Armance, by Stendhal

A woman of character, who has only a vague idea of what constitutes literary merit, has asked my unworthy self to correct the style of this novel. I am far from sharing certain political sentiments which seem to be blended with the narrative; so much I am obliged to explain to the reader. The talented author and I hold opposite views upon many subjects; but we have an equal horror of what are called applications. In London we find highly sensational novels: Grey, Almack’s, High Life, Matilda and the like, which require a key. They are very good-natured caricatures of persons whom the accidents of birth or fortune have placed in an enviable position.

This is a kind of literary merit for which we have no desire. The author has not since l8l4 climbed the stair of the Tuileries; such is her pride that she does not know even the names of the persons who have doubtless made themselves conspicuous in a certain class of society.

But she has brought on the scene industrial magnates and privileged persons, she is therefore a satirist. If we were to ask for a description of the garden of the Tuileries from the doves that moan on the topmost branches of the trees, they would say: “It is a vast plain of verdure where one basks in the brightest sunshine. “We, who stroll beneath, would reply:“It is a delicious shady walk where one is sheltered from the heat, and above all from the glare of the sun, so trying in summer.”

So it is that each of us judges everything from his own angle; equally incompatible are the expressions used of the present state of society by persons of equal respectability who intend to lead us by different paths to prosperity. But each party makes the other appear absurd.

Would you impute to an evil turn in the mind of the author the malicious and false descriptions that each party gives of the other’s drawing-rooms? Would you insist that passionate people ought to be sage philosophers, that is to say, devoid of passion? In 1760, one required charm, wit, not overmuch humour, nor overmuch honour, as the Regent said, in order to win the favour of master and mistress.

It requires economy, stubborn toil, solidity, a brain free from any illusion to make anything out of the steam engine. This is the difference between the age that ended in 1789 and the age that began about 1815.

Napoleon, on his way to Russia, used constantly to hum the words he had heard so well rendered by Porto (in La Molinara):

Si batte nel mio cuore
L’inchiostro e la farina

[Shall I become a miller or a lawyer? . . . ]

They are words that many young men might repeat who are endowed at once with good birth and with intelligence.

In speaking of our age, we find that we have sketched in outline two of the principal characters in the following story. There are perhaps not a score of pages in it that run the risk of appearing satirical; but the author follows another path; the age is gloomy, out of temper; and one has to handle it with caution, even when publishing a pamphlet which, as I have already told the author, will be forgotten in six months at the latest, like the best works of its kind.

In the meantime, we beg for a little of the indulgence that has been shown to the authors of the comedy, Les Trois Quartiers. They have held up a mirror to the public; is it their fault if ugly people have passed in front of that mirror? Does a mirror take sides?

The reader will find in the style of this novel artless forms of speech, which I have not had the courage to alter. Nothing is more tedious to my mind than Teutonic and romantic emphasis. The author said: “Too zealous a search for noble turns of speech ends by producing an admirable dryness; they make one read a single page with pleasure; but this precious charm makes one shut the book at the end of the chapter: and we wish our readers to read any number of chapters. Spare me, therefore, my rustic or bourgeois simplicity.”

Remark that the author would be in despair if she thought that I considered her style bourgeois. There is an unbounded pride in her heart. It is the heart of a woman who would feel ten years older were her name made public. Besides, the subject! . . .


ST. GINGOUF, July 23, 1827.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30