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.