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Madame de Staël

Monday 1st February, bright clear day, fading now: hard frost, dead calm

Name a world-famous female UK artist, working now, who is also an outspoken and highly influential political figure. Doesn't have to be a novelist or essayist, can be anything: film-maker, painter, musician.

No, you can't have Tracy Emin. Complaining that you have to pay too much tax when you earn a lot of money doesn't count as a political opinion.

You're struggling, right? Maybe they manage these things much better in France, and if I were not so insular & ignorant, I could name a half-dozen arts-celebrity salonistas who make or break all the State's policies. But even if it were so, it's not the point: first because she has to be famous outside her own country, and second because she has to be a public figure in her own right, an independent voice, not a female power-behind-the-throne. I think we need to go further afield -ironically, to countries where the inequality of women's rights is far more openly acknowledged. Nawal El Saadawi ; Arundhati Roy
They'll do, though they don't operate on the same scale (realtively) as De Staël.

Why did she pretty much vanish from the halls of political fame? It could be because she was incapable of changing her mind.

When Napoleon stopped being the darling of the intellectual liberals, and ran a police state at home, while parcelling out Europe as his family's private fief, it wasn't a change of plan or a change of heart (at least I don't think so). It was more that the intellectuals and artists of the world, such as Beethoven, had been seeing what they wanted to see. In France most of them went on doing just that. Men in public life, or who wanted to be in public life, reverted instantly to the Ancien Regime mindset. You've got to have a position at Court. As you may remember, there were draconian laws in the Ancien Regime, forbidding anyone remotely "noble" from earning a living, but that was only part of it. You didn't have to be greedy for money, you only had to be greedy for influence, for visibility, for power-to-do-good even. In post-Revolutionary France everyone who was anyone, from the hardest of hard Left Jacobins to devout unreconstructed Royalists, started scrabbling for positions in Napoleon's Government. My old friend Francois de Chateaubriand among them (tho' he did resign when D'Enghien was assassinated, and he did it before he knew how his colleagues were going to jump). It was shameless, it was horrible. Germaine De Staël was disgusted & she refused to kowtow. She said destiny was not morality, and she would stick with morality. She ended up in exile, banished from France, her writing suppressed, her new books pulped. She knew she was ruining her children's lives, as they would never get a decent job. She had good reason to fear for her life, but she never surrendered.

Mind you, she didn't have a lot of choice, when it came to public office. The French Revolution had played out (for women) as several others have done since; cf Iran 1979. They womaned the barricades, they ran political clubs, they had impasssioned speeches made in defence of their talents, their rights. They ended up explicitly restricted to the domestic sphere by the Constitution, 1791, long before Napoleon got going.

But she could have been a salonista. Napoleon would have loved her to be his salonista. She wouldn't do it. She didn't change her mind because, like Albert Camus, she met one of those moments (Camus was speaking of fascism) when one has to decide, do two and two make four? Or do they not? She decided not to agree that two and two makes whatever the Emperor says it makes.

Now, why the full body scanner image at the head of this post? (The comments on the page at Jaunted are the most interesting part). It's about visibility. If you want to be a public figure, then you have to be visible, cost what it costs. In our day, that means, just for instance, you have to accept the War on Terror security lines, though you know it's appalling. You cannot say, this is too much, because you can't afford not to step on the plane. Where would, oh, I don't know, Jeremy Paxman be, or Stephen Fry, or any of our modern-day "intelligentsia" of the media, if they said: No, actually, I won't stand for this. . . You might be notorious for a week or so, but you wouldn't stay a public figure for long.

History isn't written by the victors, it's written by the writers (or film-makers, or journalists, or artists, or musicians). But mainly by the ones who are ready to do whatever it takes, swallow whatever they have to swallow; to stay in the picture.

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Alison Smith on :

I guess you could loosely call Ruth Rendell and PD James world famous figures and both are influential in politics - they're in the house of Lords, working peers (who do work). I'd call Annie Lennox influential though, wouldn't you? She's def world famous in anyone's book ... love the books, which to my shame I've only just discovered, so thanks. But I do agree with you.

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