Most of this biography is told in the words of the two women themselves: British writer Frances, known as Fanny Burney and her near contemporary, the French writer Germaine de Stael, usually referred to as Mme de Staël. Both women were inveterate journal and letter writers and the book’s author, Elise Lauber-Sparre, obviously had a vast archive from which to choose.
Fanny Burney was born in 1752 and her father Charles was a musician and musicologist. He aspired to be a ‘man of letters’ and to that end, moved the family from Norfolk to London when Fanny was eight. She had no formal education but read widely from her father’s library and began writing when she was just ten years old.
Novel reading, let alone writing, was something which well brought up young ladies did not do and so fearing her father’s anger, Fanny’s first novel Evelina was published anonymously in 1778. Throughout her literary career her father’s disapproval and judgment had a controlling influence, and not just on her writing.
Germaine de Staël, born in 1766, was the only child of Jacques Necker, a Protestant Swiss banker who became finance minister to Louis XVI of France. In contrast to Fanny’s education, her mother, Suzanne, established a firm regime for Germaine’s upbringing, relying much on the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Germaine was already famous for her literary gatherings when the French Revolution began in 1789 in which her father was heavily implicated. Her position as the ambassador’s wife protected her when she held political dinners in the Embassy – inviting guests of varied political affiliations. But as the violence of the Revolution grew, Mme de Staël went into exile in England with her lover, the Comte de Narbonne, and it was then the two women met.
Their social mores could not have been more different and Fanny was discouraged by her father from seeing Mme de Staël, particularly after she became pregnant. Fanny’s correspondence at the time shows her to have views typical of her time and class. Although she personally liked and admired Germaine, as a single woman she could not risk her own reputation by continuing to associate with her. Fanny, however, did meet her future husband at the exiles’ home – M. d’Arblay.
Author Elise Lauber-Sparre has written over 500 pages on the individual and interlinked biographies of Fanny and Germaine including the impacts of the continuing Revolution and the rise of Napoleon and their literary efforts but space here does not permit further details.
To be able to read of the opinions, views and feelings of the people and politics of their times, in their own words, is wonderful but the book is overlong. There are too many long extracts of letters, journals or diaries which, at times, have insufficient linking or transitional narrative. At other times the linking narrative seems to be unnecessarily verbose. The book would have benefited from some judicial editing.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 6