Benjamin Constant: A Biography

367 Pages · 2005 · 2.95 MB · English

  • Benjamin Constant: A Biography



    A biography

    Dennis Wood

    London and New York First published 1993

    by Routledge

    11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE

    This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003.

    Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada

    by Routledge Inc.

    29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001

    © 1993 Dennis Wood

    All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or

    reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic,

    mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter

    invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any

    information storage or retrieval system, without permission in

    writing from the publishers.

    British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

    Wood, Dennis Michael

    Benjamin Constant: a biography

    I. Title


    Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

    Wood, Dennis.

    Benjamin Constant: a biography/Dennis Wood.

    p. cm.

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    1. Constant, Benjamin, 1767–1830—Biography. 2. Novelists,

    Swiss—19th century—Biography. 3. Intellectuals—France—

    Biography. I. Title.

    PQ2211.C24Z95 1993



    ISBN 0-203-19163-3 Master e-book ISBN

    ISBN 0-203-32917-1 (OEB Format)

    ISBN 0-415-01937-0 (Print Edition) CONTENTS

    List of plates v

    Preface vi

    Brief chronology ix




    AND HIS FATHER (1767–1783) 9

    2 ‘THE CHARMS OF FRIENDSHIP’ (1783–1785) 43

    3 ISABELLE DE CHARRIERE (1785–1787) 64

    4 ESCAPE (1787–1788) 89

    5 THE BRUNSWICK YEARS (1788–1794) 106

    6 GERMAINE DE STAEL (1794–1800) 152


    1806) 174

    8 ‘ITALIAM, ITALIAM’ (1806–1812) 196

    9 THE END OF AN EMPIRE (1812–1816) 215

    10 ADOLPHE (1816–1819) 230

    11 APOTHEOSIS (1819–1830) 241

    EPILOGUE 263

    List of abbreviations used in the notes 267

    Notes 269

    Index 320 PLATES

    (Between pages 114 and 115.)

    1 The High Street, Edinburgh in about 1780, by David Allan (1744–


    2 Benjamin Constant aged about 20, miniature on ivory, artist


    3 Sir James Mackintosh, engraving from Mackintosh’s Memoirs

    (1836) after a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830)

    4 Isabelle de Charrière in 1777, portrait in oils by the Danish artist

    Jens Juel (1745–1802)

    5 Benjamin Constant as a young man, anonymous drawing

    6 ‘Benjamin Constant en 1792’, after a silhouette by Marianne

    Moula (1760–1826)

    7 and Ludwig Ferdinand Huber (1764–1804) and his wife Therese

    8 Forster-Huber, née Heyne (1764–1829), miniatures, artist


    9 Germaine de Staël, miniature made by Firmin Massot probably in

    the spring of 1812

    10 Benjamin Constant in his thirties, miniature by Firmin Massot

    11 Julie Talma, after a portrait by Pascal Glain

    12 Charlotte von Hardenberg

    13 View of Göttingen in 1791, after a drawing by Heinrich Wilhelm


    14 Portrait in oils of Benjamin Constant dating from 1815 or later,

    artist unknown

    15 Engraved portrait of Benjamin Constant from Discours de M.

    Benjamin Constant à la Chambre des Députés (volume II, 1828)

    16 Portrait in oils of Benjamin Constant, probably in 1830, signed

    ‘Hercule de Roche’

    17 18 Three views of the death mask of Benjamin Constant made by the

    and sculptor Gois and recently rediscovered by Kurt Kloocke in the

    19 anthropological collection of the Musée de l’Homme, Paris PREFACE

    It may be helpful to state from the outset what this book is not. It makes

    no pretence at being the full and definitive biography which its subject

    demands: to do justice to such a life, one that was so cosmopolitan,

    eventful and filled with emotional agitation would require several volumes

    and many hundreds of pages of text and notes. Such a biography will have

    to await the complete publication of the works and correspondence of

    Constant, a project that will run well into the next century. Nor is the

    present work a study of Constant the novelist, the political theorist, the

    historian of religion, the autobiographer, the diarist or the letter-writer:

    many books and articles have already been devoted to these areas by

    specialists more competent than myself—Stephen Holmes on Constant’s

    political thought, for example, and Pierre Deguise on Constant and

    religion. Even as a biography the present volume does not set out to deal

    fully with every aspect of Constant’s intellectual activities or with his very

    many publications as did Kurt Kloocke in his Benjamin Constant: une

    biographie intellectuelle (1984). Its purpose is more modest: to provide

    the English-speaking reader with a concise and factual account of an

    important historical and literary figure, an account which includes the

    findings of the most recent research, some of it my own. To this end I

    have translated all quotations into English, while also giving the text in the

    original language where the wording is of particular importance. (When

    quoting from original documents in French, English or German I have

    retained their spelling and punctuation.)

    My hope, nevertheless, is that both the general reader and the specialist in French

    literature will find something of interest in the pages that follow. Only two significant

    attempts at a full biography of Benjamin Constant have been made in English, by

    Elizabeth W.Schermerhorn (1924) and Sir Harold Nicolson (1949). Both are long out of

    print but, more important, both predate the many important discoveries made in the past

    forty years, for example that of the semi-autobiographical Cécile first published in 1951

    by Alfred Roulin. Sir Harold Nicolson’s biography, the most readily available, is a

    delight to read, elegant, witty and shrewd, but in some areas it is now inaccurate both in

    its facts and the judgements that depend on those facts. My intention is to tell the full

    story within a necessarily limited compass, devoting proportionately more space to

    Constant’s early, formative years than has sometimes been the case. It goes without

    saying that there are gaps in our knowledge which the edition of Constant’s complete works and correspondence may yet fill (at the time I am writing only one volume of each

    has so far gone to press), as well as subsequent volumes of the systematic Chronologie of

    Constant’s life and works, of which only the first, covering the years 1767–1805, has so

    far appeared. It seems useful nevertheless to faire le point: to take stock and attempt to

    summarize the present state of our knowledge about Constant’s life. If there is any other

    claim to originality in this book, besides its giving as many of the ascertainable facts as

    possible, it is to be found in a tentative reinterpretation of Constant’s personality in the

    light of modern clinical studies of attachment and bereavement by John Bowlby (1907–

    90) and others—a study which, incidentally, I began long before Bowlby’s compelling

    life of Darwin appeared in 1990. Madame de Charrière once called Constant ‘a true

    chameleon’, and changeability—violent swings of mood from energetic elation to the

    most profound and overwhelming melancholy and fatalistic despair—was a central

    feature of his character. There is a mystère Constant which the first four chapters of the

    book in particular seek to identify and understand.

    Two articles which I wrote for the journal French Studies in the early 1980s provided

    the starting point for Chapter 2 of this book: I recall the kindness and generosity of the

    then editor, Professor Malcolm Bowie, with deep gratitude. My colleagues on the team

    editing Constant’s complete works and correspondence have offered encouragement and

    stimulus on many occasions, particularly Simone Balayé, Dr C.P.Courtney, Professor

    Paul Delbouille, Professor Alison Fairlie and Dr Kurt Kloocke, as well as my friends and

    colleagues in Birmingham, Dr Ceri Crossley, Dr David Hill, Dr Alex Hughes, the late

    Professor Derek Lomax, Professor R.E.F.Smith and Dr Marcus Walsh. My Head of

    Department, Professor Jennifer Birkett, Professor Michael Butler of the School of

    Modern Languages, and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Professor Leon Pompa have also

    greatly facilitated my work.

    I should like to thank the many librarians, archivists and owners of private collections

    who have helped me over the years in my research, particularly Jacques Rychner,

    Director of the Bibliothèque publique et universitaire, Neuchâtel; Jean-Daniel Candaux

    and other members of the staff of the Bibliothèque publique et universitaire, Geneva; the

    staff of the Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire, Lausanne; Etienne Hofmann,

    Christian Viredaz and the staff of the Institut Benjamin Constant, University of

    Lausanne; Dr Alain Rivier of Vevey and his family for permission to consult the Rivier

    archives at Le Désert, Lausanne; Professor Claude Reymond; Annie Angremy of the

    Département des manuscrits, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris; Dr Matthes, the staff of the

    Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv, Wolfenbüttel, and the Von Marenholtz family for access

    to the Von Marenholtz family papers; Professor Dr Paul Raabe, Director of the Herzog

    August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel and his staff, especially Dr Gillian Bepler; the

    university libraries of Göttingen and Erlangen, and the Stadtarchiv Erlangen; the

    Bodleian Library, Oxford, and university libraries of Cambridge and Edinburgh; the

    Harrowby Mss Trust, Sandon Hall, Stafford; the National Library of Scotland and the

    Secretary and members of the Speculative Society, Edinburgh; Peter Fox, Librarian of

    Trinity College, Dublin; and Dr Ben Benedikz, Rare Books Librarian, University of


    I am grateful to the Leverhulme Foundation for a Fellowship in 1986 which enabled

    me to make a number of discoveries in Germany, and to the British Academy, Pro

    Helvetia Foundation and the University of Birmingham for their generous support of my research through travel grants. At Routledge, Richard Stoneman’s forbearance since 1986

    has been worthy indeed of the Constant family motto, ‘In arduis constans’. My wife

    Katherine and my sons Orlando and Francis have shown exemplary patience and given

    unstinting support: this book is dedicated to them.

    Birmingham, Whitsun 1992 BRIEF CHRONOLOGY

    1767 25 October: Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque born in Lausanne,

    Switzerland, the son of Juste de Constant de Rebecque, an officer in the

    service of Holland.

    10 November: death of Benjamin’s mother Henriette, née de Chandieu.

    Benjamin entrusted to nursemaids.

    1772 Juste puts Benjamin in the care of Marianne Magnin, later his second

    wife. Subsequently the boy is educated by a number of unsatisfactory


    1780 Benjamin spends two months at Oxford with his father.

    1782– Student at Erlangen University, Germany. Fights duels.


    1783– Student at Edinburgh University, friendship with John Wilde and James

    5 Mackintosh. Begins study of the history of religions. Attends many

    debates at the Speculative Society. Gambling debts.

    1785 Affair with Madame Johannot in Brussels.

    1786– Friendship with the novelist Isabelle de Charrière whom Constant meets

    7 while staying in Paris. Runs away to England and Scotland during the

    summer of 1787.

    1788 After staying with Madame de Charrière near Neuchâtel, Switzerland,

    Constant takes up a post at the Court of the Duke of Brunswick (1788–

    94). Unhappy at Court.

    1789 Marries Minna von Cramm, a lady-in-waiting at the Court of Brunswick,

    whom he divorces in 1795. Friendship with Jakob Mauvillon, who dies in


    1793 Friendship with Charlotte, née von Hardenberg.

    1794 Meets Germaine de Staël in Switzerland, will have a long relationship

    with her.

    1795 Beginning of Constant’s political activity in Paris, publishes pamphlets.

    1799 24 December: Constant elected to the Tribunate.

    1800 Passionate affair with Anna Lindsay (1800–1).

    1802 Constant excluded from the Tribunate for his opposition to Bonaparte.

    1804 In Weimar with Madame de Staël. Meets Goethe, Schiller and Wieland.

    1806 October: begins affair with Charlotte von Hardenberg, and the novel from

    which Adolphe and Cécile will eventually emerge.

    1807 Torn between Madame de Staël and Charlotte. Falls under influence of a

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