Books: French Circe

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MISTRESS TO AN AGE (500 pp.)—J. Chrlsfopher Herold—Bobbs-Merrill ($5.95).

The title of this biography puts both the author's point of view and his heroine in a nutshell—quite an achievement, considering that Germaine de Staël was probably the largest, loudest, lustiest woman who ever strode the pages of French history. Riding the great waves of social upheaval during and after the Revolution, Germaine exhausted her lovers, exasperated her friends, maddened her rulers.

Her father was Jacques Necker, Louis XVI's famed moneyman, who virtually ran France. At 19, Germaine was married off to Sweden's Baron Eric Magnus de Staël-Holstein in a deal of unromantic grandeur under which 1) France gave Sweden the West Indian island of Saint-Barthélemy, 2) the King of Sweden gave Baron de Staël, who had rigged the gift, the plum post of Ambassador to Paris, 3) Banker Necker, who had refused to settle for a son-in-law below ambassadorial rank, gave daughter Germaine to Ambassador de Staël, along with a whopping dowry. As for Germaine, she wanted to cultivate "the intellectual and nervous exaltation" which was her notion of the perfect life. Her husband, she said, was too "correct, sterile, inert" to supply exaltation of any sort. Other men filled the bill.

On Venusberg. Some of her lovers ran successively, some concurrently. Some remained hers for months, others for years. Author Benjamin (Adolphe) Constant was in Germaine's toils for almost a quarter-century. By middle age, she ruled, in Author Herold's words, "like Venus over the damned souls in the Venusberg, like Calypso over shipwrecked travelers, like Circe over her menagerie."

As Author Herold (editor of the Stanford University Press) tells it, in his Book-of-the-Month biography, Germaine espoused the French Revolution with such enthusiasm that she became a behind-the-scenes power at the very moment that her banker father was tumbling to his fall. In the days of the Terror, she enthusiastically switched sides and saved many an innocent from the guillotine. Long accustomed by then to swaying men, she hoped to make a good democrat out of Napoleon, but he snubbed her. Among other things, he resented her trying to interview him when he was "naked in his bathtub" and positively bridled when she protested: "Genius has no sex!"

Moderate Goals. Asks Author Herold: "What was the nature of the brilliance Germaine had radiated?" It was neither beauty nor tact nor intellect. As Herold sees it, what made Germaine unique was that "she sought essentially moderate goals by the most passionate means." She "exalted" love; yet "the goal was not the agonizing passion she knew but the quiet happiness that eluded her." She pursued ideals with equal passion, but always with the hope that she might "agree peacefully" with enthusiasts whose ideals were different. Thus, concludes Biographer Herold in one of the odd conclusions-of-the-month, Mme. de Staël's example is of immense value today in a world which is full of fanaticism and "mesmerized by the opposition of principles."

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