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Stendhal and Le Rouge et le Noir

Non-Fiction > Ten Novels and Their Authors >


In 1826 a virtuous young Englishman, but of literary inclinations, stayed for a while in Paris on his way to Italy, and presented the letters of introduction he had brought with him. One of the persons whose acquaintance he thus made took him to see Madame Ancelot, wife of a well-known dramatist, who received her friends on Tuesday evenings. Looking about him, he presently noticed a very fat little man who was talking with animation to a small group of his fellow-guests. He had enormous whiskers and wore a wig, and he was dressed in tight violet-coloured trousers which emphasised his corpulence, a dark-green coat with full tails, a lilac waistcoat, with a frilled shirt and a great flowing cravat. So odd was his appearance that the young Englishman could not but ask who he was. His companion mentioned a name. It meant nothing to him.

‘He makes us all nervous,’ the Frenchman went on. ‘He’s a republican, although he served under Bonaparte, and, with conditions as they are now, it’s dangerous to listen to the indiscreet things he says. At one time he had quite a good position, and he was on the Russian campaign with the Corsican. He’s probably telling his anecdotes about him now. He has a collection of them, and never misses a chance to repeat them. If you’re interested, I’ll present you to him when I get the opportunity.’

The opportunity came, and the little fat man greeted the stranger with amiability. After some desultory conversation, the young Englishman asked him whether he had ever been to England.

‘Twice,’ he replied.

He said that in London he’d stayed with two friends of his at the Tavistock Hotel. Then, with a chuckle, he went on to say that he would tell him of a curious adventure he’d had there. He’d been bored to death in London, and one day he complained to the valet he’d engaged that there was no pleasant company to be had; whereupon the valet, thinking he wanted women, after making enquiries gave him an address in Westminster Road where he and his friends could go on the following night, without fear of unpleasantness. When they discovered that the Westminster Road was in a poverty-stricken suburb, where they might be robbed and murdered, one of the party refused to go; but the other two, having armed themselves with daggers and pistols, started off in a cab. They were set down at a tiny cottage, and three pale young working girls came out and invited them in. They sat down and had tea, and finally spent the night there. The girl had been very much alarmed when, before undressing, he had significantly put his pistols on the chest of drawers. The young Englishman listened with embarrassment to the detailed and frank account the funny fat little man gave of the experience, and when he returned to his companion told him how shocked, how embarrassed, he had been by the story which he, a perfect stranger, had been obliged to listen to.

‘Don’t believe a word of it,’ said his friend, laughing. ‘It’s well known that he’s impotent.’

The youth blushed, and to change the conversation mentioned that the fat man had told him that he wrote for English reviews.

‘Yes, he does a certain amount of hackwork like that. He’s published one or two books at his own expense, but nobody reads them.’

‘What did you say his name was?’

‘Beyle. Henri Beyle. But he isn’t of any importance; he has no talent.’

This episode, I must confess, is imaginary; but it may very well have taken place, and it reflects accurately enough the opinion in which Henri Beyle, better known to us now as Stendhal, was held by his contemporaries. He was at that time forty-three. He was writing his first novel. Owing to the vicissitudes of his life, he had acquired a variety of experience such as few novelists can boast of. He had been thrown, in a period of great change, with men of all kinds and all classes, and so had gained as wide a knowledge of human nature as his own limitations permitted. For even the most observant and acute student of his fellow-creatures can only know them through the medium of his own personality. He knows them not as they really are, but as they appear to him distorted by his peculiar idiosyncrasy.

Henri Beyle was born at Grenoble in 1783, the son of an attorney, a man of property and of some consequence in the city; his mother, the daughter of a distinguished and cultured doctor, died when he was seven. I cannot in these pages give more than a summary account of Stendhal’s life, for it would need a book to describe it adequately, and I should have to go into the social and political history of the time; fortunately such a book has been written, and if the reader of Le Rouge et le Noir is sufficiently interested to want to know more about its author than I propose to tell him, he cannot do better than to read the lively and well-documented biography which Mr. Matthew Josephson has published under the title: Stendhal, or The Pursuit of Happiness.


Stendhal has described at length his life as child and boy, and it is interesting to study, because during this period he conceived prejudices which he maintained to his life’s end. On the death of his mother, whom he loved, as he says, with a lover’s love, he was left to the care of his father and his mother’s sister. His father was a grave, conscientious man; his aunt strict and devout. He hated them. Though belonging to the middle class, the family had aristocratic leanings, and the Revolution, which broke out in 1789, filled them with dismay. Stendhal claims that his childhood was miserable, but it does not appear from his own account that he had much to complain of. He was clever, argumentative and very much of a handful. When the Terror reached Grenoble, Monsieur Beyle was placed on the list of suspects; he thought he owed this to a rival lawyer, named Amar, who wanted his practice. ‘But Amar,’ said the smart little boy, ‘has put you on the list of those suspected of not loving the republic, and it is certain that you do not love it.’ True, of course; but not very pleasant for a middle-aged gentleman who is in danger of losing his head to hear from the lips of his only son. Stendhal accused his father of a horrid stinginess, but he seems always to have been able to wheedle money out of him when he wanted it. He was forbidden to read certain books, but, as thousands upon thousands of children the world over have done since books were first printed, he read them on the sly. His chief complaint was that he was not permitted to mix freely with other children; but his life cannot have been so solitary as he liked to make out, since he had two sisters, and other little boys shared his lessons with the Jesuit priest who was his tutor. He was, in fact, brought up as children in the well-to-do middle class were brought up at the time. Like all children, he looked upon ordinary restraints as the exercise of outrageous tyranny; and when he was obliged to do lessons, when he was not allowed to do exactly as he chose, regarded himself as treated with monstrous cruelty.

In this he resembled most children, but most children, when they grow up, forget their grievances. Stendhal was unusual in that, at fifty-three, he harboured his old resentments. Because he hated his Jesuit tutor, he became violently anti-clerical, and to the end of his life could hardly bring himself to believe that a religious person might be sincere; and because his father and aunt were devoted royalists, he became ardently republican. But when one evening, being then eleven years old, he slipped out of the house to go to a revolutionary meeting, he had something of a shock. He found the proletariat dirty and smelly, vulgar and ill-spoken. ‘In short, I was then as I am today,’ he wrote, ‘I love the people, I hate their oppressors, but it would be a perpetual torture for me to live with the people … I had, and I have still, the most aristocratic tastes, I would do everything for the happiness of the people, but I would sooner, I believe, pass two weeks every month in prison than live with shopkeepers.’

The boy was clever and a good mathematician, and at sixteen he persuaded his father to let him go to Paris to enter the École Polytechnique to prepare himself for a career in the army. But this was only an excuse to get away from home. When the day came for him to present himself for the entrance examination, he stayed away. His father had given him an introduction to a connection of his, a Monsieur Daru, whose two sons were in the War Office. Pierre, the elder, held an important position, and after some time, at the request of M. Daru, his father, he engaged the youth, who was at a loose end and for whom some occupation had to be found, as one of his many secretaries. Napoleon set out on his second campaign in Italy, the brothers Daru followed him, and a little later Stendhal joined them at Milan. After some months on the clerical staff, Pierre Daru got him a commission in a regiment of dragoons, but, enjoying the gaieties of Milan as he did, he made no attempt to join it and, taking advantage of his patron’s absence, he wheedled a certain General Michaud into making him his A.D.C. When Pierre Daru came back, he ordered Stendhal to join his regiment; but this, on one pretext and another, he avoided doing for six months, and when at last he did, found himself so bored that on a plea of illness he got leave of absence to go to Grenoble, and there resigned his commission. He saw no action, but this did not prevent him from boasting in after years of his prowess as a combatant; and indeed in 1804, when he was looking for a job, he wrote a testimonial himself (which General Michaud signed) in which he certified to his gallantry in various battles in which it has been proved he could not possibly have been engaged.

After spending three months at home, Stendhal went to live in Paris on a small, but sufficient, allowance from his father. He had two objects in view. One was to become the greatest dramatic poet of the age. For this purpose, he studied a manual of playwriting and assiduously frequented the theatre. He seems, however, to have had little power of invention, since over and over again one finds him unscrupulously remarking in his diary how he could take a play he had just seen and work it over into one of his own; and he was certainly no poet. His other object was to become a great lover. For this nature had ill equipped him. He was somewhat undersized, an ugly, plump young man with a big body and short legs, a large head and a mass of black curly hair; his mouth was thin, his nose thick and prominent; but his brown eyes were eager, his feet and hands small, and his skin as delicate as a woman’s. He was proud to declare that to hold a sword raised blisters on his hand. He was, besides, shy and awkward. Through his cousin, Martial Daru, Pierre’s younger brother, he was able to frequent the salons of some of the ladies whose husbands the Revolution had enriched; but he was sadly tongue-tied in company. He could think of clever things to say, but could never summon up the courage to say them. He never knew what to do with his hands, and he bought a cane so that by playing with it he should make some use of them. He was conscious of his provincial accent, and it may be that it was to cure himself of this that he entered a dramatic school. Here he met a small-part actress, Mélanie Guil-bert by name, two or three years older than himself, and, after some hesitation, decided to fall in love with her. He hesitated partly because he was not sure whether she had a greatness of soul equal to his own and partly because he suspected that she was suffering from a venereal disease. Having presumably satisfied himself on both these points, he followed her to Marseilles, where she had an engagement, and where for some months he worked at a wholesale grocer’s. He came to the conclusion that she was not, either spiritually or intellectually, the woman he had thought; and it was a relief to him when, her engagement having come to an end, lack of money obliged her to return to Paris.

Stendhal was highly sex-conscious, but not particularly sexual; indeed, until some very frank letters were discovered from one of his later mistresses, it was commonly suspected that he was impotent. That is what the hero of his first novel, Armance, was. It is not a good novel. André Gide, however, greatly admired it; for a reason, I think, which is not hard to guess: it corroborated his own conviction, derived of course from his peculiar relations with his wife, that it is possible to be deeply in love without sexual desire. But there is all the difference between loving and being in love. It is possible to love without desire, but without desire impossible to be in love. Stendhal was evidently not impotent. He made his condition clear in the chapter of De l’Amour which he entitled “Fiasco”. To put it bluntly, his fear of not coming up to the scratch on occasion made him unable to do so, and thus gave rise to the rumours which mortified him. His passions were cerebral, and to possess a woman was chiefly a satisfaction to his vanity. It assured him of his own virility. Notwithstanding his high-flown phrases, there is no sign that he was capable of tenderness. He admits frankly that most of his love affairs were unfortunate, and it is not hard to see why. He was faint-hearted. When in Italy, he asked a brother officer how to go about it to win a woman’s ‘favours’, and solemnly wrote down the advice he received. He laid siege to women by rule, just as he had tried to write plays by rule; and he was affronted when he discovered that they thought him ridiculous, and surprised when they discerned his insincerity. Intelligent as he was, it seems never to have occurred to him that the language a woman understands is the language of the heart, and that the language of reason leaves her cold. He thought he could achieve by stratagem and chicanery what can only be achieved by feeling.

Some months after Mélanie left him, Stendhal once more found himself n Paris. This was in 1806. By this time Pierre, now Count Daru, was more important than ever. Stendhal’s conduct in Italy had caused Pierre to form a poor opinion of his cousin, and it was only on his wife’s persuasion that he was induced to give him another chance. After the battle of Jena his younger brother, Martial, was assigned to serve at Brunswick, and Stendhal accompanied him as deputy commissary of war. He performed his duties so capably that, when Martial Daru was called elsewhere, he succeeded him. Stendhal abandoned the idea of being a great dramatist and decided to make a career for himself in the bureaucracy. He saw himself as a Baron of the Empire, a Knight of the Legion of Honour and, finally, as Prefect of a department with a princely stipend. Ardent republican though he was, and looking upon Napoleon as a tyrant who had robbed France of her liberty, he wrote to his father asking him to buy him a title. He added the particule to his name, and called himself Henri De Beyle. But notwithstanding this foolishness, he was a competent and resourceful administrator; and in an uprising occasioned by a French officer who in a dispute with a German civilian drew his sword and killed him, he behaved with notable courage. In 1810, having gained promotion, he was once more in Paris, with an office in a superb suite in the Palais des Invalides and a handsome salary. He acquired a cabriolet with a pair of horses, a coachman and a man-servant. He took a chorus-girl to live with him. But this did not suffice: he felt that he owed it to himself to have a mistress he could love, and whose position would add to his prestige. He decided that Alexandrine Daru, Pierre’s wife, would fill the bill. She was a handsome woman many years younger than her distinguished husband, and the mother of his four children. There is no sign that Stendhal gave a thought to the kindness and long-suffering tolerance with which Count Daru had treated him, nor that, since he owed his advancement to him and his career depended on his good graces, it was neither politic nor elegant to seduce his wife. Gratitude was a virtue unknown to him.

He set about the enterprise with a crop of amorous devices, but the unfortunate diffidence of which he could not rid himself still hampered him. He was by turns sprightly and sad, flirtatious and cold, ardent and indifferent: nothing served; and he could not tell whether the Countess cared for him or not. It was a mortification to him to suspect that, because of his bashfulness, she laughed at him behind his back. At length, he went to an old friend and, having exposed his dilemma, asked him what tactics to pursue. They discussed the matter. The friend asked pertinent questions, and wrote down Stendhal’s answers. Here, as summarized by Matthew Josephson, are the replies to the question: ‘What are the advantages of seducing Madame de B.?’ (Madame de B. was what they called Countess Daru.) ‘they are as follows: He would be following the inclinations of his character; he would win great social advantages; he would pursue further his study of human passions; he would satisfy honour and pride.’ A footnote to the document was written by Stendhal: ‘The best advice. Attack! Attack! Attack!’ It was good advice, but not easy to follow by one who is cursed with an unsurmountable timidity. Some weeks later, however, Stendhal was asked to stay at Béche-ville, the Darus’ country house, and on the second morning, after a sleepless night, resolved to take the plunge, he put on his best striped trousers. Countess Daru complimented him on them. They walked in the garden, while a friend of hers with her mother and the children followed twenty yards behind. They strolled up and down, and Stendhal, trembling but determined, fixed upon a certain point, which he called B, at a little distance from the point A to which they had come, and swore that if he did not speak out when they reached it he would kill himself. He spoke, he seized her hand and sought to kiss it; he told her that he had loved her for eighteen months, had done his best to conceal it, and even tried not to see her, but could bear his agony no longer. The Countess replied, not unkindly, that she could look upon him as nothing but a friend, and had no intention of being unfaithful to her husband. She called the rest of the party to join them. Stendhal had lost what he called the Battle of Bècheville. It may be surmised that his vanity rather than his heart was hurt.

Two months after this, still smarting from his disappointment, he applied for leave of absence and went to Milan, with which he had been much taken on his first visit to Italy. There, ten years before, he had been attracted by a certain Gina Pietragrua, who was the mistress of a brother officer of his; but he was then an impecunious sub-lieutenant, and she paid little attention to him. On his return to Milan, however, Stendhal immediately sought her out. Her father kept a shop and, when quite young, she had married a government clerk; by this time she was thirty-four, and had a son of sixteen. On seeing her again, Stendhal found her ‘a tall and superb woman. She still had something of the majestic in her eyes, expression, brow and nose. I found her (he adds) cleverer, with more majesty and less of that full grace of voluptuousness.’ She was certainly clever enough on her husband’s small salary to have an apartment in Milan, a house in the country, servants, a box at the Scala and a carriage.

Stendhal was highly conscious of his homeliness and, to overcome it, made a point of dressing with elegance and fashion. He had always been plump, but by now with good living he was grown portly; however, he had money in his pocket and fine clothes to his back. With these advantages, he must have thought that he had more chance of pleasing the majestic lady than when he was a poverty-stricken dragoon, and he decided to amuse himself with her during his short stay in Milan. But she was not so facile as he had expected. In fact, she led him a dance, and it was not till the eve of his departure for Rome that she consented to receive him in her apartment early one morning. One would have thought it an unpropitious hour for love. That day he wrote in his diary: ‘On the 21st September at half-past eleven, I won the victory I had so long desired.’ He also wrote the date on his braces. He had worn the same striped trousers as on the day of his declaration to Countess Daru.

His leave came to an end, and he returned to Paris. Somewhat to his dismay, he found Count Daru, who had witnessed his young cousin’s attention to his wife with disfavour, more than cold; and when Napoleon started on his disastrous expedition to Russia, it was only with difficulty that Stendhal prevailed upon him to transfer him from his comfortable job at the Invalides to active service in the commissariat. He followed in the wake of the army to Moscow, and in the retreat proved himself as ever cool, enterprising and courageous. On one of the worst mornings, he turned up at Daru’s headquarters for orders, carefully shaved and perfectly groomed in his only uniform. At the passage of the Beresina he saved his life, and that of a wounded officer whom he had taken into his carriage, by his presence of mind. He arrived at last at Königsberg, half starved, having lost his manuscripts and everything he possessed but the clothes he stood up in. ‘I saved myself by force of will,’ he wrote, ‘for I saw many around me give up hope and perish.’ A month later he was back in Paris.


In 1814 the Emperor abdicated, and Stendhal’s official career came to an end. He claims to have refused the important posts that were offered him and exiled himself rather than serve under the Bourbons; but the facts are not quite like that; he took the oath of allegiance to the King and made attempts to get back into public service. They failed, and he returned to Milan. He still had enough money to live in a pleasant apartment and go to the opera as often as he chose; but he had neither the rank, the prestige nor the cash he had had before. Gina was cool. She told him that her husband had grown jealous on hearing of his arrival, and that her other admirers were suspicious. He could not conceal from himself that she had no further use for him, but her indifference only inflamed his passion, and at length it occurred to him that there was but one way to regain her love. He raised three thousand francs to give her. They went to Venice, accompanied by her mother, her son and a middle-aged banker. To save appearances, she insisted that Stendhal should live in a different hotel, and much to his annoyance the banker joined them when he and Gina dined together. Here is an extract, in his own English, from his diary: ‘She pretends that she makes me a great sacrifice in going to Venice. I was very foolish of giving her three thousand francs which were to pay for this tour.’ And ten days later: ‘I have had her … but she talked of our financial arrangements. There was no illusion possible yesterday morning. Politics kills all voluptuousness in me, apparently by drawing all the nervous fluid to the brain.’

Notwithstanding this contretemps, Stendhall spent June 18, 1815, the day on which Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, in the majestic Gina’s arms.

In the autumn the party went back to Milan. For the sake of her reputation, she insisted on Stendhal’s taking rooms in an obscure suburb. When she gave him an assignation, he went, disguised, in the dead of night, throwing spies off the scent by changing carriage several times, and then was admitted to the apartment by a chambermaid. But the chambermaid, having quarrelled with her mistress or won over by the money of Beyle, made on a sudden the startling revelation that Madame’s husband was not jealous at all; she demanded all this mystery to prevent Monsieur Beyle from encountering a rival, several rivals, for there were many, and the maid offered to prove it to him. Next day she hid him in a small closet beside Gina’s boudoir, and there he saw with his own eyes, through a hole in the wall, the treachery that was being done him, only three feet from his hiding place. ‘You may think perhaps,’ said Beyle, when relating the incident to Mérimée years afterward, ‘that I rushed out of the closet in order to poniard the two of them? Not at all … I left my dark closet as quietly as I went in, thinking only of the ridiculous side of the adventure, laughing to myself, and also full of scorn for the lady, and quite happy, after all, to have regained my liberty.’

But he was deeply mortified. He claims that for eighteen months he was unable to write, to think or to speak. Gina tried to win him back. One day she waylaid him at the Brera, the great picture gallery, and going down on her knees begged him to forgive her. ‘I had the ridiculous pride,’ he told Mérimée, ‘to repulse her with disdain. I seem still to see her pursuing me, clinging to my coat tails and dragging herself on her knees the length of the great gallery. I was a fool not to forgive her, for certainly she never loved me so much as on that day.’

In 1818, however, Stendhal met the beautiful Countess Dembrowski, and promptly fell in love with her. He was thirty-six and she ten years younger. This was the first time he had set his affections on a woman of distinction. The Countess, an Italian, was married in her teens to a Polish general, but had left him after some years and gone to Switzerland with her two children. The poet, Ugo Foscolo, was living there in exile, and public opinion wrongly believed that it was to live with him that she had left her husband. When she returned to Milan, she was under a cloud, not because she had had a lover, which, according to the manners of the time, was far from reprehensible, but because she had left her husband and lived by herself abroad. It was not till after five months of passionate admiration that Stendhal ventured to declare his love. She promptly showed him the door. He wrote humbly apologising, and eventually she so far relented as to allow him to come to see her once a fortnight. She made it very obvious that his attentions were distasteful to her, but he persisted. One of the odd things about Stendhal is that though he was always on the watch lest anyone made a fool of him, he was constantly making a fool of himself. On one occasion the Countess went to Volterra to see her two sons, who were at school there, and Stendhal followed her; but, knowing it would anger her, disguised himself by wearing green spectacles. He took them off in the evening when he went for a stroll, and by chance met the Countess. She cut him dead and next day sent him a note ‘berating him for having followed her to Volterra and compromised her by hanging about the park where she walked every day’. He answered, beseeching her to pardon him and a day or two later called on her. She sent him coldly away. He went to Florence and bombarded her with unhappy letters. She sent them back to him unopened, and wrote as follows: ‘Monsieur, I do not wish to receive any more letters from you and will not write to you. I am with perfect esteem, etc.…’

Stendhal, disconsolate, returned to Milan, only to learn that his father had died. He started at once for Grenoble. There he found that the attorney’s affairs were in a bad way, and instead of inheriting the fortune he expected, he was left with little but debts to settle. He hurried back to Milan, and somehow, we are not told how, managed to persuade the Countess to let him once more see her again at stated intervals; but such was his vanity, he would not believe that she was perfectly indifferent to him, and later he wrote: ‘After three years of intimacy, I left a woman whom I loved and who loved me, and yet who never gave herself to me.’

In 1821, on account of his relations with certain Italian patriots, the Austrian police requested him to leave Milan. He settled down in Paris and for the next nine years mostly lived there. He frequented the salons where wit was appreciated. He was no longer tongue-tied, but was become an amusing, caustic talker, at his best with eight or ten persons whom he liked; but, as many good talkers do, he was inclined to monopolise the conversation. He liked to lay down the law, and took no pains to conceal his contempt for anyone who did not agree with him. In his desire to shock, he indulged somewhat freely in the bawdy and the profane, and carping critics thought that, to entertain or to provoke, he often forced his humour. He could not suffer bores, and found it hard to believe that they were not scoundrels as well.

During this period he had the only love affair in which his love appears to have been requited. The Countess de Curial, née Clémentine Bougeot, was separated from an unfaithful, but jealous and irascible, husband. She was a handsome woman of thirty-six and Stendhal was over forty, a fat short man with a fat red nose, an enormous paunch and a huge behind. He wore a reddish-brown wig and great whiskers dyed to match. He dressed as grandly as his limited means allowed. Clémentine de Curial was attracted by Stendhal’s wit and good humour, and when after a proper interval he ‘attacked’, she received his proposals with the gratitude proper to her age. During the two years the affair lasted she wrote him two hundred and fifteen letters. It was all as romantic as Stendhal could have wished. Fearing her husband’s rage, he would pay her secret visits. I quote from Matthew Josephson: ‘He would assume a disguise, would take a carriage from Paris and, in darkness, ride full tilt to her château, where he would arrive after midnight. And Madame de Curial proved herself as audacious as any heroine of a novel by Stendhal. Once, when unexpected guests arrived – perhaps her husband – interrupting their assignation, she hurriedly led him down to the cellar, removed the ladder by which he descended, and shut the trap door. There in a dark, romantic cavern the enraptured Stendhal remained for three whole days imprisoned, nay entombed, while the madly-devoted Clémentine prepared food for him, lowered and raised the ladder so that she might come to him secretly, and even, in order to provide for his wants, brought down and then emptied the close stool.’ ‘She was sublime,’ Stendhal wrote afterwards, ‘when she came to the cellar at night.’ But presently quarrels arose between the lovers which were as tempestuous as their passion, and eventually the lady threw Stendhal over for another, and perhaps less exacting or more exciting, lover.

Then came the revolution of 1830. Charles X went into exile, and Louis Philippe ascended the throne. Stendhal had, by this time, spent the little he had been able to save from his father’s ruin, and his literary efforts, for he had reverted to his old ambition to become a famous writer, brought him neither money nor reputation. De l’Amour was published in 1822, and in eleven years only seventeen copies were sold. Armance, in 1827, succeeded neither with the critics nor the public. He had, as I have mentioned, tried in vain to get some government post, and at last, with the change of régime, he was appointed to the consulate at Trieste; but, owing to his liberal sympathies, the Austrian authorities refused to accept him, and he was transferred to Civita Vecchia in the Papal States.

He took his official duties lightly; he was a tireless sightseer and, whenever possible, went on a jaunt. He found in Rome friends who made much of him. But notwithstanding these distractions, he was hideously bored, and lonely; and, at the age of fifty-one, he made an offer of marriage to a young girl, the daughter of his laundress and of a minor employee at the consulate. To his mortification, the offer was refused, not, as one might have expected, because of his age and bad character, but because of his liberal opinions. In 1836 he persuaded his Minister to give him some small job that allowed him to live in Paris for three years, while someone else temporarily occupied his post. He was by then fatter than ever, and apoplectic, but this did not prevent him from dressing in the height of fashion, and a slighting remark on the cut of his coat or the style of his trousers deeply affronted him. He continued to make love, but with little success. He persuaded himself that he was still in love with Clémentine de Curial, and sought to resume some sort of relations with her. Ten years had passed since the break, and she very sensibly replied that one cannot light an extinct fire with embers. She told him that he must be content to be her first and best friend. Mérimée relates that he was shattered by the blow: ‘He could not pronounce her name without his voice changing … It was the only time I had seen him weep.’ But he seems to have recovered sufficiently within a month or two unsuccessfully to make advances to a certain Madame Gaulthier. At length, he was obliged to return to Civita Vecchia and there, two years later, he had a stroke. On his recovery he asked for leave of absence to consult a famous doctor at Geneva. He moved from there to Paris and resumed his old life. He went to parties and talked with undiminished vivacity. One day in March, 1842, he attended an official dinner at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that evening, while walking along the boulevard, had a second stroke. He was carried to his lodging and died next day. He had passed his life in the pursuit of happiness, and had never learnt that happiness is best attained when it is not sought; and, moreover, is only known when it is lost. It is doubtful whether anyone can say ‘I am happy’; but only ‘I was happy’. For happiness is not well-being, content, heart’s ease, pleasure, enjoyment: all these go to make happiness, but they are not happiness.


Stendhal was an eccentric. His character was even more incongruous than that of most men, and one is amazed that so many contradictory traits should co-exist in one and the same person. They do not form a harmony that is in any way plausible. He had great virtues and great defects. He was sensitive, emotional, diffident, talented, a hard worker when there was work to be done, cool and brave in danger, a good friend and of a remarkable originality. His prejudices were absurd, his aims unworthy. He was distrustful (and so an easy dupe), intolerant, uncharitable, none too conscientious, fatuously vain and vainglorious, sensual without delicacy, and licentious without passion. But if we know that he had these defects, it is because he has told us so himself. Stendhal was not a professional author, he was hardly even a man of letters, but he wrote incessantly, and he wrote almost entirely about himself. For years he kept a journal, of which great sections have come down to us, and it is plain that he wrote with no view to publication; but in his early fifties he wrote an autobiography in five hundred pages, which carried him to the age of seventeen, and this, though left unrevised at his death, he meant to be read. In it he sometimes makes himself out more important than he really was, and claims to have done things he did not do, but on the whole it is truthful. He does not spare himself, and I imagine that few can read these books, and they are not easy to read, since they are in parts dull and often repetitive, without asking themselves whether, if they were unwise enough to expose themselves with so much frankness, they would make a much better showing.

When Stendhal died, only two Paris papers troubled to report the fact, and only three persons, of whom Mérimée was one, attended his funeral. It looked as though he would be entirely forgotten; and, indeed, he might well have been but for the efforts of two devoted friends who succeeded in persuading an important firm of publishers to issue an edition of his principal works. The public, however, notwithstanding two articles which the powerful critic, Sainte-Beuve, devoted to them, remained indifferent. That is not surprising, since Sainte-Beuve’s first article was concerned with Stendhal’s early works, which his contemporaries neglected and which posterity has decided to ignore, and in the second article he reserved his praise for Stendhal’s books of travel, Promenades dans Rome and Mémoires d’un Touriste, and found nothing to his liking in the novels. He claimed that the characters were puppets, ingeniously constructed, but whose every movement revealed the mechanism within; and the incidents he condemned as frankly incredible. Balzac, while Stendhal was still alive, had written a laudatory article on La Chartreuse de Parme; Sainte-Beuve wrote: ‘It is evident that I am far from sharing the enthusiasm of M. de Balzac for La Chartreuse de Parme. The simple fact is that he has written of Beyle, as a novelist, as he would have liked people to write of himself’; and then, a little later, rather maliciously, he tells how after Stendhal’s death among his papers was found one which showed that he had given or lent Balzac three thousand francs (and with Balzac a loan always was a gift), and thus paid for the eulogy. Upon this Sainte-Beuve quoted: ‘Ce mélange de gloire et de gain m’importune.’ Perhaps he needn’t have been so censorious: his two articles on Stendhal were paid for by the publishers of the edition, and the two articles he wrote on Stendhal’s cousin, Pierre Daru, whose only distinction as a writer was that he had translated Horace and written a history of Venice in nine volumes, were commissioned as an act of piety by the family.

Stendhal never doubted that his works would survive, but he was prepared to wait till 1880, or even to 1900, to receive the appreciation that was his due. Many an author has consoled himself for the neglect of his contemporaries by a confidence that posterity will recognise his merits. It seldom does. Posterity is busy and careless and, when it concerns itself with the literary productions of the past, makes its choice among those that were successful in their own day. It is only by a remote chance that a dead author is rescued from the obscurity in which he languished during his lifetime. In the case of Stendhal, a professor, otherwise unknown, in his lectures at the École Normale enthusiastically praised his books, and there happened to be among his students some clever young men who later made a name for themselves. They read them, and finding in them something that suited the climate of opinion at the time prevalent among the young, became fanatical admirers. The ablest of these young men was Hippolyte Taine, and many years later, by which time he was become a well-known and influential man of letters, he wrote a long essay in which he called attention especially to Stendhal’s psychological insight. In passing, I should remark that when literary critics speak of a novelist’s psychology, they do not use the term in quite the sense that psychologists use it. So far as I can make out, what they mean is that the novelist lays a greater emphasis on the motives, thoughts and emotions of his characters than on their actions; but in practice this results in the novelist chiefly displaying the more sinister parts of man’s nature, his envy, his malignity, his selfishness, his pettiness – in fact, his baser rather than his better nature; and this has an air of truth, for, unless we are pect fools, we are well aware how much there is in us all that is hateful. ‘But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.’ Since Taine’s essay, an immense amount has been written about Stendhal, and it is generally agreed that he is one of the three great novelists that France produced in the nineteenth century.

His case is a very singular one. Most of the great novelists have been voluminous creators, and none more so than Balzac and Dickens. One can be pretty sure that, if they had lived to old age, they would have gone on concocting story after story. One would think that, of all the gifts a novelist needs, invention on a large scale is the most essential. This gift Stendhal almost completely lacked. Yet he is, perhaps, the most original of novelists. Just as, when in his youth he wanted to become a famous dramatist, he could never think of an idea on which to construct a play; so, when it came to writing novels, it looks as though he was unable to evolve a plot out of his own head. His first novel, as I have said, was Armance. The Duchesse de Duras had written two novels which by their somewhat daring subjects had had a succès de scandale, and a writer of some note in his day, by name Henri de Latouche, wrote one, which he issued anonymously, hoping it would be ascribed to the Duchess, and of which the hero was impotent. I have not read it, and can speak of it only from hearsay. From this I gather that Stendhal for Armance took not only the theme, but also the plot, of Latouche’s book. With what looks like brazen effrontery, he even gave his hero the same name as Latouche had given his, and it was only later that he changed it from Olivier to Octave. He embroidered upon the idea with what I suppose would be called psychological realism; but the novel remains a poor one: the incidents are wildly improbable, and for my part I find it impossible to believe that a man suffering from the peculiar disability which gives the book its theme could fall passionately in love with a young girl. In Le Rouge et le Noir, as I shall show later, Stendhal followed closely the story of a young man who was the subject of a celebrated trial. The only part of La Chartreuse de Parme which Sainte-Beuve saw fit to praise is the description of the Battle of Waterloo, and Stendhal’s description was suggested by the memoirs of an English soldier who had been at the Battle of Vittoria. For the rest of that particular book he depended on old Italian annals and memoirs. Now, a novelist obviously gets his plots from somewhere, sometimes from incidents in real life that he has experienced, witnessed or been told of, but as a rule, I should say, from an elaboration of characters who have for some reason excited his imagination. I know of no novelist of the first rank, other than Stendhal, who has so directly found his inspiration in what he has read. I do not remark on this in disparagement, but merely as a curious fact. Stendhal was not greatly inventive; but, how it came about none can tell, nature had endowed this vulgar buffoon with a wonderful gift of accurate observation, and with a piercing insight into the intricacies, vagaries and bizarreries of the human heart. He had a very poor opinion of his fellow-creatures, but was intensely interested in them. In his Mémoires d’un Touriste there is a revealing passage in which he relates how, on a journey through France, he took a post-chaise in order to admire the scenery at his leisure, but after a while, finding himself desperately bored, abandoned it for the crowded stagecoach where he could talk to his fellow-travellers and, at table d’hôte, listen to their stories.

Though Stendhal’s travel books are lively and can still be read with pleasure, if only for what they tell you of their author’s singular character, his fame rests on two novels and on a few passages in De 1’Amour. One of these was not original: early in 1817 he was at Bologna, and at a party a certain Madame Gherardi, ‘the prettiest woman that Brescia, the land of fine eyes, ever produced’, said to him:

‘There are four different kinds of love:

(1) Physical love, that of beasts, savages and degraded Europeans.

(2) Passionate love, that of Héloise for Abelard, of Julie d’Étange for Saint-Preux.

(3) L’Amour Goût, which during the eighteenth century amused the French, and which Marivaux, Crébillon, Duclos, Madame D’Epinay have described with such grace. (I have left l’amour goût in French, because I do not know how to translate it. I think it means the kind of love you feel for a person to whom you have taken a fancy, and, if the word were in the Oxford Dictionary, I should prefer to call it ‘lech’ rather than love.)

(4) Love from Vanity, that which made your Duchesse de Chaulnes say when she was about to marry M. de Gial: “For a commoner, a duchess is always thirty.”’

Then Stendhal adds: ‘the act of folly which makes one see every perfection in the object of one’s love, is called crystallisation in Madame Gherardi’s circle.’ It would have been unlike him not to seize upon the fruitful idea that was thus presented to him; but it was not till months later that, on what he called ‘a day of genius’, the analogy occurred to him which has since become famous. Here it is: ‘At the salt mines of Salzburg you throw into the depths of a disused shaft a leafless branch; two or three months afterwards you take it out covered with brilliant crystallisation: the smallest twigs, no bigger than a titmouse’s foot, are adorned with an infinity of scintillating diamonds. One can no longer recognise the original branch.

‘What I call crystallisation is the operation of the mind that draws from everything around it the discovery that the beloved object has new perfections.’

Everyone who has fallen in, and fallen out of, love must recognise the aptness of the illustration.


Of the two great novels, La Chartreuse de Parme is the more agreeable to read. I do not think Sainte-Beuve was right when he called the characters lifeless puppets. It is true that Fabrice, the hero, and Clelia Conti, the heroine, are shadowy, and for the most part play a somewhat passive role in the story; but Count Mosca and the Duchess Sanseverino are intensely alive. The gay, licentious, unscrupulous duchess is a masterpiece of characterisation. But Le Rouge et le Noir is by far the more striking, the more original, and the more significant performance. It is because of it that Zola called Stendhal the father of the naturalistic school, and that Bourget and André Gide have claimed him (not quite accurately) as the originator of the psychological novel.

Unlike most authors, Stendhal accepted criticism, however damning, with good humour; but what is even more remarkable, when he sent manuscripts of his books to friends whose opinions he wanted, he adopted without hesitation the revisions, often ample, which they recommended. Mérimée states that though he constantly rewrote, he never corrected. I am not sure that this is a fact. In a manuscript of his that I have seen he put a little cross over a number of words that he was not satisfied with, and did this surely with the intention of altering them when he came to revise. He hated the flowery manner of writing made fashionable by Chateaubriand, and which a hundred lesser authors had sedulously aped. Stendhal’s aim was to set down whatever he had to say as plainly and exactly as he could, without frills, rhetorical flourishes or picturesque verbiage. He said (probably not quite truly) that before starting to write he read a page of the Code Napoléon in order to chasten his language. He eschewed description of scenery and the abundant metaphors which were popular in his day. The cold, lucid, self-controlled style he adopted admirably increases the horror of the story he has to tell in Le Rouge et le Noir, and adds to its enthralling interest.

It is to Le Rouge et le Noir that Taine in his famous essay gave most of his attention; but being an historian and a philosopher, he was chiefly interested in Stendhal’s psychological acuteness, his shrewd analysis of motives, and the freshness and originality of his opinions. He pointed out with justice that Stendhal was concerned not with action for its own sake, but only in so far as it was occasioned by the emotions of his personages, the singularities of their character and the vicissitudes of their passions. This made him avoid describing dramatic incidents in a dramatic manner. As an illustration of this, Taine quoted Stendhal’s description of his hero’s execution, and very truly remarked that most authors would have looked upon this as an event on which they could expatiate. This is how Stendhal treated it:

‘The bad air of the cell was becoming intolerable to Julien; happily, on the day on which they told him he was to die, a lovely sun enlivened nature, and Julien was in a courageous mood. To walk in the open air was to him a delicious sensation, as to walk on land might be to a sailor who has been long at sea. Well, everything is going well, he told himself, I don’t lack courage. Never had that head been so poetic as when it was about to fall. The sweet moments he had passed in the woods of Vergy crowded upon his memory with the utmost force. Everything took place simply, decently, and on his side without affectation.’

But Taine was apparently not interested in the novel as a work of art. His aim in writing was to awaken interest in a neglected author, and it was a panegyric he wrote rather than a critical study. The reader who is induced by Taine’s essay to acquaint himself with Le Rouge et le Noir may well be a trifle disappointed. For as a work of art it is sadly imperfect.

Stendhal was more interested in himself than in anyone else, and he was always the hero of his novels, Octave in Armance, Fabrice in La Chartreuse de Parme, and Lucien Leuwen in the unfinished novel of that name. Julien Sorel, the hero of Le Rouge et le Noir, is the kind of man Stendhal would have liked to be. He made him attractive to women and successful in winning their love, as he himself would have given everything to be, and too seldom was. He made him achieve his ends with them by just those methods that he had concocted for his own use, and that had consistently failed. He made him as brilliant a talker as he was himself; he was wise enough, however, never to give an example of his brilliance, but only affirmed it, since he knew that when a novelist has told his reader that a character is witty, and then gives examples of his wit, they are apt not to come up to the reader’s expectation. He gave him his own astonishing memory, his own courage, his own timidity, his own ambition, sensitiveness, calculating brain, his own suspiciousness and vanity and quickness to take offence, his own unscrupulousness and his own ingratitude. The pleasantest trait he gives him, again one that he found in himself, is Julien’s faculty of being moved to tears when he meets with disinterestedness and loving-kindness: it suggests that if the circumstances of his life had been different, he would not have been so vile.

As I have said, Stendhal had no gift for making up a story out of his own head, and he took the plot of Le Rouge et le Noir from newspaper reports of a trial that at the time had excited great interest. A young seminarist called Antoine Berthet was tutor in the house of a M. Michoud, then in that of a M. de Cordon; he tried to seduce, or did seduce, the wife of the first and the daughter of the second. He was discharged. He attempted then to resume his studies for the priesthood, but owing to his bad reputation no seminary would receive him. He took it into his head that the Michouds were responsible for this, and in revenge shot Madame Michoud while she was in church, and then himself. The wound was not fatal and he was tried; he sought to save himself at the expense of the unfortunate woman, but was condemned to death.

This ugly, sordid story appealed to Stendhal. He regarded Berthet’s crime as the reaction of a strong, rebellious nature against the social order, and as the expression of the natural man, untrammelled by the conventions of an artificial society. He held his fellow-Frenchmen in scorn because they had lost the energy which they had had in the Middle Ages, and were becoming law-abiding, respectable, prosaic, commonplace and incapable of passion. It might, perhaps, have occurred to him that after the horrors of the Terror, after the catastrophic wars of Napoleon, it was natural that they should welcome peace and quiet. Stendhal prized energy above all other qualities of man, and if he adored Italy, and sooner lived there than in his native land, it was because he persuaded himself that it was the ‘country of love and hate’. There men loved with frenzy and for love’s sake died. There men and women surrendered to their passions, careless of the disaster that might ensue. There men, in a sudden attack of blind rage, killed, and killing, dared to be themselves. This is pure romanticism, and it is plain that what Stendhal called energy is what most people call violence. And condemn.

‘The people alone,’ he wrote, ‘nowadays have some remnants of energy. There is none of it in the upper classes’; so, when he came to write Le Rouge et le Noir, he made Julien a working-class boy; but he furnished him with a better brain, more strength of will, and greater courage than were possessed by his wretched model. The character he drew with consummate skill is of perennial interest; he is devoured with envy and hatred of those born in a more privileged class, and well represents a type that occurs in every generation, and will presumably continue to do so until there is a classless society. Then human nature will doubtless have changed, and the less intelligent, the less competent, the less enterprising will no longer resent it if the more enterprising, the more competent and the more intelligent enjoy advantages that are denied them. Here, when we catch our first glimpse of Julien, is how Stendhal describes him: ‘He was a small young man of eighteen or nineteen, weakly to look at, with irregular, delicate features and an aquiline nose. His large black eyes, which in moments of tranquility suggested reflection and fire, were lit up at that instant with an expression of the fiercest hate. His dark chestnut hair, growing very low, gave him a small forehead and in moments of anger a look of wickedness…. His slender, well-set figure suggested lightness rather than vigour.’ Not an attractive portrait, but a good one, because it does not predispose the reader in Julien’s favour. The principal character in a novel, as I have said, naturally enlists the reader’s sympathy, and Stendhal, having chosen a villain for his hero, had to take care from the start that his readers should not sympathise with him overmuch. On the other hand, he had to interest them in him. He could not afford to make him too repulsive, so he modified his first description by dwelling repeatedly on his fine eyes, his graceful figure and his delicate hands. On occasion, he describes him as positively beautiful. But he does not forget from time to time to call your attention to the malaise he arouses in persons who came in contact with him, and to the suspicion with which he is regarded by all save those who have most cause to be on their guard against him.

Madame de Rênal, the mother of the children Julien is engaged to teach, is an admirably drawn character of a kind most difficult to depict. She is a good woman. Most novelists at one time have tried to create one, but have only succeeded in producing a goose. I suppose the reason is that there is only one way of being good, whereas there are dozens of being bad. This obviously gives the novelist greater scope. Madame de Rênal is charming, virtuous, sincere; and the narrative of her growing love for Julien, with its fears and hesitations, and the flaming passion which it becomes, is told in a masterly fashion. She is one of the most touching creatures of fiction. Julien, feeling that it is a duty he owes himself, decides that if one evening he does not hold her hand he will take his own life; just as Stendhal, wearing his best trousers, vowed that if, on reaching a certain point, he did not declare his love to Countess Daru, he would blow his brains out. Julien eventually seduces Madam de Rênal, not because he is in love with her, but partly to revenge himself on the class she belongs to, and partly to satisfy his own pride; but he does fall in love with her and, for a while, his baser instincts are dormant. For the first time in his life he is happy, and you begin to feel sympathy for him. But the imprudence of Madame de Rênal gives rise to gossip, and it is arranged that Julien should enter a seminary to study for the priesthood. I don’t see how the parts that deal with Julien’s life with the Rênal and at the seminary could be better; there is no need to exercise a willing suspension of disbelief, the truth of what Stendhal tells you is manifest; it is when the scene is changed to Paris that I, for my part, find myself incredulous. When Julien has finished his course at the seminary, the principal secures him a post as secretary to the Marquis de la Môle, and he finds himself admitted to the most aristocratic circle in the capital. The picture Stendhal draws of it does not carry conviction. He had never moved in good society; he was familiar chiefly with the bourgeoise, which the Revolution and the Empire had brought into prominence; and he did not know how well-bred people behave. He had never encountered pride of birth. Stendhal was at heart a realist, but no one, however hard he tries, can fail to be influenced by the psychic atmosphere of his time. Romanticism was rampant. Stendhal, notwithstanding his appreciation of the good sense and urbane culture of the eighteenth century, was deeply affected by it. As I have indicated, he was fascinated by the ruthless men of the Italian Renaissance who were troubled neither by scruple nor remorse, and hesitated at no crime to satisfy their ambition, gratify their lust, or avenge their honour. He prized their energy, their disregard of consequences, their scorn of convention and their freedom of soul. It is because of this romantic predilection that the last half of Le Rouge et le Noir is unsatisfactory. You are asked to accept improbabilities that you cannot swallow, and to interest yourself in episodes that are pointless.

M. de la Môle had a daughter. Her name was Mathilde. She was beautiful, but haughty and wilful; she was intensely conscious of her high descent, and proud of those ancestors of hers who, risking their lives for a great prize, had been executed, one under Charles IX and another under Louis XIII. By a natural coincidence, she attached the same high value to ‘energy’ as Stendhal did, and she despised the commonplace young nobles who sought her hand. Now, Emile Faguet in an interesting essay has pointed out that Stendhal in his enumeration of the kinds of love left out l’amour de tête. That is the love that starts in the imagination, grows and thrives in the imagination and is apt to perish when it is consummated in sexual congress. That is the love that little by little stole upon Mlle de la Môle for her father’s secretary, and its stages have been described by Stendhal with the utmost subtlety. She was both attracted and repelled by Julien. She fell in love with him because he was unlike the young aristocrats who surrounded her, because he despised them as much as she did, because of his humble origins, because of his pride which was equal with her own, because she sensed his ambition, his ruthlessness, his lack of scruple, his depravity; and because she was afraid of him.

Eventually Mathilde sends Julien a note, and bids him take a ladder and come up to her room when everyone is asleep. Since we learn later that he could just as well have walked quietly up the stairs, she asked him to do this presumably to test his courage. Clémentine de Curial had used a ladder to come down to the cellar in which she had hidden Stendhal, and this had evidently fired his romantic imagination; for he made Julien, on his way to Paris, stop off at Verrières, the town in which Madame de Rênal lived, get hold of a ladder, and in the middle of the night climb up to her bedroom. It may be that Stendhal felt it awkward to let his hero use this means of access to a lady’s chamber twice in one novel, for on receiving Mathilde’s note he makes Julien, referring to the ladder, say with irony: ‘It is an instrument I am fated to use.’ But no irony suffices to conceal the fact that here Stendhal’s inventiveness failed him. What happens after the seduction is again admirably described. Those two self-centred, irritable, moody creatures scarcely know if they love with passion, or hate with frenzy. Each tries to dominate the other; each seeks to anger, wound and humiliate the other. At length Julien, by means of a banal trick, brings the proud girl to his feet. Presently she finds herself pregnant, and tells her father that she intends to marry her lover. M. de la Môle is obliged to consent. But now, when Julien, by dissimulation, diplomacy and self-restraint, is in sight of achieving all his ambition craved, he commits a foolish error. From then on the book goes to pieces.

We are told that Julien is clever and immensely cunning; and yet, to recommend himself to his future father-in-law, he asks him to write to Madame de Rênal for a certificate of character. He knew that she sincerely repented the sin of adultery that she had committed, and might bitterly blame him, as women all over the world are accustomed to do, for her own weakness; he knew, also, that she loved him passionately, and it should have occurred to him that she might not welcome the prospect of his marrying another woman. On the direction of her confessor, she wrote a letter to the Marquis in which she told him that it was Julien’s practice to insinuate himself into a family in order to destroy its peace, and that his great and sole object was by a show of disinterestedness to contrive to secure control of the master of the house, and over his fortune. She had no reason whatever to make either of these charges. She said he was a hypocrite and a vile intriguer: Stendhal does not seem to have noticed that though we readers, to whom every movement of Julien’s mind has been exposed, know that indeed he was, Madam de Rênal did not; she knew only that he had performed his duties as tutor to her children in an exemplary manner, and had won their affection; and that he loved her so much that on the last occasion on which she had seen him he had risked his career, and even his life, to pass a few hours with her. She was a conscientious woman, and it is hard to believe that, whatever pressure her confessor brought to bear, she would have consented to write things which she had no reason to think were true. Anyhow, when M. de la Môle receives the letter, he is horrified and refuses absolutely to let the marriage proceed. Why did not Julien say that the letter was a tissue of lies and merely the hysterical outburst of a madly jealous woman? He might have admitted that he had been Madame de Rênal’s lover; but she was thirty and he was nineteen: was it not more probable that it was she who had seduced him? It was not a fact, as we know, but it was uncommonly plausible. M. de la Môle was a man of the world. The man of the world has an inclination to think the worst of his fellow-creatures, a mild cynicism which leads him to believe that where there is smoke there is fire; and, at the same time, an easy tolerance of human frailty. It would surely have seemed to M. de la Môle amusing, rather than shocking, that his secretary should have had an affair with the wife of a provincial gentleman of no social consequence.

But in any case Julien held all the cards. M. de la Môle had got him a commission in a crack regiment, and given him an estate which produced a sufficient income. Mathilde refused to have an abortion and, madly in love, had expressed her determination to live with Julien, married or not. Julien had only to state the plain facts of the situation, and the Marquis would have been obliged to give in. We have been shown, from the beginning of the novel, that the strength of Julien consisted precisely in his self-control. His passions, envy, hatred, pride, never dominated him; and his lust, the strongest passion of all, was, as with Stendhal himself, not so much a matter of urgent desire as of vanity. At the crisis of the book, Julien does the fatal thing in a novel: he acts out of character. Just when he most needs his self-control he behaves like a fool. On reading Madame de Rênal’s letter, he takes pistols, drives down to Verrières, and shoots her, not killing, but wounding her.

This unintelligible behaviour of Julien’s has greatly puzzled the critics, and they have sought explanations for it. One is that it was the fashion of the day to end a novel with a melodramatic incident, preferably with a tragic death; but if such was the fashion, that would surely have been sufficient reason for Stendhal, with his determination to run counter to accepted usage, to eschew it. Others have suggested that an explanation may be found in his fantastic cult of the crime of violence as the supreme manifestation of energy. I find this no more likely. It is true, of course, that Stendhal looked upon Berthet’s monstrous action as a beau crime, but can he have failed to see that he had made Julien a very different creature from the miserable blackmailer? Verrières was two hundred and fifty miles from Paris, and even with a change of horses at every stage, even if Julien drove day and night, the journey would take nearly two days, long enough for his rage to lessen and give way to the counsels of common sense. Then, the character that Stendhal has so penetratingly drawn would have turned back and, having faced M. de la Môle with the brutal fact of Mathilde’s pregnancy, forced him to consent to the marriage.

What then made Stendhal make the strange mistake which everyone agrees is a flaw in his great novel? It is evident that he could not allow Julien to succeed and, achieving his ambition, with Mathilde and M. de la Môle behind him, win place, power and fortune. That would have been a different book, and Balzac wrote it later in the various novels that tell of the rise of Rastignac. Julien had to die. It may be that Balzac, with his wonderful fecundity, might have found a means to end Le Rouge et le Noir in a way that the reader would accept not only as plausible, but as inevitable. I don’t think Stendhal could have ended it in any other way than he did. I believe that the facts which had been given him exercised an hypnotic power over him from which he was unable to break loose; he had followed the story of Antoine Berthet very closely and he felt himself under a compulsion to pursue it, against all credibility, to its wretched end. But God, fate, chance, whichever you like to call the mystery that governs men’s lives, is a poor story-teller; and it is the business, and the right, of the novelist to correct the improbabilities of brute fact. It was not in Stendhal’s capacity to do this. It is a great pity. But, as I have urged, no novel is perfect, owing partly to the natural inadequacy of the medium, and partly to the deficiencies of the human being who writes it. Notwithstanding its grave defects, Le Rouge et le Noir is a very great book, and to read it is a unique experience.

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