Stael, Madame de. Delphine.
Stael, Madame de. Delphine. Edited by Lucia Omacini and Simone Balaye. OEuvres completes, serie II. OEuvres litteraires, tome II. Paris: Honore Champion. 2004. Pp. xlvi + 789. ISBN 27745309579
Germaine de Stael began Delphine in 1800, after returning to Paris under Bonaparte's Consulate. By then, she had militated for the Revolution, written polemics, short fiction, works on Rousseau and on the passions. In 1800 she published De la litterature which consolidated her status as a woman of letters.
So determined was she not to irritate the First Consul whose rise was far from her preferred turn of events that she insisted her Delphine was in no wise a political work. Instead she strove for a female readership with a novel exploring the parlous situation of women in the Revolution's first years: 1790-92. For Delphine the Revolution is hOt merely a backdrop, but its very warp; and yet it dwells upon private matters. Is this novel the "mere pastime" Stael claimed?
Young widow Delphine, left wealthy by her protector Albemar, is lioness of a lively circle. Her peace is undermined as she falls in love with Leonce de Mondoville, unlike her, a political and social reactionary. Delphine's dear friend, Mme de Vernon, whose daughter Mathilde is engaged to Leonce, betrays Delphine's trust and Leonce weds Mathilde. The lovers' passion persists. Delphine's offer to harbor another friend, Therese, leads to disaster. Improvident, she shelters a political fugitive, inspiring Leonce's wrath. The novel's first ending has Delphine flee to a convent, pursued by her lover. Leonce is killed in battle, and Delphine takes poison. Attacked for letting Delphine kill herself, Stael wrote a second ending to the novel, published only after her death in 1817, and an essay on suicide. The present edition includes these annexes.
Alongside scenes of trumped-up melodrama, the novel offers superb characterizations in the manner of the seventeenth-century portrait and sagaciously plumbs bourgeois, and aristocratic milieus. Women's roles in society are its central preoccupation, but braided into it are issues of marriage and divorce, reason vs. passion, natural vs. churchly religion, the indissolubility of monastic vows, a right to suicide, and the clash between opinion and individual freedom. These all interrogate the impact of the Revolution upon private life.
Visibly, Delphine is a novel of disaffection, illustrating how the elation of early Revolution was dissipated by personal, familial and structural limitations in a French society suspicious of generosity of spirit and wary of the rights of individuals. Attacked and defended with almost equal fervor, despite its flaws, it continues to unfold itself to feminist, textual, and historically based critics' exegeses.
This edition, undertaken by Lucia Omacini and Simone Balaye before her death, has been ably completed by Omacini. Its notes are excellent for their range, yet unintrusive. Her introduction treats Delphine's origins, its place in epistolary tradition, its reception, its publication history, and the rationale for establishing the text. A superb presentation of Delphine, no one interested in Stael, the novel, or literature and the Revolution should find it less than illuminating.
Madelyn Gutwirth, West Chester University
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|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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