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  • The Expatriate and the Traveler:Constance de Salm and Germaine de Staël in Germany
  • Nadine Bérenguier (bio)

In 1803, Constance de Salm and Germaine de Staël, two celebrated French women of letters, were facing the prospect of leaving France to spend time in Germany. Despite their apparently similar intentions to leave France for the same general destination, the circumstances of their travels were very different. Constance de Salm's departure was a joyful prospect brought by a love match and her (second) marriage to the count Joseph von Salm-Reifferscheidt-Dyck, whose prominent family owned estates in the Rhine region.1 Staël, in contrast, had just received the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte's order to go into exile. Perceived by Napoleon as a troublemaker who agitated against him and his regime in her writings and salon, Staël was forced to leave Paris and settle at no less than one hundred and sixty kilometers from the capital; she chose Germany.2

Interestingly, both Staël and Salm referred to their destination as "Allemagne," although Germany did not yet exist as a united nation at the time. Furthermore, during the first ten years of their married life, the Salms did not really cross any border when they went to their German estates: the left bank of the Rhine was then a French département, and it became part of Prussia after Napoleon's defeat in 1814.3 This lack of political unity did not prevent either woman from perceiving and discussing Germany culturally and linguistically as a distinct and cohesive foreign entity, one that they opposed to France.

This succinct depiction of the circumstances behind Salm [End Page 138] and Staël's geographical mobility reveals the extent to which geopolitical factors intersect with personal circumstances to shape the experience of those who leave the familiar confines of their countries for new nations and thus become expatriates. Other elements—such as the length and frequency of expatriates' stays abroad, the geographical settings in which they live (urban versus rural), the make-up of their socioeconomic environments (working, middle, or upper class)—play a significant role in shaping these experiences, as does the expatriates' relationship to the language of their host culture.4 Considering these various factors as they apply to the experiences of Salm and Staël in Germany is especially valuable for a sorely needed comparison of their relationships to a country that remains closely associated with both of their biographical and intellectual trajectories.

Among the scholars who have contributed to the burgeoning scholarship on Salm, few have compared Salm and Staël's roles in the early nineteenth-century Parisian intelligentsia, and even fewer have paid attention to their shared experiences in Germany.5 Geneviève Fraisse's Reason's Muse underscores the exceptional status of both Staël and Salm as female intellectuals in post-Revolutionary Paris, without ever bringing up this common biographical element (111-15). In Constance de Salm, her Influence and her Circle, Ellen McNiven Hine mentions the two authors' "shared interest in Germany," but only in a passing remark (35). Of the two German historians who have carefully documented Salm's life in Germany, Heinke Wunderlich and Christiane Coester, only the former makes any mention of Staël. Wunderlich does so not to compare Salm and Staël's experiences in Germany, but to contrast their relationships to Napoleon (Wunderlich 129-30). Yet, it is worth considering the canonical Germaine de Staël and the lesser-known Constance de Salm through the prism of their German experiences to explore how, despite comparable levels of education and intellectual acumen, their diverging trajectories in that country shaped their identities as women writers and, moreover, deeply affected their reputations in French literary history.

The extensive correspondence left by Salm and Staël facilitates this endeavor. As central figures in Parisian intellectual [End Page 139] circles, both women were connected to a multitude of friends and acquaintances with whom they exchanged numerous letters. Staël's stays in Germany were relatively brief, but her epistolary output was quite substantial.6 As can be expected, the bulk of Salm's missives emanated from the Rhine...