Erik Simpson, “On Corinne, Or Italy


Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, Or Italy was published in French in 1807 and was quickly translated into English. It became a touchstone for nineteenth-century conceptions of women’s creativity and the life of the woman writer, as well as an important formulation of analogies between models of artistic creation and political systems. The novel’s portrayal of Italian improvisers also helped produce the modern usage of “improvisation” and related terms in English.

Introduction: Germaine de Staël and Corinne

portrait of de Staël

Figure 1: Portrait of Madame de Staël (c. 1810) by François Pascal Simon Gérard

Germaine de Staël’s novel Corinne, Or Italy saw publication in 1807. It immediately commanded a wide audience in its original French and, through two near-immediate translations, in English. Corinne‘s attractions doubtless lay partly in its plot: Oswald, Lord Nelvil, a melancholy British peer, travels to map iconItaly, falls in love with the omni-talented artist and performer Corinne, and commences a relationship that reveals both characters’ secret histories and their connections to the grand events of recent European politics and history. The continuing appeal of Corinne to readers and students stems largely from its intertwining of international politics, meditations on the comparative norms of gender in Europe, and theories of inspiration and performance.

Some of the novel’s appeal would also have come from interest in its author. Corinne was connected to Staël in the narrow sense of being loosely based on Staël’s travels in Italy, her family background, and her love life. Staël was at the center of European intellectual culture, holding a famous salon that gathered many of the age’s leading thinkers, and she grew up in the circle of map iconFrance’s political elite. She was the daughter of Jacques Necker, a Genevan banker who became the finance minister for the French King Louis XVI (who would be executed in the aftermath of the French Revolution). Staël’s mother, Suzanne Churchod, established a political and literary salon in map iconParis. Therefore, readers knew Staël to be exceptionally well positioned to write a novel about the triumphs and struggles of a performing woman in the arts, and about the national characters and recent histories of the leading European states.

Nationality: Corinne, or Italy, or Not

As its subtitle indicates, Corinne is centrally concerned with nationality as well as characterization. From the beginning, readers of Corinne have sometimes simplified the novel’s presentations of national character, reducing the novel’s portrayal of national character and politics to caricatures and simple binary oppositions. In the Edinburgh Review’s generally positive notice of Corinne, for instance, the prominent Romantic-era reviewer Francis Jeffrey overstates the half-Italian Corinne’s Italianness, writing, “it is Great Britain and Italy, the extremes of civilised Europe, that are personified and contrasted in the hero and heroine of this romantic tale” (183). Jeffrey then clarifies the hierarchy of “the extremes of civilised Europe”:

We are persuaded we shall not, even by Mad. de Staël, be accused of any immoderate partiality in favour of our countrymen, when we say that an Englishman bears a much greater resemblance to a Roman, than an Italian of the present day. Here, therefore, the possession of liberty and laws, and, above all, the superiority which a man derives from having a share in the government of his country, has, in opposition to climate and situation, produced a greater resemblance of character, than the latter was able to do, when counteracted by the former. (194)

Jeffrey here and throughout his review willfully ignores Corinne’s complicating arguments on these very points.

The terms of Jeffrey’s argument point to the reasons why Corinne provided such a powerful model for other writers. A certain kind of British patriotism depended on precisely the distinction Jeffrey draws, the contention that the Britain fighting Napoleon was analogous to ancient map iconRome but not to modern Italy, the Italy ruled in 1807 by Napoleon himself. By constructing English strength in opposition to Italian weakness, Jeffrey’s argument points to the potential for other writers to invert his hierarchy by reclaiming Italy as possessing something positive that England lacked. This is not to say that Staël, herself a proponent of the English government’s theory and practice, would have disputed Jeffrey’s broad conclusions. (“England,” she wrote, “is the only great European empire that has achieved the final state of perfection of the social order known to us” [Considérations 92].) However, Corinne does contest the claims to superiority that Jeffrey takes for granted, and Staël’s novel presents national character and identity as slippery, unstable concepts.

This slipperiness stems in part from the complications of France’s actions in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, which were ongoing when the novel came to print. A French uprising fueled by nationalism had become an expansionist enterprise that prompted nationalist resistance. Therefore, one could align the French cause with nationalism, anti-nationalism, or imperialism, depending on the issues and circumstances of a given moment.

Staël added further complexity by setting the novel in Italy but not in 1806 or 1807, when she wrote; instead, the action takes place at the end of the eighteenth century, so the novel cannot comment directly on the French takeover of Italy or on Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy in 1805. Staël leaves readers to infer her thoughts about the French victory. Moreover, the main characters of the novel consider nationality primarily through the nations that represent Corinne’s motherland and fatherland: England and Italy. Neither of these lends stability to a conversation about national character and national difference. In the ten years preceding the novel’s publication, Great Britain had been threatened by multiple Irish nationalist rebellions, most importantly that of 1798, the defeat of which led to the Act of Union between Great Britain and map iconIreland that took effect in 1801. map iconScotland’s attachment to Great Britain had its own troubles, including the central role of Scots in two eighteenth-century Jacobite Rebellions (attempts to restore the Stuart line to the throne of Great Britain) and, in retribution, the violent suppression of map iconScottish Highland culture. And Italian unification was still decades off when Corinne was published: with its history of independent city-states and then as the object of the ambitions of competing empires, Italy was far from a stable modern nation.

Furthermore, any attempt to read national allegory into Corinne’s characters must account for the novel’s leading representatives of England and Italy, Oswald and Corinne, being Scottish and half-English, respectively. The characters speak frequently of oppositions between English and Italian national character, but the novel seems unable to decide whether Oswald, Lord Nelvil is English or Scottish, and Staël carefully distinguishes between Corinne’s artistry and the practices of native Italians. Even the characters’ names muddle their national affiliations: “Corinne” is a name for Corinne’s Italian persona, but it is not an Italian name; and for Oswald, the spelling of “Nelvil” implies a cross between a British surname (Neville) and French spelling—and indeed, the novel reveals that Oswald is more connected to France than he first appears to be. Certainly, the author knew of what she wrote: none of the novel’s names can match the variety of associations represented by her full name, “Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Madame de Staël-Holstein.” All of these national mixtures form a necessary context for approaching the issue of nationality in Corinne, whose characters and plot subtly reflect the disruptive effects of the wars of Staël’s time.

For Staël, those wars were impossible to ignore. She had earlier asked, “who can live, who can write at the present moment, without feeling and reflecting upon the revolution of France?” (Treatise 31). Corinne‘s setting in Italy ties the Revolution to the status of conquered and suffering nations; Corinne presents Italy, even before Napoleon’s conquest, as long beset by outside forces and lacking control of its own prosperity. Oswald, on the contrary, resists thinking of Italy’s problems as beyond its own control: “I judge nations strictly. . . . I always think they deserve their fate, whatever it may be” (trans. Goldberger 54). Influenced by his experiences and by Corinne’s arguments, he will moderate his position as the novel progresses. His process of adapting his ideas in the face of new information reflects one of the other important emphases of the novel: the nature of improvisation.


When Corinne was published, the British reading public literally did not know the meaning of the word “improvisation.”[1] British people did know of practices and ideas related to what we now call improvisation: practices of spontaneous (or “extempore”) composition went back centuries. And from the middle of the eighteenth century onward, some British travel narratives and a few novels mention improvisers in Italy by their Italian names, so British readers may have recognized the terms improvvisatori (male improvisers) and improvvisatrici (female improvisers).

Nonetheless, improvisation had no independent life as an English-language concept. Writing in French and comfortable with the Italian terms for improvisation, Staël deployed terminology that seems to have baffled her 1807 translators. In the novel’s French, Corinne is an “improvisatrice,” she possesses the “talent d’improviser,” and her poem at the Roman Capitol is an “Improvisation” (Corinne ou L’Italie 1.50, 1.65, and 1.73). These words and phrases, today so simple to translate into their English equivalents, perplexed the novel’s first translators. D. Lawler’s translation describes “Corinna” (as both 1807 English versions call her) as an “improvisatrix,” with a note (falsely) promising to explain the term later (1.54). Lawler later translates Corinne’s “talent d’improviser” as “her talent for extempore poetry” with a footnote that reads, “[f]or that particular species of poetry here alluded to, called, in Italian, Improvisatore, the translator can find no English denomination” (1.69n).

The other 1807 translation, by two anonymous translators, calls Corinna not an improvisatrix but simply a “composer of extempore rhymes” (1.51-2).[2] The translators explain the problem in a note, using a peculiar variant of “improvvisatore“: “The improvvisitore, or art of composing extempore verses, is an accomplishment peculiar to the Italians” (1.52). Even a generation later, the 1833 Isabel Hill translation adopts a more modern vocabulary for improvisation but only in some cases. Corinne’s improvisation at the Roman Capitol is a “chant,” and although her gift is called one of “improvisation,” it also takes other names more typical in older works, such as “faculty of extemporising” (25, 43, 43). Corinne‘s wide circulation in both French and English thus created a paradoxical effect. Its French text gave British readers a new theory of improvisation, with its modern vocabulary largely visible in direct cognates. At the same time, its English translations, especially those of 1807, reveal how little that same British audience had previously understood of improvisation.

The publication in French and translation into English of Corinne gave readers a way to understand improvisation as an Italianate form of minstrelsy. Corinne presented to British readers a familiar image of a minstrel, a poet performing verses to the accompaniment of a harp or lyre. The plot of Corinne relies on British representations of bards and minstrels and their familiarity to a pan-European audience; Corinne knows “Ossian” and old Scottish songs, which she performs to win Oswald’s reluctant heart.

However, Staël also departs from the conventions of British minstrel writing. Her novel’s characters and its critics both notice the oddity, to British eyes, of a performing woman, a topic I will treat in the next section of this essay. Corinne also differs from her British counterparts in her compositional method: she improvises, while they recite pre-existing works. As Caroline Gonda has noted, Corinne “did more than any other work to popularize the idea of the improvisatore or improvisatrice,” and it did so in a way that gave Britain its first major theory of improvisation (198). The novel imagines improvisation not only as a compositional method but also as a means of conceiving the histories of people and nations.

Corinne’s improvisation at the Capitol, much cited as an inspirational presentation of public female genius, also demonstrates the ideological work improvisation could do. Asked to improvise on the glory of Italy, Corinne slowly builds a triumphant historical narrative, to the delight of her Italian audience. Then Corinne sees Oswald and responds to his emotions: “Divining the thoughts going through his mind, she was impelled to meet his need by talking of happiness with less certainty” (trans. Goldberger, 30). Here the teleology of the poem breaks down, and Corinne improvises, changing the direction of her narrative to accommodate Oswald’s reaction, introducing a dimension of northern melancholy and earning his applause.

By altering a narrative of Italy’s past, Corinne suggestively connects her content and her process: as an improviser, she can rhetorically change the course of history if necessary. At a time when revolution, reform, and reaction dominated European thought, a new theory of historical flexibility could reverberate far beyond the steps of the Capitol. Corinne presents improvisation as a political path between stasis and revolution, as an artistic theory of moderate liberalism in the wake of the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. As a model of innovation bounded by context, Staël’s improvisation carved out space between a reactionary emphasis on the authority of previous generations, on the one hand, and on the other, an optimism, in the spirit of Thomas Paine, that any generation could break free from that legacy. The improviser’s skill consists of responding continuously to new events, maintaining flexibility within the boundaries established by a developing performance.

C’est Moi: Biography and Myths of Corinne

One of Corinne‘s most important contributions to subsequent literature is the formation of what Ellen Moers’s Literary Women, a foundational work of feminist criticism, calls “the myth of Corinne” and “the fantasy of the performing heroine” (174). Within the novel, Corinne finds that a woman in Italy has far more freedom to perform in public and devote herself to the arts than she would in England. Women writers in England found in Corinne’s experience a way to express their own difficulties: for example, in a much-referenced incident, the poet Felicia Hemans wrote “c’est moi” (“that’s me”) next to the text describing Corinne’s demise. Letitia Elizabeth Landon, who published as “L. E. L.,” modeled much of her writing persona on Corinne and published a long poem, The Improvisatrice, that is based on but substantially revises the plot of the novel. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse novel Aurora Leigh likewise takes up many of Corinne‘s concerns and its characterization. As Moers puts it, Corinne was “the book of the woman of genius” (173, emphasis original).[3]

The novel also contributed to the development of a broader convention of opposing two female characters, one blond and one brunette, who represent, respectively, relatively proper and relatively daring aspects of femininity, with the dark-haired woman generally doomed to suffer for her boldness. Walter Scott’s adaptation of this convention in Waverley and elsewhere ensured its propagation among British novels of the nineteenth century, to the point where, in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, the young (and dark-haired) Maggie Tulliver begins to read Corinne, recognizes the implications of the dark and blond heroines, and refuses to continue (345).

Maggie Tulliver’s refusal to witness the wreck of Corinne’s character reflects her awareness that stories of dark heroines could be warnings as well as tragedies. There was, in fact, a tradition of using Corinne’s story to guide women who would seek happiness to shun Corinne’s personal and artistic boldness, especially in her eagerness to display herself in public for the applause of a crowd. When writing against Corinne, authors accepted Staël’s identification of Corinne with Italy and then dismissed the positive value of that identification, instead constructing Corinne-like performance as a dangerous manifestation of foreign contamination.[4]

These writers—many of them women, including important figures such as Hannah More and Joanna Baillie—argue in essays or fictions that cultural differences in female conduct represented not legitimate differences of convention but deviations from a single real standard: that of British Protestant domesticity. Responding to Staël’s remarks in Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution française (1818) about the conversational reticence of English women, More reduces female performance to a selfish diversion: “If, indeed, we were only sent into this world to be entertaining; if we had nothing to do but talk, nothing to aim at but to shine, nothing to covet but admiration; we should more readily coincide in opinion with this sprightly lady [Staël]” (33).

When reading Corinne, therefore, we can consider the ways in which Staël created a cultural touchstone for many people with varying purposes. How was it useful to British women writers to claim affinity with Corinne, and how was it useful for other writers to reject her? Even today, some readers and critics of the novel want to emphasize Corinne’s similarities to the historical Germaine de Staël, while others want seek out the differences, since they see in those differences marks of Staël’s shaping of her character. This reception history can guide our thinking about our own reactions to the novel. What is your Corinne, and why?

Erik Simpson is Associate Professor of English at Grinnell College. He is the author of two books: Literary Minstrelsy, 1770-1830: Minstrels and Improvisers in British, Irish, and American Literature (2008) and Mercenaries in British and American Literature, 1790-1830: Writing, Fighting, and Marrying for Money (2010). He is currently working in the digital humanities, particularly on pedagogical uses of database-backed websites.


published June 2012

Simpson, Erik. “On Corinne, Or Italy.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. Ed. A. S. Byatt. London: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Esterhammer, Angela. “The Improviser’s Disorder: Spontaneity, Sickness, and Social Deviance in Late Romanticism.” European Romantic Review 16:3 (2005): 329-40. Print.

Gonda, Caroline. “The Rise and Fall of the Improvisatore, 1753-1845.” Romanticism 6.2 (2000): 195-210. Print.

Gutwirth, Madelyn. “Taking ‘Corinne’ Seriously: A Comment on Ellen Moers’s ‘Literary Women’.” Signs 25.3 (2000): 895-99. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.

[Jeffrey, Francis.] Rev. of “Corinne, ou l’Italie.” Edinburgh Review 11 (1807): 183-95. Print.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. 1976. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

More, Hannah. Moral Sketches of Prevailing Opinions and Manners, Foreign and Domestic: with Reflections on Prayer. London: Cadell, 1819. Print.

Simpson, Erik. Literary Minstrelsy, 1770–1830: Minstrels and Improvisers in British, Irish, and American Literature. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Staël, Germaine de. From Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution française. 1818. Madame de Staël on Politics, Literature, and National Character. Trans. Monroe Berger. London: Sidgwick, 1964. Print.

—. Corinna; or, Italy. Trans. D. Lawler. 5 vols. London: Corri, 1807. Print.

—. Corinna; or, Italy. By Mad. de Stael [sic] Holstein. 3 vols. London: Tipper, 1807. Print.

—. Corinne; Or, Italy. Trans. Isabel Hill. London: Bentley, 1833. Print.

—. Corinne, or Italy. 1807. Ed. and Trans. Avriel Goldberger. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1977. Print.

—. Corinne ou L’Italie. 3 vols. London: Peltier, 1807. Print.

—. A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions, upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations. Illustrated by Striking References to the Principal Events and Characters That Have Distinguished the French Revolution. From the French of the Baroness Stael [sic] de Holstein. London: George Cawthorn, 1798. Print.


[1] The argument in this section and some material elsewhere in this entry adapts and condenses points made in Chapter 3 of my book, Literary Minstrelsy, 1770-1830: Minstrels and Improvisers in British, Irish, and American Literature.

[2] Lawler’s preface explains that the slightly earlier anonymous translation was produced by two men (iv).

[3] Scholars of Staël in particular and European women’s writing in general have done much to build on and contest Moers’s reading of the novel in the decades following the publication of Literary Women.  Madelyn Gutwirth provides a useful overview of these reactions, at least through the end of the century, in “Taking ‘Corinne’ Seriously: A Comment on Ellen Moers’s ‘Literary Women.'”

[4] Angela Esterhammer, who has published much excellent work on Corinne‘s Continental origins and impact, has documented a contemporaneous Continental tradition of writing about the improviser “as a misfit alienated from healthy society” (“Improviser’s Disorder” 330).