- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

In her Prologue to “Accursed Politics: Some French Women Writers and Political Life, 1715-1850,” Renee Winegarten recounts an exchange that took place in 1797 between Napoleon Bonaparte and a young widow whose husband, a liberal philosophe, had died in prison during the Reign of Terror. Bonaparte, newly returned from his triumphs in Italy, approached the beautiful marquise at a reception:

“‘Madame,’ said Bonaparte disagreeably, ‘I do not like women to busy themselves with politics.’ ‘General, you are right,’ replied Sophie de Condorcet. ‘But in a country where women have their head cut off it is natural that they should wish to know why.’ Bonaparte did not reply and moved on. Germaine de Stael was so taken with this telling repartee that she repeated it more than once in her writings. No mean wit in her own right, she probably wished that she had said it herself.”

For French women living in this particularly turbulent time, the wish to know the whys of violence, poverty, inequity in social and political matters set the brightest of them along a course of inquiry and study that defies today’s commonly held beliefs about what women of the 18th- and early-19th century were able to do. The writings that inevitably issued from such curiosity and exploration could and did invite ridicule, scandal, imprisonment, exile or, in the most extreme cases, the guillotine. But they also supported what we know today as political activism, though often of a veiled variety.

The six women Mrs. Winegarten has chosen to portray here — Alexandrine de Tencine, Manon Roland, Claire de Duras, Felicite de Genlis, Germaine de Stael and George Sand — hailed from a variety of social backgrounds and held opinions that range across the political spectrum. All were brilliant, some were charming, a few were capable of envy, deceit, greed and more, but none was capable of remaining silent. Each in their lifetime also became something that neither time nor public scorn nor the tyranny of a Corsican bully could deny them. They became women of influence. Who these dynamic women influenced and how they exercised that influence is the subject of this book.

Mrs. Winegarten takes her title “Accursed Politics” from a character in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Julie ou la Nouvelle Heloise,” in which “he chose surprisingly to have one of his women characters speak about politics,” an irresistible thicket into which she gets caught repeatedly and which causes her to protest, “‘Well, I am not being enmeshed yet again in accursed politics, cete maudite politique.’” Like Julie there is in the lives of these women more than enough politics and turmoil to go around, and Mrs. Weingarten illuminates every fraught corner with grace, skill and wit.

At first glance, the book seems to offer chapter-by-chapter biographies of the selected subjects, though it turns out to be more richly textured than that. Mrs. Winegarten, who has written widely about French literature and culture, delivers keen insights on the intellectual life of the times, integrating the world of literature and ideas into the political lives these women led. Most of these chapters appeared as shorter essays in the New Criterion.

By expanding them and presenting them together here, Mrs. Winegarten affords readers the opportunity to see these extraordinary women in context and in relationship to each other. Some were friends and some were bitter rivals. It was Felicite Genlis who “held court, welcoming persons either connected with Bonaparte or favorable to him, while denigrating those — like Germaine de Stael —who were not.” But rivalries among themselves were nothing compared to what they faced from the male dominated society beyond.

Early in the book Mrs. Winegarten asks, “What dreams, thoughts and feelings, what sensibilities did they bring to a world that was collapsing about them or else in the throes of constant change? And why consider women writers in particular? It is in order to try to redress the balance, to see the world from their point of view. For they had political opinions, made judgments, and acted upon them.”

Their influence was not always obvious. As Mrs. Weingarten avers, “In pursuit of their own advancement [men] consulted in private with their wives, their lovers, their intelligent women friends.” The emphasis here is on private. And Mrs. Winegarten is also careful to give the women their due without exaggerating it. “Apart from Germaine de Stael, they were not political thinkers as such but were mostly fascinated by political ideas or ideals.”

Of the women Mrs. Winegarten chose to highlight Alexandrine de Tencin (1692-1749) is the most distant in time and bearing. A “frustrated political animal,” she was the author of several novels published anonymously, and “with tireless energy she worked for years to further the career of her brother … the disreputable Pierre Guerin.” Manon Roland, who took “her treasured copy of Plutarch’s lives of the great men of antiquity with her to church to read instead of her missal when she was about nine,” grew up to share her husband’s Girondin ministry and paid the price with prison time and a swift march to the guillotine.

Claire Duras, a liberal royalist served the career of her friend, then Vicomte de Chateaubriand, a fascinating but in the end grotesquely selfish man. Felicite Genlis, who may win the prize for the most conniving woman in the book was a teacher and a novelist who, at her peril, took up with Philippe Egalite and became a tutor to his son, Louis Philippe. Germaine de Stael, who inherited the political bug from her influential father Jacques Necker was a well known novelist (“Corinne”) and helped found political liberalism in France. With her protracted battle with Napoleon, her bouts of melancholy balanced by determination, and her ultimate exile her story is perhaps the most vibrant and exasperating.

And last but certainly not least there is George Sand, about whom Mrs. Winegarten delivers what is a startling (at least to this reader) revelation. Besides being a woman notable for novels that helped advance the cause of women’s equality, she was also an early and devoted communist.

This book is a feast of scholarship and wisdom and throughout Mrs. Winegarten returns to her theme of influence. Not all of the women were conversant in 18th-century political thought (though Roland, de Genlis, de Stael and Sand certainly were) but through their memoirs and through their art they “made a vital and challenging contribution not only to literature but also to political life.”


By Renee Winegarten

Ivan R. Dee, $27.50, 274 pages, illus.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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