Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 31, 2010

The Red and the Black (1830), by Stendhal

It was just coincidence that Black Inc sent me a copy of Simon Leys’ new book With Stendahl when I had just started reading Stendahl’s The Red and Black  (first published in 1830).   For the best part of 30 years I had had a rather dingy paperback copy of Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma (1839) languishing on the shelves  – but had no idea of its significance and never got round to reading it.  It finally made its way onto the list of books to read for my ‘Year of European Reading’ this year, only to be supplanted by The Red and the Black when I read a recommendation somewhere online that it was better to start with the earlier book. It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die too.

The edition I’m reading was translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff in 1925, and it bears this intriguing dedication:

To O.H.H. who had every word of both volumes read to her when she was powerless to resist.

Who was ‘she’, and why was she ‘powerless to resist’ ?  Love, presumably.  It makes us do the strangest things, does it not? Twenty years ago when we were courting, I read through The Spouse’s entire library of Bertrand Russell’s books and 3-volume autobiography while The Spouse demonstrated his prowess in the kitchen, (a talent which serves us well to this day).  Russell churned out his popular philosophy books like McDonald’s churns out hamburgers, and The Spouse, who was then (and probably still is) the only Australian member of the Bertrand Russell Society, had shelves and shelves of them.  It was wanting to share an interest that made me read them – was that what motivated this anonymous woman too?  I digress, I know, but I’d love to know who ‘she’ was.  Wikipedia’s bio of Moncrieff (who also translated Proust) doesn’t suggest girlfriends, not at all…

Wikipedia tells me that The Red and the Black was the first realist novel, and both its themes and its style do seem ‘modern’ for 1830.  It’s the coming-of-age story of Julien Sorel, a rather priggish young man whose intellectual and social pretensions don’t include working in his father’s timber mill.  With the downfall of his hero Napoleon, a career in the army is not an option, and so he goes into the church, but he has no vocation, only an ambition to escape his plebeian background.


The story follows Sorel’s psychological journey as he moves through various states: pride when his talent and hard work are admired; anger and jealousy when he moves in social circles above him; hypocrisy in his dealings with the church; and a dawning capacity for love and affection – always doomed because his lovers are beyond him socially and he never understands their conflicted feelings about him.  (Nor did I).  Sorel is alternately completely confused by events or passionately convinced that he has detected the infamy or shallowness of some other character.  He is never able to reconcile his twin states of resentment and envy because he despises the society which he also desires to join.

This flaw in his character is at its most interesting in his response to overtures from Mathilde de la Mole –  and I bet that many a young lady in Stendahl’s time was shocked by his vacillating responses to her charms, from cynical repudiation to irresponsible enthusiasm.  Charm after all, was all that young ladies had to trade with then, and Mathilde had gone out on a limb in pursuit of love, scandalously writing to a man of humble origin, and writing to him first. (Read Jane Austen if you don’t know why women initiating a correspondence was so scandalous.)

At the same time Stendahl satirises the church, its wealth and corruption and its internal politics.  His portrait of vacuous Parisian society is acerbic, and at its most droll in the duel – though I was also amused by the strategy by which Sorel is made acceptable to dine at the Marquise’s table.  The Marquise likes his employee’s intelligence, you see, but that’s not enough: table companions must be of the right class.  A rumour is therefore started which reveals that Sorel is the ‘natural’ i.e. illegitimate son of an  aristocrat – and even when Mathilde de la Mole taxes Sorel’s critics with their snobbery (which she shares) and everyone knows this rumour is fake, it is still the means by which he is able to mix with his ‘betters’.

It is when Sorel is an unwitting participant in a royalist plot that things get really ugly.  He is so naive that he doesn’t realise he is putting his life at risk when his prodigious memory is put to use – and that in a cause he despises! This part of the story is a bit confusing for those of us not familiar with the ins-and-outs of French revolutionary history – Stendhal often refers to characters and events that require a quick Google search.  (The most amusing instance of this is when Sorel, earlier in the story, hesitates over whether to seduce Mathilde and is inspired by a statue of Cardinal Richelieu.  I had to read the whole Wikipedia article to discover in the sub-section Legacy that it was because the cardinal was power-hungry, unscrupulous, and avaricious that Sorel admired him.

Is Susan Howatch indebted to Stendahl for her Starbridge (also  known as the Church of England) series with its goings-on within a fictional ecclesiastical hierarchy? I read Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes and Scandalous Risks so long ago I can’t quite remember the plots but they did seem to cover familiar territory.  It’s Jacobinism and Jesuitism which animates Stendhal’s church politics, and it was extreme monasticism in hers, I think, but the ambitious scheming is the same.)

Red and Black is a fascinating portrait of a strange young man.  Its flawed hero initially alienates the reader because he is such an unlikeable fellow, but before long I felt sorry for him.  Although obviously clever and industrious he had no real hope of transcending the stratified society of his time and was completely out of his depth with the machinations of the churchmen and royalists who controlled his fate.

I wonder if The Red and the Black is the first example of ‘political correctness’ in a novel?  Sorel has to suppress his nostalgic admiration for Napoleon because it is ‘just not done’ to talk about him during the Bourbon Restoration from 1814 to 30.  But he’s not the only one to have to mind his Ps and Qs.  At the home of the Marquise, Stendhal’s irony is unconstrained:

So long as you did not speak lightly of God, or of the clergy, or of the King, or of the men in power, or of the artists patronised by the court, or of anything established; so long as you did not say anything good of Beranger, or of the opposition press, or of Voltaire, or of Rousseau, or anything that allowed itself the liberty of a little freedom of speech; so long, above all, as you did not talk politics, you could discuss anything you pleased with freedom. (Kindle location 3911-16, Bk 2 Ch 4: The Hotel de La Mole)

I’m expecting to enjoy following up my belated discovery of this fine author with Simon Ley’s portrait of Stendahl.  Not a conventional biography,  With Stendahl is a small book, consisting of two parts:

The first piece is a set of impressions and memories written by Stendhal’s famous friend Prosper Mérimée. Several vignettes reveal Stendhal’s character – charismatic, engaging, frenetic, hyper-romantic – accompanied by amusing anecdotes of him duelling, falling in love, and holding forth in the company of friends. The second is by Stendhal himself, a fantasy composed one idle afternoon, near the end of his life and for his own pleasure: a whimsical list of the supernatural powers he wished he possessed. (Black Inc blurb)

More about Ley’s book when I’ve read it…There’s a lovely tribute site to Stendhal at and a Reading Group Guide at Penguin but don’t visit it if you haven’t read the book first because it has critical spoilers in the introduction.  The Moncrieff translation is readily available online including at eBooks Adelaide.

Update 29/12/15 Click here to see my review of Simon Ley’s book, With Stendhal.

Author: Stendahl (real name Marie-Henri Beyle)
Title: Red and Black
Publisher: Amazon on the Kindle
Source: Personal copy

Author: Simon Leys
Title: With Stendahl
Publisher: Black Inc, June 2010
ISBN: 9781863954792
Source: review copy courtesy of Black Inc. RRP $19.95.


  1. This is one of those books I haven’t read either Lisa. One day I will. (In the meantime, I think you should research Moncrieff and update that Wikipedia article!). Did you use any features of the Kindle as you read this? Such as note-making?


    • Hi Sue, I’m hoping some scholarly person who knows all about Moncrieff will stumble on my blog and assuage my curiosity! Re the Kindle, I occasionally bookmark things that I think I might want to quote, but I haven’t needed to take notes with it. I have a little netbook that lives beside the bed, and when I’m reading, if there is something I must write down, I write it straight into my blog post draft. I downloaded a sample of a Teach Yourself Spanish text book onto it last night! Lisa


  2. LOL, and you clearly don’t hit Publish by mistake like I’m wont to do! I think I would like the note-taking facility because that’s what I do now – I gather thoughts together on the blank page(s) at the back of the book rather than draft as I go.


    • The trouble is that the little keyboard is not easy to type on, Sue. I saw the new Kobe today, one of my colleagues has one. It’s small and light and easy to use by the look of it – it doesn’t have a keyboard (I think) so I’m not sure what functions it has. But its best feature is that you can buy some OzLit for it: they’ve signed up with Text Publishing (who publish some of my favourite authors e.g. Kate Grenville)…


  3. Ah, that makes sense then. I will keep waiting a bit longer I think. The iPad still interests a bit but it’s not there yet – and I wonder about the screen type.


  4. Now that you sort’ve mention it, it does seem strange that no one has written a Moncrieff biography, not even a little one, since there’s so much Proustania around.


  5. Hey Deane, this is a great opportunity for a tax-deductible trip O/S. To Scotland, where he was born. And Tuscany where (according to Wikipedia, he divided his time between Florence and Pisa, and later, Rome.
    Lisa *grin*


  6. Such a good book.

    But, I’m curious: was it the revised (by Ann Jefferson) version of Scott Moncrieff’s translation that you read?

    My understanding is that, although Scott Moncrieff captured the spirit of Stendahl in a way that is yet to be matched, as is the case with his treatment of Proust, his prose is scratchy in places. In fact, I know that in his translation of Proust, there are some plain errors, instances where he simply misreads the French.

    Thanks for the tip about “With Stendahl” and well done to Black Inc. for a world first (it appears) in Stendahl publishing.

    For an beautiful take on Stendahl, see W. G. Sebald’s novel “Vertigo”. The opening chapter is a hypnotic account of Stendahl’s time in the Napoleon’s army.


    • Hello WHH – and thanks for joining in the conversation:)
      I’m not sure about the version, there’s nothing to denote that it’s revised, and it’s dated ‘Leghorn and Pisa July-December 1925’. It’s a Kindle freebie (or near freebie, maybe I paid $2 for it, can’t remember) – it’s one that’s well out of copyright. I’ve heard this criticism of Moncrieff somewhere too, and thought that one day I might read his translation of Proust: I read the Penguin set, all done by different translators, which seemed a bit clunky in places because they had different styles.
      BTW the ABR which came today has a review of With Stendhal – and it is taking all my self-control not to look at it until after I’ve finished reading it and written my own thoughts about it!
      And Sebald, yes, another writer I must explore…


  7. I’d do it too. All I need is a publisher, a contract, and a reputation for writing biographies, and I’m golden.


    • Let me know if you need a research assistant, Deane – I bags Edinburgh!


  8. I’ve only, so far, read the first book in the new Proust translation, the Lydia Davis Way by Swann’s, but the difference between Moncrieff, or Moncrieff/Kilmartin, and Davis’ modernity astonished me — it was like moving from candlelight to a fluorescent bulb. The older versions are ornate. The new one is so clean it’s frictionless. I’m still attached to the old ones, but I appreciate Davis’ restoration of Legrandin’s bottom (at the moment when he bows so enthusiastically in front of the church that the narrator sees his flesh ripple). Moncrieff replaced it with demure “hips.”


  9. Deane, wouldn’t it be lovely to have the time to have a reading group devoted to Proust where these interesting correspondences could be shared – it could take a lifetime to read the three translations you’ve mentioned and get to know them really well.


  10. It would be fantastic. Just skipping over the first page I can see places where she’s used simpler language (“wake” instead of “awake”), and places where her language is actually a little more formal “I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections” against Moncrieff/Kilmartin’s “I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep”) and places where they’re the same (they both have the narrator say that his thoughts “had taken a rather peculiar turn”). G’nh, I should just learn French.


  11. Oui! Quelle bonne idée! I have always wanted to learn French properly. I did some at school, and revised it for my travels, but oh! to be able to read Proust and Stendhal and Voltaire in the original would be fantastic…


  12. I’m really interested in reading this one – in fact, I think I’m putting it next on my list. I really like your blog, since I don’t get to read Australian/NZ lit that often!


  13. Thanks, N, and I like your blog too (especially the post about Russell’s teapot LOL).
    I’m definitely going to find the time to read more Stendhal, I like his style!


  14. “To O.H.H. who had every word of both volumes read to her when she was powerless to resist.”
    And if she was in a sick bed and to top it off, had to bear the worse, ie Julien and Mathilde love story? lol

    No way. I can’t think of Julien as ‘poor Julien’. He made his decisions, perfectly aware they were against his nature.


    • *chuckle* Oh I hadn’t thought of O.H.H. as being too sick to run away!


  15. […] need.  As a psychological study, it’s on a par with Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (see my review) but (once you get used to the 19th century writing style) it’s much easier to read and […]


  16. […] universal themes such as justice and love in his retellings of great works.  Part One begins with The Red and the Black, Stendhal’s coming-of-age story of Julien Sorel, a rather priggish young man with analogous […]


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