Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Stendhal, Waterloo and a Forgotten Tale

by David Ebsworth

The classic French author who wrote under the pen name of Stendhal was born in Grenoble in 1783. His real name was Marie-Henri Beyle, and his star was joined irrevocably with that of Napoleon when he moved to Paris in 1799, literally on the day after Bonaparte’s coup d’état and appointment as First Consul of France. Beyle became a clerk in the War Ministry but subsequently accepted a commission in a French Dragoon regiment so that he could take part in Bonaparte’s invasion of the Italian states, then occupied by the Austrians. He came under fire during the campaign but also contracted syphilis, and eventually resigned his commission.

His association with the French army continued, however, when he was appointed a War Commissar. In this capacity, in 1809, he travelled through war-torn Germany and, in the town of Stendhal, was particularly affected by the horrific devastation he saw there. He returned to Paris and gained a promotion as the Emperor’s Inspector of Accounts, spending a couple of years moving among the highest echelons of French Imperial society. But in 1812, he chose to join Bonaparte’s ill-fated Russian Campaign and, though he fared much better than most others, he was lucky to return alive.

With Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, Beyle moved to Milan and stayed there until 1821, completing a biography of Napoleon during that period. He returned to Paris and began to write novels under the Stendhal pen name but became increasingly embittered, first, by the trend towards denigrating the legacy of both the Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte but, second, by the effects of his syphilis and its treatment. He died in 1842, just three years after publishing perhaps his most famous work, The Charterhouse of Parma.

It’s the story of young Italian aristocrat, Fabrice del Dongo, and several chapters follow Fabrice as he tries to join the French army on the Waterloo battlefield. Stendhal had not been at Waterloo, of course, but he was intimately familiar with its details. Despite this, he carefully avoided the temptation to write a blow-by-blow account and recalled, instead, his own experience of war. The confusion. The impossibility for the “common soldier” to know anything about what may be happening. An unusual tale. No real heroes. And much of Fabrice’s time at Waterloo is spent with a hard-nosed, nameless cantinière, giving us some unusual political viewpoints – as well as the inspiration for my own recent novel about the battle.

The cantinières were female sutlers (victuallers), three or four serving with every French battalion, and frequently to be seen in the very front lines, serving brandy to the soldiers and sometimes embroiled in the fighting itself. Many of them died brutal battlefield deaths and it wasn’t unusual for them to keep their children at their side, even at the bloodiest moments.

Remembering the Stendhal novel, and wanting to write my own story of Waterloo in time for this year’s bicentenary, I decided to tell the tale of cantinières as the core of The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour (David Ebsworth, 2015). Astonishing that no fiction authors have told this remarkable story since 1839 – well, at least, not until now! The result is, naturally, a real blood and thunder account of this famous battle but told, I hope, from an entirely fresh perspective.


David Ebsworth, has published four novels. The first, The Jacobites’ Apprentice, was a Finalist in our 2014 Indie Award. His fourth novel, The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour, was published on 1st January.


David Ebsworth said...

Hi Debra. Thanks for posting and happy to pick up any comments from readers. Wonderful blog, by the way!

Charles Bazalgette said...

A thrilling story and a splendid book!

David Ebsworth said...

Thanks Charles - that's very kind!