Victor Hugo, after all criticisms have been made, stands as a literary colossus. He had imaginative power which makes his finest passages fairly crash upon the reader's brain like blasting thunderbolts. His novels, even when translated, are read and reread by people of every degree of education. There is something vast, something almost Titanic, about the grandeur and gorgeousness of his fancy. His prose resembles the sonorous blare of an immense military band. Readers of English care less for his poetry; yet in his verse one can find another phase of his intellect. He could write charmingly, in exquisite cadences, poems for lovers and for little children. His gifts were varied, and he knew thoroughly the life and thought of his own countrymen; and, therefore, in his later days he was almost deified by them.
At the same time, there were defects in his intellect and character which are perceptible in what he wrote, as well as in what he did. He had the Gallic wit in great measure, but he was absolutely devoid of any sense of humor. This is why, in both his prose and his poetry, his most tremendous pages often come perilously near to bombast; and this is why, again, as a man, his vanity was almost as great as his genius. He had good reason to be vain, and yet, if he had possessed a gleam of humor, he would never have allowed his egoism to make him arrogant. As it was, he felt himself exalted above other mortals. Whatever he did or said or wrote was right because he did it or said it or wrote it.
This often showed itself in rather whimsical ways. Thus, after he had published the first edition of his novel, The Man Who Laughs, an English gentleman called upon him, and, after some courteous compliments, suggested that in subsequent editions the name of an English peer who figures in the book should be changed from Tom Jim-Jack.
"For," said the Englishman, "Tom Jim-Jack is a name that could not possibly belong to an English noble, or, indeed, to any Englishman. The presence of it in your powerful story makes it seem to English readers a little grotesque."
Victor Hugo drew himself up with an air of high disdain.
"Who are you?" asked he.
"I am an Englishman," was the answer, "and naturally I know what names are possible in English."
Hugo drew himself up still higher, and on his face there was a smile of utter contempt.
"Yes," said he. "You are an Englishman; but I—I am Victor Hugo."
In another book Hugo had spoken of the Scottish bagpipes as "bugpipes." This gave some offense to his Scottish admirers. A great many persons told him that the word was "bagpipes," and not "bugpipes." But he replied with irritable obstinacy:
"I am Victor Hugo; and if I choose to write it 'bugpipes,' it IS 'bugpipes.' It is anything that I prefer to make it. It is so, because I call it so!"
So, Victor Hugo became a violent republican, because he did not wish France to be an empire or a kingdom, in which an emperor or a king would be his superior in rank. He always spoke of Napoleon III as "M. Bonaparte." He refused to call upon the gentle-mannered Emperor of Brazil, because he was an emperor; although Dom Pedro expressed an earnest desire to meet the poet.
When the German army was besieging Paris, Hugo proposed to fight a duel with the King of Prussia, and to have the result of it settle the war; "for," said he, "the King of Prussia is a great king, but I am Victor Hugo, the great poet. We are, therefore, equal."
In spite, however, of his ardent republicanism, he was very fond of speaking of his own noble descent. Again and again he styled himself "a peer of France;" and he and his family made frequent allusions to the knights and bishops and counselors of state with whom he claimed an ancestral relation. This was more than inconsistent. It was somewhat ludicrous; because Victor Hugo's ancestry was by no means noble. The Hugos of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were not in any way related to the poet's family, which was eminently honest and respectable, but by no means one of distinction. His grandfather was a carpenter. One of his aunts was the wife of a baker, another of a barber, while the third earned her living as a provincial dressmaker.
If the poet had been less vain and more sincerely democratic, he would have been proud to think that he sprang from good, sound, sturdy stock, and would have laughed at titles. As it was, he jeered at all pretensions of rank in other men, while he claimed for himself distinctions that were not really his. His father was a soldier who rose from the ranks until, under Napoleon, he reached the grade of general. His mother was the daughter of a ship owner in Nantes.
Victor Hugo was born in February, 1802, during the Napoleonic wars, and his early years were spent among the camps and within the sound of the cannon-thunder. It was fitting that he should have been born and reared in an age of upheaval, revolt, and battle. He was essentially the laureate of revolt; and in some of his novels—as in Ninety-Three—the drum and the trumpet roll and ring through every chapter.
The present paper has, of course, nothing to do with Hugo's public life; yet it is necessary to remember the complicated nature of the man—all his power, all his sweetness of disposition, and likewise all his vanity and his eccentricities. We must remember, also, that he was French, so that his story may be interpreted in the light of the French character.
At the age of fifteen he was domiciled in Paris, and though still a schoolboy and destined for the study of law, he dreamed only of poetry and of literature. He received honorable mention from the French Academy in 1817, and in the following year took prizes in a poetical competition. At seventeen he began the publication of a literary journal, which survived until 1821. His astonishing energy became evident in the many publications which he put forth in these boyish days. He began to become known. Although poetry, then as now, was not very profitable even when it was admired, one of his slender volumes brought him the sum of seven hundred francs, which seemed to him not only a fortune in itself, but the forerunner of still greater prosperity.
It was at this time, while still only twenty years of age, that he met a young girl of eighteen with whom he fell rather tempestuously in love. Her name was Adele Foucher, and she was the daughter of a clerk in the War Office. When one is very young and also a poet, it takes very little to feed the flame of passion. Victor Hugo was often a guest at the apartments of M. Foucher, where he was received by that gentleman and his family. French etiquette, of course, forbade any direct communication between the visitor and Adele. She was still a very young girl, and was supposed to take no share in the conversation. Therefore, while the others talked, she sat demurely by the fireside and sewed.
Her dark eyes and abundant hair, her grace of manner, and the picture which she made as the firelight played about her, kindled a flame in the susceptible heart of Victor Hugo. Though he could not speak to her, he at least could look at her; and, before long, his share in the conversation was very slight. This was set down, at first, to his absent-mindedness; but looks can be as eloquent as spoken words. Mme. Foucher, with a woman's keen intelligence, noted the adoring gaze of Victor Hugo as he silently watched her daughter. The young Adele herself was no less intuitive than her mother. It was very well understood, in the course of a few months, that Victor Hugo was in love with Adele Foucher.
Her father and mother took counsel about the matter, and Hugo himself, in a burst of lyrical eloquence, confessed that he adored Adele and wished to marry her. Her parents naturally objected. The girl was but a child. She had no dowry, nor had Victor Hugo any settled income. They were not to think of marriage. But when did a common-sense decision, such as this, ever separate a man and a woman who have felt the thrill of first love! Victor Hugo was insistent. With his supreme self-confidence, he declared that he was bound to be successful, and that in a very short time he would be illustrious. Adele, on her side, created "an atmosphere" at home by weeping frequently, and by going about with hollow eyes and wistful looks.
The Foucher family removed from Paris to a country town. Victor Hugo immediately followed them. Fortunately for him, his poems had attracted the attention of Louis XVIII, who was flattered by some of the verses. He sent Hugo five hundred francs for an ode, and soon afterward settled upon him a pension of a thousand francs. Here at least was an income—a very small one, to be sure, but still an income. Perhaps Adele's father was impressed not so much by the actual money as by the evidence of the royal favor. At any rate, he withdrew his opposition, and the two young people were married in October, 1822—both of them being under age, unformed, and immature.
Their story is another warning against too early marriage. It is true that they lived together until Mme. Hugo's death—a married life of forty-six years—yet their story presents phases which would have made this impossible had they not been French.
For a time, Hugo devoted all his energies to work. The record of his steady upward progress is a part of the history of literature, and need not be repeated here. The poet and his wife were soon able to leave the latter's family abode, and to set up their own household god in a home which was their own. Around them there were gathered, in a sort of salon, all the best-known writers of the day—dramatists, critics, poets, and romancers. The Hugos knew everybody.
Unfortunately, one of their visitors cast into their new life a drop of corroding bitterness. This intruder was Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a man two years younger than Victor Hugo, and one who blended learning, imagination, and a gift of critical analysis. Sainte-Beuve is to-day best remembered as a critic, and he was perhaps the greatest critic ever known in France. But in 1830 he was a slender, insinuating youth who cultivated a gift for sensuous and somewhat morbid poetry.
He had won Victor Hugo's friendship by writing an enthusiastic notice of Hugo's dramatic works. Hugo, in turn, styled Sainte-Beuve "an eagle," "a blazing star," and paid him other compliments no less gorgeous and Hugoesque. But in truth, if Sainte-Beuve frequented the Hugo salon, it was less because of his admiration for the poet than from his desire to win the love of the poet's wife.
It is quite impossible to say how far he attracted the serious attention of Adele Hugo. Sainte-Beuve represents a curious type, which is far more common in France and Italy than in the countries of the north. Human nature is not very different in cultivated circles anywhere. Man loves, and seeks to win the object of his love; or, as the old English proverb has it:
It's a man's part to try,
And a woman's to deny.
But only in the Latin countries do men who have tried make their attempts public, and seek to produce an impression that they have been successful, and that the woman has not denied. This sort of man, in English-speaking lands, is set down simply as a cad, and is excluded from people's houses; but in some other countries the thing is regarded with a certain amount of toleration. We see it in the two books written respectively by Alfred de Musset and George Sand. We have seen it still later in our own times, in that strange and half-repulsive story in which the Italian novelist and poet, Gabriele d'Annunzio, under a very thin disguise, revealed his relations with the famous actress, Eleanora Duse. Anglo-Saxons thrust such books aside with a feeling of disgust for the man who could so betray a sacred confidence and perhaps exaggerate a simple indiscretion into actual guilt. But it is not so in France and Italy. And this is precisely what Sainte-Beuve attempted.
Dr. George McLean Harper, in his lately published study of Sainte-Beuve, has summed the matter up admirably, in speaking of The Book of Love:
He had the vein of emotional self-disclosure, the vein of romantic or sentimental confession. This last was not a rich lode, and so he was at pains to charge it secretly with ore which he exhumed gloatingly, but which was really base metal. The impulse that led him along this false route was partly ambition, partly sensuality. Many a worse man would have been restrained by self-respect and good taste. And no man with a sense of honor would have permitted The Book of Love to see the light—a small collection of verses recording his passion for Mme. Hugo, and designed to implicate her.
He left two hundred and five printed copies of this book to be distributed after his death. A virulent enemy of Sainte-Beuve was not too expressive when he declared that its purpose was "to leave on the life of this woman the gleaming and slimy trace which the passage of a snail leaves on a rose." Abominable in either case, whether or not the implication was unfounded, Sainte-Beuve's numerous innuendoes in regard to Mme. Hugo are an indelible stain on his memory, and his infamy not only cost him his most precious friendships, but crippled him in every high endeavor.
How monstrous was this violation of both friendship and love may be seen in the following quotation from his writings:
In that inevitable hour, when the gloomy tempest and the jealous gulf shall roll over our heads, a sealed bottle, belched forth from the abyss, will render immortal our two names, their close alliance, and our double memory aspiring after union.
Whether or not Mme. Hugo's relations with Sainte-Beuve justified the latter even in thinking such thoughts as these, one need not inquire too minutely. Evidently, though, Victor Hugo could no longer be the friend of the man who almost openly boasted that he had dishonored him. There exist some sharp letters which passed between Hugo and Sainte-Beuve. Their intimacy was ended.
But there was something more serious than this. Sainte-Beuve had in fact succeeded in leaving a taint upon the name of Victor Hugo's wife. That Hugo did not repudiate her makes it fairly plain that she was innocent; yet a high-spirited, sensitive soul like Hugo's could never forget that in the world's eye she was compromised. The two still lived together as before; but now the poet felt himself released from the strict obligations of the marriage-bond.
It may perhaps be doubted whether he would in any case have remained faithful all his life. He was, as Mr. H.W. Wack well says, "a man of powerful sensations, physically as well as mentally. Hugo pursued every opportunity for new work, new sensations, fresh emotion. He desired to absorb as much on life's eager forward way as his great nature craved. His range in all things—mental, physical, and spiritual—was so far beyond the ordinary that the gage of average cannot be applied to him. The cavil of the moralist did not disturb him."
Hence, it is not improbable that Victor Hugo might have broken through the bonds of marital fidelity, even had Sainte-Beuve never written his abnormal poems; but certainly these poems hastened a result which may or may not have been otherwise inevitable. Hugo no longer turned wholly to the dark-haired, dark-eyed Adele as summing up for him the whole of womanhood. A veil was drawn, as it were, from before his eyes, and he looked on other women and found them beautiful.
It was in 1833, soon after Hugo's play "Lucrece Borgia" had been accepted for production, that a lady called one morning at Hugo's house in the Place Royale. She was then between twenty and thirty years of age, slight of figure, winsome in her bearing, and one who knew the arts which appeal to men. For she was no inexperienced ingenue. The name upon her visiting-card was "Mme. Drouet"; and by this name she had been known in Paris as a clever and somewhat gifted actress. Theophile Gautier, whose cult was the worship of physical beauty, wrote in almost lyric prose of her seductive charm.
At nineteen, after she had been cast upon the world, dowered with that terrible combination, poverty and beauty, she had lived openly with a sculptor named Pradier. This has a certain importance in the history of French art. Pradier had received a commission to execute a statue representing Strasburg—the statue which stands to-day in the Place de la Concorde, and which patriotic Frenchmen and Frenchwomen drape in mourning and half bury in immortelles, in memory of that city of Alsace which so long was French, but which to-day is German—one of Germany's great prizes taken in the war of 1870.
Five years before her meeting with Hugo, Pradier had rather brutally severed his connection with her, and she had accepted the protection of a Russian nobleman. At this time she was known by her real name—Julienne Josephine Gauvin; but having gone upon the stage, she assumed the appellation by which she was thereafter known, that of Juliette Drouet.
Her visit to Hugo was for the purpose of asking him to secure for her a part in his forth-coming play. The dramatist was willing, but unfortunately all the major characters had been provided for, and he was able to offer her only the minor one of the Princesse Negroni. The charming deference with which she accepted the offered part attracted Hugo's attention. Such amiability is very rare in actresses who have had engagements at the best theaters. He resolved to see her again; and he did so, time after time, until he was thoroughly captivated by her.
She knew her value, and as yet was by no means infatuated with him. At first he was to her simply a means of getting on in her profession—simply another influential acquaintance. Yet she brought to bear upon him the arts at her command, her beauty and her sympathy, and, last of all, her passionate abandonment.
Hugo was overwhelmed by her. He found that she was in debt, and he managed to see that her debts were paid. He secured her other engagements at the theater, though she was less successful as an actress after she knew him. There came, for a time, a short break in their relations; for, partly out of need, she returned to her Russian nobleman, or at least admitted him to a menage a trois. Hugo underwent for a second time a great disillusionment. Nevertheless, he was not too proud to return to her and to beg her not to be unfaithful any more. Touched by his tears, and perhaps foreseeing his future fame, she gave her promise, and she kept it until her death, nearly half a century later.
Perhaps because she had deceived him once, Hugo never completely lost his prudence in his association with her. He was by no means lavish with money, and he installed her in a rather simple apartment only a short distance from his own home. He gave her an allowance that was relatively small, though later he provided for her amply in his will. But it was to her that he brought all his confidences, to her he entrusted all his interests. She became to him, thenceforth, much more than she appeared to the world at large; for she was his friend, and, as he said, his inspiration.
The fact of their intimate connection became gradually known through Paris. It was known even to Mme. Hugo; but she, remembering the affair of Sainte-Beuve, or knowing how difficult it is to check the will of a man like Hugo, made no sign, and even received Juliette Drouet in her own house and visited her in turn. When the poet's sons grew up to manhood, they, too, spent many hours with their father in the little salon of the former actress. It was a strange and, to an Anglo-Saxon mind, an almost impossible position; yet France forgives much to genius, and in time no one thought of commenting on Hugo's manner of life.
In 1851, when Napoleon III seized upon the government, and when Hugo was in danger of arrest, she assisted him to escape in disguise, and with a forged passport, across the Belgian frontier. During his long exile in Guernsey she lived in the same close relationship to him and to his family. Mme. Hugo died in 1868, having known for thirty-three years that she was only second in her husband's thoughts. Was she doing penance, or was she merely accepting the inevitable? In any case, her position was most pathetic, though she uttered no complaint.
A very curious and poignant picture of her just before her death has been given by the pen of a visitor in Guernsey. He had met Hugo and his sons; he had seen the great novelist eating enormous slices of roast beef and drinking great goblets of red wine at dinner, and he had also watched him early each morning, divested of all his clothing and splashing about in a bath-tub on the top of his house, in view of all the town. One evening he called and found only Mme. Hugo. She was reclining on a couch, and was evidently suffering great pain. Surprised, he asked where were her husband and her sons.
"Oh," she replied, "they've all gone to Mme. Drouet's to spend the evening and enjoy themselves. Go also; you'll not find it amusing here."
One ponders over this sad scene with conflicting thoughts. Was there really any truth in the story at which Sainte-Beuve more than hinted? If so, Adele Hugo was more than punished. The other woman had sinned far more; and yet she had never been Hugo's wife; and hence perhaps it was right that she should suffer less. Suffer she did; for after her devotion to Hugo had become sincere and deep, he betrayed her confidence by an intrigue with a girl who is spoken of as "Claire." The knowledge of it caused her infinite anguish, but it all came to an end; and she lived past her eightieth year, long after the death of Mme. Hugo. She died only a short time before the poet himself was laid to rest in Paris with magnificent obsequies which an emperor might have envied. In her old age, Juliette Drouet became very white and very wan; yet she never quite lost the charm with which, as a girl, she had won the heart of Hugo.
The story has many aspects. One may see in it a retribution, or one may see in it only the cruelty of life. Perhaps it is best regarded simply as a chapter in the strange life-histories of men of genius.