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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2576

Article abstract: Stendhal combined the themes of Romanticism with the style of realism. His insistence on telling the truth about emotions in simple, stark terms resulted in novels that, although not very popular during his lifetime, have become classics.

Early Life

Information about the life of Marie-Henri Beyle (who wrote as Stendhal) is voluminous and almost all suspect. Too much of it comes from his own autobiographical works—Vie de Henry Brulard (1890, 1949; The Life of Henry Brulard, 1925) and Souvenirs d’égotisme (1892, 1950; Memoirs of Egotism, 1949)—which are faithful accounts of Stendhal’s feelings about the events of his life but not necessarily faithful accounts of the events themselves. His father, Chérubin Beyle, was a lawyer and, according to Stendhal, acquisitive and stern. His mother, Henriette Gagnon Beyle, to whom he was exceptionally close, was gay and urbane. The loss of his mother in 1790 was a devastating blow. His Aunt Séraphie Gagnon took over the task of rearing the seven-year-old Marie-Henri, but he found her a sour-tempered disciplinarian. Their relationship was never warm. His grandfather, Henri Gagnon, provided not only a cheerful refuge from his father and Aunt Séraphie but also an introduction to the intellectual world of the Enlightenment. The young Marie-Henri found little companionship outside his family. He was kept away from the other children of the community, whom his father and aunt regarded as common. His tutor, the Abbé Jean-François Raillane, was cold and old-fashioned. One of the many things Beyle liked about the French Revolution was that in 1794 Raillane had to flee from it.

One of the many reforms generated by the Revolution was the creation of local schools. Such an institution opened in Grenoble in 1796, and Beyle was enrolled. It was his first opportunity to mix freely with people his own age. His performance was poor during his first year. He soon fell head over heels in love with a theater performer, Virginie Kubly, and although they never actually met, she was his first passion. Romantic turmoil would never again be long absent from his life. By 1799, he had the opportunity to study mathematics at the École Polytechnique in Paris.

Beyle, however, never enrolled at the school. With the fascination of a small-town boy in the big city, he began to explore Paris. Within a month, he was seriously ill and was rescued by cousins named Daru, who gave him a place to stay and an introduction to society. Later, they obtained for him a position as clerk at the Ministry of War. Although Beyle’s health returned, his illness caused him to lose much of his hair. From this time on, he wore a wig, and as he was stout, with short legs and a large head, he always felt physically inadequate. His luminous eyes were his only striking feature.

His position as a clerk proved depressing, but in May, 1800, Beyle was invited to join his cousins in Italy. En route, he visited Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s birthplace in Geneva and then joined Napoleon I’s army, which was passing through the St. Bernard Pass to surprise the Austrians. Milan entranced Beyle. He began learning Italian and was smitten by Angela Pietragrua, whose bureaucrat husband tolerated her many liaisons. Sexually uninitiated and still very shy, he was unsuccessful with Angela but contracted syphilis from a prostitute. Symptoms, apparently from this disease, recurred for the remainder of his life. In September, Pierre Daru was able to get his young cousin a provisional commission as sublieutenant in the cavalry. His posts in small rural villages proved boring, and Beyle soon finagled a staff position. Daru was angered because his name was used without his permission, and after a few months Beyle was ordered back to his regiment. He returned on October 26, 1801, only to fall ill; taking a medical leave, he set out for Grenoble.

He enjoyed his new status in his hometown and prolonged his leave, occupying his time by studying the philosophy of the Sensationalists. Beyle came to deny that man was rational, but although he rejected free will, he did conclude that the self-aware human could change his fate by living deliberately. Intellectually, he was growing up, and his long yearning for action was giving way to analysis. He resigned his commission and resolved to pursue a career of letters. Following yet another unrequited infatuation, he set off for Paris in April, 1802, to become a playwright.

Life’s Work

For the next two years Beyle lived the life of a scholar in Paris, reading William Shakespeare, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and especially Antoine Destutt de Tracy, whose rationalism he found appealing. He tried unsuccessfully to write drama in verse and lived on a small allowance from his father, who was glad to have his son out of the army.

While taking acting lessons, Beyle fell in love with Mélanie Guilbert, a starlet of twenty-four and an unwed mother. In April, 1805, he agreed to accompany her to Marseilles, where she had a job and he had an opportunity to go into business with his friend Fortuné Mante. These plans soon fell apart. In the spring of 1806, he returned to Grenoble and began to seek the favor of Pierre Daru again. In October, he went to Brunswick with Pierre’s brother Martial, who was to be intendant there. Beyle spent the next two years as a civil servant in Brunswick, bored but successful.

Beyle was now a favorite of Pierre Daru and a good friend of his wife, Alexandrine, who with good grace and no ill will rebuffed a clumsy effort at seduction. On August 1, 1810, Beyle was appointed auditor of the Council of State. He was soon living sumptuously and beyond his means. He also began an affair with Angélina Bereyter, a member of the Opéra-Bouffe of the Théâtre Italien. Although the two remained together until 1814, the attraction for him was essentially physical.

After a leave in 1811, during which he toured his beloved Italy and renewed his courtship of Angélina Bereyter—successfully this time—Beyle asked to be reassigned to active military duty. He was sent off as a courier in the summer of 1812 and found himself following the army to Moscow. When Napoleon ordered retreat, Beyle was appointed commissioner of war supplies and ordered to organize supplies at Smolensk, Mohilar, and Vitebsk. With the retreat becoming little more than a rout, he could not continue his mission beyond the first city, and after much hardship and danger as he joined the flight, he got back to Paris on January 31, 1813. He was justly proud of his conduct but ready to be done with war.

In the spring, however, he was ordered back to duty and, surprisingly revitalized, was a witness to the Battle of Bautzen in May. He then fell ill, probably from typhus, but recuperated and was back in Milan in early September. His military experiences proved invaluable for later writing, when he became one of the first to portray battle realistically from the individual’s perspective. At the end of the year, he returned to Paris, hoping to write comic plays and find a permanent situation in Italy. Instead, he was ordered to help prepare for the defense of Dauphiné. The strain was too much, and he was soon ill again. He took leave but, lacking income, had to give up his luxurious life-style. Eager to establish himself as an author, he published, at his own expense, a biographical study of the composers Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Pietro Metastasio in 1814, but the book was mostly plagiarized. He was fortunate that his love of secrecy and aliases had led him not to use his own name.

Unable to find a job, Beyle returned to Milan, where he tried to live on his army pension and renewed his relationship with Angela Pietragrua. Needing money, he devoted himself to writing, publishing two books in 1817, Histoire de la peinture de Italie (1817) and Rome, Naples, et Florence en 1817 (1817, 1826; Rome, Naples, and Florence in 1817, 1818). The former was in part plagiarized, and the original parts were personal, emotional reactions to the work of various painters. The latter was a sort of travelog with commentary and was a minor success. It was also his first use of the name “Stendhal,” taken from a small German town and used to obscure the identity of an author critical of the handling of Italy at the Congress of Vienna. It was to become Beyle’s most common pseudonym and the one under which he became famous. Pleased by having had some success, Stendhal started the first of two efforts to write a study of Napoleon. Neither of these was ever finished, and the manuscripts were published only after his death. They do make clear the author’s view of the young Napoleon as the heir of the Revolution, of the Empire as a betrayal of the revolutionary ideals, and of the restored Bourbon government as contemptible.

On March 4, 1818, Stendhal met Mathilde, Viscontini Dembowski, whom he always called Métilde. Wildly in love, he pursued her for three years, only to be repeatedly rejected. In 1821, penniless and again suffering from venereal disease, he returned to Paris. The relationship with Métilde resulted in De l’amour (1822; Maxims of Love, 1906), in which he offered a combination of objective analysis and confession. He was developing his characteristic style, combining the rationalism of the Enlightenment with the emotional outpourings of the Romantics.

Stendhal made his home in Paris for the next decade, visiting England twice and Italy once during those years. In 1823, he published part 1 of Racine et Shakespare (1823, 1825; Racine and Shakespeare, 1962). This work catapulted Stendhal from the rank of minor author into a prominent place among those battling over aesthetic standards. Stendhal’s firm assertion that there are no permanent criteria for beauty put him clearly in the ranks of the Romantics. Shakespeare was his example of a playwright who rejected the traditions and took his art into glorious new realms. Stendhal continued his role of Romanticism’s champion with Vie de Rossini (1823; Memoirs of Rossini, 1924), which defends Romantic music. As Stendhal’s fame grew, so did his acquaintances among the literati of Paris; among his associates were Honoré de Balzac, Benjamin Constant, Alfred de Musset, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Adolphe Thiers. His love in the mid-1820’s was Countess Clémentine (Menti) Curial, but though they remained friends, she ended the affair in 1826. Stendhal responded by writing Armance (1827; English translation, 1928), his first novel. Although generally regarded as a failure, Armance, which concerned the frustrations of love dampened by impotence, allowed Stendhal to express his sense of alienation and launched him on a career of writing fiction.

At the end of the decade, Stendhal, realizing that his greatest success had come with travel books, added Promenades dans Rome (1829; A Roman Journal, 1957), which became a popular guidebook to the city. He also had several brief love affairs. Suddenly, in 1830, Stendhal’s years of struggle culminated in a work of genius. Le Rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black, 1898) was a brilliant blending of styles: first- and third-person perspectives, Romantic self-revelation, and classical external analysis. Stendhal achieved a remarkable shifting of perspectives among characters and narrator without losing simplicity or sacrificing the clarity of the story.

Even as Stendhal was producing The Red and the Black, France was undergoing the July Revolution, and with the establishment of the more liberal government of Louis-Philippe, the author hoped that he might again find a place in government service. He requested a job as consul in Italy and was posted to Trieste, only to be rejected by the Austrian government, which controlled that city, as a radical—his political comments in his travel books had not been forgotten. In February, 1831, he was named consul at Civitavecchia on the Tyrrhenian Sea, near Rome.

During his service at Civitavecchia, Stendhal wrote his two previously mentioned autobiographical pieces and the unfinished novel Lucien Leuwen (1855, 1894, 1926-1927; English translation, 1950). His writing was interrupted by intermittent ill health, and in March, 1836, he returned to Paris, where he remained for three very productive years. His most important work of this period was La Chartreuse de Parme (1839; The Charterhouse of Parma, 1895), which he expanded from one of his Italian short stories in about two months. The hero, Fabrice del Dongo, is more like the youthful Stendhal in being innocent and idealistic than was Julien Sorel of The Red and the Black, who is crafty and self-serving. Both characters, however, are examples of men who rise from relatively obscure beginnings and whose careers conclude on the executioner’s scaffold.

In June of 1839, Stendhal reluctantly began his return to Civitavecchia, taking three months to make the trip. In the fall, he began a new novel, Lamiel (1889, 1971; English translation, 1950). Although typically Stendhalian in describing the struggle of an ambitious youth to find success and love, it is unusual in that the youth is, in this case, female. As a result of increasing problems with vertigo and, in March, 1841, an attack of apoplexy, Stendhal could not complete this novel. On October 21, 1841, he left for France, where, after attending a rally, he died of a stroke during a walk on March 23, 1842.


As a novelist, Stendhal broke new ground by his skillful combination of classical style and Romantic themes. All of his important works are consciously autobiographical, though they are much more concerned with accurate descriptions of feeling than of events. Despite the emphasis on the personal, the prose style remains simple and analytical, much more like that of the philosophes than the Romantics. With his ability to tell a story from shifting points of view, displaying the emotions of various characters, Stendhal was establishing a new novel form that would be a hallmark of the twentieth century.

Stendhal also contributed to social history. His travel works, such as Mémoires d’un touriste (1838; partial translation in Memoirs of a Tourist, 1962), offer not only travel notes but also social and political commentary. Such eyewitness accounts are always valuable, but when the witness has the sensitivity of a Stendhal, their value is much enhanced. Thus, his writings are still read as both history and literature.


Alter, Robert, with Carol Cosman. A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal. New York: Basic Books, 1979. The emphasis of this volume is criticism, and its authors do an excellent job of presenting their analysis of Stendhal in a historical context. Not the book to read, however, for a clear chronological description of his life.

Atherton, John. Stendhal. London: Bowes & Bowes, 1965. A short but effectively done biography. Atherton’s comments are insightful and well grounded in research.

Brombert, Victor H. Stendhal: Fiction and the Themes of Freedom. New York: Random House, 1968. Although a work of criticism, this book contains much biographical information, and it gives a useful analysis of the themes in Stendhal’s fiction. Ties his work into what is known of the nineteenth century novel.

May, Gita. Stendhal and the Age of Napoleon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. An excellent, full biography that provides a detailed chronological account of Stendhal’s life. The best straightforward biography available.

Strickland, Geoffrey. Stendhal: The Education of a Novelist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974. An attempt to analyze the forces that shaped Stendhal and to show how those forces influenced his work. It is both biographical and critical, and although it could not replace a traditional biography, it does provide much useful analysis with a biographical foundation.

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