115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Network of Sociability in Corinne: Staël’s Enlightenment Utopia

Chloe Edmondson, Stanford University

This paper approaches Corinne, ou l'Italie through an inter-disciplinary lens, drawing on literary, historical, and digital methodologies. I argue that through the constellation of sociability in the novel and the national allegories that accompany it, Staël evokes an enduring partiality for an Enlightenment ideal of sociability that remains deeply connected with female emancipation. 

Proposal: 

The Enlightenment ideal of a vibrant, mixed-gendered salon that thrives on intellectual and literary exchange is precisely the mode of sociability that Madame de Staël championed, both in theory and in practice. Staël inhabited a complex historical position between the Enlightenment and post-revolutionary France. She remained firmly attached not only to the ideas of the Enlightenment, but also to the aristocratic culture of the ancien régime, as evidenced by her desire to repurpose Enlightenment practices of sociability after the Revolution. Staël’s mastery of the 18th-century salon allowed her to expand her sociocultural influence from a Parisian salon in the years leading up to the Revolution to a bastion of intellectual exchange at Coppet, where she perpetuated Enlightenment modes of sociability and fostered female and male intellectual collaboration.

In line with the continued interest in Staël’s practices of sociability, her Enlightenment heritage, and her feminist critique of society, this paper demonstrates how these preoccupations intersect in her novel Corinne. I combine more traditional literary and historical methods with – for the first time – digital methodologies to examine the trope of Enlightenment sociability in the novel. For Staël, the salon was essential in affording women a role in public life. The ideal mode of Enlightenment sociability that Staël cultivated in her own circles finds its manifest expression in her novel Corinne, ou l’Italie.

While Staël’s literary work is often discussed in relation to the establishment of a Romantic topos, the influence of the Enlightenment on her work and her continued faith in les lumières ought not to be eclipsed. Staël draws on a variety of influences, not only German philosophy and English proto-romanticism, but also ideas from the French Enlightenment, which synthesize into a distinct pensée staëlienne that can be traced throughout her literary and philosophical works. If Corinne is first and foremost a Romantic novel that foregrounds the love plot between Corinne and Oswald, it is as much a novel about the role of women in society, articulated through the figure of the femme de génie. The novel can be read as having two plots: the love plot, which allows for the development of Romantic tropes – passion, suffering, the sublime experience of nature and ruins, melancholia, to name a few – and the plot of the femme de génie.

The plot of the femme de génie is a fundamental component of the pensée staëlienne, finding its expression in Corinne through the trope of sociability. What’s more, Staël’s allegorical use of nations in the novel serves to qualify the cultural conditions of possibility for this ideal sociability, contrasting a modern model of gender relations and female autonomy in Italy with the more archaic mores represented by British society in Corinne. In this paper, I argue that through the constellation of sociability in Corinne and the national allegories that accompany it, Staël evokes an enduring partiality for an Enlightenment ideal of sociability that remains deeply connected with female emancipation. The lens of sociability thus allows for a re-articulation of the novel as a social critique of patriarchal society in juxtaposition with an Enlightenment ideal.

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