On the strength of the international success of her second novel Corinne, and the fame she attracted through her political conflict with Napoleon and European tour, Germaine de Staël made an anticipated entrée in London in 1813-1814, which both fascinated and challenged the English literary and social elites. Scottish historian James Mackintosh expressed the tension with which Staël contemplated England : « she admires the English, among whom she could not endure to live1 ». This article looks into the English response to Staël’s presence and literary output in England, through the lens of periodical editing. More particularly, it focuses on how Staël’s literary fame and networking affected in multiple ways three London-based periodical owners and editors, whose collective voice contributed to the construction of her literary career in England.
Staël chose John Murray for the publication of De l’Allemagne, after it had been rejected in France by Napoleon’s censorship in 1810. Jean-Gabriel Peltier was the first to publish Corinne in London. Henry Colburn began his independent career in 1812 with, among other publications, an edition of Staël’s De la littérature. Unlike Murray, who refrained from logrolling his books in his periodical The Quarterly Review2 (1809-1967), both Peltier and Colburn puffed their books in theirs, respectively L’Ambigu (1802-1818), and The New Monthly Magazine3 (1814-1884). Staël’s relationship with Murray has been discussed4, from the perspective of their correspondence and social interaction. Yet Murray’s periodical remains an overlooked source of information. The dearth of letters mentioning Peltier and Colburn’s name in Staël’s correspondence, and the lack of archival material from their side, have generated little research that elucidates their relationship with her. This study maps out these connections more precisely.
Staël’s personality has baffled and captivated her biographers, who tend to quantify her chaotic emotional reactions and cast Staël as an open enigma : « qui êtes vous madame de Staël ? », concludes Michel Winock, « femme de tête et cœur ardent, elle ne se laisse pas résumer d’un mot5 ». Emotions are slippery, irrational, and notoriously difficult to channel, yet they underlie the structure of the text, and especially, as Julia Kristeva points out, Staël’s writing6. The discursive, open space of the periodical, its affective potentiality, is fertile ground for their expression.
From a first gleaning of English periodicals7 to recent in-depth analyses of Staël’s posterity8, Staël’s literary reception in the press has not been neglected. However, this scholarship essentially focuses on the text, as opposed to the emotional networks that lay behind it. This article looks into Staël’s politics of affect. By looking into Staël’s private and public dialogues with Murray (1), Peltier (2), and Colburn (3), it builds on an expanding body of work in the field of periodical studies that considers relations of affect9, and the charisma of the periodical editor10. Staël’s position as a woman, pushing herself and her ideas forward in relation to others in a male environment, was political. For this reason I prefer the expression « politics of affect » over weaker notions of networks or relations in the specific case of Staël. I argue that periodical editing is the pivotal point between Staël’s agency and the development of her literary career, from which I draw the scope of her literary and editorial influence on the English cultural imagination.
Staël treated Murray as a friend, as show the numerous invitations and notes she sent him. She found her place among the men of letters who crowded Murray’s drawing room, and found her tone in letters of polite yet firm negotiation towards the publication of her books. Murray did not, however, promote Staël’s work in The Quarterly Review. Her literary career suffered, rather, from the extent of her social success.
On 12 October 1813, Staël wrote to Murray : « vous êtes parfaitement gentleman like en tout11 ». As Kathryn Sutherland remarks, John Murray (1778-1843), second publisher in a line of seven from father to son, « was in the vanguard of a new breed of publishers12 ». Sutherland refers to Murray’s social networking, and to his reputation as a « gentleman » publisher. Murray entertained during literary afternoons, as opposed to the traditional literary soirées, in his house on Albemarle Street, where he moved in 1812. Murray also strove for respectability, and he treated his authors well13. Staël quoted Murray as « her » publisher to her close friend Benjamin Constant : « votre livre n’est point arrivé à mon libraire Murray14 ». The possessive article marks both Staël’s social interacting in England through her close connection with Murray, and her wishful participation in the development of her English career.
An agreement over a sum of 1500 guineas for De l’Allemagne was settled on 11 July 1813, and couched in a contract witnessed by their mutual friend, the lawyer Henry Crabb Robinson. The price was high15. Murray published De l’Allemagne on 3 November 1813. Staël wrote (at least) seventeen letters to him, from the signature of her contract to the publication of this first edition. This correspondence reveals the care Staël took in the edition, translation, and promotion of her work in the periodical press. She begs Murray to exert his influence on her behalf with other newspapers16, she enquires regularly about the advertising of her book17, and even suggests the production of a second edition18.
While his book publishing business flourished, Murray launched The Quarterly Review to counter the influence of the widely read Edinburgh Review. The Quarterly appeared four times a year. Following the advice of the novelist and poet Walter Scott, Murray paid his first editor William Gifford handsomely19. 4200 copies of the first 240 page issue of The Quarterly were sold after two reprints. Circulation gradually rose to 6000 in 1814. Gifford worked with a team of politically influential contributors, while he specialized in literary editing. These contributors were part of Murray’s circle of friends and business associates of Albemarle Street, among whom were Scott, George Canning, John Wilson Croker, John Barrow and Robert Southey20. The journal addressed a mostly middle-class readership. It was political, but it also delivered literary criticism, and was known, together with The Edinburgh Review, to forge literary fortunes.
The rivalry between The Quarterly Review and The Edinburgh Review affected the reception of Staël’s work during her lifetime and early posterity. Staël’s intimate friend Mackintosh produced a highly complimentary review of De l’Allemagne for The Edinburgh Review in October 181321, before Murray had published the book. Reginald Heber’s22 review in The Quarterly appeared in January 181423. Its length is a tribute to Staël’s fame and its tone echoes social deference. Yet, as opposed to The Edinburgh Review, it subtly, and repeatedly, undermines Staël’s work. Heber develops Staël’s arguments against his own culturally influenced reflections. He dwells on the historical context of Staël’s first attempt to publish the work, which he swathes in mild patriotism by referring to her « gratifying preface24 ». De l’Allemagne adopts a cross-cultural perspective which culminates in Staël’s transnational definition of « enthusiasm », etymologically inspired from the Greek word, which signifies « God in us ». Staël’s notion of enthusiasm is an expansion of the spirit and the mind to the understanding and appreciation of different cultures, paving the way to happiness25. Heber’s concluding paragraphs build on Staël’s allusion to divinity, which he reduces to mysticism, and from thence to madness, before countering Staël’s universality with multiplicity, and undermining her intent by invoking national vocabularies and interpretations. Heber ascribes De l’Allemagne’s pan-Europeanism to the author’s frustrated patriotism, and her long-suffering exile : « it is the melody of a bird who sings, in its lonely prison, of love and liberty26 ». He confines Staël’s literary talent to her femininity, as he praises her « taste27 » and « ardentia verba28 ». De l’Allemagne’s reception in Murray’s periodical contributed to the decline of Staël’s posthumous career by fixing it to the social and political prejudice of the day.
Only one letter from Albertine de Staël to Murray asks the latter to send Staël the periodical in which Heber’s article appeared29. The fact that there is hardly any mention of The Quarterly Review is not so remarkable, as the business agreement between Staël and Murray reflected the understanding they shared in her literary fame and her social aura : neither Murray nor his editor had previously read the book ; the price was pledged on the advantage of publishing Staël rather than on its content30. By signing their contract, Staël had placed herself in an emotional position vis-à-vis Murray that respected these terms. The extent of Staël’s social efforts is reflected in The Quarterly’s respectful tone, yet the indifference of her critical reception highlights the distinction Murray kept between his social demeanour and his professional choices. If Murray, the publisher, encouraged Staël’s literary fame through his genial social interaction, Murray, the periodical owner, hindered the promotion and posterity of her career in England.
Staël’s literary promotion in L’Ambigu shows how her literary fame strengthened in the periodical press however callously periodicals treated her. The relationship between Staël and Jean-Gabriel Peltier (1760-1825) is articulated around the tensions between a polemical editor and an author, whose professional and social success freed them from mutual obligation, but compelled them, especially on Peltier’s side, to acknowledgement and nagging collaboration.
Peltier was primarily a periodical editor, who published books on the side31. During the French Revolution he edited Les Actes des Apôtres, which lead violent attacks against members of the French government. L’Ambigu, edited in London between 1802 and 1818, was heir to the aggressive royalist hack-writings of Peltier’s revolutionary prose. The title of the periodical refers to Napoleon, towards whom Peltier directed most of his bellicosity. L’Ambigu was also the crowning of his career, and the most important development of the French oppositional press during the French Empire. It came out three times a month and was sold at five guineas a year. Chateaubriand describes how Peltier circulated his periodical lucratively around the world32 : it was sent secretly to France, to America, to the colonies, to Saint Petersburg and even Bombay. Peltier had developed an international network of information, via his many contacts abroad, who sent him reports, or crates full of foreign newspapers. True to the motto « Diversité sera notre devise33 », L’Ambigu contained a motley assortment of information : political acts from foreign countries, the correspondence of political emigrants, proclamations and war reports, some society gossip, literary reviews, and political analyses.
Simone Balayé asserts that Peltier disliked Staël34, yet Peltier’s treatment of Staël may also be ascribed to his marketing strategy. The evolution of Peltier’s editorial choices follows an emotional pattern that went hand in hand with Staël’s growing literary fame. He produced regular slander on Staël35 until shortly after the publication of Corinne in France, on 1 May 1807. L’Ambigu hailed the novel on 10 May 1807 with a poem by a misogynist French poet known as Lebrun Pindare36. In the following issue, Peltier reprinted an article that Charles-Marie de Feletz, an enemy of Staël, had written for Le Journal de l’Empire37. However, the Parisian triumph of Corinne convinced Peltier to revise his strategy. On 10 June 1807, he published a letter by Staël’s friend Sismondi, footnoted by the editor as follows : « Corinne ou l’Italie paraîtra le 20 de ce mois, chez M. Peltier38 ».
Peltier published an edition of the novel bound in red leather with gold lettering. His three volumes of Corinne would have appealed to the upper-class population of French speakers in London. The edition encloses a dedication page (absent in the Parisian edition of 1807 by Nicolle), on which appears the manuscript name « Olivia39 » probably in reference to Maria Edgeworth’s popular epistolary novel Leonora (1806). Leonora was known to celebrate English manners over French ones, caricatured in the behaviour of one of its main characters, the extravagantly emotional and narcissistic lady Olivia. If this conjecture is correct, Peltier thus evoked the English reception of Staël’s first novel Delphine40 (1802), and encouraged a similar polemic around Corinne. This dedication shows how Peltier sought to reach out to the English public opinion.
When Réflexions sur le Suicide appeared in Sweden in April 1813, Peltier prepared a similar publication plan to the one he had devised for Corinne. On 10 June, L’Ambigu advertised Staël’s new work by reprinting its dedication pages, upon which Peltier announced the publication of the book : « cet ouvrage est sous presse, et sera publié dans quelques jours par M. Peltier41 ». On 20 June, however, Peltier published another excerpt of Réflexions sur le suicide, with the following notice :
Madame la baronne de Staël Holstein étant arrivée à Londres, va publier sans doute elle-même les belles Réflexions sur le suicide […] ainsi le Rédacteur de ce Journal retire l’annonce qu’il avait faite de leur réimpression. Il se contente d’annoncer aujourd’hui qu’on retrouvera à chaque page de ce nouvel ouvrage l’imagination brillante, les pensées profondes et le style enchanteur de l’auteur de Corinne42.
Réflexions sur le suicide was published by Louis Laurent Deconchy, admittedly a colleague of Peltier’s as they shared the same printer (Schulze and Dean), and Peltier advertised Deconchy’s publications in L’Ambigu43. Whether Peltier was paving his way towards gaining Staël’s trust or simply made an arrangement with Deconchy is unclear. When De l’Allemagne appeared a few months later, Peltier published an excerpt and praised the book while admitting he had only read the preface44. Eventually, on 30 May 1818, Peltier made a statement of truth in a posthumous tribute to Staël’s fame : « La célébrité attachée à son nom nous impose la loi de rendre compte de toutes les particularités relatives à la dernière production de sa plume45 ».
Staël refrained from getting involved with Peltier. On 16 May 1807 she wrote to her friend Étienne Dumont, a Swiss pastor who had spent several years in London, pressing him to find a good English translator for Corinne46. According to Béatrice Jasinski, Staël’s request aborted47. Staël only mentions Peltier once, in Dix années d’exil. She omits his title and belittles his status when she cites him in reference to her acquaintance with Mackintosh : « Peltier eut l’honneur d’être défendu par M. Mackintosh48 ». Staël’s lack of public consideration for the editor of L’Ambigu may be explained in an opinion she expressed to Vincenzo Monti on 10 July 1807 : « vous savez qu’ils [les journaux] m’ont souvent attaquée […] mais je n’ai jamais remarqué que cela fît aucun mal à ma réputation : au contraire49 ».
Henry Colburn’s (1784-1855) fascination with both fame and aristocracy50 drew him to Staël. Although we have evidence of her attempt to communicate with Colburn, the latter’s editorial strategies, or puffery, escaped Staël’s control. Colburn used Staël’s literary fame to his professional advantage, and by the same stratagem he transformed her career in the English cultural imagination.
Colburn was generally known to handle his collaborators with tact and generosity51, while he cultivated the virtues of visibility. In 1806 he started to work in Morgan’s Library of Conduit Street in the fashionable district of Mayfair, only a few hundred meters away from Murray’s future headquarters. From this early period he already printed « Colburn’s Library » in his books, ousting the name of the gentleman to whom he was apprenticed52. He eventually became the sole proprietor of the establishment in 1812. Between 1812 and 1814, Colburn reprinted, without Staël’s consent, De la littérature (1812), De l’influence des passions (1813), Zulma (1813) and Lettres sur Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1814). He claims to have published Delphine and Corinne53. Staël comments to Murray : « Dulau [Staël’s London editor for Delphine] prétend que Colburn nuira à l’effet de mon livre en réimprimant tout ce que j’ai publié. Il le fait peut-être par humeur de n’avoir pas été préféré54 ». In another letter to Murray, Staël refers to Colburn’s publications : « Répondez-moi un de ces jours sur mes diverses propositions : Wallstein de M. Constant, Lettres sur Rousseau, Delphine, etc. Parlez à Colburne [sic], mais quand vous voudrez, je ne suis pas pressée55 ». Instead of lamenting Colburn’s misappropriation of her work, and while the sales of De l’Allemagne were not as profitable as Murray expected56, Staël induces competition between both publishers to boost her literary output.
The New Monthly Magazine was the first periodical owned by Colburn. Several editors saw the magazine through its first few years, during which Colburn was testing this new branch of his enterprise by getting deeply involved in its running. In the address to the public of the first issue, Colburn positions The New Monthly Magazine in competition with The Monthly Magazine. He advertises the same miscellany of topics but uses the fall of Napoleon of 1814 to outdate so-called « political poison[ing]57 » and pave the way for unbound international intellectual exchange. Moreover, he sets the price of The New Monthly slightly under that of The Monthly58. Colburn succeeded in making his magazine one of the most popular of its age. He emulated Murray in his collection of illustrious contributors, which included Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Benjamin Disraeli and William Hazlitt, whom he paid well to ensure the quality of the writing.
The New Monthly Magazine bestows on Staël the authority of a periodical editor, a role she had never officially undertaken :
It has been reported that [Madame de Staël] was to undertake the conduct of the Mercure de France in association with Benjamin Constant and other experienced writers59.
In 1817, Constant decided to take over the management of the Mercure de France with several others. The copy of the prospectus from the BNF (January 1817) is signed with the names of several collaborators. The introductory title excludes Staël : « par MM. Constant, Dufresne St Léon, Esménard, Jay, Jouy, Lacretelle aîné, etc.60 ». However much Constant might have wished Staël to join the editorial team of the Mercure de France, she only contributed a poem in March. Constant’s note inserted after the article points to the extent of Staël’s influence and reputation in Europe at the end of her life :
Notre empressement à recueillir tout ce qui sort de la plume de la femme la plus célèbre et la plus spirituelle de l’Europe, et le désir de mériter qu’elle enrichisse ce recueil de quelques morceaux où elle paraitrait encore plus elle-même, nous a déterminés à l’insérer [the article], certains que tout ce qu’écrit madame de St[aël] sera lu avec avidité par nos lecteurs61.
These words were echoed and transformed by Colburn in the English press. Colburn posthumously advertised Staël’s fame62 while he reprinted in 1818 in Paris and London Mémoires sur la vie privée de mon père with a section of Constant’s obituary article in lieu of a preface63. Colburn’s gossip circulated in several English periodicals from July to November 1817. The Literary Gazette, which Colburn launched in 1817, claims the authorship of one of Staël’s widely reprinted obituaries : « we take up our pen this week to trace as correct a biography as our present means of information and our haste will allow64 », and concludes : « the Mercure, we have reason to believe, recorded the latest of her opinions and the last tracings of her prolific pen65 ». While this equivocal statement does not confirm Staël’s editorial functions, it does not debunk Colburn’s previous assertion in The New Monthly. The Gentleman’s Magazine reprinted the article with no alteration to the sentence, while other periodicals such as The European Magazine and London Review, or The Edinburgh Observer, circulated a version which changed the modality of the sentence from near certainty to probability, by replacing « we have reason to believe » with the adverb « probably66 ». These kinds of transfers feed the collective cultural imagination. Following her death, Staël’s fame fostered the circulation of false rumours concerning her life and works that were discredited in the English press67. The reports concerning her editorial influence, however, remain unchallenged.
When Staël entered the English publishing market she had already made a name for herself, as a society lady, as a political refugee, and as an intellectual. De l’Allemagne was famous before its publication. Staël had thus at her disposal a considerable amount of social capital on which she traded to promote her literary career with publishers and periodical editors. She favoured her official publisher Murray, whom she treated as a friend, while she begged him through an assiduous correspondence to advertise De l’Allemagne. She ignored Peltier as he grappled with her rising literary fame in the pages of L’Ambigu, and reached out to Colburn, who reprinted many of her works while he spread rumours about her literary activities in his periodicals.
This article has treated the text of the periodical as a kind of public correspondence between Staël and her publishers, by confronting it with private correspondences and personal ambitions. While Staël plays out her politics of affect, Murray, Peltier, and Colburn’s periodicals collectively map out their « affective experiences68 » of Staël’s reputation and networking. Looking behind the text of the periodical has highlighted the crucial role of the editor, and the necessity of incorporating the relations of affect that play a role in their decision making. This method has enabled us to understand how Staël negotiated her presence in the English literary sphere as well as other elements that influenced periodical editors. The Quarterly Review’s rivalry with The Edinburgh Review for instance came into play in the particular case of Staël. Murray and Peltier’s case studies have shown how the very extent of Staël’s social fame and influence set limits to her literary career and posterity, yet contributed to the construction of a persona, whose imagined influence, inflated in Colburn’s periodicals, belied reality. The English would not claim Staël as their own, but they did admire her.