The Past Is Not Such a Foreign Country

It was 1811, the year of Napoleon’s Comet and the birth of his son. It was a time of a new world order, a time when people held the past in their head and the future in their hands. No better way to describe the inner conflict of the three protagonists in Ann Pearson’s sophisticated historical novel A Promise on the Horizon (Granville Island Publishing, 2019). The novel deals with Napoleonic Italy in 1811. This is the author’s first foray in the world of fiction.

Ann Pearson is a scholar of French literature with a particular interest in Henri Stendhal. It was in perusing various travel diaries, including that of Henri Beyle (who would only later choose Stendhal as his nom de plume), that she ran across an intriguing reference to a book he had found in the cabriolet of the Paris-Milan diligence. Though there is no mention of the book’s owner, from the few remarks by Beyle, Ann Pearson concludes that it must have been a French woman. This piqued her curiosity, haunted by this mysterious character, until one morning she woke with this line on her lips, “For the first time in my life I am completely alone.” The seed was planted and Pearson decided to tell the story of a fictitious Marie-Honorine de Vernet through her equally fictitious travel diary as a counterpoint to the famous travel diary by Henri Beyle in Italy; this would offer a contrast of male and female impressions on life in their Paris-Milan journey during a historic period of social upheaval.

Marie-Honorine de Vernet is a dispossessed daughter of the Ancien Régime following the French Revolution. After her return from exile in London, quite unexpectedly she gains financial independence and decides to travel to Italy alone, since, as she says “For the first time in my life I am completely alone. To wake every morning with the knowledge that I was my own mistress,” and realizing that most men are still “ignorant of the prisons in which dependence confines so many women.” Beyle, on the other hand, is a brash, self-centred young man from a good family. Yet, as Marie de Vernet would later remark, he had the physique of a tradesman despite his fashionable clothes. He was a minor official in the French administration, travelling to Italy on vacation. The author will make their paths intersect at various points for the duration of their travel through Italy, then veering off, each on their own tangent.

The novel is in fact a metafiction, since the author seamlessly grafts fictional passages with well-chosen excerpts from Henri Beyle’s diary. Both Beyle and de Vernet record their experiences in crossing over from France into Italy by carriage through the newly opened Simplon Pass. Both are drawn by Italy’s classical and artistic heritage, but the Italy they find is a country in the grip of social and political ferment brought on by Napoleon’s radical reforms.

During the various overnight stops at posts along the way, our two protagonists engage with the other passengers of Italian and French origin – a cotton merchant, a bourgeois woman, an Italian aristocrat and a young Italian naval officer – in lively discussions about the effects these reforms are having in their country. The various points raised and argued are faithfully recorded and commented on by Henri Beyle and Marie de Vernet in their respective diaries. It is fascinating how some of the elements in the Napoleonic new social order parallel and anticipate, in some way, concerns in our own XXI century global economy. The Simplon Pass, for example (built between 1801 and 1805 in the Rhône valley between France and Italy by order of Napoleon), was more than a physical road through the Alps, which rendered the crossing faster and safer. It was a symbol of a new kind of freedom to move and exchange products and ideas, as some of the passenger in the Paris-Milan diligence observe. Yet others point out that the Alps had also provided a natural barrier to invading armies. In the same vein, some voice their concern as to whether the easier connection between France and Italy would risk diluting the individual character of the people on either side of the Alps.

Everyone has a personal opinion of the benefits and shortcomings of the reforms brought about by Napoleon in Italy. All agree that the past cannot continue to influence their future. Yet, in spite of what Napoleon has achieved in a mere ten years, some Italians feel that he is turning Italy into a mere colony to be exploited for its rich resources in men and material, while others, like signor Rossi are quite happy to capitalize on the new markets created by Napoleon’s conquest of Italy to prosper in business and manufacturing. Some Italian patriots like the enlightened aristocratic brothers Lechi and Captain Trezzano view his legal and administrative reforms as a prelude to the eventual unification of Italy. As Henri Beyle listens to these various opinions and argues forcefully in favour of Napoleon’s reforms, he begins to feel uncomfortable with some of his previously held judgments of Napoleon’s achievements in Italy in light of the justified objections of his fellow travellers. Marie de Vernet, on the other hand, starts off justifiably aggrieved and critical of Napoleon’s reforms for obvious personal reasons, only to gradually recognize their merit. In the end, both Henri and Marie perceive the possibility of a positive change in their own lives; both come to realize that the past is truly in their heads and their future is in their hands. It is up to them to decide the course of their life.

But what appears to greatly absorb the attention of Marie-Honorine is the condition of women of various social classes she meets, which makes her reflect on her own personal situation seen from the perspective of pre- and post-Revolution: “If my life had not been set on a different path by the Revolution, would I have found happiness with the husband chosen for me? When I consider the lottery of women’s lives, I see no certainty that mine would have been happy had the Revolution not occurred.”

In addition to Henri Beyle and Marie de Vernet, the author introduces a third character, Jean-Philippe Larocque. His father had managed the woodlands on Marie-Honorine’s family estate before the Revolution. Thanks to her enlightened father’s generosity, Jean-Philippe received an education and eventually chose a career in the French army. He seems to be the perfect meld of the old and the new France: the visible proof that social classes are not immutable, that meritocracy and not privilege should be the determining factor in one’s destiny. Yet, the social distinctions that the Revolution had sought to abolish had to be erased in people’s mind as well, as Marie-Honorine would discover when her path crosses that of Jean-Philippe Larocque. These two characters in particular provide what in fact is implied by the title of the novel.

There are many themes and motifs in the novel, but there is one in particular that colours the entire narrative, braiding the evolving ideas of Henri Beyle and Marie de Vernet about happiness and love in something like a double helix. The topic of happiness is broached at one of the very first stops along their journey to Italy. As one of the Italian travellers around the dinner table explains, they are debating “whether happiness is a state of well-being derived from inner tranquillity, or the most intense joy of which we are capable and therefore necessarily intermittent.” From then on, we watch as de Vernet slowly opens up to new experiences, allows herself to savour feelings unknown before, to make friendships which in her former life she would have avoided, or as she says, “enter into relations with an individual who is not of my own milieu…” So she begins another journey in her life: one to overcome social and physical barriers in her exploration of the world and of her inner self. Unhindered by past social conventions, she can now search for kindred spirits, with no regret for this new-found freedom.

As for Henri Beyle, his diary reveals him to be conflicted, to say the least. He is clearly a man with the need to be confident, strong, in short, a typical male of his time. Unfortunately, in his rapport with women he is very shy, uncertain and self-conscious, which he masks with a flippant and cynical attitude. He is tormented by the fact that he’s never completely at ease with women, always afraid of making a fool of himself in front of the woman he desires. Ultimately, he equates love and happiness with success in the conquest of a woman. This approach would destine him to unhappiness.

Marie de Vernet will discover this side of Beyle’s personality during a chance encounter with the future novelist. Writing about him in her diary, she says that behind his blunt, forceful manner, “lays a sensitivity she wouldn’t have guessed.” She adds that “any woman with a heart would prefer the man who’d shed tears” to an amusing storyteller. In her oblique comments she lets him know as much, and in his own diary Beyle shows he understood the message from their open and artless conversation. He freely admits that he always played a role with women but discovered that with Marie the idea of making her another one of his conquests never entered his mind, “because he’d been too caught up in the conversation to worry about the impression he was making.” She was the kind of kindred spirit with whom love and happiness was possible. Their brief conversation will later allow Beyle to offer disinterested encouraging advice to de Vernet, assuring her that love was worth anything, even at the risk of breaking social conventions. Clearly, both characters were clichés of their gender, both had been wearing social masks. Their mutual influence will enable them to shed that mask and give themselves a greater freedom and spontaneity in their own future interpersonal relationship.

This novel will absorb and challenge the reader. The author paints a fascinating portrait of an intriguing period of European history. Skilfully and with great sensitivity, Ann Pearson explores in particular what it meant to be a woman in that transitional period of history, while bringing together three parallel stories, whose intersection and complementarity suggest a world to come.

Ann Pearson grew up in Suffolk, England, and earned an honours degree in French at the University of London before moving to Vancouver, where she completed a PhD in French literature. She taught French for a number of years before joining the Arts One programme at the University of British Columbia. She is currently working on a second Napoleonic-era novel, this one set in Cornwall. 

Diego Bastianutti was a professor at Queen’s University until his retirement in 1996. His prize-winning poems and short stories have been featured in various literary journals and anthologies in the Americas and in Europe. His work, A Major Selection of the Poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti (Exile, 1998) was the winner of the 1998 John Glassco Translation Prize. He resides in Burnaby, BC, with his wife.

Share this post

scroll to top