| The interviewer
Trudy Obi holds a PhD in English literature from UC Berkeley, where she wrote a dissertation on conceptions of intellectual labor in early modern Europe. Her research interests include rhetoric and humanist pedagogy, French literature, and neo-Latin poetry. She has worked as an in-house French to English translator on an international public health project, drafting and translating communications between U.S. headquarters and field office staff in Haiti and Madagascar. She currently works at a translation agency in Berkeley, California, as project manager, translator, and editor. She also serves as Publications Director of the Northern California Translators Association (NCTA).
Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at the University of Oxford, works on recovering voices that have been traditionally excluded from the canon of eighteenth-century French literature. Her major research interests include the history of ideas, medical humanities, and autobiographical writing. In July 2017, she was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. A bibliography of the selected works of Professor Seth appears after this interview.
T.O. When did you decide to pursue the academic study of French, and how did that come about?
I started by studying law, which I found extraordinarily boring; I didn’t stick to it long enough for it to become exciting. I’d always enjoyed literature, so I switched to studying French and Spanish. I was given a scholarship to spend a year in any French-speaking country I wanted. I decided to go for a master’s degree at the Sorbonne. I had no intention of becoming an academic then, but a few years later—after being a translator-interpreter and a management consultant—I asked my supervisor, “to become an academic, what should I do?” Long story short, I finished my thesis and sat the agrégation, the competitive examination necessary in order to teach French in France. I taught secondary school in France for a few years and then held positions at universities in Rouen and Nancy. I moved to Oxford nearly three years ago.
T.O. How did you find the transition from teaching at French universities to teaching at Oxford? Are the university systems in England and France very different?
French universities work on a catchment area system: you enroll in the institution nearest to your family home. In the UK, most students go away to university. This means that during term British students are generally around all the time and there is a real campus life. This is much less true in France. UK universities are selective. In France, on the whole they are not. Most academics in France have been through identical paths of study, unlike what happens in the UK or the US. I think the variety of backgrounds in the British system is a huge plus—and it is fascinating to have colleagues with very diverse backgrounds and approaches. Oxford has a particular advantage over many other institutions since much of the undergraduate teaching is based on the tutorial system so students have one-to-one or one-to-two classes and can tailor their own program to a large degree. This means that they are getting a very good grounding but also beginning to learn about research methods.
I’d always been interested in the period of French literature which goes from before to after the Revolution. It often gets left out of literary histories. French literary study is based on centuries, so anyone who’s between centuries, like Staël or Évariste Parny, the subject of my Ph.D. thesis, is a complicated case and often gets dropped off either end.
A couple of years after I sat the agrégation, de Staël's novel Corinne was set as a text for the nineteenth century. I read it, and it was a revelation. It is an exciting and challenging book, full of interesting ideas.
T.O. What do you think is most valuable about de Staël?
She’s very human; she was at once very strong and yet had weaknesses. And she shows that you can be very strong because you acknowledge your weaknesses, because you’re prepared to affront them. And in that respect, she’s very much a role model for lots of people.
She was despised by many contemporaries who thought it was indecent for her to write about politics, that her lifestyle was too free because she had lovers openly. But I think she is someone who is sincerely trying, in her own way, to make the world a better place—through her writing, thinking about what an ideal society would be. She thinks people should be free, but also that you have to accept the need to give up freedoms for the common good. So she’s living in this perpetual tension, and has an extraordinary way of working through this philosophical notion of freedom and what we can do, and pushing boundaries.
T.O. What do you think is most valuable about Staël? Could you talk about some of her political writing?
One of the texts I find fascinating is Réflexions sur le process de la Reine, reflections on the Queen’s trial, published in August 1793. Marie-Antoinette is in prison, her fate undecided. Staël is saying, “I don’t think we should put her on trial; let me tell you why.” It’s a short but powerful text which speaks to two audiences. To the revolutionaries, she’s saying: “If you condemn her to death, you’ll make her a martyr.” She’s also saying to women: “Marie-Antoinette is the wife of the King; she has no political power. She’s a wife and mother like you and me—a mother separated from her children, a wife whose husband has been taken away and guillotined. We should show her some compassion.”
And that’s something vital for her—she believes there’s a place for compassion, for generosity, for feelings. And this is at a time when people are trying to think through rational ways of approaching politics. Staël thinks reason is important above all, but it has to be a generous reason, a reason nurtured and supported by generous feelings.
T.O. What do you think is most valuable about Staël?You have written that for Staël, “le roman a un potentiel politique actif” [“the novel has active political potential”]. How do Staël’s own novels participate in the political realm?
Let’s take the example of Corinne, her second novel, on its face simply a story of doomed love. But Corinne is set in Italy, at the time a series of small states. Corinne the character shows that Italy has a common past based on its literature and history—Italy is not so much a set of fractured states as one common destiny. Corinne was read by the Italians of the generation who went on to theorize what became the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy.
Delphine, her first novel, is set during the French Revolution and takes on all sorts of questions, like the promulgation of laws allowing divorce. This political content is fairly indirect, because these are letters exchanged by private individuals who are not particularly talking about what’s going on in the National Assembly.
T.O. What do you think is most valuable about Staël? And she’s writing Delphine after she realizes that the Revolution is not going to be liberating for women after all.
Yes, and this goes back to her pamphlet about Marie-Antoinette. She’s warning women, “if Marie-Antoinette is put to death, then everything which women might represent in society is also being sidelined.” That’s exactly what happened. The Revolution comes up with this vision of a virile republic, which Napoleon is only too happy to continue: a society in which women are allowed to stay at home and have lots of children and that’s about it.
Staël is extremely disappointed by this outcome. Later she writes that the years around the beginning of the Revolution were the best time ever to be young. She was in the thick of things: her father was a minister under the ancien régime, and during the Revolution her lover, Narbonne, was briefly a minister. She took part in all the political discussions behind the scenes. These were heady times: it looks as though there are going to be extraordinary possibilities for reform; it looks as though there’s a brave new world out there, and Staël is one of the people who can see it being born.
T.O. What do you think is most valuable about Staël? She was disillusioned by the Revolution, but what did she think of Napoleon?
Like many in her generation, she initially thinks Bonaparte might offer a solution. But then she discovers that he stands for everything she can’t bear—he’s exactly the opposite of what she’d hoped for. He wants things to be normalized, he wants a one-size-fits-all Europe where everybody would have the same languages and currencies. Staël is passionately interested in difference, in diversity. For her, if you’re different, it means you’re going to teach her something; difference should be celebrated and encouraged. So the vision of someone like Napoleon is anathema to her.
Some of her contemporaries said they both set out to conquer Europe, but they did it differently: Napoleon with his sabre and troops, Staël with her ideas and books.
Her work De l’Allemagne [On Germany] seems to be aimed at countering Napoleon’s view of the way Europe should be.
I don’t think Staël set out to write a book that was anti-Napoleon. She sent it to the printer in 1810 and the head of the police had the proofs destroyed. His excuse was “Ce livre n’est pas français,” (This book is not French). But I don’t think Staël is setting out to be anti-French. She’s very pro-French, but she’s also very conscious of the fact that there are things happening in Germany—in philosophy and literature in particular—which are not happening in France. She thinks if France can welcome ideas from overseas, it will be all the richer for it.
And because Napoleon set her up as his enemy, I think she became a sort of magnet for his opponents, or those who wanted to think about different ways of running a country, or imagining what moral values to defend. And Napoleon really didn’t need to treat her this way because she had no power, no troops. But on the other hand, she had every possible power, of course, because no troop can stop ideas circulating.
T.O. You are currently Co-Investigator on a project entitled “Dreaming Romantic Europe,” which was awarded a network grant by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. Could you talk a bit about your plans for this project?
I’m working with Nicola Watson from the Open University, trying to think about Romanticism as a European rather than a national phenomenon. We’re asking people to choose an object—in the widest possible sense of the term—that for them embodies European Romanticism, and placing these objects in a virtual museum online. We are asking scholars from a diverse range of fields and countries, and hope to showcase the diversity of European Romanticism.
We organized a conference at Chawton House  to look at the legacies of Staël and Jane Austen, who died within three days of each other. We wanted to look at the way the canon shapes our view, considering the contrasting fates of the world-famous writer who has now dropped off the map and the very discreet woman who lived in the English provinces but has become a major figure in world literature.
T.O. What do you think is most valuable about Staël? Could you say more about these contrasting fates?
When Staël died on 14 July 1817, she was the most famous woman in Europe, widely read, both admired for her talents and spirit and reviled by some for what was perceived to be her improper behavior—including her outspokenness on matters political. Austen, who died four days later, was unknown to the wider world. Those of her novels which had been published were unsigned. She had lived a discreet life in the English countryside. The contrasting fortunes of both women is remarkable: Staël has suffered partly as a result of having been seen as undignified by the Victorian age. Austen, on the contrary, was marketed by her relatives as a model of female propriety and her works as harmless sentimental stories. She has also benefitted greatly in recent years from some excellent adaptations of her novels for the screen. But the way the canon has operated shows how difficult it is for women to be accepted as engaged intellectuals.
 Catriona Seth, introduction to Œuvres, by Germaine de Staël, ed. Catriona Seth (Paris: Gallimard, 2017), xxvii
 Chawton House, where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life, is in the village of Chawton, near Winchester, in the County of Hampshire.
Staël, Œuvres (ed.), Paris, Gallimard, Pléiade, 2017.
“Jane Austen and Germaine de Staël: a tale of two authors,” The Conversation, July 17, 2017,
“Enlightenment women’s voices,” in A History of Modern French Literature, ed. C. Prendergast, Princeton, 2017, pp. 330–50.
La Fabrique de l’intime. Mémoires et journaux de femmes du XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Laffont, Bouquins, 2013.
Marie-Antoinette. Anthologie et dictionnaire, Paris: Laffont, Bouquins, 2006.