Last reviewed: June 2018
French novelist, historian, and critic
January 23, 1783
March 23, 1842
Stendhal (stehn-dahl), the most “unromantic” figure of France’s Romantic period (1830-1848), ranks with Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Émile Zola as one of the greatest French novelists of the nineteenth century. He was born Marie-Henri Beyle in Grenoble, France, on January 23, 1783. Always of an independent nature, he left his birthplace at an early age to seek his fortune in Paris. Despite ambitions as a playwright, Stendhal obtained a position in the Ministry of War and, in 1800, became a dragoon in the army of Napoleon. As an aide-de-camp and later an imperial commissioner, he accompanied the army in the Italian, Prussian, and Russian campaigns, serving with distinction until the fall of Napoleon in 1814. Still a young man, he spent the next seven years in Milan, scene of The Charterhouse of Parma, one of his two masterpieces. The rest of his life was spent as an independent and stubborn consular officer of France, mainly in Civitavecchia. Tempestuous, and usually disastrous, love affairs occupied a considerable amount of his time, and some of the events connected with these are to be found in his writings. He died in Paris on March 23, 1842. Stendhal
Stendhal’s writing career began in 1814 in Milan. There he produced two studies, The Lives of Haydn and Mozart, with Observations on Métastase and Rome, Naples, and Florence, in 1817. He also contributed several critical essays to British literary journals during this period, and his name was better known in England then than it was in France. Stendhal’s first novel, Armance, appeared in 1827. Five years earlier, he had written a searching study of one of his own love affairs titled Maxims of Love (1822). None of these early writings received significant attention. In 1830 appeared the first of Stendhal’s two unquestioned masterpieces, The Red and the Black. The title indicates the strife between the Napoleonic spirit of the military and the power of the clergy, whom Stendhal detested. The protagonist of the novel, Julien Sorel, has come to typify the post-Revolutionary arriviste in France. Much of Stendhal himself is in this character. Sorel is a poor tutor who makes love to the children’s mother in order to further his own ambitions. When this woman, his first mistress, betrays him to a second, he attempts to kill her and is condemned to die. In addition to giving a profound psychological study of Sorel, The Red and the Black furnishes an excellent representation of the social upheaval France had undergone during the years since the Revolution. Sorel epitomizes the uprooted peasant, the man of mediocre talent who is intelligent enough to wish above all to avail himself of the limitless opportunities offered those like him under the Republic.
During the years 1831 to 1838, Stendhal wrote two autobiographical works, Memoirs of an Egotist and The Life of Henry Brulard, and one novel, Lucien Leuwen, which were not published until later. Stendhal’s greatest novel, The Charterhouse of Parma, was published in 1839. This is the story of Fabrice del Dongo (roughly the equivalent of Julien Sorel) and his relations with a duchess and a highwayman. The story is laid in nineteenth-century Italy, although the most famous passage is a realistic description of the Battle of Waterloo as seen through the young hero’s eyes. Stendhal, who professed to love Italy more than France, succeeds admirably in painting a vivid picture of life in a petty Italian principality. His study of the loves and intrigues of his characters is especially brilliant. This work, like The Red and the Black, shows Stendhal at his best: careless of form but willing to put his brilliant energy and his stubborn and egotistical mind to the task of recording, with effective economy of detail, the minutiae and grandeur of life. Stendhal is not above using improbable characters and situations, but his study of both is brutally exact. Thus he is called both romantic and realist.
In his own day Stendhal was not appreciated; only Balzac saw much worth to his novels. He died in Paris in 1842; since then, his correspondence, diaries, unfinished novellas, and complete works have been published. In the late 1880’s the appearance of his previously unpublished works produced a curious literary revival; he was praised by both the naturalists and the psychologists. Stendhal, it has been said, went further than any other writer of France in reconciling the two great literary traditions of that country, classical simplicity and romantic imagination.