I am so happy that I thought of doing the Brownie Points themed season because it makes me do things I wouldn’t get around to doing otherwise. I’m currently trying to get the Classic Literature badge, which means reading three of those chunky works of canonical literature that you are supposed to make time for. I recently read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), finishing it at Christmas, appropriately enough, and I’m happy to report that I’ve just finished The Red and the Black, a two-volume classic of French literature by Stendhal, published in 1830 and set in that period. I want to tell you about it but first I need to talk about Napoleon for a few minutes, so bear with me, because Stendhal assumed his readers knew all this stuff, he was writing as it was happening.
Okay, so the French Revolution is popularly dated at 1789 but really took place over about 12 years, from 1787 to 1799. It deposed this guy, king Louis XVI of France, who was married to Marie Antoinette, who famously thought that people could live on cake. Louis was a member of the House of Bourbon, this becomes important later.
Napoleon was a supporter of the Revolution and in 1799 executed a coup which established him as First Consul of the new French Consulate. From there he extended his personal power, becoming Emperor in 1804. He then led the Napoleonic Wars for 10 years in which he vigorously expanded the French Empire, invaded other countries and engaged in conflict with various European coalitions, finally losing Paris in the War of the Sixth Coalition in 1814. He was exiled and died in 1821.
OK, so when Napoleon was deposed and his government dismantled, a new king needed to be restored by the opposing side. This became known as the Bourbon Restoration period and it is the period in which Red/Black is set. First, Louis XVI’s son, also called Louis, reigned until he died in 1824.
After that, his brother Charles X took over and reigned until 1830.
No-one liked Charles. France was having an economic recession and Charles was reactionary and conservative, which led to growth of a liberal bloc, murderous riots in Paris in 1830 and Charles’s abdication, this being the known as the July Revolution of 1830, or the Second French Revolution. Below, a painting by Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830, commemorating the events of that year.
Julien Sorel, the hero of Red/Black, is 18 at the start of the book. It is the period of the Bourbon Restoration. Napoleon’s days are over. The revolution of July 1830 hasn’t happened yet. Julien lives in a village with his parents and brothers, reads books, daydreams about Napoleon and the life of military heroism that Julien himself would surely have had if only the action wasn’t over already. He maintains his revolutionary sympathies but a career as a clergyman seems to be the best option of those actually available to him. The red of Red/Black refers to the red sash of the revolutionaries, the black is the garb of the priest.
After a while, Julien gets a job opportunity, he is going to be tutor to the children of the mayor. He is suddenly moving up in the world. The rest of the novel, which covers a period of five years in Julien’s life, sees him turn from a naive teenager into quite a cynical adult, a keen social climber and ruthless ladies’ man. Eventually rising up through the ranks of fashionable Parisian society, he becomes an attractively-dressed cad. He has a job as the secretary of a rich man, who he repays by getting his daughter pregnant, and is used as a political pawn and a mule by the rich man and his friends, who understand more about French politics than Julien does, and indeed, more than I do, despite looking it up on Wikipedia. Vain, still prone to fantasy at 23, and perpetually insecure, Julien immerses himself in romantic intrigue. He takes lessons from his friend Prince Korasoff in how to keep bitches keen. I imagine that Prince Korasoff looks like this. Bonus points if you know who that is.
Julien behaves disgustingly towards various women, on Korasoff’s advice, with no regard for their feelings even though they are in love with him. Here he is with Mathilde, who he is calculatedly mean to, and who he only liked in the first place because everybody else liked her.
He knew well that next morning, by eight o’clock, Mathilde would be in the library; he did not appear there until nine, burning with love, but his head controlled his heart. Not a single minute passed, perhaps, without his repeating to himself: ‘Always keep her mind occupied with the great uncertainty: “Does he love me?” Her privileged position, the flattery she receives from all who speak to her make her a little too much inclined to self-assurance.’
He found her pale, calm, seated upon the divan, but incapable, apparently, of making any movement. She offered him her hand.
‘Dear, I have offended you, it is true; you are perhaps vexed with me?’
Julien was not expecting so simple a tone. He was on the point of betraying himself.
‘You wish for guarantees, dear,’ she went on after a silence which she had hoped to see broken; ‘that is only fair. Carry me off, let us start for London. I shall be ruined for ever, disgraced . . . ’ She found the courage to withdraw her hand from Julien so as to hide her eyes with it. All the sentiments of modesty and feminine virtue had returned to her heart . . . ‘Very well! Disgrace me,’ she said at length with a sigh, ‘it is a guarantee.’
‘Yesterday I was happy, because I had the courage to be severe with myself,’ thought Julien. After a brief interval of silence, he gained sufficient mastery over his heart to say in an icy tone:
‘Once we are on the road to London, once you are disgraced, to use your own words, who can promise me that you will love me? That my company in the post-chaise will not seem to you an annoyance? I am not a monster, to have ruined your reputation will be to me only an additional grief. It is not your position in society that is the obstacle, it is unfortunately your own nature. Can you promise yourself that you will love me for a week?
‘(Ah! Let her love me for a week, for a week only,’ Julien murmured to himself, ‘and I shall die of joy. What do I care for the future, what do I care for life itself? And this divine happiness may begin at this moment if I choose, it depends entirely upon myself!)’
Mathilde saw him turn pensive.
‘So I am altogether unworthy of you,’ she said, clasping his hand.
Julien embraced her, but at once the iron hand of duty gripped his heart. ‘If she sees how I adore her, then I lose her.’ And, before withdrawing himself from her arms, he had resumed all the dignity that befits a man.
Things go from bad to worse when Julien’s reputation catches up with him and he starts waving a gun around. I will leave it there. You can read it and find out for yourself what happens.
Red/Black is conventionally agreed to be the first psychological novel and Julien’s constant reflections on the artifice and hypocrisy of his own behaviour and that of the society he lives in add a layer of meaning to the portraits of that society represented by the other characters. It’s also funny and full of romantic passion and violence. Much more hot-blooded, dramatically outspoken and murderous than Thomas Hardy’s Woodlanders, that we read just recently. 1 Books point.