THE greatest thing that Victor Hugo ever did, according to Francis Gribble, an English commentator, was not to write "Les Miserables,"
nor to overwhelm the world with his Olympian fecundity of poetry and rhetoric. It was to fasten upon humanity "the Hugo legend." By this
phrase Mr. Gribble means that curious mingling of romance, of misrepresentation, of idealization, that has come down to us as Victor Hugo.
The real personality of the man, the actual facts of his life, Mr. Gribble would have us believe, were something very different from what
is generally accepted.
For many years the question has been debated whether Victor Hugo was a great man or a great windbag. "Perhaps," Mr. Gribble suggests,
"he was both; and perhaps admirers and detractors may meet on common ground in admitting that his most sublime achievement was the construction
of the Hugo legend; the legend of himself as not only the central pillar and head corner-stone of the Romantic Movement, but also as a uniquely
sympathetic personality—'Victor in drama, Victor in romance.'"
At the time when Hugo was living in Guernsey, "simultaneously maintaining two establishments and a high moral tone," he induced his wife to
write his life while he was diverting himself in the society of Juliette Drouet. The resulting volume is "Victor Hugo raconte par un temoin
de sa vie." It is crammed, from beginning to end, Mr. Gribble declares, with
vainglorious statements flagrantly at variance with fact. Madame
Hugo knew as well as her husband that his boasts were the figments of his imagination. Yet she wrote them out with obedient docility, "in the
flowery language of the advertisement of a patent medicine," and the world accepted them as if they had been revelations from on high. "One
feels constrained to begin," Mr. Gribble remarks, "by firing a salute to a legend so triumphantly accredited, even if truth requires one to
proceed to the invidious task of pulling it to pieces. If Victor Hugo was a liar, at least he lied sublimely."
Hugo's first lies, it seems, relate to his family history. Noble ancestors, he felt, were essential to his sublimity; and as he had none,
he invented some, giving out that he was a scion of the house of the Hugos of Lorraine, and a great-grandson of
Hugo, "chevalier, conseiller-maitre en la chambre des
Comptes de Lorraine." "It is not true," Mr. Gribble asserts; "all the descendants of Charles-Hyacinthe Hugo, chevalier, etc., have been
traced, and Victor Hugo is not included in their number. Victor Hugo's descendants have been traced, and there is no chevalier to be found
among them. His father was an officer who had risen from the ranks; his grandfather was a carpenter; his great-grandfather and his
great- great-grandfather were peasants. Of the women whom they married, the most distinguished was a nursery governess. Among the collaterals
we find a corn-factor, a baker, a barber, and three dressmakers—useful and even honorable members of the community, but not either aristocratic
or romantic." In the same spirit, Victor Hugo said of his mother that as "a poor girl of fifteen" she "fled to the bocage and became a brigand
(that is, a Vendean insurrectionist), like Madame de Bonchamps and Madame de la Roche-jacquelein." It is a romantic story, but there is
not a word of truth in it. "Sophie Trebuchet," Mr. Gribble tells us, "remained in Nantes from the beginning to the end of the Vendean revolt."
Mr. Gribble disposes similarly of stories of Victor Hugo's precocity and, in particular, of the story that Chateaubriand, in the poet's early
days, saluted him as "enfant sublime," amazed by the dazzling splendor of his "Ode on the Death of the Duc de Berri."
It was the sort of thing that Chateaubriand ought to have said, but, as a matter of fact, he denied ever having used the words. Hugo invented them,
as he had invented his ancestors, for his own greater glory.
Those were the days when Hugo sold fifteen hundred copies of "Han d'lslande," and led the world to suppose that he had sold twelve thousand.
Those were the days when he tried to shift the responsibility for an unsuccessful play at the Odeon on to the shoulders of his brother-in-law,
Paul Foucher, a lad of eighteen, whom he falsely represented as the author. Those, finally, were the days of Charles Nodier's salon at the Arsenal,
where Victor Hugo used to recite his poems. The ceremony is vividly described in Madame Ancelot's "Souvenirs of the Salons of Paris":
"When he ceased, there was silence for several seconds. Then one of the company stepped forward with visible emotion, and, lifting his eyes to
heaven, took the poet by the hand. The group listened, and then a single word was heard, to the great amazement of the uninitiated, and echoed
in every corner of the room.
" 'A cathedral!'
"Then the speaker returned to his place, and another arose and exclaimed:
" 'An ogive!'
"Whereupon a third looked carefully round the room, and hazarded:
" 'A Pyramid of Egypt!'
"And then the assembly applauded, and once more relapsed into silent reflection; but the silence was only the prelude to an explosion of voices,
repeating in chorus the sacramental words which each of the speakers had already uttered separately."
A pendant to this striking picture may be found in the ''Souvenirs sur Turgueneff":
"One evening, Hugo's admirers, assembled in his drawing-room, were vieing with one another in the eulogy of his genius; and the idea was thrown out,
among others, that the street in which he lived ought to bear his name.
"Some one suggested that the street was too small to be worthy of so great a poet, and that the honor of bearing his name ought to be assigned to
some more important thorofare.
"Then they proceeded to enumerate the most popular quarters of Paris, in an ascending scale, until one man exclaimed with enthusiasm that it
would be an honor for the City of Paris itself to be renamed after the man of genius.
"Hugo, leaning against the mantel-piece, listened complacently to his flatterers outbidding each other. Then, with the air of one engaged in deep
thought, he turned to the young man, and said to him in his grand style:
" 'Even that will come, my friend. Even that will come.'
"Such was the cenacle in which Victor Hugo used to sit like a king upon a throne, and such was the man. One can see that for such a man to construct
a legend about himself would not be difficult. He was saturated in romanticism. He knew even how to make the ridiculous appear sublime. He did so
in the remarkable story of his relations with Mademoiselle Juliette Drouet, a lady whose name will always be associated with his. This "affair"
was in danger more than once, of degenerating into a mere vulgar liaison. Many of its details were sordid; it had its critical moments. But
Victor Hugo somehow contrived that Alfred Asseline should preserve the story for posterity in the following classic guise:
"In the present state of our morality, it is admitted that men of superior genius are privileged to impose upon the society which they charm and
adorn a friend — the friend — the woman whom it has pleased them to select as the veiled witness of their labors: one who, whether the legitimate
wife or not, remains in the background, the discreet confidante of the man of genius at the hour at which the flame of his brilliancy is kindled.
"She is no vulgar Egeria. She is the Muse; the poet's very soul, which it is our privilege to behold, to admire, and to revere, in the expansive
relations of friendship."
This, Mr. Gribble comments, is a glorification of Victor Hugo's mistress, written by Madame Hugo's first cousin. It is enveloped in the romantic
haze so characteristic of the Hugo legend. The actual facts, Mr. Gribble goes on to narrate (in The Fortnightly Review) as follows:
"Juliette Drouet was really Juliette Gauvain— the orphan daughter of a provincial tailor who had been adopted by a great-uncle in the Woods and
Forests Service. Her guardian sent her to a convent school, intending her to take the veil; but as one of her 'confessions' was to the effect that
she accused herself of having 'looked and smiled at gentlemen,' the Bishop decided that she lacked 'vocation.' 'Anything,' he said 'is better than
a nun who makes a scandal'; and so Juliette was sent home—tho she did not remain there very long. Presently—at the end of three years, during which
her proceedings cannot be traced—she became model, and mistress, to Pradier, to whom she bore a daughter. Pradier abandoned her, and then she went
on the stage.
"Felix Harel, whom she had met in Pradier's studio, gave her her first chance at Brussels. She returned to Paris with him, and was allotted minor
parts at the Porte Saint-Martin; but it was not to her histrionic talents that she owed such success as she achieved. Contemporary critics said
that she hardly knew how to walk across the stage, and compared the 'artiste' to a swan which might 'pierce the clouds in its majestic flight,'
but could only waddle when it came to earth. She was, that is to say, in modern parlance, rather a 'show girl' than an actress, but richly endowed
with protectors because of her statuesque beauty. Alphonse Karr was one of the privileged; and she derived the greater part of her income from a
''If she had little talent, however, she had pretensions and ambitions. She spoke, to those who would listen, of her 'art,' and sought a chance
of 'showing the public what she could do'; and, to that end, she called on Victor Hugo, and asked if she might have the part of Princess Negroni
in his 'Lucrece Borgia.' The story, told by Paul Chenay, that she expressed her reverence for his genius by taking off his boots in public is
more likely to be false than true; but the role, by whatever insidious means obtained, was assigned to her; and tho her performance provoked the
comparison, just quoted, of her movements to those of a waddling swan, Victor Hugo was instantly conquered by her attractions."
At this time Hugo was thirty-one years old. He had been married eleven years, and, to all outward appearances, was happy in his marriage. Yet he
initiated a dual establishment which was to prove one of the most unusual, as it was one of the most permanent, elements in his life. The second
establishment was set up within a few steps of his home. Madame Hugo was cognizant of it. His mistress was celebrated in glowing stanzas
in the poet's next volume of lyrics. The change in his life was obvious to all who knew him. As Mr. Gribble describes the situation:
"The world agreed that, in the case of so great a man as Victor Hugo, no scandal was really scandalous. The family accepted the situation,
and the 'unpayable' Alfred Asseline wrote of Juliette as Victor Hugo's 'immortal Beatrice, the sceptre-bearer of his glory.'
"Not that the liaison was without its infidelities and stormy interludes. To his Muse, as to his wife, Victor Hugo could only be 'faithful in his
fashion'; and, as she was no meek and submissive woman, there were a good many perturbing incidents. On more than one occasion she had to dismiss
her maids lest they should become her rivals; but in the case, at any rate, of Blanche, her suspicions appear to have been justified. When already
well over seventy years of age, Victor Hugo set up a third establishment for Blanche on the Quai de la Tournelle, and visited her there with
assiduity, tho he afterwards repented, and bought her a shop, and was blackmailed by the husband whom she had married out of pique and
disappointment. . . .
"The stories are trivial, and, in the biography of an ordinary man, might be ignored; but the reason for telling them in Hugo's case is obvious.
They are inconsistent with sublimity; and yet Victor Hugo contrived, in spite of them, to assert himself as sublime. Madame Hugo was gentle and
forgave ..., Juliette was violent, but forgave — forgiveness was essential to the process of her transfiguration from show girl to
Muse — her gradual rise from notoriety to glory."
The most amazing part of this amazing story belongs to the period of Victor Hugo's exile in the island of Guernsey, the period during which he
wrote "Les Miserables," "Les Travailleurs de la Mer," and several other of his most famous works. To quote Mr. Gribble's account:
"Juliette was of the party; and she enjoyed a position which is probably unique in the annals of the amours of men of letters. Her status in Paris,
tho assured, had been equivocal. If there had been no actual secrecy about her relations with her poet, at least there had been some thin pretence
of secrecy. Tho everybody knew, nobody was supposed to know. Even Madame Hugo could at least pretend to the world that she knew nothing for certain. There was no intercourse between the two establishments.
The husband affected to deceive; the wife to be imposed upon by the deception.
"At Guernsey, however, all that was quickly changed. It was impossible to mystify the world in a small provincial town, and Victor Hugo did not
attempt to do so. His role was rather to assert himself, claiming that men of genius had, like kings, the right to bestow their affections openly
when they chose, without, on that account, breaking up their
relations with Juliette, in short, were like those of Louis XIV. with Madame de Montespan, and of Louis XV. with Madame de Pompadour; and he
kept up appearances even while he defied them. He lived, that is to say, in his own house, patriarchally, with his family about him; but he
also took and furnished a second house, close by, for Juliette, and installed her in it, and visited her daily, and took all his friends and
visitors to see her. Visitor after visitor has related how he passed from one house to the other and paid his respects to both ladies on the
"It is said that Madame Hugo did not mind. It is said that she realized that she was unworthy to be the wife of so great a man, and admitted that
Juliette understood her husband better than she did. Very likely she was right about that; for tho the preferences of the human heart are inscrutable,
it can seldom be out of sheer perversity that a man prefers another woman to his wife. Juliette may have been a more ingenious flatterer than Madame
Hugo — she may have had other charms which her very commonplace letters do not reveal to us. Madame Hugo, on the other hand, may have been too domesticated
to accompany genius in all its flights. All sorts of explanations are possible; but all that one can say for certain is that the impression which Madame
Hugo makes upon one during the period is that of a woman crushed and cowed, accepting the inevitable because she feels herself too feeble to fight against it.
"It was at that date, at all events, that she wrote out the authorized version of the Hugo legend: 'Victor Hugo raconte par un temoin de sa vie.' It is a
'book without a heart,' says M. Eire; and certainly it might be hard to find a panegyric more pathetic in the circumstances of its origin."
When Madame Hugo died in 1868, Victor Hugo took Juliette into his own house, tho they were never married. "If there were any murmurs of criticism," says
Mr. Gribble, "they were drowned by the chorus of approval, or at least powerless against the general feeling that Victor Hugo was so great and good that
whatever he did must necessarily be right because he did it. No one raked up the past. No one ventured to assert—at all events, in accents loud enough to be
heard — that the author of 'L'art d'etre grand-pere' had selected a queer companion for his grandchildren in the person of a lady with such a record as
Juliette's. It was agreed, on the contrary, to revere him in the double character of a model grandfather and a perfect lover: a Dante equally entitled to
his Beatrice and to his respectable reputation." Mr. Gribble concludes:
"She predeceased him; and all his friends were at her funeral; and she had her necrology in the most prominent columns of the leading papers.
" 'The white-haired woman whom we have lost,' wrote M. Jules Claretie in Le Temps, 'will be inseparably associated in literary annals with the imperishable
memory of Victor Hugo. There is a majestic dignity in the figure which she presents to us.'
"Truly the edifice of the Hugo legend was complete, and the coping-stone had been placed upon it when those lines were written. One might end with them;
but perhaps it is more fitting to end with Victor Hugo's last entry in the 'Livre de l'Anniversaire':—
" 'Yes,' we there read, 'this book contains your life and mine. When I write in it, it seems to me that I am adding sanctity to our hours of love and eternity to our span of time. God sees us, and blesses us—I feel sure of that One would say, in this glorious weather, that the sun wants to be of our party, and that a great festival in heaven above corresponds with our humble festival below. 'I love you'—that is the great word. God said it at the creation, and it is echoed by all created
things. I love you, my angel whom I adore. Let us commence our fiftieth year together with this divine saying: I love you.'
"They are eloquent words, and it is hard to believe that the heart did not speak in them. They would come fittingly as the climax of the most romantic story to be found in the annals of romance. As the climax of such a story as we have analyzed—but let us not insist. For the supreme achievement of Victor Hugo's genius, after all, is this: that he did compel the world to accept him at his own valuation, and to agree, not only that whatever he did was right, but also that whatever he did was romantic. The materials out of which he built his romance were very far from
romantic — they were the materials which we have seen. If any other man had tried to begin a romantic career by taking over a friend's cast-off mistress, one knows what the world would have said; but in Hugo's case the world did not say it. He conquered opinion by the eloquence of his assertions and the magnificence of his gestures, silenced objectors by knitting his Olympian brows, and, waving, as it were, a magician's wand, triumphantly transformed the ridiculous into the sublime."