I stumbled across something remarkable in an old copy of the British Quarterly Review. It was a review of Stendhal’s “Memoirs of a Tourist.” Stendhal is my favorite novelist, so I was not a little interested in learning what the Quarterly had to say about him. What I found was one of the better vignettes of the author I’ve run across, quite true to life and full of insight into the human condition, written by a sadly anonymous someone who must have himself been a formidable intellect. I heartily recommend it to the safekeeping of Stendhal’s “Happy Few.” One could read through many a modern literary review without finding his equal in intelligence, perception, and writing skill.
The Tory (conservative) Quarterly Review and the Whig (liberal) Edinburgh Review towered like giants over the literary and political scene in Great Britain during most of the first half of the 19th century. Their influence was worldwide, and their praise or contempt could mean life or death to the literary careers of the aspiring artists of the day. In spite of their political agendas, they tended to be more judicious and fair in their treatment of authors whose politics they found uncongenial than the magazines and journals of our own day. The Quarterly, however, seldom praised liberals, and Stendhal was a liberal, although one of a decidedly unusual stamp. Any weakness in a political opponent’s style, the accuracy of their work, or the strength of their logic was treated with a high toned, rather elegant derisiveness. There were several playful jabs, but nothing derisive in this review, Tory though its author certainly was.
It is clear that this admirable reviewer felt the power of Stendhal’s writing. In other words, he had that very unusual combination of knowledge and intellect necessary to perceive that he was dealing with a man of genius, at a time when, while that man had a certain literary reputation, he had hardly begun to acquire the literary status he eventually achieved. One must recall that “Memoirs of a Tourist” was one of Stendhal’s minor works, written under a pseudonym, merely to bring in some very necessary income. No matter. Our reviewer caught the essence of the man through the mist, and portrayed him with such wonderful simplicity, strength, and accuracy, that one can only hope that some, at least, of the Quarterly’s readers could appreciate what he put before them.
Here are a few excerpts from the review, which appeared in the December 1839 issue of the Quarterly. First, the beginning:
“We have read these volumes with lively interest: much amusement is to be found in them; not a little of valuable information; the observations, reflections, jokes, and sarcasms, of a clever man – a very favourable specimen of the liberal of the present time; noted down from day to day, as he repeatedly asserts, in the course of journeys undertaken for professional purposes through several of the finest, and one or two of the obscurest, provinces of France. The book is undoubtedly one of the ablest that the Parisian press has lately produced; and we are inclined to believe that it offers better materials for an estimate of the actual social condition of the France of Louis Philippe than could be gathered from a score of works holding forth graver pretensions.”
This is rare praise indeed for a liberal to appear in the pages of such a quintessentially Tory journal as the Quarterly Review. Our Great Unknown was hardly taken in, by the way, by the typically Stendhalian pseudonym the author used in “Memoirs of a Tourist.” In his own words:
“We understand (the work) is generally ascribed to the pen of M. Beyle (Stendhal’s real name)… We are not well acquainted with M. Beyle’s personal history (an observation that makes the rest of the review that much more remarkable, ed.) but it is evident that if he be the author of the Memoires, he has endeavoured to mystify his readers by the account which the Touriste is made to deliver of himself. …never was there a thinner disguise than this gentleman’s assumed character of an iron-merchant. There is not one mercantile atom in his composition.” (How true! ed.)
“He is evidently a practiced professional litterateur, who has spent a considerable part of his life in Italy…” (No doubt about that!)
Perhaps the most convincing bona fide of our worthy reviewers recognition of Stendhal’s virtuosity is his attempt to convert him to his own party on the spot:
“M. Beyle may placard whatever liberalism he thinks proper upon fit occasions, but neither he, no, nor any other gentleman (the French have adopted this word by the way, as well as dandy) can be at heart an enemy of aristocracy. He has exactly the same horror for universal suffrage, even for the coaxing of shopkeepers, and the mystification of town-councils, that the most dainty Sybarite of Vienna could avow. In all his habits, feelings, opinions – in all but a certain stock of phrases – he is diametrically opposed to the principles of the Movement and the practices of its sincere advocates.”
There is much truth in what our Great Unknown says here, but I suspect he’s rather wide of the mark in converting Stendhal to a Tory, lock stock and barrel. Be that as it may, I must say I’m grateful the fashion of writing anonymous reviews has passed. Tory or Whig, our reviewer is surely a superlative one, and I would be pleased to learn more of what he has to teach if only I knew his name. I appeal to those most likely to know to favor me with any clues they might have.
I note in closing that this particular number of the Quarterly Review has a great deal more matter of interest to anyone who cares to peek through a looking glass at another age, including an account of the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, written long before Darwin dreamed of publishing “The Origin of Species.”