Book Of A Lifetime: Le Rouge et Le Noir, By Stendhal
Friday 09 July 2010
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.
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