Guentner on Worley (2016)


Worley, Sharon. Love Letters and the Romantic Novel during the Napoleonic Wars. Cambridge Scholars P, 2016, pp. 169, ISBN 978-1-4438-0127-0

Beatrice Guenther, Bowling Green State University

Sharon Worley’s study of the Romantic novel and love letters written during the Napoleonic wars explores the connections between love letters written by men and women of the early nineteenth century in France and literary and visual representations of love. In her introduction, Worley proposes that for writers such as Germaine de Staël and her circle, the concept of love was connected to liberty for women whereas those writers engaged in the Napoleonic régime tended to reinforce traditional gendered roles in their depiction of “romantic” relationships. Each chapter concludes with a series of illustrations that depict historical individuals mentioned in the chapter or represent different aspects of the theme of love.

This text includes a rich variety of sources, including Napoléon Bonaparte’s Clisson et Eugénie (1795) and Lucien Bonaparte’s La Tribu indienne, ou Édouard et Stellina (1799). In all, there are six chapters with an introduction and a brief conclusion. The first two chapters foreground the life and works of Staël; chapter one explores her marriage and its links with her novel Delphine and the short text Zulma, whereas chapter two focuses on Corinne and Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe. The third chapter examines Napoléon’s novel against the backdrop of his relationship with Joséphine de Beauharnais. In the fourth chapter, François-René Chateaubriand’s René and Atala are juxtaposed with his involvement with Juliette Récamier while chapter five incorporates a British perspective by comparing Lady Emma Hamilton’s relationship with Admiral Nelson to Talleyrand’s marriage to Catherine Grand. The final chapter returns to Juliette Récamier, although in this chapter the focus is on Lucien Bonaparte’s thwarted interest in her. The one-paragraph conclusion emphasizes the importance of Staël, her experience of the extremes of happiness and sorrow, and her achievement of “complete freedom as an individual and a woman” (153).

This project raises several questions that remain somewhat unresolved. The genre of the historical love letter is not distinguished from fictional depictions. As a result, when the fictional texts are read primarily in autobiographical terms, their significance is reduced to serving primarily as an indicator of the author rather than providing insight into the discourse of Romanticism. A second issue relates to the concept of the “Romantic” novel. In this study, the term is used loosely to characterize both the topic of romance and to depict a literary period that is also juxtaposed with neoclassicism. This loose use of the term creates more complications than it resolves.  

Worley integrates many historical details to demonstrate the relevance of the love relationship in the early nineteenth century. It sometimes becomes difficult, however, to identify the key argument of each chapter, particularly when fiction is read through a biographical lens. In the first chapter, Worley sets out to demonstrate that Staël’s “fictional characters are a projection of the author’s attitudes about sex and gender equality” (15). In this chapter, readers learn that Staël clung to the gendered role models of the Ancien Régime. On the other hand, readers also learn that she rejected the loveless marriage pact—both in her own life and in Delphine. The reference to Staël’s relationship with the Minister of War, Count Louis Narbonne—a connection allowing her to exercise “real political influence” (18)—leads Worley to refer to La Princesse de Clèves, identified as “the standard for the French romantic novel” (29). Indeed, in this study, Worley does not distinguish clearly enough between romantic themes and the literary period, Romanticism. Moreover, the comparison of Madame de Lafayette’s novel with Delphine gives rise to the insight that despite the death of the two protagonists, Staël’s depiction of love “supports revolutionary impulses to overturn the existing status quo and create a new order” (33). In the discussion of Zulma, however, both Staël’s disappointment with Narbonne and the Revolution’s failed mission are highlighted. The last paragraph of the chapter draws attention both to Staël’s addiction to opium and to Lord Byron’s admiration of her accomplishments. Staël’s literary work—her rejection of marriage—ends up being read both as revolutionary and as a sign of her “inability to free herself from traditional gender-biased roles for women” (16).This statement remains at odds, however, with the book’s conclusion, where Worley emphasizes Staël’s freedom as an individual and a woman.

Such moments of contradiction stem from chapters that follow a largely associative logic. The structure of the final chapter on Juliette Récamier and Lucien Bonaparte again makes it difficult to identify the guiding argument. The first sub-section provides details about Lucien and his conflicted relationship with his brother, Napoléon. Lucien’s inability to seduce Juliette Récamier leads to more details about his later marriage. The second sub-section outlines the plot of Lucien Bonaparte’s La Tribu indienne and critiques the colonial exploitation of Ceylon. Napoléon’s and Lucien’s sister, Pauline, is mentioned before Worley turns to the conclusion that in Lucien Bonaparte’s narrative the male-authored depiction of love between a “colonial interloper” and a “native girl” ultimately reduces the importance of the female heroines to “little more than projections of economic and sexual desires” (144–45). A brief exploration of Lucien’s epic poem “Charlemagne” is linked to his deference to the papacy before the final sub-section, which outlines the relationship between Juliette Récamier and Prince Augustus of Prussia, who had met at Staël’s Château de Coppet in 1807. The chapter ends with the statement: “In their romance, Récamier and Prince Augustus practiced these gender ideals that were intended to last an eternity” (149).  

This study of love letters and narrative representations of love during the Napoleonic wars incorporates many interesting historical insights. While writers such as Staël, Constant, and Chateaubriand are clearly key figures during this period and thus belong in such a study, the sequence of the chapters is not sufficiently explained. It remains unclear how each of the “great romances” depicted in the chapters on Napoléon and Lucien Bonaparte or the ones on Juliette Récamier and Lady Emma Hamilton represent more than disparate examples of individuals who exemplify the importance of love. Readers are left wondering how to weigh women’s emotional independence with their influence on society (10), particularly when comparing the significance of Germaine de Staël and Juliette Récamier with that of the male writers referenced in this study.