Like most authors, Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant were naturally preoccupied with the possible impact of their work on posterity; yet neither of them ever imagined that their sentimental partnership might itself become an inspirational model for future generations. Unlike that other famous literary couple to whom they are often compared – Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – they were not inclined to be smug about their association, idealizing it as the superior union of free spirits; on the contrary, they soon came to view their life together as an unmitigated disaster, one from which they made protracted, if unsuccessful, attempts to extricate themselves.
So what is it that makes de Staël and Constant so interesting as a couple? Contemporaries would have replied unhesitatingly that their genius for brilliant conversation shone most brightly when they were in each other’s company, that one could not claim to have known either of them, unless one had seen them performing together. This double-act dimension of the relationship is unfortunately lost for us, as are all but a few of the many letters they exchanged over the years. In a spirited “dual biography”, Renée Winegarten retraces the evolution of the partnership in an attempt to place it on firmer ground; unsurprisingly, perhaps, this comparative exercise brings to light more differences than similarities between the two protagonists.
more from the TLS here.