Madame de Staél: “Preface to DE L’ALLEMAGNE” Part 1 of 3

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810 in three volumes; this is from the 1813 John Murray translation).

Madame de Stael

Preface from Volume One

1st October, 1813

In 1810, I put the manuscript of this work on Germany into the hands of the bookseller, who had published “Corinne.” As I maintained in it the same opinions, and preserved the same silence respecting the present government of the French, which I had done in my former writings, I flattered myself that I should have been permitted to publish this work also.

Yet, a few days after I had dispatched my manuscript, a decree of a very singular description appeared on the subject of the liberty of the press; it declared “that no work could be printed without having been examined by certain censors.”

Very well—it was usual in France, under the old regime, for literary works to be submitted to the examination of a public censorship; the tendency of public opinion was then toward the feeling of liberty, which rendered such a restraint a matter very little to be dreaded.

A little article, however, at the end of the new regulations declared, “that when the censors should have examined a work and permitted its publication, booksellers should be authorized to publish it, but that the Minister of Police should still have a right to suppress it altogether, if he should think fit to do so.”

The meaning of which is, that such and such forms should be adopted until it should be thought fit no longer to abide by them: a law was not necessary to decree what was in fact the absence of all law; it would have been better to have relied simply upon the exercise of absolute power.

My bookseller, however, took upon himself the responsibility of the publication of my book, after submitting it to the censors, and thus our contract was made. I came to reside within forty leagues of Paris, to superintend the printing of the work, and it was upon that occasion that, for the last time, I breathed the air of France.

I had, however, abstained in this book, as will be seen, from making any reflections on the political state of Germany: I supposed myself to be writing at the distance of fifty years from the present time; but the present time will not suffer itself to be forgotten.

Several of the censors examined my manuscript, they suppressed the different passages which I have now restored and pointed out by notes. With the exception, however, of these passages, they allowed the work to be printed, as I now publish it, for I have thought it my duty to make no alteration in it.

It appears to me a curious thing to show what the work is, which is capable even now in France, of drawing down the most cruel persecution on the head of its author.

At the moment when this work was about to appear, and when the ten thousand copies of the first edition had been actually printed off, the Minister of the Police, well known under the name of General Savary, sent his gendarmes to the house of the bookseller, with orders to tear the whole edition in pieces, and to place sentinels at the entrances to the warehouse, for fear a single copy of this dangerous writing should escape.

A commissary of police was charged with the superintendence of this expedition, in which General Savary easily obtained the victory; and the poor commissary, it is said, died of the fatigue he underwent in too minutely assuring himself of the destruction of so great a number of volumes, or rather in seeing them transformed into paper perfectly white, upon which no trace of human reason remained.

The price of the paper valued merely at twenty louis by the police was the only indemnification which the Bookseller obtained from the Minister.

At the same time that the destruction of my work was going on at Paris, I received in the country an order to deliver up the copy from which it had been printed, and to quit France in four and twenty hours.

The constripts are almost the only persons I know for whom four and twenty hours are considered a sufficient time to prepare for a journey; I wrote, therefore, to the Minister of the Police that I should require eight days to procure money and my carriage. The following is the letter which he sent me in answer.

To be continued…