Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne (Baroness) de Stael-HolsteinExiled by Napoleon During His Early Pre-Regency Campaigns Against The English
I was at Geneva, living from taste and from circumstances in the society of the English, when the news of the declaration of war reached us. The rumour immediately spread that the English travellers would all be made prisoners: as nothing similar had ever been heard of in the law of European nations, I gave no credit to it, and my security was nearly proving injurious to my friends: they contrived however, to save themselves. But persons entirely unconnected with political affairs, among whom was Lord Beverley, the father of eleven children, returning from Italy with his wife and daughters, and a hundred other persons provided with French passports, some of them repairing to different universities for education, others to the South for the recovery of their health, all travelling under the safeguard of laws recognised by all nations, were arrested, and have been languishing for ten years in country towns, leading the most miserable life that the imagination can conceive. This scandalous act was productive of no advantage; scarcely two thousand English, including very few military, became the victims of this caprice of the tyrant, making a few poor individuals suffer, to gratify his spleen against the invincible nation to which they belong.
During the summer of 1803 began the great farce of the invasion of England; flat-bottomed boats were ordered to be built from one end of France to the other; they were even constructed in the forests on the borders of the great roads. The French, who have in all things a very strong rage for imitation, cut out deal upon deal, and heaped phrase upon phrase: while in Picardy some erected a triumphal arch, on which was inscribed, "the road to London," others wrote, "To Bonaparte the Great. We request you will admit us on board the vessel which will bear you to England, and with you the destiny and the vengeance of the French people." This vessel, on board of which Bonaparte was to embark, has had time to wear herself out in harbour. Others put, as a device for their flags in the roadstead, "a good wind, and thirty hours". In short, all France resounded with gasconades, of which Bonaparte alone knew perfectly the secret.
Towards the autumn I believed myself forgotten by Bonaparte: I heard from Paris that he was completely absorbed in his English expedition, that he was preparing to set out for the coast, and to embark himself to direct the descent. I put no faith in this project; but I flattered myself that he would be satisfied if I lived at a few leagues distance from Paris, with the small number of friends who would come that distance to visit a person in disgrace. I thought also that being sufficiently well known to make my banishment talked of all over Europe, the first consul would wish to avoid this eclat. I had calculated according to my own wishes; but I was not yet thoroughly acquainted with the character of the man who was to domineer over Europe. Far from wishing to keep upon terms with persons who had distinguished themselves, in whatever line that was, he wished to make all such merely a pedestal for his own statue, either by treading them underfoot, or by making them subservient to his designs.
I arrived at a little country seat, I had at ten leagues from Paris, with the project of establishing myself during the winter in this retreat, as long as the system of tyranny lasted. I only wished to see my friends there, and to go occasionally to the theatre, and to the museum. This was all the residence I wished in Paris, in the state of distrust and espionnage which had begun to be established, and I confess I cannot see what inconsistency there would have been in the first consul allowing me to remain in this state of voluntary exile. I had been there peaceably for a month, when a female, of that description which is so numerous, endeavouring to make herself of consequence at the expense of another female, more distinguished than herself, went and told the first consul that the roads were covered with people going to visit me. Nothing certainly could be more false. The exiles whom the world went to see, were those who in the eighteenth century were almost as powerful as the monarchs who banished them; but when power is resisted, it is because it is not tyrannical; for it can only be so by the general submission. Be that as it may, Bonaparte immediately seized the pretext, or the motive that was given him to banish me, and I was apprized by one of my friends, that a gendarme would be with me in a few days with an order for me to depart. One has no idea, in countries where routine at least secures individuals from any act of injustice, of the terror which the sudden news of arbitrary acts of this nature inspires. It is besides extremely easy to shake me; my imagination more readily lays hold of trouble than hope, and although I have often found my chagrin dissipated by the occurrence of novel circumstances, it always appears to me, when it does come, that nothing can deliver me from it. In fact it is very easy to be unhappy, especially when we aspire to the privileged lots of existence.
I withdrew immediately on receiving the above intimation to the house of a most excellent and intelligent lady, Madame de Latour, to whom I ought to acknowledge I was recommended by a person who held an important office in the government, Regnault de Saint-Jean-d'Angely; I shall never forget the courage with which he offered me an asylum himself: but he would have the same good intentions at present, when he could not act in that manner without completely endangering his existence. In proportion as tyranny is allowed to advance, it grows, as we look at it, like a phantom, but it seizes with the strength of a real being. I arrived then, at the country seat of a person whom I scarcely knew, in the midst of a society to which I was an entire stranger, and bearing in my heart the most cutting chagrin, which I made every effort to disguise. During the night, when alone with a female who had been for several years devoted to my service, I sat listening at the window, in expectation of hearing every moment the steps of a horse gendarme; during the day I endeavoured to make myself agreeable, in order to conceal my situation. I wrote a letter from this place to Joseph Bonaparte, in which I described with perfect truth the extent of my unhappiness. A retreat at ten leagues distance from Paris, was the sole object of my ambition, and I felt despairingly, that if I was once banished, it would be for a great length of time, perhaps for ever. Joseph and his brother Lucien generously used all their efforts to save me, and they were not the only ones, as will presently be seen.
Madame Recamier, so celebrated for her beauty, and whose character is even expressed in her beauty, proposed to me to come and live at her country seat at St. Brice, at two leagues from Paris. I accepted her offer, for I had no idea that I could thereby injure a person so much a stranger to political affairs; I believed her protected against every thing, notwithstanding the generosity of her character. I found collected there a most delightful society, and there I enjoyed for the last time, all that I was about to quit. It was during this stormy period of my existence, that I received the speech of Mr. Mackintosh; there I read those pages, where he gives us the portrait of a jacobin, who had made himself an object of terror during the revolution to children, women and old men, and who is now bending himself double under the rod of the Corsican, who ravishes from him, even to the last atom of that liberty, for which he pretended to have taken arms. This morceau of the finest eloquence touched me to my very soul; it is the privilege of superior writers sometimes, unwittingly, to solace the unfortunate in all countries, and at all times. France was in a state of such complete silence around me, that this voice which suddenly responded to my soul, seemed to me to come down from heaven; it came from a land of liberty. After having passed a few days with Madame Recamier, without hearing my banishment at all spoken of, I persuaded myself that Bonaparte had renounced it. Nothing is more common than to tranquillize ourselves against a threatened danger, when we see no symptoms of it around us. I felt so little disposition to enter into any hostile plan or action against this man, that I thought it impossible for him not to leave me in peace; and after some days longer, I returned to my own country seat, satisfied that he had adjourned his resolution against me, and was contented with having frightened me. In truth I had been sufficiently so, not to make me change my opinion, or oblige me to deny it, but to repress completely that remnant of republican habit which had led me the year before, to speak with too much openness.
I was at table with three of my friends, in a room which commanded a view of the high road, and the entrance gate; it was now the end of September. At four o'clock, a man in a brown coat, on horseback, stops at the gate and rings: I was then certain of my fate. He asked for me, and I went to receive him in the garden. In walking towards him, the perfume of the flowers, and the beauty of the sun particularly struck me. How different are the sensations which affect us from the combinations of society, from those of nature! This man informed me, that he was the commandant of the gendarmerie of Versailles; but that his orders were to go out of uniform, that he might not alarm me; he shewed me a letter signed by Bonaparte, which contained the order to banish me to forty leagues distance from Paris, with an injunction to make me depart within four and twenty hours; at the same time, to treat me with all the respect due to a lady of distinction. He pretended to consider me as a foreigner, and as such, subject to the police: this respect for individual liberty did not last long, as very soon afterwards, other Frenchmen and Frenchwomen were banished without any form of trial. I told the gendarme officer, that to depart within twenty four hours, might be convenient to conscripts, but not to a woman and children, and in consequence, I proposed to him to accompany me to Paris, where I had occasion to pass three days to make the necessary arrangements for my journey. I got into my carriage with my children and this officer, who had been selected for this occasion, as the most literary of the gendarmes. In truth, he began complimenting me upon my writings. "You see," said I to him, "the consequences of being a woman of intellect, and I would recommend you, if there is occasion, to dissuade any females of your family from attempting it." I endeavoured to keep up my spirits by boldness, but I felt the barb in my heart.
I stopt for a few minutes at Madame Recamier's; I found there General Junot, who from regard to her, promised to go next morning to speak to the first consul in my behalf; and he certainly did so with the greatest warmth. One would have thought, that a man so useful from his military ardor to the power of Bonaparte, would have had influence enough with him, to make him spare a female; but the generals of Bonaparte, even when obtaining numberless favours for themselves, have no influence with him. When they ask for money or places, Bonaparte finds that in character; they are in a manner then in his power, as they place themselves in his dependance; but if, what rarely happens to them, they should think of defending an unfortunate person, or opposing an act of injustice, he would make them feel very quickly, that they are only arms employed to support slavery, by submitting to it themselves.
I got to Paris to a house I had recently hired, but not yet inhabited; I had selected it with care in the quarter and exposition which pleased me; and had already in imagination set myself down in the drawing room with some friends, whose conversation is in my opinion, the greatest pleasure the human mind can enjoy. Now, I only entered this house, with the certainty of quitting it, and I passed whole nights in traversing the apartments, in which I regretted the deprivation of still more happiness than I could have hoped for in it. My gendarme returned every morning, like the man in Blue-beard, to press me to set out on the following day, and every day I was weak enough to ask for one more day. My friends came to dine with me, and sometimes we were gay, as if to drain the cup of sorrow, in exhibiting ourselves in the most amiable light to each other, at the moment of separating perhaps for ever. They told me that this man, who came every day to summon me to depart, reminded them of those times of terror, when the gendarmes came to summon their victims to the scaffold.
Some persons may perhaps be surprized at my comparing exile to death; but there have been great men, both in ancient and modern times, who have sunk under this punishment. We meet with more persons brave against the scaffold, than against the loss of country. In all codes of law, perpetual banishment is regarded as one of the severest punishments; and the caprice of one man inflicts in France, as an amusement, what conscientious judges only condemn criminals to with regret. Private circumstances offered me an asylum, and resources of fortune, in Switzerland, the country of my parents; in those respects, I was less to be pitied than many others, and yet I have suffered cruelly. I consider it, therefore, to be doing a service to the world, to signalize the reasons, why no sovereign should ever be allowed to possess the arbitrary power of banishment. No deputy, no writer, will ever express his thoughts freely, if he can be banished when his frankness has displeased; no man will dare to speak with sincerity, if the happiness of his whole family is to suffer for it. Women particularly, who are destined to be the support and reward of enthusiasm, will endeavour to stifle generous feelings in themselves, if they find that the result of their expression will be, either to have themselves torn from the objects of their affection, or their own existence sacrificed, by accompanying them in their exile.
On the eve of the last day which was granted me, Joseph Bonaparte made one more effort in my favour; and his wife, who is a lady of the most perfect sweetness and simplicity, had the kindness to come and propose to me to pass a few days at her country seat at Morfontaine. I accepted her invitation most gratefully, for I could not but feel sensibly affected at the goodness of Joseph, who received me in his own house, at the very time that I was the object of his brother's persecution. I passed three days there, and notwithstanding the perfect politeness of the master and mistress of the house, felt my situation very painfully.
I saw only men connected with the government and breathed only the air of that authority which had declared itself my enemy; and yet the simplest rules of politeness and gratitude forbid me from shewing what I felt. I had only my eldest son with me, who was then too young for me to converse with him on such subjects. I passed whole hours in examining the gardens of Morfontaine, among the finest that could be seen in France, and the possessor of which, then tranquil, appeared to me really an object of envy. He has been since exiled upon thrones, where I am sure he has often regretted his beautiful retreat.
Teresa Thomas Bohannon
Author of the Regency Romance Novel
A Very Merry Chase