Fickle Fortunes: Jane Austen and Germaine de Staël Back

The English Jane Austen and the French Germaine de Staël died within four days of each other. Two hundred years ago it was Staël’s death which received lengthy notices in major English publications such as the Gentleman’s Magazine (on display in this exhibition), while Austen’s was only reported fleetingly in local papers. Yet today, at the bicentenary of their deaths, the converse is the case and, for many visitors to Chawton House Library, this will be their first acquaintance with Staël, the political and intellectual force of nature who once condemned the works of a little-known English author Miss Austen as “vulgaire”.

This is an exhibition about the nature of fame – female fame in particular – as much as it is about reinserting the towering figure of Staël back into popular consciousness. Why has Austen’s stock increased and Staël’s dwindled? The ambition and originality of this exhibition’s premise make it stand out among the flurry of Austen-related events marking the 200th anniversary of her death. Sadly the library’s limited resources mean that it can’t do full justice to its central question.

Artefacts and text are dispersed between several rooms of the library, although the bulk are located within a single dedicated display space. It’s an effective way of breaking up a text-heavy (dare I say, too text-heavy) exhibition but it does make the task of establishing a narrative arc more difficult. Unless the visitor is given a route through the museum, or comes with some prior knowledge of the two women, the positioning of the display cabinets could seem a bit random and any story of fickle fortunes obscured. Is it much use to see a cabinet of Staël first editions, without knowing who Staël is first?

The most exciting exhibits date back to the early years of the nineteenth century – the period leading up to, and following, the death of the two authors. Paradoxically, in Austen’s case, this means the library is attempting to put obscurity on display, making absence visible so to speak. Some of these displayed absences are more revealing than others. That the library inventory (c.1850) of Staël’s close friend Juliette Récamier should include De l’Allemagne (Staël , 1810) and nothing by Austen does not seem especially extraordinary (if anything, the surprise is that Récamier’s library contains only one of Staël’s works). However, that a diary entry written in 1821 by a young Louisa Lushington, which details at length a week spent with Edward Knight and his family at Godmersham Park in Kent, should not think it worth mentioning his being brother to the more famous Jane (this in spite of the diarist’s love of novels) seems to us today quite staggering.

Against Louisa’s diary the exhibition poses a journal written by another young woman, Sophie Mackie, while touring Switzerland with her family in 1815. This young woman’s father and brother had dined with Staël – who, unlike Austen, was far from in danger of being overlooked  and, even before her death, had become a tourist attraction. A little frustratingly the diary exhibit does not seem to be open on a page mentioning Staël herself, although the name of Staël’s husband, Albert de Rocca, can be made out.

Another highlight (and one which showcases the absence of Austen and the ubiquity of Staël simultaneously) is a lengthy letter written by Byron to John Murray, the publisher he shared with both Staël and Austen. Austen’s death does not warrant a mention from him but the letter does contain a poem in which Byron puts into verse form some of the gossip about Staël which circulated at her death: “’Tis said she certainly…had twice miscarried, / No –not miscarried – I opine – /But brought to bed at forty-nine…”.  A display board nearby quotes Austen in a letter to her sister, Cassandra in 1814: “I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, and I have nothing else to do.” Staël led a gilded existence at the heart of glitterati circles; Austen mended her own petticoats.

Personally I found the exhibition as it progresses to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries less rewarding. Comparing Austen cover art in a display devoted to different editions of her novels is fun, but there are too few examples for it really to make its point.  Also good for raising a smile are the examples of modern fan fiction laid out on a table for the visitor to flick through. But I do feel that the exhibition could have made more of an attempt to explain why Austen’s English celebrity has outflanked Staël’s so decisively over the past 50 years. Is adaptation for the screen meant to account for both Austen’s rise and Staël’s decline in celebrity? If so, a (surprisingly) petite wedding dress which Jennifer Ehle wore as Elizabeth Bennet in the ’95 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is expected to do a lot of narrative work.

According to Jane Austen’s brother Henry, Austen was once invited by an unspecified nobleman to join his wife’s salon for the evening. The nobleman added by way of inducement that Germaine de Staël would be present. Austen declined the invitation. “To her truly delicate mind,” Henry writes piously, “such a display would have given pain instead of pleasure.” Whether delicacy was really the cause of Austen’s refusal, we shall never know. What can be said with certainty, however, is that the pair’s posthumous meeting at Chawton House Library provokes some important questions, even if it does not necessarily provide the answers. This is an exhibition most brilliant not for its exhibits, but for the conception which underpins it. It is only in institutions like this that fundamental and forgotten connections between female authors are excavated and validated for the specialist and non-specialist alike.

Fickle Fortunes is at Chawton House Library until 24th September 2017. The exhibition was reviewed before it reached its final form.