The Story Of The Hugos
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
onorous 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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.