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 the
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
"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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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