Julien is accompanied to Paris by two liberal landowners berating the provinces for their tedium; the scene is thus set for this exciting new chapter in Julien's life. After a brief detour to Malmasion, Napoleon's Paris home, Julien is greeted by the abbé Pirard, who prepares him to meet his new boss. Julien reciprocates with filial gratitude. Nonetheless, Julien fails to avoid the comic faux- pas of a country boy in the big city for the first time; he bows to his tailor and commits the most basic orthographic errors ('cella' instead of 'cela'). The Marquis has two children, Norbert, who takes Julien riding to disastrous effect, and Mathilde, a spirited girl with a healthy disregard for the social conventions of her station and an illicit love of slightly risqué literature. As a member of the household, Julien is expected to dine with the family and attend their salon in the evening; Stendhal paints a detailed portrait of the excruciating boredom of Restoration society, a boredom that certainly does not escape his protagonist, inevitably on its fringes and often mocked by Norbert and his friends. Nonetheless, the Marquis soon comes to appreciate his hard work.
An incident in a café wounds Julien's pride and after a series of misunderstandings he finds himself engaged in a duel with the chevalier de Beauvoisis, who, for the sake of his own reputation, propagates the rumour that Julien is in fact of noble birth. This idea amuses the Marquis, who indulges it by buying Julien a second outfit; in his new blue suit the Marquis treats him as an equal. He even sends him on business to England - on his return he finds the obsequious Valenod (now a baron) trying to wangle an introduction to Julien's illustrious new circle. Indeed Julien's social circle is constantly expanding; he attends a sumptuous ball given by the Duc de Retz, where Mathilde is much admired and where, in the context of so much extravagant frivolity, he discusses his politics earnestly with the Spanish Count Altamira. The Count is in exile having been condemned to death in Spain, a proof of heroism that earns him Julien's undying respect. Julien's singular pride has also earned him more than respect from Mademoiselle de la Mole, who begins to show her father's secretary distinct signs of devotion (she too ominously pays her own homage to romantic heroism by wearing mourning to honour the memory of an executed ancestor). Stendhal proceeds to explore in greater detail the nature of her feelings, a strange compound of attraction and rebellion, often in the first person. Given the social distance between them Julien is very wary of her attentions, believing that he may be the victim of an elaborate plot to ridicule him. On hearing that Julien is going away on business Mathilde however begs him to stay and declares her love. Her declaration leaves Julien feeling invincible although not without niggling anxieties. Mathilde solicits an illicit rendezvous for that evening.
Julien deliberates at great length but finally resolves to climb a ladder to her bedroom in the early hours of the morning; at least she will never be able to accuse him of cowardice. An awkward scene ensues but both characters fulfil the roles they have assigned themselves; Julien seduces Mathilde. Immediately after the event they both struggle to come to terms with their vanity; Mathilde is horrified by the idea that she has voluntarily enslaved herself and Julien is embittered by her coldness to the extent that he seizes an ornamental sword and almost stabs her. Thrilled by such a display of uncontrolled emotion, Mathilde renews her declaration, but Julien makes the fatal mistake of revealing the full extent of his devotion, reversing their positions in this fraught war of attrition. A visit to the opera restores Mathilde's passion and Julien pays her a second (and more successful!) nocturnal visit. Should the couple's behaviour begin to appear implausible the author intervenes, comparing the novel to a mirror - it is not he who is at fault but society. Despite cutting off her hair as a token of her love, Mathilde's haughty pride nonetheless resurfaces and Julien is thrown from the height of bliss to the depths of humiliation. The couple argue violently.
Meanwhile the Marquis is embroiled in an Ultra (extreme Royalist) plot to effect a full restoration of old regime values; other characters involved include a M. de Nerval (clearly modelled on Charles X's chief minister Polignac). The Marquis puts Julien's extraordinary memory to the service of the conspirators and sends him on a mission to Strasbourg to repeat verbatim the discussions of a secret meeting. In Strasbourg he renews his acquaintance with Prince Korasoff whom he had first met in London. Disguising names, he confides the problems of his relationship with Mathilde to the Prince who proposes a solution: he should pretend to court another woman. Julien immediately thinks of the prudish Maréchale de Fervaques and Korasoff obligingly provides him with a set of 53 letters to copy out and send. After seeking further advice from Altamira Julien embarks on his plan on his return to Paris, Mathilde - who in his absence
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