Madame de Stael had, therefore, not waited for Napoleon to seek her, but had made the first advances, and sought him.
To the returning victor of Italy she wrote letters filled with impassioned enthusiasm; but these letters afforded the youthful general but little pleasure. In the midst of the din of battle and the grand schemes with which he was continually engaged, Bonaparte found but little time to occupy himself with the poetical works of Madame de Stael. He knew of her nothing more than that she was the daughter of the minister Necker, and that was no recommendation in Napoleon’s eyes, for he felt little respect for Necker’s genius, and even went so far as to call him the instigator of the great revolution. It was, therefore, with astonishment that the young general received the enthusiastic letter of the poetess; and, while showing it to some of his intimate friends, he said, with a shrug of his shoulders, “Do you understand these extravagances? This woman is foolish!”
But Madame de Stael did not allow herself to be dismayed by Bonaparte’s coldness and silence—she continued to write new and more glowing letters.
In one of these letters she went so far in her inconsiderate enthusiasm as to say, that it was a great error in human institutions that the gentle and quiet Josephine had united her faith with his; that she, Madame de Stael, and Bonaparte, were born for each other, and that Nature seemed to have created a soul of fire like hers, in order that it might worship a hero such as he was.
Bonaparte crushed the letter in his hands, and exclaimed, as he threw it in the fire: “That a blue-stocking, a manufactress of sentiment, should dare to compare herself to Josephine! I shall not answer these letters!”
He did not answer them, but Madame de Stael did not, or rather would not, understand his silence. Little disposed to give up a resolution once formed, and to see her plans miscarry, Madame de Stael was now also determined to have her way, and to approach Bonaparte despite his resistance.
And she did have her way; she succeeded in overcoming all obstacles, and the interview, so long wished for by her, and so long avoided by him, at last took place. Madame de Stael was introduced at the Tuileries, and received by Bonaparte and his wife. The personal appearance of this intellectual woman was, however, but little calculated to overcome Bonaparte’s prejudice. The costume of Madame de Stael was on this occasion, as it always was, fantastic, and utterly devoid of taste, and Napoleon loved to see women simply but elegantly and tastefully attired. In this interview with Napoleon, Madame de Stael gave free scope to her wit; but instead of dazzling him, as she had hoped to do, she only succeeded in depressing him.
It was while in this frame of mind, and when Madame de Stael, in her ardor, had endeavored almost to force him to pay her a compliment, that Napoleon responded to her at least somewhat indiscreet question: “Who is in your eyes the greatest woman?” with the sarcastic reply, “She who bears the most children to the state.”