Books

Saluting two strong women

Before the glass ceiling, there was one clearer and hard as a diamond. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin and Germaine de Stael, French revolutionaries, found their way through it.

These two books tell their tales in different ways. Both provide sympathetic portraits of these remarkable women who were of their times and beyond them.

Although the U.S. economy seems poised to imbibe Thunderbird or Night Train Express instead of Champagne, this time of year still belongs to bubbles. Yes, effervescent wines are made around the world. But Champagne is the one that sparkles brightest.

It wasn't always like that.

Dom Perignon, cellar master of the Abbey of Hautvillers, is revered for bringing the world Champagne. But in many ways, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot was equally important. In French, the word for widow is veuve. And Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin still ranks among the great Champagnes.

Tilar J. Mazzeo's informed and enlightening biography of Madame Clicquot, the widow and, more important, the businesswoman, retrieves her vintage story as if looking for a rare bottle in one of the Champagne region's deepest caves. Not much has been written about her.

What you should know is found in a letter to Madame Clicquot's great-grandchild: "The world is in perpetual motion and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity. Perhaps you too will be famous!!"

She certainly was, and for anyone who has had a glass of her namesake wine, still is. Born in 1777 to a wealthy family, Barbe-Nicole's life winds around and through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, crises financial and political, decisions disastrous and wise. After the death of her husband, Francois, from typhoid, the gutsy 21-year-old ran the wine company and turned Champagne into a beverage adopted by the aristocracy.

She discovered remuage, a system that removes sediment from the bottle after secondary fermentation. No more pouring wine from bottle to bottle or filtering to get rid of the junk. The result: clarity. And riddling, or turning bottles daily to trap the debris, is practiced today.

She was shrewd at politics and marketing, too, an entrepreneur defined by persistence and drive. "The Widow Clicquot" is, in part, about surviving in a harsh economy and against tough odds. Today, the finest wine made at Veuve Clicquot is called "La Grande Dame." Mazzeo, an assistant professor at Colby College, shows why.

"Madame de Stael" tries to live up to its subtitle -- "The First Modern Woman" -- and generally succeeds. Francine du Plessix Gray, whose nonfiction topics have ranged from Simone Weil to the Marquis de Sade, writes a leisurely, reflective work about the "mistress of the mind," political and cultural influence, society shaker and salon overseer.

De Stael was the daughter of Louis XVI's director of finance. She'd become anti-Royalist, anti-Napoleon and a voice for liberation. But the author could use more of her novelist's skill to convey what de Stael the powerhouse was about. Her observations are often as passionless as her subject was passionate.

Gray describes de Stael's battle against provincialism, and advocacy for women. "Stael was the first French writer to emphasize the general injustices plaguing women. ... She particularly deplored the plight of gifted, superior women, who inevitably find frustration and dejection in their romantic lives."

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