Writing the Self, Writing the Nation

Romantic Selfhood in the Works of Germaine de Staël and Claire de Duras

by Stacie Allan (Author)
Monographs VIII, 240 Pages

Table Of Content

Stacie Allan

Writing the Self,
Writing the Nation

Romantic Selfhood in the Works of
Germaine de Staël and Claire de Duras

About the author

Stacie Allan is a specialist in French literature and culture, primarily early nineteenth-century novels. Her research centres on the impact of intercultural encounters on individual subjectivity and literary production. She received her PhD from the University of Bristol in 2017 and has previously taught on French courses at the universities of Bristol and Westminster.

About the book

The French Revolution represents a pivotal moment within the history of personhood in France, where gender and national differences provided the foundations of society. As such, these constructs feature as ideological battlegrounds in the search for identity and self-expression within the Romantic literature published between the revolutions of 1789 and 1830. This book considers Germaine de Staël’s and Claire de Duras’s depictions of men’s and women’s shared and diverging lived experiences to offer an innovative transnational perspective on the usually male-focused mal du siècle. Its methodology combines feminist revisions of the novel, situated reading practices, and life writing research with an intersectional approach to gender and nationhood. This framework presents a dialectical relationship between sameness and difference on formal and thematic levels that challenges the construction and enforcement of binaries within early nineteenth-century legislation, discourse, and culture. Beyond Staël’s and Duras’s intertextual relationship, this book promotes the importance of an understudied period in literary scholarship, clarifies women’s role within French Romanticism, and explores the tense relationship between the self and the nation.

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This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.


This book and the doctoral thesis on which it is based were written on trains travelling between Oxford and Bristol (and on the station platform at Didcot Parkway en route), on planes bookending weekends away, and buses commuting to London during a stint of teaching. Parts of the book have been presented in Gettysburg and Coventry, Paris and Sheffield, Berlin and Bristol. Much like the two women upon which it centres, it is a piece of work that has travelled. Much like the ideas of these two women, it has been developed and enriched in conversation with others.

Completing a monograph without institutional support poses certain challenges, and I am especially grateful to the friends and mentors who read through my proposal, commented on sections, and gave me advice. In particular, I would like to thank my PhD supervisor Bradley Stephens who supported the project from the beginning. Stimulating conversations with and friendly support from Clare Siviter, Christie Margrave, Jennifer Rushworth, and Kate Astbury have been of immense value. Im also very appreciative that Tom Harding and Katja Wiech allowed me to work flexibly whilst I completed the manuscript. Finally, I must mention the unwavering companionship and encouragement of Johnny McFadyen, who patiently read through, corrected, and offered feedback on this material in its various guises over the years.

S.A. Rheinsberg, November 2018

←vii | viii→ ←viii | 1→


The Romantic Novel in France

In Mémoires doutre-­tombe (1849), François-­René de Chateaubriand, the grandfather of French Romanticism, described his chère sœur and devoted friend Claire de Duras as ‘[une] personne si généreuse, dune âme si noble, dun esprit qui réunissait quelque chose de la force de la pensée de madame de Staël à la grâce du talent de madame de La Fayette [such a generous person with a noble soul and a spirit that united something of the intellectual magnitude of Madame de Staël with the elegant talent of Madame de Lafayette].1 By comparing Duras to French Romanticisms other founding thinker, Germaine de Staël, and the author of one of the first European novels, Marie-­Madeline de Lafayette, Chateaubriand inscribes the author into two traditions that underpin nineteenth-­century literary history in France, two traditions that tend to be dominated by male writers within existing scholarship. Despite the recent ‘Ourika mania of teaching Durass 1823 text as part of university syllabi in the United States and beyond, the authors critical reputation does not extend to the heights of Chateaubriands appraisal.2 Similarly, whilst Durass contemporary and friend Staël is, of course, recognized as a key proponent of European Romanticism, her work does not receive the same level of scholarly attention←1 | 2→ within the French tradition as later (male) canonical writers, particularly among dix-­neuvièmistes.

Taking Staëls and Durass hitherto unexplored intertextual relationship as its primary subject, this book places women back at the centre of French Romanticism and the novels development across the nineteenth century. Its dual focus on novel writing practices and the complex and evolving concept of subjectivity in France after 1789 reveals the two to be interrelated: gendered perceptions of men and women influenced the reception of different types of novels, and novels contributed to individuals understanding of themselves and their relationship to the nation. The novels rise is generally understood to coincide with that of nationalism; its compositional processes, as Benedict Anderson argues, ‘provided the technical means for “re-­presenting” the kind of imagined community that is the nation.3 Such a reading presents the novel as bounded, national and gendered – qualities that are reflected in the nation itself. According to Anne McClintock, ‘nations are contested systems of cultural representation and legitimize peoples access to the resources of the nation-­state […]. Nations have historically amounted to the institutionalization of gender difference.4 Analogously, when it comes to the nineteenth-­century novel in France, literary history, as Margaret Cohen observes, ‘offers few cases where gender and genre line up so neatly.5 To undo these hierarchical conceptions of the novel and the nation, this book considers how gender and nationhood were ideological battlegrounds in the search for identity and self-­expression, as evidenced in the novels published from 1789 to the ascent of Realism around 1830.

The French Revolution represents a pivotal and complex moment within the history of personhood in France. The move away from hereditary←2 | 3→ class-­based determinants of identity shifted the foundations of society and reformulated social bonds between people: the beheading of the king transferred unity from the national père [father] to the patrie [fatherland]. The theoretical individualism of the eighteenth-­century could now be played out in real life and have its boundaries tested, the psychological effects and structural limitations of which were a source of continual conflict. This new formulation of identity was founded upon a violent severing of long-­established links to family and land, which left an entire generation disconnected from their past lives. In contrast, the composition of the emerging French nation was rooted in the binary of gender difference; its legislation outlined specific national duties for men and women and allocated separate spheres of activity to them: the masculine public sphere and the feminine private sphere. This tense co-­existence of individual freedom and determinism and the melancholia it provoked produced the mal du siècle [malady of the century]. This psychological condition preoccupied Romantic writers, who experienced exile and alienation from Frances new regime. Their writings attest to how the individual and the nation were interdependent and conflicting concepts. Far from the novel writing out the totalizing boundaries of the nation, this book reveals how the novelistic form questions, pushes against and transgresses its national and gendered limitations.

Staëls and Durass personal biographies meant that they acutely suffered the effects of Frances post-1789 social transformation, particularly in its consequences for individual subjectivity. As my analysis will show, these instances of exile, losses of close friends and family and a withdrawal of status in gender, national and class terms were similarly points of departure for their writings.6 These shared experiences were ‘a←3 | 4→ source of melancholy, as Peter Fritzsche notes, but they ‘also prompted a search for new ways to understand difference, which had creative and cultural advantages.7 Facing hostilities in France because of their identities whilst being welcomed in foreign England threw into sharp relief the myth of nations existing as eternally cohesive and unique entities. The experience of exile breaks down the boundaries that nations construct because it presents a rupture between the past nationally defined self, from which the individual is now excluded, and the present deracinated self. The illusion of selfhood as a unified, stable concept and the nations←4 | 5→ composition as a constantly changing entity become apparent: the lines between self and other effectively become blurred. Staël and Duras adopt a variety of fictional positions to act out this alienation from France and detachment from their past lives. I, thus, contend that the two authors articulated the generational trauma of the extended Revolutionary period by writing the self through agents and sites of otherness, in terms that evidence a dialectical relationship between sameness and difference. Across their works, Staël and Duras develop a fluid and relational model of selfhood: a Romantic selfhood.

The term Romantic is inherently difficult to define; the transience it supposes means that the boundaries of generic, thematic and temporal inclusion within its associated movement Romanticism are excessively flexible. Within the French tradition, D. G. Charlton acknowledges ‘the astonishing breadth of [the Romantics] concerns and the sheer diversity of literary, intellectual and artistic forms they employed. The Romantic era he establishes is bookended by Staëls first published work Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (1788) and the posthumous appearance of Victor Hugos Dieu (1891).8 Finding a broad range of practitioners, each with their own interpretation of the term, and covering a century in which France continually remodelled itself means that Romanticism is characterized by its very diversity. The task of defining Romantic is problematized further by the French traditions complex relationship to other Romanticisms, notably the English and German variations, which emerged first and nourished subsequent national iterations. Staëls De lAllemagne locates Romanticisms roots abroad, which attributes a firmly transnational dimension to her application of its principles, capturing both French specificity and European universality. To speak of a pan-­European Romanticism is no less challenging: Lilian Furst views the tradition as ‘too large, too complex, and above all, too elastic to be captured in some scholarly butterfly-­net, whilst Michael Ferber resorts to identifying a broad list of ‘eight or ten “norms” that are represented←5 | 6→ across the European context.9 Romanticism, it would seem, resists any boundary that seeks to contain it. Indeed, as Duras wrote in 1824: ‘la définition du romantique, cest dêtre indéfinissable [the definition of Romantic is to be indefinable].10


VIII, 240
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Gender Nationhood Romanticism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. XVIII, 240 pp.

Biographical notes

Stacie Allan (Author)

Stacie Allan is a specialist in French literature and culture, primarily early nineteenth-century novels. Her research centres on the impact of intercultural encounters on individual subjectivity and literary production. She received her PhD from the University of Bristol in 2017 and has previously taught on French courses at the universities of Bristol and Westminster.


Title: Writing the Self, Writing the Nation