Following in the Footsteps of Glory: Stendhal's Napoleonic Career
Marie-Henri Beyle (1783-1842), known to the world as Stendhal, became one of the modern age's most important literary figures.  Living as he did in the transitional period from the ancien régime through the age of Napoleon and into the period of the return of the monarchy and the July Revolution, Stendhal witnessed France's and Europe's movement into the modern era.
The dominant personality of this age was, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte. His career serves today as an inspiration to many, and it was no less a marvel in his own time. Many careers were made in the footsteps of Napoleon's glory, including Henri Beyle's. It is impossible to read any of Stendhal's important novels without being struck by the central role played by Napoleon in the lives of his characters, and this is no accident. Stendhal's career in many ways parallels that of Napoleon. Like Napoleon, he was able to use important contacts to get himself started on his career. And once this process began, Stendhal's career would rise and fall with the fortunes, lifetime and posthumous, of Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed, in his autobiographical work The Life of Henry Brulard he states "I fell when Napoleon did in April 1814." 
Stendhal did not write his novels until long after Napoleon left power. His characters, however, reflect both his own Napoleonic career and his great unhappiness with Napoleon's fate after his defeat at Waterloo. Both the student of Napoleonic era history, political and literary, as well as the reader of Stendhal's works will benefit from a knowledge of the strong connection between Stendhal's career and Napoleon's. This paper will trace that connection, with a particular eye toward Stendhal's own commentaries on the subject. 
Stendhal, a native of Grenoble, grew to hate his existence in that city, and longed for the adventures of Paris. He was to admit later that his longing for Paris was strongly influenced by his disgust for Grenoble. Here he felt hemmed in by his dominating father and the religious teachings of his tutor, as well as by the general provincialism of Grenoble. Thus, when he moved to Paris in November of 1799, the day after Napoleon seized power with the coup d'État de Brumaire (November 9), he was filled with great hopes for a new, more exciting life.
In spite of his high hopes, he soon became disillusioned with Paris and with his stated desire to further his studies in math. Paris, it seemed, was not the key to untold excitement that he had expected. He was unable to bring himself to complete his studies, and his health took a turn for the worse. Fortunately for him, his father had a cousin named Noël Daru living in Paris. Daru had been important politically in both Grenoble and Paris, with connections throughout the government, including to Talleyrand.  The elder Daru and his sons Pierre and Martial would serve as Stendhal's benefactors throughout the Napoleonic period of his life.
For a time, Stendhal sought only art, literature, and love, with varying degrees of success. Pierre Daru sought to make an educated man out of him, while Martial served as a role model for a dandy about the streets of Paris. Like many young men of any epoch, Stendhal no doubt preferred to emulate Martial, though it would be the efforts of Pierre that would ultimately do Stendhal the most good. In 1799, not long after having taken in their jobless, disillusioned, and ill cousin Stendhal, the Darus arranged to find Stendhal a position as one of several hundred clerks in the Ministry of War, where Pierre Daru served the new government as Secretary General. This was quite a change for the young Stendhal.
In a vast room with gilded panels at the War Ministry, the younger Daru toiled night and day; Napoleon roared at him, and Pierre Daru, in turn, roared like a bull at the people who worked under him...
All day long he [Stendhal] sat at a desk in the office of the War Ministry writing letters for Daru... Daru bore down hard upon his assistants. Soon Henri was infected with the general terror of the "wild bull," and his fear of a blistering reprimand from his chief never left him. 
By all accounts, Stendhal was miserable in his new post. At age seventeen, full of idealism and hope for an exciting love and literary life, the rigors of the War Ministry were a big let-down. Moreover, he was not even very good at his work, making mistakes that earned him sharp criticism. In Brûlard, Stendhal writes "Everyone at the War Ministry used to shudder as they went into M. Daru's office, for my part I was scared even to look at the door."  In his most famous statement on his conditions of work he writes "... he [Daru] was in mortal dread of Napoleon and I was in mortal dread of him." 
But, as would so often happen, Stendhal's fortunes would change, tied, as they were, to the kindness and sense of familial responsibility of the Darus and the rising star of Napoleon. The future Emperor was preparing to attack the Austrians in Italy by taking a northern route through the Alps and the now famous Great Saint Bernard Pass. Pierre Daru had been appointed Inspector of Reviews, and left for Italy with Napoleon. When he offered Stendhal the chance to accept a commission as a second lieutenant in the 6th Dragoons and join his staff in Italy, Stendhal was overjoyed. Here, finally, was a chance to see the world while playing the role of a heroic and gallant soldier.
Gallant soldier he may have wanted to be, but gallant soldier he most certainly was not. Nothing in his background had prepared him for such a role (assuming that a great imagination is not actual preparation!); he knew neither the art of fighting nor the art of horsemanship. Fortunately, Pierre had assigned a man to accompany his eager but hopeless young cousin, and to teach him certain necessary skills along the way. The trip through the Alps would leave Stendhal with a greater ability in both of these areas, as well as a more realistic vision of soldiering. After a visit to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's house in Geneva, Stendhal and his new protector set out for Italy. Stendhal followed Napoleon's footsteps, only slightly delayed from Napoleon's own passage through the Alps, even including a stop for refreshment at the Hospice of Saint Bernard. His experience of most note was centered on the only real military problem encountered by the French army, Fort Bard. This fort, to the east of the Great St. Bernard Pass, threatened to seriously delay Napoleon's march forward. Stubborn to the end, the defenders of the fort refused to surrender to Napoleon, who then simply went around them. While this move was successful, there was a danger, as the soldiers were forced to pass within range of the fort's cannons. They had to pass along a platform, with cannon balls bouncing fairly close at hand. In Brulard Stendhal describes his experience "I can remember that I went close to the edge of the platform so as to be more exposed, and when he [his companion] started off along the road I lingered a few minutes to show my courage. That's how I came under fire the first time. This was a kind of virginity which had weighed as heavily on me as the other sort."  He would write his sister Pauline:
All I can tell you is that its [St. Bernard Pass] difficulty has been extraordinarily exaggerated. There is not a moment's danger to the troops. I passed by the fort of Bard, a much more difficult mountain. Imagine a steep valley like that of the Vallée de Saint-Paul, near Claix. In the middle, a hillock; on this hillock, a fort, and passes beneath it within pistol-shot. We left the road at the distance of three hundred feet from the fort and climbed the hill under continual fire from it. What troubled us most were our horses, which bounded five or six feet at every whistle of a bullet or cannonball. 
Stendhal was not alone in finding humor in the difficult pass through the Alps. Napoleon himself wrote of his trip down the eastern side of the St. Bernard: "The First Consul descended from the top of the Saint-Bernard by sliding on the snow and water-courses and leaping over precipices." 
Stendhal's trip through the Saint Bernard was not without its disillusionment. It was on this trip that he first learned that not all soldiers were the heroic figures he hoped to become. They were more than willing to steal from their fellow soldiers and he came to see them as rough men of unkind disposition who begrudged any benefits that might befall their comrades, such as having a horse to ride rather than being on foot. Still, the thrill of his participation in this great crusade, led by the ultimate man of action, would never leave Stendhal. His love of Napoleon must surely have started here. These feelings are best expressed in the opening lines of The Charterhouse of Parma where he notes(using an earlier campaign) "On 15 May 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan at the head of that youthful army which but a short time before had crossed the Bridge of Lodi, and taught the world that after so many centuries Caesar and Alexander had a successor." 
Caesar and Alexander may have had a successor, but that successor was by no means alone in the attentions of Stendhal. Stendhal's earlier idealistic image of Paris was replaced with one of Milan in particular, and Italy in general. The art, the music, the enthusiastic crowds and, most importantly, the beautiful women -- all became the subjects of Stendhal's affections. And it was in the theater in Milan that he first saw his hero and indirect benefactor, the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte himself. 
At first, Stendhal was wildly in love with Milan and Italy. And who could be surprised at that? He was quartered in the Adda Palace, where he lived and worked (as an aide to General Pétiet, the paymaster of the army of Italy) in an atmosphere that would overwhelm even the most worldly of persons, to say nothing of an idealistic youth. He later moved to the Casa Bovara, still working for Claude Pétiet, now Ambassador and Minister Extraordinary of the French Republic. In the evenings, Milanese society would mingle with the top levels of the French military and diplomatic corps. The young Henri, no doubt a bit awed by it all, was able to mix with a social level of the very highest order. 
Stendhal was also able to enjoy life during the day. His job, while important, by no means consumed his entire day. He was able to visit historical sights, monuments, and other delightful aspects of life in Milan. His efforts at romance are well known to his biographers and students, as are his efforts at reading. Indeed, it seems that he must have spent an enormous amount of time reading, and his descriptions of what he had read take a large amount of space in his writings. For example, his journal entry for April 18, 1801 notes "Since I've stopped thinking of Signora Martin, now Saladini, I've read a great deal of La Harpe. I've read Volumes I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII of his Lycée. 
As for his love life, it seems that whatever else it may have done for him, it gave him that most notorious of "social diseases," syphilis. This ailment would haunt Stendhal until his death, and may be the reason for his many lengthy leaves of absence.
Eventually Stendhal was required to undertake duties more associated with a lieutenant. He was assigned to the 6th Dragoons and sent to the small town of Bagnolo. As would be the case with many young men, he was at first enthralled with his new status. He no doubt saw himself as a dashing young dandy, complete with uniform and sword. He soon discovered that much of military life could be boring, especially if one were not assigned to a cultural center such as Milan. A shortage of books, culture, and available women quickly discouraged him. Fortunately, he was able to use his Daru connection to gain appointment as aide-de-camp to General Claude Michaud, headquartered in Milan. Of course, there were a few small problems with this transfer. Stendhal did not have the necessary seniority or rank, and Daru himself knew nothing of the appointment and, when informed, disapproved. For eight months Stendhal enjoyed his assignment, but was always under pressure from the livid Daru to return to his position with the 6th Dragoons. Finally, in September of 1801, he acquiesced to Daru's demands.  This was too much for him to take. Unhappy with military life, tired of Italy, not in the best of health, Stendhal returned to Grenoble on sick leave. After a three month leave, he resigned his commission and returned to Paris. At no time did he discuss his plans with his Daru benefactors. 
The next few years of Stendhal's life were less than satisfactory. His efforts at writing and business failed, and he grew restless and poor. At first unhappy with the imperial designs of Napoleon, Stendhal soon became impressed with the whirlwind that swept across Europe. Later he would write.
"...the French army left the camp at Boulogne for a continental war that was to confer fresh brilliance upon the military reputation of the Emperor, and to raise him to a peak of greatness such as Europe had not seen accorded to any sovereign since the time of Charlemagne." 
Stendhal determined to convince the Darus that he was worthy of their support. An intensive letter writing campaign followed, along with repeated visits. His friendly, if ambiguous, relationship with Pierre's wife Alexandrine opened up new access to the skeptical Daru. Daru, now a Count and Intendant General of the Imperial Armies, could make or break any number of careers. Once again, he would come to the aid of his cousin.
In October of 1806, Stendhal joined Martial Daru, who had received appointment as Intendant of Finances in the Duchy of Brunswick. Stendhal shortly became Provisional Deputy War Commissar for Brunswick. Soon thereafter he was raised to full War Commissar, and in 1808 he replaced Martial as Intendant of the Imperial Domains. This position was one of considerable power and prestige, a fact that Stendhal noted in a letter to his sister Pauline in May of 1808:
Four years ago I was in Paris with a single pair of boots with holes in them, without a fire in the heart of winter, and often without a candle. Here I am a personage: I receive a great number of letters from Germans who address me as Monseigneur; French nobilities call me Monsieur l'intendant; visiting generals come to see me; I receive petitions, I write letters, I scold my secretaries, I go to ceremonial dinners, I ride on horseback and read Shakespeare. But I was happier in Paris. 
In 1809, Stendhal was ordered first to Strasbourg and then to Vienna. During this trip he passed through the German town of Stendhal, from which he took his pen name.  The trip to Vienna provided Stendhal his first real taste of the horrors of war. Following close on the heels of Napoleon and the front line of the army, Stendhal saw first hand the destroyed towns, the unburied bodies, the random destruction. Stendhal was clearly touched by what he saw. On May 5th he wrote in his Journal:
As we started over the bridge, we found bodies of men and horses, there were still about thirty on the bridge; we were obliged to shove a lot of them into the river, which was excessively wide; in the middle, four hundred paces downstream from the bridge, a horse was standing erect and motionless; odd effect. The whole town of Ebersberg was still burning, the street through which we passed was strewn with corpses, most of them French and nearly all of them charred. Some were so badly burned that the human form of the skeleton could hardly be recognized. In several places, the corpses were heaped up; I examined their faces. On the bridge was a worthy German lying dead, his eyes open; German courage, faithfulness and kindness were portrayed on his face, which had a slight expression of melancholy. 
Stendhal's time in Vienna was well spent. His work went far to convince Pierre Daru that he was finally worthy of the support extended him by the powerful Count. Moreover, he cultivated his relationship with the Pierre's beautiful wife, the Countess Alexandrine. He longed, however, for Paris. Pierre and Alexandrine left for Paris in November, and two months later Stendhal himself returned to Paris. There he received the news that his Daru connection had once again paid off. Encouraged, no doubt, by Alexandrine, Pierre Daru arranged for Stendhal's appointment as Auditor of the Council of State. This gave Stendhal an impressive position as one of the top government officials in the Empire. Along with the position came a considerable income. As if this position was not enough, he was soon given the additional appointment of Inspector of the Accounts, Buildings, and Furniture of the Crown. These responsibilities included managing Versailles, Fontainebleau and the Musée Napoléon (the Louvre). 
This period in Stendhal's life may well have been his happiest. It was certainly a time when he was able to fulfill his dream of involvement with the very highest levels of society. He attended many social functions, and mingled with such luminaries as Napoleon's sisters Caroline Murat and Pauline Borghese, and with Prince Metternich, Sophie Gay, Mme. Récamier, Mme. Tallien and Mme. de Staël.  He was able to watch the great artist Jacques-Louis David paint, and was quick to find fault with him:
"I've just seen David painting. He's a collection of pettinesses... Moreover, David isn't intelligent enough to hide this petty vanity and not to show constantly the vast importance it has in his own opinion." 
Of course, one might argue that this criticism of one of the greatest artists of the Empire period is itself a reflection of a certain amount of petty vanity and ego!
For all of Stendhal's success in Paris, he longed for the action he had known in Italy and central Europe. Once again, the star of Napoleon would give him a new opportunity, though this time it was hardly the "rising" star of Napoleon. The Emperor had decided to invade Russia, and Pierre Daru was heavily involved in preparations. Stendhal, like the Emperor, believed that this would be yet another series of quick victories, and he wanted to be there. He was given permission to join the Grande Armée and left for Russia in the fall. Prior to leaving, he received an audience with the Empress Marie-Louise, and was given an opportunity to see the King of Rome, the imperial infant son. This is a clear indication of Stendhal's high position, and he tells his sister Pauline of it in a letter written in the palace of Saint-Cloud on July 23, 1812:
My dearest, chance has procured me an excellent opportunity of writing to you. I am leaving this evening, at seven o'clock, for the banks of the Dvina. I have come here to receive orders from Her Majesty the Empress. She has honored me with several minutes' conversation concerning the road I should take, the duration of the journey, etc. On taking leave of Her Majesty I went to visit His Majesty the Prince of Rome; but he was asleep, and Mme la comtesse de Montesquiou told me that it was impossible to see him before three o'clock; so I have two hours to wait. Waiting is not comfortable in full-dress uniform and lace. Luckily I remembered that my post of inspector might perhaps entitle me to some consideration at the palace. I presented myself, and have been shown into a room which at the moment is empty. 
The trip into and out of Russia would provide Stendhal images of war and life that would never leave him. More than ever before he would become involved in the dirty business of war, and more than ever before he would be threatened by it. When he arrived at Smolensk, he found the city in flames. When the fire threatened their carriages, Stendhal was able to organize defensive measures. Throughout the Russian campaign, he became known for keeping his wits about him, and maintaining his "sang-froid and clear-headedness."  His letters often appeared to be light-hearted and up-beat, but they also reflected his disillusionment.
My own happiness at being here is not great. How a man changes! My old thirst for new sights has been entirely quenched. Ever since I saw Milan and Italy, everything I see repels me with its crudity. Would you believe it that, without any vexation that affects me more than anybody else, and without any personal sorrow, I am sometimes on the point of bursting into tears? In this ocean of barbarity there is not a sound that finds an echo in my soul. Everything is coarse, dirty, both physically and morally stinking.
Stendhal witnessed the burning of Moscow from the suburbs. Disgusted with the entire situation, he was no doubt relieved when Napoleon ordered a withdrawal from Moscow. At one time he had hoped for concerts in the Kremlin: "It looks like I'll spend the winter here; I hope there'll be some concerts. There will certainly be theatrical performances at the Court, but what kind of actors will be in them?" 
Stendhal was appointed Commissioner of War Supplies and sent to Smolensk to prepare provisions for the returning army. Still keeping up his spirits, he wrote to the Countess Daru on the 16th of October
The people with whom I have the honour to live are of another species. With the exception of one person, our conversations are the most tedious in the world; we never speak but of serious matters, and with these serious matters we mix an enormous dose of self-importance, and spend an everlasting hour in explaining what could have been said in ten minutes. Apart from this, everything goes well; we have not seen a woman since the postmistresses of Poland, but by way of compensation we are great connoisseurs of fires. 
At one point he and his companions thought they were going to be killed by Cossacks, but they escaped in a heavy fog. 
Stendhal fared far better than many members of the no longer so Grande Armée. He crossed the Berezina River by finding a usable ford rather than the overwhelmed pontoon bridge. This decision probably saved his life and those of his companions. David Chandler estimates that in the three day crossing some 20-30,000 combatants and perhaps 30,000 noncombatants became casualties.  He continued his trek across Europe, and arrived in Paris in 1813. He had experienced in the most personal possible way one of the great events of history. After the Russian adventure, life in Paris must have seemed rather mundane. Twice more, however, Stendhal would follow the star of Napoleon. He was sent to Germany, where he was able to observe the battle of Bautzen. He was struck by the general confusion and the difficulty of determining just exactly what was happening. It is likely that this provided him with material used in his celebrated description of the battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma.
It is also likely that this campaign gave him his only direct interview with the Emperor. He had been with a detachment of soldiers which, when attacked by Cossacks, were thrown into a panic. Napoleon was not amused and undertook a full investigation. Stendhal claims that he was personally interviewed regarding the event. 
With the impending collapse of the Empire, Stendhal would serve Napoleon one last time. He was assigned to assist in the defense of Grenoble and the Dauphiné region. He was energetic in performing his duties, though the residents of Grenoble were none too cooperative with a man they felt had deserted them so many years ago.  Nevertheless, he was given high marks by those who observed his spirited efforts. He eventually returned to Paris and witnessed the withdrawal of the Empress Marie-Louise and the young King of Rome.
With the final fall of Napoleon came the time to decide one's future. While Stendhal had ample opportunity to accept a high post under the new government, he refused to live in a France that was intent on returning to the life before the Revolution and Napoleon. In 1814 he moved to Milan, where he would stay until 1821. Very quickly he began to develop what would become the base of his love of Napoleon, namely that while Napoleon certainly had his faults he was so much better than what came after him. The restoration left Stendhal, and his characters, longing for the Emperor and his past glories. Indeed, Stendhal's work is filled with examples of characters who admire Napoleon from the vantage point of the future rather than that of contemporaries.
Stendhal truly came of age during his Napoleonic adventures. From the brash, self-centered, irresponsible youth that the Darus took under their wing, he became a far more somber and responsible character capable of understanding the meaning of all he experienced. Stendhal experienced and observed much of what was both good and bad during the Napoleonic Era. He saw the workings of the empire from a very high vantage point, and was impressed by the desire to appoint people based on merit (though he received his own appointments on a somewhat different basis). He experienced the glory of the army, as well as the horrors of war. Through it all, he developed an understanding of the total dominance of Napoleon over his age, and understood both the faults and advantages of that dominance.
That Stendhal's later characters are dominated by the memory of Napoleon is, then, hardly a surprise. Whatever his faults, Napoleon led France and Stendhal through a great adventure. In the aftermath of Napoleon's fall, Stendhal witnessed how many elements of French society turned on the memory of the Emperor. He witnessed the sad and repulsive way Napoleon was exiled to the remote rock called St. Helena (in Stendhal's eyes, at least), and he was horrified by it. The rejection of the memory of Napoleon may well have seemed to Stendhal as a rejection of his own life's experiences. This sense of rejection, not all that uncommon among supporters of the Emperor, must surely have strengthened both his feelings toward Napoleon and his desire to defend the memory of Napoleon's, and his, epoch. The reason for the feelings he held toward Napoleon may best be found in the opening lines of his A Life of Napoleon: "I am writing this Life of Napoleon to refute a slander."  The slander was the rejection of all that Napoleon stood for; a rejection that called into question Stendhal's own life. The refutation, in the form of Stendhal's literary work, stands as some of the finest writing to come out of the Napoleonic experience.
© Copyright 1995-2005, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.