Stendhal’s Women

What stands out most, two-thirds of the way through The Charterhouse of Parma, is the life that Stendhal injects into his characters. The plot will fade, the nuances of Italian court life will cease to matter, but in years to come I will remember, of course, Fabrizio del Dongo and, possibly, the forlorn Count Mosca, but undoubtedly Duchess Sanseverina.

Simone de Beauvoir, an enthusiast for Stendhal’s writing, admired his understanding of women. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir writes [of Stendhal]:

This tender friend of women – and precisely because he loves them in their truth – does not believe in feminine mystery; there is no essence that defines women once and for all; the idea of an ‘eternal feminine’ seems pedantic and ridiculous to him. ‘Pedants have been repeating for two thousand years that women have quicker minds and men more solidity; that women have more subtlety in ideas and men more attention span. A Parisian passer-by walking around the Versailles gardens once concluded that from everything he saw, the trees are born pruned.’

Beauvoir goes on to say:

Stendhal never describes his heroines as a function of his heroes: he provides them with their own destiny. He undertook something that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character.

This is the strength of Sanseverina, true also of Clelia, the second of the duo of women that love Fabrizio. It is through them that Fabrizio learns about the world, but they have a destiny of their own. Allow Fabrizio to fade into the background of Charterhouse, and Sanseverina’s story still screams to be told.

2 thoughts on “Stendhal’s Women

  1. >This is somewhat off topic and more about Beauvoir than Stendhal, but do you think she was better at theory rather than (semi) fiction? I’ve always felt I should like her and yet when I attempted to read “She Came to Stay” I found myself struggling and somewhat disappointed by the quality of her prose.I endeavour to read her again at some point, any recommendations where to start?

  2. >My way in to Beauvoir was the diaries, both Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and The Prime of Life are stunning. The third volume is on a slow boat from Canada. I've dipped into the recent translation of The Second Sex, it looks outstanding.I've yet to tackle the fiction, but the advice I got was to read The Mandarins. It is reputedly the best of an average body of fictional writing.Her Letters to Sartre are also very powerful.

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