(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111201670-Stendhal.jpg Stendhal (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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,...

(The entire section is 2576 words.)