Book Of A Lifetime: Le Rouge et Le Noir, By Stendhal

I was around 17 when I first read Stendhal's novel 'Le Rouge et le Noir' ('Scarlet and Black'), and the powerful effect it had on me can only be understood in the context of my life at the time. Until the age of eight, I lived near Beaconsfield and my father commuted to London. Then, in 1949, we moved to a large 18th-century rectory in the North Riding of Yorkshire. There the social landscape was more like Jane Austen's Hampshire than suburban Bucks in the 20th century.

Because of the size of our house and a public-school education, we mixed with the children of local landowners whose parents had grooms and butlers, changed into dinner jackets and long dresses every evening, and pursued with great seriousness the country gentleman's traditional pastimes of hunting, shooting and fishing.

My parents did not hunt, shoot or fish: they owned no grouse moors or rolling acres. My destiny seemed to be to remain low in the pecking order of English society. Then I read 'Le Rouge et Le Noir' and the chip on my shoulder disappeared. Stendhal's witty depiction of the pomposity, vanity and philistinism of provincial notables opened my eyes to the absurd posturing of many of our neighbours who, with fortunes made in coal, beer and banking in the grimy West Riding, behaved as their estates had been granted to their ancestors by William the Conqueror.

Although my father was a poet and art critic, my grandfather had been a tenant farmer, so I immediately associated with the novel's hero, Julien Sorel, the son of a peasant, who is taken on by a local notable, M de Rênal, to tutor his children. Julien despises his rich employers but thirsts for glory. With the ruthlessness and calculation of his role model, Napoleon, he mounts a successful campaign to seduce Madame de Rênal, the wife of his employer.

Later he moves to Paris and ensnares the daughter of the powerful Marquis de La Mole. Onwards and upwards. The rungs of the ladder that Julien climbs are the tender hearts of beautiful women.

There is a dash of misogyny in 'Le Rouge et le Noir' which also struck a chord in my psyche. Stendhal takes relish in delineating the weakness of women. At the time when I first read the novel, Simone de Beauvoir had yet to make an impact this side of the Channel, and Germaine Greer had yet to fly in from Sydney. Girls in England in the 1950s, as in France in the 1830s, were still made vulnerable by their need of a man to validate their raison d'être and bolster their self-esteem.

I had suffered in childhood from a domineering mother and imperious sister. Trifling with the hearts of pretty girls whom I met at debutante dances and hunt balls seemed an appropriate revenge for those years of subjection. This suggests that I was a not a particularly nice young man, but then neither was Julien Sorel.

Piers Paul Read's new novel 'The Misogynist' is published by Bloomsbury

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future