Germaine de Staël on Literature and Passions in Thermidorian France

By Cathleen Mair

In a letter to her husband, dated August 1794, the Swiss intellectual and salonnière Germaine de Staël reflected on the “new revolution” that had just taken place in France.[1] The overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre on 9 Thermidor II (27 July 1794) was at the forefront of her mind. Staël, whose political sympathies aligned more with the Girondins than the Montagnards, welcomed the news but worried about the challenges that lay ahead.[2] How could France recover from the “bloody days” that had occurred? In fact, Robespierre’s death initiated a complex process of political reconstruction that sought to break with the Terror without reneging on the republican project altogether.[3] The Thermidorian Reaction was not only perceived as a watershed moment politically, but also socially. Legislators and citizens alike saw the reconstitution of the social order as a precondition for stability and progress in the aftermath of the Terror.[4]

Like her Thermidorian contemporaries, Germaine de Staël grappled with the problem of restoring the country’s social and political order. Novels were part of the solution, as she argued in the Essai sur les fictions. Published in May 1795, as part of an anthology entitled Recueil de morceaux détachés, the Essai was a critical reflection on the moral utility of novels in the context of the French Revolution, inflected by Staël’s reading of eighteenth-century sentimental literature and the philosophical writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot. Contemporary admirers of the Essai included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who translated it into German. A review in the newspaper Mercure Français commended Staël’s “wise” analysis of novels as studies in “practical morality” and the “passions of man.”[5] Today, the Essai is one of Staël’s lesser-known works ­– overlooked in favor of more ambitious projects, like De la littérature (1800), or her novels – but it provides  fascinating insight into the ways she reaffirmed the social purpose of literature after the Terror.[6]

The Essai might be best described as a work of moral and educational philosophy in the Thermidorian “discourse of moeurs”, as outlined by Andrew Jainchill.[7] The formation of a moral and engaged republican citizenry preoccupied Thermidorian politicians and intellectuals, including Staël, in the aftermath of Robespierre’s death. Deputy Jean-Antoine-Joseph Debry, for example, remarked that legislators ought to “direct the human passions to public benefit” through educational programs and civic festivals.[8] The Essai addressed this preoccupation with public morality by outlining the didactic potential of novels. In the text, Staël argued that a novel is “one of the most beautiful productions of the human spirit, and one of the most influential on the morality of individuals, which, in turn, forms public moeurs.[9] In her estimation, novels were among the most effective tools for redirecting private passions towards the public interest. 

Staël’s experience of the Terror informed the Essai: “Dante’s Hell pales in comparison to the bloodthirsty crimes which we have just witnessed.”[10] In other words, she positioned the text as a response to the Revolution’s most radical phase and the challenges of the Thermidorian moment. Specifically, Staël suggested that novels had a role to play in stemming the resurgence of those “sentiments that guided the executioners of France” during the Terror.[11] By this, she meant that the prevention of future violence required a transformation of citizens’ sensibilities as well as institutional safeguards. In other words, she saw the Terror not only as a political problem, but as an ethical problem. For Staël, the Terror represented the total negation of moral sentiments of humanity and generosity. As she had remarked in a pamphlet in 1793, “artificial passions” of fanaticism and ambition eradicated any capacity for compassion from public life.[12] The moral and political survival of the Republic after Thermidor hinged on the French undergoing an inner change to restore these capacities. Moreover, the revolutionary experience had proven to Staël definitively that public morality could not function on abstract principles of virtue or justice alone. The Essai thus argued that virtue required “animation” through affective as well as rational means: “There are some austere philosophers who condemn all emotions, and who wish for the empire of morality to function by the mere mention of duties; but nothing is less adapted to the nature of man […] one needs to animate virtue, so that it can fight successfully against the passions.”[13] Staël suggested novels productively accomplished both these goals. A novel did so, she suggested, by exercising the soul in “generous passions,” thereby habituating the individual in moral behavior. The best novels modeled how readers should live, producing socially useful habits.

Here, the Essai’s analysis rested on an understanding of human nature shaped by Staël’s reading of sentimental philosophy and literature. The Essai ascribed two distinct psychological faculties to human beings: reason and imagination. The latter posed risks but also provided the means to engage passions, activate memories, and recollect pleasant sensations. It was, in Staël’s view, the most potent human capacity. Fiction, by appealing to the imagination, moved the heart. In this way, fiction served to “direct and enlighten.”[14] Staël drew on eighteenth-century ideas of sensibility as well as her own reading experiences to develop this argument.[15] A long-time admirer of Rousseau, Staël had been particularly moved by his epistolary novel, La nouvelle Héloïse (1761). She remarked that Rousseau’s novel imparted moral lessons by provoking visceral reactions in readers. The novel was literally “moving”: the hearts of readers were activated physiologically. “Moral truths” were rendered visible by making readers feel.[16] Staël herself had experienced such a reaction, as had many of Rousseau’s readers.[17]  

But the Essai argued that this ability did not extend to all forms of fiction. Staël distinguished between three categories of literature in the text: 1) allegorical fiction, 2) historical fiction, and 3) “natural” fiction. Only the latter could serve a social and moral function in her view. By “natural” fiction, she meant narratives in which “the events are invented” but the “sentiments reflect nature” so  the reader sees themself in the story.[18] Staël did not buy into the idea that the novels were true – even though eighteenth-century authors often anxiously positioned their stories as such – but it was the verisimilitude that interested her. As stories about everyday experiences, the books invited the reader to believe in their probability. In this category, she highlighted works by Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Isabelle de Montolieu, Fanny Burney, and Rousseau – authors familiar to any students of eighteenth-century sentimental novels.[19]  These novels possessed an “intimate” understanding of the human heart, according to Staël. Their value had little to do with plot, she continued, but rather rested in their ability to depict and, in turn, develop the movements of the soul. 

Even to this category, however, the Essai added qualifications. Staël felt novels ought to focus on subjects beyond love to fulfill their educational potential. By way of example, Staël turned to the novel Caleb Williams (1794) by the English radical William Godwin. This was a surprising choice, as the first translations into French only appeared in 1796. But Staël valued the novel for depicting “life as it is” and because “love does not enter the plot.” In Staël’s reading, the novel examined questions of esteem, justice, and fairness.”[20] In this sense, Caleb Williams demonstrated “the superiority of natural qualities […] over those reputations that rested solely on external advantages.”[21] It was a novel with a philosophical purpose: it examined political principles as well as revealing the full nature of the human heart.[22] In other words, novels ought to dissect the full canvas of human passions, not just love, to fulfill their moral potential. Staël admired “authors who possess the talent to paint […] all the movements of the human heart.”[23] Only by educating citizens in a broad range of moral sentiments, she suggested, could private passions effectively be redirected towards the public good.

Grappling with the “magnitude” of France’s recent history, Staël turned to literature as a tool for governing violent passions and consolidating social ties.[24] When read as a contribution to contemporary debates about public moeurs, the Essai sur les fictions shows how Germaine de Staël, an influential figure among Thermidorian intellectuals, thought about the role of novels in forming responsible and engaged citizens after the Terror. 

Cathleen Mair is a PhD Candidate and Teaching Associate at Queen Mary, University of London. She works on late eighteenth-century British and French debates about the role of passions and sentiments in political life, with a focus on the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and Germaine de Staël.  

Title Image: Conférence de madame de Staël by Philibert-Louis Debucourt, 1800. Source:

Further Readings:

de Staël, Germaine. De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations. Lausanne: Jean Mourer; Hignou et Compe, 1796.

Jones, Colin. The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris. Oxford University Press, 2021.

Jainchill, Andrew J. S. Reimagining Politics After the Terror: The Republican Origins of French Liberalism. Cornell University Press, 2008.

Fontana, Biancamaria. “The Thermidorian Republic and Its Principles,” in The Invention of the Modern Republic, ed. Biancamaria Fontana. Cambridge University Press, 1994, 118–38.

Desan, Suzanne. “Reconstituting the Social after the Terror: Family, Property and the Law in Popular Politics,” Past & Present 164, no. 1 (1 August 1999): 81–121.

John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.


[1] Germaine de Staël, Lettres de Mézery et de Coppet, 16 mai 1794-16 mai 1795, ed. Béatrice W. Jasinski, Correspondance générale [hereafter cited as CG], vol. 3.2 (Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1968), 77. 

[2] Staël, CG 3.2:134.

[3] See Bronislaw Baczko, Ending the Terror: The French Revolution after Robespierre, trans. Michael Petheram (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). The Thermidorian period lasted from 27 July 1794 to 2 November 1795.

[4] Suzanne Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 251. 

[5] Mercure Français, 27 August 1795, 223–4. 

[6] For example, the Essai appears only briefly in Biancamaria Fontana, Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 156­–7. 

[7] Andrew J. S. Jainchill, Reimagining Politics After the Terror: The Republican Origins of French Liberalism (Cornell University Press, 2008), 62.

[8] Quoted in Jainchill, 62. 

[9] Germaine de Staël, Recueil de morceaux détachés (Lausanne: Durand, Ravanel et Comp., 1795), 42. A critical edition is available here: Stéphanie Genand, ed., Oeuvres completes, série I.II: De la littérature et autres essais littéraires (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2013). 

[10] Staël, 23. 

[11] Staël, 58.

[12] Germaine de Staël, Réflexions sur le procès de la reine (August 1793), 16.

[13] Staël, Recueil, 50.

[14] Staël, 16.

[15] Janet M. Todd, Sensibility: An Introduction (London: Methuen, 1986), 2-3.

[16] Staël, Recueil, 50.

[17] Germaine de Staël, Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J.-J. Rousseau, 1788, 18. See also Robert Darnton, ”Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity,”, in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009). Pages?

[18] Staël, Recueil, 41.

[19] Staël, 59. These are the authors that Staël mentions specifically, but other writers working in the genre include Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Mackenzie, and William Hill Brown. 

[20] Staël, 52

[21] Staël, 51. 

[22] Staël, 41. 

[23] Staël, 44. 

[24] Staël63.

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