Madame de Staël in London

14th July 1817 saw the demise of the Swiss author, woman of letters and political thinker, aged 51, Madame Germaine de Staël.  She was regarded as a witty socialite and always wore the most fashionable if daring clothing. Living through the French Revolution and opposed to Napoleon, she spent much of the time in exile.

Madame de Staël by François Gérard
Madame de Staël by François Gérard

In late June 1813, she arrived in London, with her daughter and was seen at all the fashionable places and social events, proving herself to be exceptionally popular and invited to all the best society parties. The newspapers were full of details of her attendance at events – everyone wanted to meet her.

Little known fact – she had ugly feet!

The presence of Madame de Staël in London has set all the journalists and magazine writers at work, to collect anecdotes of her conversational powers, her age, her appearance, her fine arm and her ugly feet. With respect to the latter, the following story is told. The French are famous for their neat quibbles – Madame de Staël was once at a place in Paris, where there was a pedestal, which, vain of her arm, she mounted, and put herself in an attitude to display it; but unluckily, which in this situation, she exhibited one of her feet. A French wit approached, and pretending to look more immediately at the pedestal, without noticing her feet, exclaimed ‘O le villain Pie-De-Stal!’

Windsor and Eton Express 01 August 1813

During her stay in London, she took great interest in the British education system and the newspapers reported her visits to various schools in London; she also managed a visit to Oxford University in December 1813.

H.R.H. the Prince Regent received by the University and City of Oxford, June 14, 1814 by George Jones.
H.R.H. the Prince Regent received by the University and City of Oxford, June 14, 1814, by George Jones; The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology.

In 1814 Paris had surrendered to the Allied troops and Napoléon, when he saw there was no option left, had abdicated his position of Emperor, surrendered to his opponents on 11th April and was exiled to the island of Elba.

“L’empereur Napoleon Ier (1769-1821) signant son abdication au chateau de Fontainebleau le 4/04/1814” Detail Peinture de Gaetano Ferri (1822-1896) d’apres Francois Bouchot (1800-1842) 1843 Dim 1,3×1,61 m Versailles, Musee du chateau ©DeAgostini/Leemage

This was regarded as a cause for celebration and we came across a report of her attendance as one of the honoured guests, at a ‘Fete’ in honour of The Peace. The account gave such a detailed description of the venue we simply had to share it with you.

On Friday night Breadalbane House in Park Lane was opened, for the first time two years, with a Fete, given expressly in honour of the late glorious change in the political hemisphere. To this entertainment were invited all the illustrious branches of the House of Bourbon. The most distinguished personages, the most fashionable youth of both sexes were present and exhibited an emulous display of the most superb dresses, enchanting beauty, and refined wit.

Lord Petre's (later Breadalbane) House (demolished), plans in 1783. 'Park Lane', in Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings), ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1980), pp. 264-289. British History Online
Lord Petre’s (later Breadalbane) House (demolished), plans in 1783. ‘Park Lane’, in Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings), ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1980), pp. 264-289. British History Online

On entering, the company were introduced into a hall, decorated with natural and artificial flowers, curiously interwoven, among which the white rose and laurel leaves were conspicuously blended.

The Next Dance, George Goodwin Kilburne,
The Next Dance, George Goodwin Kilburne, Wikimedia Commons

Ascending the grand geometrical staircase (a fine piece of architecture), a very pleasing object presented itself to view; it was festoons, garlands and wreaths of white roses and laurel leaves. In the principal room appeared objects of singular splendour, superb mirrors, ottomans, chairs, sofas, fauteuils, and jardinières of burnished gold, exquisite paintings with all the warmth and colouring of the Italian school; bronzes, porcelain and ormolu; inestimable specimens of rare bijoutry and other articles of vertu.

Here the floor was painted in watercolours, in which the artist inimitably described the fall of despotism by allegorical figures, with the rising sun of the Capets, personified by a bust of Louis XVIII. ‘Vivent Les Bourbons’ and the lily appeared on every side.

A Ballroom by Patrick William Adam
A Ballroom by Patrick William Adam; City of Edinburgh Council

It is impossible to give a just idea of the charming coup d’oeil presented by the former capacious room lighted by superb chandeliers and filled with elegant dancers. The music commenced at half-past eleven o’clock, with ‘The White Cockade’ led off by the Earl of Kinnoull and Lady Elizabeth Campbell. Next followed the Prince Regent. A double set was increased by four. The spirit and animation displayed were uncommonly gratifying and without prejudice, we may stage, that Lady Elizabeth Campbell excelled.

Thomas Robert Hay, Eleventh Earl of Kinnoull (1785–1866) by Sir Henry Raeburn, 1815.
Thomas Robert Hay, Eleventh Earl of Kinnoull (1785–1866) by Sir Henry Raeburn, 1815. North Carolina Museum of Art

The waltzing commenced at one o’clock. Here was an admirable display of refinement in that mode of exhibiting ‘the light fantastic toe’. The Duke of Devonshire and Miss Mercer Elphinstone; Lord Maitland and Lady Susan Ryder; Earl of Fife and Lady Westmorland; Countess of Jersey and the Hon. Mrs Fitzroy. At two o’clock supper was announced. The company promenaded down the stairs into the library. On the staircase were the colours of the different Allies – Russia. Austria, Prussia and England.

Miss Mercer Elphinstone
Miss Mercer Elphinstone

Here another object of powerful influence rivetted the attention of every individual; it was a display of gold plate, antique and exquisitely wrought. These glittering objects, dazzling the senses into confusion – candelabras, tripods, urns, cups and salvers. A horseshoe table in this room and several long ones in the two adjoining apartments supped two hundred and fifty persons.

Regency dinner table.
Image sourced via Pinterest.

The most exquisite wines, the costliest preserves, the finest pineapples, grapes and produce of hot and succession houses, were in abundance. In short, everything that could recommend an entertainment was remembered.

Study of Fruit by George Gray
Study of Fruit by George Gray; Laing Art Gallery

Adding not a little to the effect may be enumerated the lighting of upwards of 200 wax candles, were used. Although the crowded rooms produced heat, the effect was not disagreeable, owing no doubt, to the use of wax instead of oil. The latter is a most pernicious custom, and we are happy to hear, will be nearly exploded this season, the Marchioness of Salisbury having likewise set the example.

Highest Life in London Society.
Highest Life in London Society. NYPL

The dancing recommenced with reels, at three o’clock and the whole concluded at six in the morning. An elegant dejeune was then served up, and the visitants soon after retired.

By September 1814, Madame de Staël had returned to Paris and was apparently

no longer in vogue. Her literary vagaries found no countenance from the French Court, and as for the middling classes, these persons do not understand, or even attempt to read her works.

We can share with you an interesting comment made by our Georgian Heroine, Mrs (Rachel) Charlotte Williams Biggs, written to a close friend in early April 1814, which conjured up quite an amusing image.

Clearly, Charlotte’s perception of Madame de Staël was somewhat different from views elsewhere expressed about her relationship with Napoleon. Could she see that Madame de Staël would fall out of favour?

Madame de Staël & her disciples will now be out of fashion & I doubt not but that she feels disappointed and mortified – she liked the principle of Buonaparte’s power, and only objected to that portion of it which was exercised against herself – I recommend the sending all these people to Elba, they would be like confined spiders & soon destroy each other.

A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs. The bizarre but true story of an astounding woman persevering in a man’s world

Sources: 

Morning Chronicle 22 June 1813

Liverpool Mercury 31 December 1813

Morning Post 30 March 1814

Morning Post 25 April 1814

Morning Post 17 September 1814

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6 thoughts on “Madame de Staël in London

  1. Madame de Staël was an amazing woman. She hated Napoléon and the feeling was reciprocated by him. She was a monarchist through and through. Madame de Staël’s father was Jacques Necker, the finance minister to King Louis XVI. Her story pre-revolution and during the revolution is quite fascinating. Post-revolution, she bounced back and forth between France and England depending on who was running France.

    Like

    1. Sarah Murden

      She certainly was amazing, we quite liked our ‘Georgine Heroine’s’ observations about her, not sure the two women would have got on very well! 🙂

      Like

    1. Sarah Murden

      Goodness only knows what was wrong with them, but clearly noteworthy – we’ll have to see if we can find a lovely painting of her feet to share with you 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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