aux illusions, même sur les êtres qu’elle aimait le plus, et en particulier sur ses enfans, dont elle exigeait beaucoup31 ». As we have seen, Staël exposed her children early to numerous subjects in an effort to turn them into prodigies. Dispensing with all structure or plan, she not only did not hide the means she wanted to employ, but also invited them to judge for themselves. In Albertine’s own words : « Elle faisait continuellement appel à leur raison ; elle avait besoin de leur approbation ; en même temps ses décisions étaient fermes et positives, et elle réunissait une extrème liberté de délibération à une grande énergie de volonté32 ». The dutiful daughter evidently wants to have her cake and eat it too. Perhaps in reaction to Staël’s demanding pedagogy and religiously inculcated obedience, Albertine later preferred « la douceur and la confiance » where her own children were concerned33.
Whatever her views of her daughter’s intellectual potential, Staël was clearly very much devoted to her welfare. Her correspondence from her extended stay in London in 1813 is dominated by one theme : the need to regain her father’s fortune (the famous two million) in order to enable Albertine to marry. « Albertine est ma seule vie dans ce monde », she wrote to Constant, and she worried what would happen to her daughter if she herself were to die suddenly34. After repeated appeals to the king and violent altercations with Constant who owed her money, the financial issue was finally settled, and the marriage could proceed. Although she had long desired the union, Staël had mixed feelings. « C’est pour une mère un moment bien mélangé que celui‑là », she confided to the Duchess of Devonshire, « l’on abdique, on cesse d’être le premier objet de sa fille, on n’a plus des rapports simples avec elle, et plus elle est ce qu’on souhaite, c’est‑à‑dire heureuse, moins on lui devient nécessaire35 ». Maternal abdication was not the only issue troubling her. Before long, Staël expressed doubts about her son‑in‑law’s lack of feeling for his young wife. Barely two months after the wedding, she wrote to her cousin that the relationship was « certainement pas l’idéal de l’amour », although she hoped that Victor’s lack of passion might stimulate Albertine’s imagination – a rather belated concession to her daughter’s creative desires36.
Within months of the wedding, Albertine was pregnant with her first child. The news provoked mixed feelings in the prospective grand‑mother who confessed to Victor’s mother : « Je ne me sens pas encore bien en train d’être grand‑mère ; enfin vous avez passé par là, et je suis curieuse de savoir le genre de sentiment qu’on a pour cette maternité de second bond37 ». Curiosity prompted her to travel to Paris to be near her daughter, but a sudden attack of ill health ruined her plans. On March 1, 1817, her first grand‑child Pauline was born. A few months later, Staël was dead. She thus scarcely had the chance to experience what she had called “cette maternité de second bond ».
There can be no doubt : Albertine played an important part in Staël’s emotional life. This is significant in itself, considering the negligence with which contemporary upper‑class women often treated their children, even those who professed their adherence to Rousseauian pedagogy38. The reverse is true as well. Staël occupied a position of preeminence in Albertine’s mental life which neither her husband nor her children ever came to challenge, let alone attain. Considering her life‑long emotional as well as intellectual subordination to her mother, it is no wonder that Albertine’s writing suffered. How could she come into her own intellectually, knowing full well that any attempt to do so would have been stifled ? Indeed, all the evidence points at the restrictive impact her mother’s literary career had on Albertine’s desire to write. Where Staël had initially been hampered in her intellectual endeavors by her father’s lack of encouragement, Albertine may have been held back by the fear of succeeding and thereby displeasing her mother. In suffering from the crippling effect of having an extraordinarily talented and narcissistic mother, she thus shared the fate of other daughters of famous mothers39. In Kleinian terms, subliminal aggression and resentment of the mother led to feelings of guilt in the daughter, which in turn necessitated reparations. Needless to say, reparations could not take the shape of the daughter challenging the mother, assuming the daughter was intellectually and mentally equipped to do so. Whatever the daughter’s potential – and in Albertine’s case it seems to have been considerable –, the mother’s genius always took precedence. Even death could not change this.
Regardless of the guilt and resentment Albertine probably felt towards her overbearing mother, Staël’s passing was a devastating blow and did not bring deliverance. « J’ai perdu à la fois l’objet de mon culte et de ma passion, de mon respect et de ma confiance, celle dont la voix n’a jamais cessé de faire battre mon cœur », she lamented in a letter to her father‑in‑law, adding that « nous sommes tous indignes d’elle, nous ne savons même pas la pleurer comme elle le mérite, cette âme unique au monde40 ». Clearly, this was more than mere grief. Not surprisingly, the loss of the person who had had such an overwhelming impact on herself, emotionally, morally, as well as intellectually, threw her into a profound crisis. In a revealing letter to Sismondi Albertine confessed in a breathless outburst :
Je suis gênée dans le monde, et même avec mes amis, on me regarde on attend de moi ce que je sais que je ne tiens pas et mon amour propre en souffre. Il se fait une révolution dans ma tête, des idées qui m’étoient chères et qui ne m’ont fait que du bien dans mon enfance se sont tournées contre moi depuis mon malheur. Je ne sais pas distinguer mes propres pensées de celles que j’ai lues ou entendues et mon esprit est incertain sur les questions les plus importantes. Dans cet état je sens le besoin de me cacher aux yeux des autres je crois toujours avoir tort vis‑à‑vis d’eux, je crois les ennuyer ou leur déplaire41.
As long as Staël had been alive, her children had been able to bask in her glory. Now that she was gone, they suffered a double bereavement. Unable to fulfill the heightened expectations her friends entertained in regards to Staël’s daughter, Albertine felt an acute lack of self‑respect. But that was not all. Her intimacy with Staël had been such that she, Albertine, was no longer even able to distinguish her own thoughts from those of others. The pain of separation was thus vastly aggravated by an intellectual confusion and erosion of her sense of self that made her doubt her very thoughts and therefore to shun company.
In a letter to her friend Sophie Anisson du Perron née de Barante, written about a year after Staël’s death, Albertine confessed :
Tu es bien bonne de penser tant de choses aimables pour moi, mais je crois que ce sont mes amis qui se trompent sur mon compte ; on s’imagine que je dois être une personne d’esprit à cause de tout ce à quoi je tiens, mais on verra bientôt que je suis fort ordinaire, et cela n’en sera que plus triste. Dans mon enfance, j’annonçais une certaine distinction, mais une fée Carabosse a tout gâté, et je ne sens plus à présent rien de supérieur en moi42.
Once more, Albertine faults her friends for their unrealistic views of her. If ever there had been grounds for thinking her superior, she suggests, these had been spoiled by a wicked fairy‑godmother. Who else but her own mother could have played the role of the « fée Carabosse » in this drama of great expectations and suppressed ambitions?
Although Albertine eventually overcame her depression and even began to write, she was never able to emerge fully from the shadow of her mother’s genius 43. To be sure, she was proud of her mother’s work and enjoyed hearing it praised. After the posthumous publication of Staël’s lengthy study of the French revolution, she confided to Sophie :
Ton impression sur l’ouvrage de ma mère m’a fait un vif plaisir. En effet, si quelque chose pouvait ajouter à la fierté que j’éprouve en songeant que je suis sa fille, ce serait l’impression de respect que ce livre, sans partialité, a produit sur tous ceux qui l’ont lu. Mais aussi, quelle douleur de penser qu’elle ne jouit pas de ce triomphe si pur et si beau, qu’elle ne jouit pas de ce qu’elle a ajouté à la gloire de son père ! C’eût été là son plus grand bonheur44.
While performing the accustomed role of the dutiful and proud daughter in this passage, Albertine may well have felt a sting of jealousy in recalling the superior position her grand‑father had occupied in her mother’s heart.
To make matters worse, Albertine was all too well aware that she herself, as the child of a celebrated writer, was unable to add to the glory of her mother. Her own fame, limited as it was, stemmed above all from her status as the daughter of Madame de Staël. Well‑meaning contemporaries probably exacerbated her lack of self‑confidence by habitually comparing her to her extraordinary mother. What would Albertine have made of the fact that Alphonse de Lamartine, an habitué of her salon, explicitly likened her to Staël’s greatest fictional creation, calling her « une Corinne religieuse, modeste, sainte45 ? » Even when well‑intended and soothing her daughterly vanity, such comparisons served to highlight her own inadequacy. Not surprisingly, she came to see herself as a lesser descendant of greater beings. She suffered from the knowledge that she was alone, « pauvre chétif représentant de noms si chers et si illustres », as she described herself deprecatingly in a letter to Prosper de Barante46. This conviction of being the last of a long line, however flawed it would turn out to be, became intensified after the death of her nephew, Auguste’s only son. She was now the only remaining member of her « race », as she put it, and she regretted the fact that she was the sole representative of a once illustrious family47.
Reduced to the status of « étrangère et voyageuse », Albertine found solace in religion48. She herself dated the beginning of her serious interest in the gospel to around 1815, but the incentive behind it was probably her mother’s death49. Around that time, Albertine began to read the bible on a daily basis and advised her friends to do the same. In forcing herself into total submission to the will of God, she was not only seeking to put her mother’s ghost at bay but also trying to make amends for her sins, whatever they may have been. Her sister‑in‑law Adèle de Staël née Vernet and Adèle’s mother Madame Vernet inspired her quest for spiritual peace by modeling an uncompromisingly dutiful piety that was in keeping with the stern tradition of Genevan Protestantism. Albertine was extremely receptive to their teachings. « Souffrir avec soumission », she wrote to Madame Guizot ; « souffrir avec le sentiment qu’il est juste de souffrir est déja un baume50 ». With every new loss, Albertine retreated further into the sanctuary of her piety. Over time, she even managed to convince herself that all her great misfortunes had contributed to the peace of her soul51.
In keeping with her increasingly strong religious convictions, she began to write almost exclusively on the topic of Christian faith. She contributed prefaces to several works on Christianity as well as penning an essay titled Le caractère du Christ. From 1824 to the year of her death, she wrote periodic accounts on the Société biblique auxiliaire de femmes, which were published anonymously after her death under the title Fragments sur divers sujets de religion et de morale. The volume deserves a separate analysis, which unfortunately cannot be undertaken here. Suffice it to say that it provides powerful proof of Albertine’s increasingly fanatical embrace of evangelical Christianity and, as such, offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a daughter « writing back » to her dead mother, however tacitly52.
Of course, it would be wrong to read Albertine’s religious texts solely in terms of revenge and reparations. Writing about matters of faith was certainly congenial to a mystically inclined person such as herself. In addition, this type of writing was of such a high moral cast that it would hardly attract opprobrium. In this sense, it fit her very decided views on what type of writing was appropriate for women. When Madame de Rémusat broached the idea of writing a novel, Albertine sounded a warning : « Prenez garde, chère amie, à cette idée d’écrire un roman ; si cela vous désennuie et ne vous agite pas, à la bonne heure ; mais prenez garde que le danger pour toutes les femmes, et surtout pour vous, c’est le romanesque. C’est un danger, non seulement pour leur vertu, mais peut‑être plus encore pour le naturel de leur esprit et de leur âme53 ». Rather than risk her virtue by writing a novel, Albertine advised her friend to focus on her children. Why not follow her own example, she proposed, and write a journal on the education of her son which might include children’s stories?
Whether or not these reflections should be understood as an implicit criticism of her mother, they reveal Albertine’s central preoccupations as a wife and mother. They are also somewhat disingenuous. From her daughter Louise we know that Albertine herself was at one point engaged in writing a novel. She considered the work sufficiently important to share its progress on a daily basis with her mother’s old companion Miss Randall whom the Broglies had inherited54. If Louise’s reminiscences are correct, Albertine was preoccupied with her novel around the time of her brother’s death in late 1827. Unfortunately, we do not know what became of the manuscript. The timing of the composition is nonetheless interesting. As early as 1822, i.e. five years after Staël’s passing, Albertine had apparently convinced herself that she was not cut out for writing literature. She lacked all talent, she wrote to Prosper, « n’ayant ni précision dans la volonté ni netteté dans l’esprit, deux qualités indispensables55 ». Unlike her mother, she had a penchant for theological writing (« je ne ferai jamais que de cela, c’est là ma voie56 »). Yet five years later, she tried her hand at fiction. The desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps evidently existed. Alas, Staël’s shadow loomed too large, and the manuscript disappeared into the archive of Broglie, never to surface again57. As for her other texts, Albertine did not dare submit them to the eyes of the world.
Published or not, she undoubtedly derived consolation from writing about a topic as dear to her heart as her faith and devotion to God. Although she was never able to free herself completely from Staël’s shadow, she succeeded in convincing herself that her vocation was in fact loftier than that of her mother. Consider the following passage from a letter to her friend Prosper in which she explains her relationship to God :
ll m’appelle à le servir, il m’appelle à travailler à une œuvre immense, non pas seulement à une œuvre dont dépend le bien‑être, passage de telle ou telle nation, mais à l’œuvre éternelle du triomphe du bien sur le mal, du vrai sur le faux, du beau sur le hideux. Je suis enrôlée dans cette milice qui le sert nuit et jour, et quelle que soit ma place, elle est bien belle et bien noble58.
It is not difficult to detect a swipe at her mother’s oeuvre in this remarkable passage. The cultural advancement of the nation, whether French, German, or Italian, had been very important to Staël, as her major works testify. According to Albertine, the cause of civilization paled in comparison to the triumph of good over evil. Becoming part of God’s « militia » was a move that had in part been necessitated by her mother’s life and her own abandoned hopes. In any case, Albertine was unable to develop without reference to the ideal of her mother.
In joining God’s militia, Albertine could be secure in the knowledge that her pious sister‑in‑law approved of her choice. As the years went by, the relationship between the two women, on the surface so dissimilar, became ever closer. During the Broglie family’s annual stay at Coppet, Albertine enjoyed the peace and serenity of the residence that had once witnessed so much turmoil. At Auguste’s death, the charge of Coppet had fallen to Adèle. Under her reign, Coppet underwent a complete metamorphosis. As Albertine’s older son Albert would write in his memoirs, the widowed baronne saw herself as « la gardienne des tombeaux » and tended the estate « comme une relique59 ». As the caretaker of Coppet, she transformed the château into a temple60. Albertine evidently approved :
Le Coppet d’aujourd’hui ne ressemble pas à celui d’autrefois, mais il ne pouvait pas en différer d’une manière moins pénible : la prière en remplace l’hymne poétique, mais elles partent toutes deux de l’élan d’une nature immortelle, quoique la première atteigne plus vite et plus sûrement ce que l’autre ne faisait que pressentir61.
What would Staël have said about this well‑intended but somewhat tortuous attempt at reconciling Protestant austerity and poetic enthusiasm? As her mother’s daughter, Albertine performed a delicate balancing‑act between embracing the new Coppet, which was more congenial to her, and upholding the old Coppet, her mother’s domain. During a visit in July 1837, she suddenly recalled several conversations in the course of which Staël had spoken up in passionate defense of the gospel. « [J]e me suis dit », Albertine wrote to her recently married daughter Louise, « qu’elle avait déjà peut‑être ainsi attiré la benediction de Dieu sur ce séjour62 ». Two days later, she reflected on the changed face of Coppet, writing to her friend Mlle Pomaret : « Il me semble que c’est la sibylle remplacée par la madone, mais l’ayant saluée de loin et appellée de ses voeux63 ». In one evocative image, Albertine managed to reconcile the past and the present, Sybil and Madonna, poetry and prayer. The conciliatory aspect of this image notwithstanding, when pressed on the issue, Albertine clearly gave preference to the latter. « [S]il fallait choisir entre le mouvement d’esprit le plus brillant inoccupé de Dieu, et un sentiment to piété sincère et profonde, mon enfant », she admonished her daughter who had criticized the new Coppet, « qui peut hésiter à tête reposée entre les deux partis64 ? » No matter how hard she stressed the significance Staël had ascribed to religion, Albertine could not avoid finding fault with the old Coppet. As Melanie Klein would have known, even the most well‑intentioned reparation must ultimately remain incomplete and the guilt necessitating it « fatally inevitable65 ».
As I have tried to show in this essay, the complex entanglement of the mother‑daughter knot contributed to a substantial degree to Albertine’s inability to come into her own as a writer. It was left to others to make her works more widely available, but these were all works written in the service of someone else’s cause, be it political, social, or religious. She thus departed life without the satisfaction of having realized her innermost creative ambitions. Suzanne Necker’s notorious complaint that her attempt to turn her daughter into a prodigy had failed miserably might have been echoed by Staël in regards to her own daughter. In a letter to Friederike Brun Staël had compared their respective daughters’ potential critically. Whereas Albertine « se developpe pour l’esprit plus que pour le talent », she wrote, Brun’s daughter Ida was just the opposite. « C’est vous », she complimented her Danish friend, « qui avez été le génie d’Ida66 ». Its ostensible innocuousness notwithstanding, the brief comment is revealing. In a circle as obsessed with talent as Coppet, to lack talent was grievous indeed. Yet, what had prevented Staël from being Albertine’s genius ?
In reality, it is by no means certain that Albertine lacked talent. Variously encouraged and dressed down, pressured and ridiculed, Albertine was perennially caught in the conflicting demands of love and submission and was simply unable to develop in her own way. It comes as no surprise then that she ultimately failed to untangle the mother‑daughter knot. Consider the following revealing excerpt from her memoir of her brother Auguste :
Aimer madame de Staël, ce n’était pas seulement aimer une personne, c’était aimer tout un ordre d’idées et de sentiments ; c’était aimer tout ce qu’il y a de grand, d’ardent, de généreux dans l’âme humaine. Pour la satisfaire, il fallait le développement de l’intelligence, l’élévation du caractère ; on ne la contentait pas à moins. L’affection pour elle‑même ne lui suffisait pas, il fallait qu’on rendît un culte aux grandes pensées qu’elle chérissait, et non pas un culte froid et stérile ; car elle demandait le succès comme preuve de la réalité des efforts 67.
Although filial loyalty prevented Albertine from denouncing her mother outright, the passage reads as a thinly‑veiled critique of Staël’s tendency to smother those around her. Whatever her true feelings on this score, Albertine doubted her own worth68. On the other hand, she ultimately found solace in the realization that there were works she herself could do and that might be more important than literature. Where Staël had labored all her life for the establishment of a liberal and moderate political order, Albertine labored for God. Her choice of religion over literature was the only means to reconcile the conflicting demands of love, guilt, and reparation.