Republican Passions: Germaine de Staël and Mary Wollstonecraft on the Politics of Emotion and the French Revolution, c.1785-1815
This project examines the place of passions and sentiments in political life in the aftermath of the French Revolution through the writings of Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-98). As witnesses to the revolution, woman writers and Protestant tinkers, Wollstonecraft and De Staël offer useful insights into this issue. My comparative, bilingual case-study hopes to elucidate how British and French attitudes to political feelings shifted after 1789. Evaluating this shift is important not only because the French Revolution was seen by contemporaries as a turning-point in the age of sensibility but also because it helped shape modern attitudes to political feelings. This project interrogates this shift by tracing the development of Wollstonecraft and De Staël’s thought over the 1790s.
I mainly consider De Staël and Wollstonecraft’s political and historical works from 1787 to 1800, with reference to their novels, criticism and correspondence. Taking into account both the Revolutionary context and wider European debates about passions and sentiments, I explore to what extent and in what ways Wollstonecraft and De Staël believed feelings should be allowed a role in politics. In addition, I hope to illustrate how female intellectuals constructed and contested channels for political involvement in the eighteenth century.
This project is informed by recent revisionist research on emotions in the eighteenth century. Rather than presupposing a dichotomy between ‘passion’ and ‘reason’, I follow Thomas Dixon, who argues that eighteenth-century attitudes to emotions were complex and wide-ranging. This merits further study, particularly when considering gender. While literary scholarship on sentimentalism rightly sheds a light on the primacy of emotion in eighteenth-century culture, it considers women mainly as ‘civilising agents’, not as philosophers. Thus I intend to evaluate Wollstonecraft and De Staël’s works as serious philosophical interventions in debates about political feelings in the 1790s.
In terms of methodology, this project also brings the insights of the history of emotions to intellectual history. Drawing on Barbara Rosenwein’s work, my research pays close attention to the ‘language of feeling’ in both English and French and employs a wide range of sources to examine changes and continuities in the meaning of emotional concepts, such as ‘pity’ and ‘friendship’, in Wollstonecraft and De Staël’s writing.