The book opens with the entry of Napoleon’s victorious troops into Milan in 1796. One of them, a handsome lieutenant, wins the heart of the married Marchesa del Longo. Fabrizio is the offspring from their brief affair and becomes the romantic leading man of the novel. At seventeen he runs off to France and manages to be blurredly present at the Battle of Waterloo.
Fabrizio soon returns to Parma and the fond protection of his brilliant aunt, the spectacularly operatic Duchess Gina Sanseverina. Through much of the novel Fabrizio is little more than a chivalrous, dazzlingly attractive juvenile, living the customary aristocratic life of gallantry and sexual dalliance, playing the roles of young man-about-court and fashionable cleric. Maturation arrives for him when, through complex twists in the state’s affairs, he finds himself imprisoned in its great tower only to fall in love with the jailer’s daughter, Clelia.
Stendhal laces the novel with ironies: Not only is Fabrizio happiest when captive, but his aunt, hopelessly in love with him, insists on plotting his escape and scorning her devoted companion, Mosca, who has repeatedly endangered not only his career but also his life in her and Fabrizio’s behalf. Discovering that Fabrizio has sighs only for Clelia, Gina nonetheless rescues him from a second imprisonment, buying his freedom in a wretched sexual bargain with the despot Ranuccio-Ernesto V. She then accepts the permanent frustration of her grand passion, relinquishes Fabrizio to Clelia, resigns herself to marriage with Mosca, but lives only “a very short time” after Fabrizio’s early death.
Alter, Robert, in collaboration with Carol Cosman. A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal. New York: Basic Books, 1979. Despite its relative brevity, this is the best biography in English. Alter calls The Charterhouse of Parma the novel that Stendhal “had been gathering resources all his life to write” and skillfully relates the circumstances of its composition. Notes and illustrations, no bibliography.
Gutwirth, Marcel. Stendhal. New York: Twayne, 1971. A very readable if somewhat dated study of the writer’s autobiographical and fictional works, developed in terms of several controlling images: “The Pistol Shot,” “Brief Candle,” and so on. Prefaced with a brief but useful chronology.
Talbot, Emile J. Stendhal Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993. The best starting point for the beginning reader of Stendhal. Talbot profits from scholarship appearing since Gutwirth’s survey but downplays the autobiographical element in Stendhal’s fiction. Good annotated bibliography of secondary works.
Turnell, Martin. The Novel in France. New York: Vintage, 1958. A standard and highly acclaimed survey. Places Stendhal’s three major novels in a tradition running from the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century. Turnell praises The Charterhouse of Parma for its “extraordinary poise and maturity.”
Wood, Michael. Stendhal. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. An accessible study of Stendhal’s major and some of his minor works. Wood is particularly good at identifying the many elements—personal, historical, social, and political—that contributed to the genesis of The Charterhouse of Parma.