Corinne, Volume 1 (of 2) - Or Italy
175 Pages

Corinne, Volume 1 (of 2) - Or Italy


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The Project Gutenberg EBook of Corinne, Volume 1 (of 2), by Mme de Stael
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Title: Corinne, Volume 1 (of 2)  Or Italy
Author: Mme de Stael
Commentator: George Saintsbury
Illustrator: R. S. Greig
Release Date: October 17, 2005 [EBook #16896]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Martin Pettit and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
The crowd break their ranks as the horses pass.
(In Two Volumes)
H.S. Greig
LONDON: Published by J.M. DENTand CO MPANYat ALDINEHO USEin Great Eastern Street, E.C.
Book i.OSWALD Chapter i.CORINNE Chapter ii. Chapter iii. Chapter iv. Chapter v.
Book ii.CORINNE AT THE CAPITOL. Chapter i. Chapter ii. Chapter iii. Chapter iv.
Book iii.CORINNE. Chapter i. Chapter ii. Chapter iii.
Book iv.ROME. Chapter i. Chapter ii.
Chapter iii. Chapter iv. Chapter v. Chapter vi.
Book v.THE TOMBS, THE CHURCHES, AND THE PALACES. Chapter i. Chapter ii. Chapter iii.
Book vi.THE MANNERS AND CHARACTER OF THE ITALIANS. Chapter i. Chapter ii. Chapter iii. Chapter iv.
Book vii.ITALIAN LITERATURE. Chapter i. Chapter ii. Chapter iii.
Book viii.THE STATUES AND THE PICTURES. Chapter i. Chapter ii. Chapter iii. Chapter iv.
Book ix.THE POPULAR FESTIVAL, AND MUSIC. Chapter i. Chapter ii. Chapter iii.
Book x.HOLY WEEK. Chapter i. Chapter ii. Chapter iii. Chapter iv. Chapter v. Chapter vi.
Book xi.NAPLES AND THE HERMITAGE OF ST SALVADOR. Chapter i. Chapter ii. Chapter iii. Chapter iv.
In Lady Blennerhassett's enthusiastic and encyclopædic book on Madame de Stael she quotes approvingly Sainte-Beuve's phrase that "withCorinne Madame de Stael ascended the Capitol." I forget in which of his many dealings with an author who, as he remarks in the "Coppet-and-Weimar"causeries, was "an idol of his youth and one that he never renounced," this fancy occurs. It must probably have been in one of his early essays; for in his later and better, Sainte-Beuve was not wont to give way to the little flashes and crackles of conceit and epigram which many Frenchmen and some Englishmen think to be criticism. There was, however, some excuse for this. In the first place (as one of Charles Lamb's literal friends would have pointed out), Madame de Stael, like her heroine, did actually "ascend the Capitol," and received attentions there from an Academy. In the second, there can be no dou bt thatCorinne in a manner fixed and settled the high literary reputati on which she had already attained. Even by her severest critics, and even no w when whatever slight recrudescence of biographical interest may have taken place in her, her works are little read,Corinneranked next to is De l'Allemagneher greatest as production; while as a work of form, not of matter, as literature of power, not of knowledge, it has at last a chance of enduring when its companion is but a historical document—the record of a moment that has long passed away.
The advocates of themilieutheory—the theory which will have it that you can explain almost the whole of any work of art by examining the circumstances,
history, and so forth of the artist—have a better chance withCorinnethan with many books, though those who disagree with them (as I own that I do) may retort that this was precisely because Madame de Stael in literature has little idiosyncracy, and is a receptive, not a creative, force. The moment at which this book was composed and appeared had really many of the characteristics of crisis and climax in the life of the author. She was bidding adieu to youth; and though her talents, her wealth, her great reputatio n, and her indomitable determination to surround herself with admirers still made her a sort of queen of society, some illusions at least must have been passing from her. The most serious of her many passions, that for Benjamin Constant, was coming, though it had not yet come, to an end. Her father, whom she unfeignedly idolised, was not long dead. The conviction must have been for some time forcing itself on her, though she did not even yet give up hope, that Napoleon's resolve not to allow her presence in her still more idolised Paris was unconquerable. Her husband, who indeed had long been nothing to her, w as dead also, and the fancy for replacing him with the boy Rocca had not yet arisen. The influence of the actual chief of her usual herd of lovers, courtiers, teachers, friends (to use whichever term, or combination of terms, the charitable reader pleases), A.W. Schlegel, though it never could incline her innately unpoetical and unreligious mind to either poetry or religion, drove her towards æsthetics of one kind and another. Lastly, the immense intellectual excitement of her visits to Weimar, Berlin, and Italy, added its stimulus to produce a fresh intellectual ferment in her. On the purely intellectual side the result wasDe l'Allemagne, which does not concern us; on the side of feeling, tinged with æsthetic philosophy, of study of the archaic and the picturesque illuminated by e motion—the result was Corinne.
If there had been only one difference between this and its author's earlier attempt at novel-writing, that difference would have givenCorinnegreat a advantage.Delphinehad been irreverently described by Sydney Smith, when it appeared a few years earlier, as "this dismal trash which has nearly dislocated the jaws of every critic with gaping." The Whigs had not then taken up Madame de Stael, as they did afterwards, or it is quite certain that Mr Sydney would not have been allowed to exercise such Britannic frankn ess.Corinnewith met gentler treatment from his friends, if not from himself. Sir James Mackintosh, in particular, was full of the wildest enthusiasm about it, though he admitted that it was "full of faults so obvious as not to be worth mentioning." It must be granted to be in more than one, or two important points a v ery great advance on Delphine. One is that the easy and illegitimate source of interest which is drawn upon in the earlier book is here quite neglected.Delphinepresents the eternal French situation of the "triangle;" the line ofCorinne is straight, and the only question is which pair of three points it is to uni te in an honourable way. A French biographer of Madame de Stael, who is not only an excellent critic and an extremely clever writer, but a historian of great weight and acuteness, M. Albert Sorel, has indeed admitted that both Léonce, the hero ofDelphine, who will not make himself and his beloved happy because he has an objection to divorcing his wife, and Lord Nelvil, who refuses either to seduce or to marry the woman who loves him and whom he loves, are equal donkeys with a national difference. Léonce is more of a "fool;" Lord Nelvil more of a "snob." It is something to find a Frenchman who will admit that any national characteristic is foolish: I could have better reciprocated M. Sorel's candour if he had used the
word "prig" instead of "snob" of Lord Nelvil. But indeed I have often suspected that Frenchmen confuse these two engaging attributes of the Britannic nature.
A "higher moral tone" (as the phrase goes) is not the only advantage which Corinneover its forerunner. possesses Delphinealmost avowedly is autobiographical; and though Madame de Stael had the wit and the prudence to mix and perplex her portraits and her reminiscences so that it was nearly impossible to fit definite caps on the personages, there could be no doubt that Delphine was herself—as she at least would have liked to be—drawn as close as she dared. These personalities have in the hands of the really great masters of fiction sometimes produced astonishing results; but no one probably would contend that Madame de Stael was a born novelist. A lthoughDelphine has many more personages and much more action of the purely novel kind than Corinne, it is certainly not an interesting book; I think, though I have been reproached for, to say the least, lacking fervour as a Staelite, thatCorinneis.
But it is by no means unimportant that intending readers should know the sort of interest that they are to expect from this novel; and for that purpose it is almost imperative that they should know what kind of person was this novelist. A good deal of biographical pains has been spent, as has b een already more than once hinted, on Madame de Stael. She was most undou btedly of European reputation in her day; and between her day and this, quite independently of the real and unquestionable value of her work, a high e stimate of her has been kept current by the fact that her daughter was the wife of Duke Victor and the mother of Duke Albert of Broglie, and that so a proper respect for her has been a necessary passport to favour in one of the greatest political and academic houses of France; while another not much less potent in both ways, that of the Counts d'Haussonville, also represents her. Still p eople, and especially English people, have so many non-literary things to think of, that it may not be quite unpardonable to supply that conception of the life of Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baroness of Stael-Holstein, which is so necessary to the understanding ofCorinne, and which may, in possible cases, be wanting.
She was born on the 22nd of April 1766, and was, as probably everybody knows, the daughter of the Swiss financier, Necker, whom the French Revolution first exalted to almost supreme power in France, and then cast off —fortunately for him, in a less tragical fashion than that in which it usually cast off its favourites. Her mother was Suzanne Curchod, the first love of Gibbon, a woman of a delicate beauty, of very considerable mental and social faculties, a kind of puritanical coquette, but devoted to her (by all accounts not particularly interesting) husband. Indeed, mother and daughter are said to have been from a very early period jealous of each other in relati on to Necker. Germaine, as she was generally called, had, unluckily for her, i nherited nothing of her mother's delicacy of form and feature; indeed, her most rapturous admirers never dared to claim much physical beauty for her, except a pair of fine, though unfeminine, eyes. She was rather short than tall; her figure was square-set and heavy; her features, though not exactly ill-formed, matched her figure; her arms were massive, though not ill-shaped; and she was altogether distinctly what the French callhommasse. Nevertheless, her great wealth, and the high position of her father, attracted suitors, some of whom at least may not have overlooked the intellectual ability which she began very early to display. There was talk of her marrying William Pitt, but either Pitt's well-known "dislike of the fair," or
some other reason, foiled the project. After one or two other negotiations she made a match which was not destined to good fortune, and which does not strike most observers as a very tempting one in any respect, though it carried with it some exceptional and rather eccentric guarantees for that position at court and in society on which Germaine was set. The King of Sweden, Gustavus, whose family oddity had taken, among less excusable forms, that of a platonic devotion to Marie Antoinette, gave a sort of perpetual brevet of his ministry at Paris to the Baron de Stael-Holstein, a nobleman of little fortune and fair family. This served, using clerical language, as his "title" to marriage with Germaine Necker. Such a marriage could not be expected to, and did not, turn out very well; but it did not turn out as ill as it might have done. Except that M. de Stael was rather extravagant (which he probably supposed he had bought the right to be) nothing serious is alleged against him; and though more than one thing serious might be alleged against his wife, it is doubtful whether either contracting party thought this out of the bargain. For business reasons, chiefly, a separation was effected between the pair in 1798, but they were nominally reconciled four years later, just before Stael's death.
Meanwhile the Revolution broke out, and Madame de Stael, who, as she was bound to do, had at first approved it, disapproved totally of the Terror, tried to save the Queen, and fled herself from France to England. Here she lived in Surrey with a questionable set ofémigrés, made the acquaintance of Miss Burney, and in consequence of the unconventionaliti es of her relations, especially with M. de Narbonne, received, from Engl ish society generally, a cold shoulder, which she has partly avenged, or tri ed to avenge, inCorinne itself. She had already written, or was soon to write, a good deal, but nothing of the first importance. Then she went to Coppet, her father's place, on the Lake of Geneva, which she was later to render so famous; and under the Directory was enabled to resume residence in Paris, though she was more than once under suspicion. It was at this time that she met Benjamin Constant, the future brilliant orator, and author ofAdolphe, the only man perhaps whom she ever really loved, but, unluckily, a man whom it was by no means good to love. For some years she oscillated contentedly enough between Coppet and Paris. But the return of Bonaparte from Egypt was unlucky for her. Her boundless ambition, which, with her love of society, was her strongest passion, made her conceive the idea of fascinating him, and through him ruling the world. Napoleon, to use familiar English, "did not see it." When he liked women he liked them pretty and feminine; he had not the faintest idea of admitting any kind of partner in his glory; he had no literary taste; and not only did M adame de Stael herself meddle with politics, but her friend, Constant, under the Consulate, chose to give himself airs of opposition in the English sense. Moreover, she still wrote, and Bonaparte disliked and dreaded everyone who wrote with any freedom. Her book,De la Littérature, in 1800, was taken as a covert attack on the Napoleonicrégime; her father shortly after republished another on finance and politics, which was disliked; and the success ofDelphine, in 1803, put the finishing touch to the petty hatred of any kind of rival superiority which distinguished the Corsican more than any other man of equal genius. Madame de Stael was ordered not to approach within forty l eagues of Paris, and this exile, with little softening and some excesses of rigour, lasted till the return of the Bourbons.
Then it was that the German and Italian journeys already mentioned (the death of M. Necker happening between them and recalling his daughter from the first) led to the writing ofCorinne.
A very few words before we turn to the consideration of the book, as a book and by itself, may appropriately finish all that need be said here about the author's life. After the publication ofCorinnereturned to Germany, and completed she the observation which she thought necessary for the companion bookDe l'Allemagne. Its publication in 1810, when she had foolishly kindled afresh the Emperor's jealousy by appearing with her usual "tai l" of worshippers or parasites as near Paris as she was permitted, compl eted her disgrace. She was ordered back to Coppet: her book was seized and destroyed. Then Albert de Rocca, a youth of twenty-three, who had seen some service, made his appearance at Geneva. Early in 1811, Madame de Stael, now aged forty-five, married him secretly. She was, or thought herself, more and more persecuted by Napoleon; she feared that Rocca might be ordered off on active duty, and she fled first to Vienna, then to St Petersburg, then to Stockholm, and so to England. Here she was received with ostentatious welcome and praises by the Whigs; with politeness by everybody; with more or less concealed terror by the best people, who found her rhapsodies and her political dissertations equally boring. Here too she was unlucky enough to express the opinion that Miss Austen's books were vulgar. The fall of Napoleon brought her back to Paris; and after the vicissitudes of 1814-15, enabled her to establish herself there for the short remainder of her life, with the interruption only of visits to Coppet and to Italy. She died on the 13th July 1817: her two last works,Dix Années d'Exil and the posthumousConsidérations sur La Révolution Française, being admittedly of considerable interest, and not despicable even by those who do not think highly of her political talents.
And now toCorinne, unhampered and perhaps a little helped by this survey of its author's character, career, and compositions. The heterogeneous nature of its plan can escape no reader long; and indeed is pretty frankly confessed by its title. It is a love story doubled with a guide-book : an eighteenth-century romance of "sensibility" blended with a transition or even nineteenth-century diatribe of æsthetics and "culture." If only the fi rst of these two labels were applicable to it, its case would perhaps be something more gracious than it is; for there are more unfavourable situations for cultivating the affections, than in connection with the contemplation of the great works of art and nature, and it is possible to imagine many more disagreeableciceronithan a lover of whichever sex. But Corinne and Nelvil (whom our contemporary translator[1] has endeavoured to acclimatise a little more by Anglici sing his name further to Nelville), do not content themselves with making lo ve in the congenial neighbourhoods of Tiber or Pœstum, or in the stimul ating presence of the masterpieces of modern and ancient art. A purpose, and a double purpose, it might almost be said, animates the book. It aims at displaying "sensibility so charming"—the strange artificial eighteenth-century conception of love which is neither exactly flirtation nor exactly passion, which sets convention at defiance, but retains its own code of morality; at exhibiting the national differences, as Madame de Stael conceived them, of the English and French and Italian temperaments; and at preaching the new cult of æsthetics whereof Lessing and Winckelmann, Gœthe, and Schlegel, were in different ways and degrees the
apostles. And it seems to have been generally admitted, even by the most fervent admirers of Madame de Stael and ofCorinneitself, that the first purpose has not had quite fair play with the other two. "A little thin," they confess of the story. In truth it could hardly be thinner, though the author has laid under contribution an at least ample share of the improbabilities and coincidences of romance.
Nelvil, an English-Scottish peer who has lost his father, who accuses himself of disobedience and ingratitude to that father, and who has been grievously jilted by a Frenchwoman, arrives in Italy in a large black cloak, the deepest melancholy, and the company of a sprightly though penniless Frenchémigré, the Count d'Erfeuil. After performing prodigies of valour in a fire at Ancona, he reaches Rome just when a beautiful and mysterious p oetess, the delight of Roman society, is being crowned on the Capitol. The only name she is known by is Corinne. The pair are soon introduced by the mercurial Erfeuil, and promptly fall in love with each other, Corinne seeking partly to fix her hold on Nelvil, partly to remove his Britannic contempt for Italy and the Italians, by guiding him to all the great spectacles of Rome and indeed of the country generally, and by explaining to him at great length what she understands of the general theory of æsthetics, of Italian history, and of the contrasted character of the chief European nations. Nelvil on his side is d istracted between the influence of the beauty, genius, and evident passio n of Corinne, and his English prejudices; while the situation is further complicated by the regulation discovery that Corinne, though born in Italy of an Italian mother, is, strictly speaking, his own compatriot, being the elder and lawful daughter of a British peer, Lord Edgermond, his father's closest friend. Nay more, he had always been destined to wed this very girl; and it was onl y after her father's second marriage with an Englishwoman that the younger and wholly English daughter, Lucile, was substituted in the paternal schemes as his destined spouse. He hears, on the other hand, how Corinne had visited her fatherland and her step-mother, how she had found both intolerable, and how she had in a modified and decent degree "thrown her cap over the mill" by returning to Italy to live an independent life as a poetess, an improvisatrice, and, at least in private, an actress.
It is not necessary to supply fuller argument of the text which follows, and of which, when the reader has got this length, he is not likely to let thedénoûment escape him. But the action ofCorinnerather slowly under weigh; and I gets have known those who complained that they found the book hard to read because they were so long in coming to any clear notion of "what it was all about." Therefore so much argument as has been given seems allowable.
But we ought by this time to have laid sufficient foundation to make it not rash to erect a small superstructure of critical comment on the book now once more submitted to English readers. Of that book I own that I was myself a good many years ago, and for a good many years, a harsh and even a rather unfair judge. I do not know whether years have brought me the philosophic mind, or whether the book—itself, as has been said, the offspring of middle-aged emotions —appeals more directly to a middle-aged than to a young judgment. To the young of its own time and the times immediately succeeding it appealed readily enough, and scarcely Byron himself (who was not a little influenced by it) had more to do with the Italomania of Europe in the second quarter of this century
than Madame de Stael.
The faults of the novel indeed are those which impr ess themselves (as Mackintosh, we have seen, allowed) immediately and perhaps excessively. M. Sorel observes of its companion sententiously but truly, "Si le style deDelphine semble vieilli, c'est qu'il a été jeune." If not merely the style but the sentiment, the whole properties and the whole stage management ofCorinneseem out of date now, it is only because they were up to date then. It is easy to laugh—not perhaps very easy to abstain from laughing—at the "schall" twisted in Corinne's hair, where even contemporaries mocked the hideous turban with which Madame de Stael chose to bedizen her not too beautiful head; at Nelvil's inky cloak; at the putting out of the fire; at the queer stilted half-Ossianic, half-German rants put in the poetess's mouth; at the endless mingling of gallantry and pedantry; at the hesitations of Nelvil; at the agonies of Corinne. When French critics tell us that as they allow the good-humoured satire on the Count d'Erfeuil to be just, we ought to do the same in re ference to the "cant Britannique" of Nelvil and of the Edgermond circle, we can only respectfully answer that we should not presume to dispute their judgment in the first case, but that they really must leave us to ours in the second. As a matter of fact, Madame de Stael's goody English characters, are rather like Miss Edgeworth's naughty French ones inLeonoraand elsewhere—clever generalisations from a little observation and a great deal of preconceived idea, not studies from the life.
But this (and a great deal more that might be said if it were not something like petty treason in an introduction-writer thus to play the devil's advocate against his author) matters comparatively little, and leaves enough inCorinneto furnish forth a book almost great, interesting without any "almost," and remarkable as a not very large shelf-ful in the infinite library of modern fiction deserves remark. For the passion of its two chief characters, howeve r oddly, and to us unfashionably, presented, however lacking in the commanding and perennial qualities which make us indifferent to fashion in the work of the greatest masters, isreal. And it is perhaps only after a pretty long study of literature that one perceives how very little real passion books, e ven pretty good books, contain, how much of what at times seems to us passionate in them owes its appeal to accident, mode, and the personal equation . Of the highest achievement of art—that which avails itself of, but subdues, personal thought and feeling in the elaboration of a perfectly live character—Madame de Stael was indeed incapable. But in the second order—that which, availing itself of, but not subduing, the personal element, keeps enough of its veracity and lively force to enliven a composite structure of character—she has here produced very noteworthy studies. Corinne is a very fair embodiment of the beauty which her author would so fain have had; of the youthful ardour which she had once actually possessed; of the ideas and cults to which she was sincerely enough devoted; of the instruction and talent which unquestionably distinguished her. And it is not, I think, fanciful to discover in thi s heroine, with all her "Empire" artifice and convention, all her smack of the theatre and thesalon, a certain live quiver and throb, which, as has been already hinted , may be traced to the combined working in Madame de Stael's mind and heart of the excitements of foreign travel, the zest of new studies, new scenes, new company, with the chill regret for lost or passing youth and love, and the chillier anticipation of coming