- La Lettre et la mère: Roman familial et écriture de la passion chez Suzanne Necker et Germaine de Staël by Catherine Dubeau
The tensions that marked Suzanne Curchod Necker’s relationship with her only daughter, Germaine de Staël, are well known. Many biographical and literary treatments of Germaine de Staël take for granted the maternal and filial ambivalence and hostility of their relationship. So too has scholarly work about Necker referenced the question of the maternal. Scholars have pointed to a deep animosity shaped, on the one hand, by Necker’s commitment to Calvinist principles of piety, duty, and moderation and, on the other, by de Staël’s life of passion and the imagination. But there has not been, until now, any sustained reading of this maternal and filial antipathy and, more specifically, of the impact of this relationship. Catherine Dubeau’s work, [End Page 395] based on her doctoral dissertation, is the first to consider closely how maternal and filial motivations shaped both of these women’s lives, thinking, and writing. Her main thesis is that this impassioned, conflict-ridden relationship was the “dynamique fondatrice des poétiques de Suzanne Necker et Germaine de Staël” (8). Dubeau moves well beyond the observations of earlier de Staël scholars, revealing a relationship that was highly complex, shaped not only by the distinctive personalities of each woman, but also by their histories and the social and political contexts in which they lived. In the process, Dubeau’s analysis reveals as much about these women as individuals as it does about the tensions between the two different eras that their world views represent.
To make her case, Dubeau draws on the extensive corpus of writings left by these women, pulling from both published and unpublished sources and fiction, as well as from essays and treatises. These materials include previously unexamined, unpublished manuscript materials from the Coppet archives of the Haussonville family (Dubeau includes some of these materials transcribed in her appendices, making them available to a broad public for the first time), as well as more familiar published works such as de Staël’s Corinne (1807). It is a challenge to bring this range of writings together, and to do a comparative reading justice. But this generic diversity is one of the strengths of the work, as it enables Dubeau to trace the various trajectories of these writers’ thinking and to acknowledge the different histories and politics that shaped their literary ambitions and ultimately their choices. At a practical level, it is also the only way to juxtapose Necker and de Staël, given that their writing was so strongly shaped by the social and cultural expectations of their respective eras, and, it must be said, by those of Necker’s husband (and de Staël’s father), Jacques Necker.
Unlike earlier literary and scholarly studies, Dubeau consciously puts Necker and de Staël on equal footing, even as their posthumous legacies would give clear precedence to de Staël. She also chooses not to distinguish hierarchically between the different genres in which these women wrote. Thus, intimate writing never intended for a public audience is juxtaposed directly with published works, and both are analyzed with the same depth of critical engagement. This is a real strength of this book because it allows both authors to shine as individuals while also enabling an analysis in which one author is read in and through the work and thinking of the other. This approach is deftly handled in the book’s tripartite structure: Dubeau opens with a section that considers the factors that shaped Necker’s maternal world view, then moves into a direct juxtaposition of Necker and de Staël, and finally, explores de Staël’s reflections on maternal/filial relations as they emerge in writings produced after Necker’s death. Throughout, Dubeau [End Page...