From The Love Letters of Juliette Drouet and Victor Hugo
The Romance Between Juliette Drouet and Victor Hugo
Chapter 1 – Juliette Gauvain
An irregular outline, sombre colouring, a tangle of towers, steeples, high gables and ramparts, steep passages built in the form of steps: such was the town of Fougères at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The principal features of its surroundings were a turbulent river waging unceasing conflict with numerous mills, uncultivated wastes, more footpaths than lanes, and more lanes than high-roads.
This former hot-bed of chouans was an appropriate birthplace for a heroine of romance—and there, on April 10th, 1806, was born Julienne Joséphine Gauvain, subsequently known as Mademoiselle Juliette, and later still, as Madame Drouet.
Her father was a humble tailor living in a suburb of the town, on the road between Fougères and Autrain; her mother kept the little home. Madame Drouet was somewhat proud of her humble origin; she wrote: “I am of the people,” as others might boast “I am well born”; she wished thereby to explain and excuse her taste for independence, her fiery temper, and her impulsive nature. She might equally have attributed these to the neglect she suffered in early infancy.
For she had no parents to guard or train her. Her mother died on December 15th, 1806, before the infant could lisp her first words. On September 12th in the following year the father dragged himself to the public infirmary at Fougères, and there breathed his last. The infirmary took over the charge of the orphan, and was about to place her with the foundlings—indeed, the necessary formalities had already been complied with—when a protector suddenly came forward, a certain worthy uncle.
His name was René Henri Drouet. He was thirty-two years old, a sub-lieutenant of artillery, had seen active service in eight campaigns under Napoleon, and been wounded in the foot by the blow of an axe. The wound was such that some very quiet employment had to be provided for him. The ex-artilleryman was turned into a coast-guard, and dawdled out a bored existence in the little Breton port where fate confined him henceforth. He claimed Julienne, and she was handed over to his care.
It would be foolish to pretend that this retired warrior was a suitable person to undertake the training of a little girl. He understood only how to spoil and caress her. Never did child enjoy a wilder, more vagabond childhood. Julienne never got to the village school, because on the way thither glimmered a large pond bordered by clumps of bushes. Among the latter she would conceal her shoes and stockings, and, wading into the water, blue as the skies above, gather starry water-lilies. When she came out, more often than not she failed to find the hiding-place, and ran home bare-footed, with hair floating in the wind and a frock torn to ribbons. But she only laughed, and was forgiven because she made such a winsome picture in her tatters and her wreath of flowers.
Those were halcyon days—days filled with innocent joys and elemental sorrows: a fruit-tree robbed of its burden under the indulgent eye of the old coastguard in his green uniform, the death of a tame linnet. All her life Julienne’s memory would dwell pleasurably on those early delights. Nothing could curb her natural wildness, not even the gate of a cloister or the rule of St. Benedict.
Among René Henri Drouet’s female relations he counted a sister and a cousin, nuns in a great Parisian convent, the Bernardines-Bénédictines of Perpetual Adoration. Their house was situated in the Rue du Petit-Picpus. When Julienne was ten years old he easily managed to have her admitted to the school attached to the convent, and thenceforth the orphan’s path in life seemed settled: she should first become a distinguished pupil, then a pious novice, and lastly a holy nun. But, as events turned out, Julienne was only to carry out the first part of the programme.
From the description left us by Madame Drouet and transcribed in full by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, the house in the Petit-Picpus was none too cheerful; its first welcome to the child was more sombre than any drama she was to figure in, later, as an actress. Padlocked gates, dark corridors, bare rooms, a chapel where the priest himself was concealed behind a veil—such was the scene; black phantoms with shrouded features played the parts; the action was composed of interminable prayers and stringent mortifications.
The Bernardines-Bénédictines slept on straw and wore hair shirts, which produced chronic irritation and jerky spasms; they knew not the taste of meat or the warmth of a fire; they took turns in making reparation, and no excuse for shirking was permitted. Reparation consisted in prayers for all the sins and faults of omission and commission, all the crimes of the world. For twelve consecutive hours the petitioner had to kneel upon the stone steps in front of the Blessed Sacrament, with clasped hands and a rope round her neck; when the fatigue became unbearable, she prostrated herself on her face, with her arms outstretched in the form of a cross, and prayed more ardently than before for the sinners of the universe.
Victor Hugo, who gathered these details from the lips of Madame Drouet, declared them sublime, while she who had personally witnessed their painful passion, retained a profound impression for life, coupled with a strong sense of Catholicism, and the gift of prayer.
Outside of these austerities the pupils of the school conformed to nearly all the practices of the convent. Like the nuns, they only saw their parents in the parlour, and were not allowed to embrace them. In the refectory they ate in silence under the eye of the nun on duty, who from time to time, if so much as a fly flew without permission, would snap a wooden book noisily. This sound, and the reading of the Lives of the Saints, were the sole seasoning of the meal. If a rebellious pupil dared to dislike the food and leave it on her plate, she was condemned to kneel and make the sign of the cross on the stone floor with her tongue.
Neither the licked cross nor the meagre fare ever succeeded in damping Julienne’s spirits. She preserved the beautiful spontaneity and love of fun of her early years. She was the spoilt child of the convent where her aunts, Mother des Anges and Mother Ste Mechtilde, appear to have wielded a kindly authority. She soon became its enfant terrible.
Once, when she was about twelve years old, she threw herself into the arms of a nun and cried, “Mother, mother, one of the big girls has just told me I have only got nine years and ten months more to stay here: what luck!” And another time she dropped on the pavement of the cloister a confession written on a sheet of paper so that she might not forget its items: “Father, I accuse myself of being an adulteress. Father, I accuse myself of having stared at gentlemen.”
One might well ask who were the gentlemen concerned, for in the convent of Petit-Picpus there were no male professors; only the most distinguished among the nuns assumed the duty of instructing the young boarders. Judging from the eloquence which will be found later in Madame Drouet’s letters, the Bernardines-Bénédictines must have accomplished their task with great thoroughness. Julienne learned from them, if not orthography and cultivated style, at least sincerity, and the point that, before attempting to write, one should have something to say.
She also studied accomplishments. Mother Ste Mechtilde possessed a beautiful voice. She was consequently appointed mistress of ceremonies and of the choir, and used to train her niece and other pupils. Her habit was to take seven children and make them sing standing in a row according to their ages, so that they looked like a set of girlish organ-pipes. History does not relate whether Julienne sang better than the others, but a little later she began to nurse in secret the idea of utilising her gifts as a virtuoso. At Petit-Picpus she also learned to sketch and paint in water-colours. She owed this instruction to the favour of the pious nuns, who, as a special breach of their rule, authorised her to take lessons from a young master, Redouté.
It may not be too bold to declare that Julienne imbibed at the convent those qualities of tact and restraint, and that air of distinction she exhibited later in the drawing-rooms of Victor Hugo. To the Convent of the Bernardines was attached a sort of house of retreat where aged ladies of rank could end their days, as also nuns of the various orders whose cloisters had been destroyed during the Revolution. Some of these preserved within their hearts a generous instinct of maternity, which Julienne easily managed to waken. She fell into the habit of running across to break the rule of everlasting silence in that fairly cheerful environment, and, in defiance of the prohibition against intimacy, she turned the old ladies into personal friends. She listened attentively, and remembered much, and forty years later she could describe correctly the names, appearance, and habits of that picturesque group, somewhat archaic, but invariably courteous and witty.
Perhaps because of this slight lifting of the veil, Julienne began already, at the age of sixteen, to fix her eager gaze beyond the cloister and the gate. Perhaps also some instinct of dignity and self-respect urged her to learn something of the world before entering the novitiate to pronounce her vows. However this may be, it seems certain that, on the solemn occasion of her presentation to the Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Quelen, as a postulant, she managed to convey that her vocation was of the frailest, and her desire for the world, deeply rooted. The prelate understood, and signified to the nuns that this particular lamb desired to wander. That very evening Julienne left the convent.
Here follows a somewhat obscure interlude in the girl’s life.
We meet her next among the pupils of the sculptor Pradier, in 1825. James Pradier: to those of our generation this name recalls merely a number of groups and statues: statues more graceful than chaste, groups more elegant than virile; the work of a master who aimed at rivalling Praxiteles, but only succeeded in treading in the footsteps of Clodion.
Pradier, however, only needs a careful biographer to acquire another kind of celebrity: that of an artist, grand viveur, magnificent and vain, careless and weak, born too late to lead without scandal the frivolous life he loved, too early to acquire by industry the fortune needed for the indulgence of his tastes.
Twice a week his studio was transformed into a drawing-room, and his receptions were attended by a most varied company: painters and poets, models, actresses, dames of high degree, politicians and men of the sword—all society, in short, liked to be seen in the Rue de l’Abbaye.
Clad in high boots, cut low in front, in violet velvet trousers and a coat of the same material decorated with Polish brandebergs, flanked by a Scotch greyhound almost as big as himself, the master of the house received his visitors, listened to them, talked with them, without interrupting his work; he created fresh marvels with the chisel while the conversation flowed unrestrained, and thus his labours became simultaneously a gossip and a spectacle.
In the novel excitement of surroundings so brilliant, so varied, and of morals so easy, Julienne committed the imprudence which was to settle the fate of her whole life. Thanks to her independent spirit, and still more to her beauty, she very soon established her position in Pradier’s house. She came there often, remained long, and consented to pose for him.
And when, one day, the sculptor desired for himself this flower, so superior in delicacy and aroma to those usually found in the studios, he had but to bend down and pluck it.
He made Julienne his mistress in 1825. In 1826 she gave him a little daughter whom we shall meet again later. But now arose difficulties of a practical nature. James Pradier, ex-Prix de Rome, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, Membre de l’Institut, Professeur de l’École des Beaux-Arts, could not with propriety, according to his ideas, marry a model. He does not dream of it for an instant, but, as he wishes to do the girl some kindness, however unsuitable, he manages to insinuate her into the theatrical world, and to put her on the boards. Having friends in Brussels, he decrees that she shall go thither to study and make her first appearance; and, as she needs guidance, advice, and protection, he writes her almost every day long letters, in which platitudes alternate with vulgarity. The correspondence continues, wordy and trivial, interminable and foolish, a repulsive mixture of boasting and preaching. Does Julienne show distaste for vaudeville? Pradier proclaims that form of acting to be the most charming in the world, and places it far above tragedy, which he pronounces tiresome and chilling. If Julienne complains that she has but one dress, Pradier tells her that only the leading lights of the stage possess more. If she ventures a timid request for money, he answers that he has none himself, and offers her a book of fairy-tales illustrated under his supervision.
She had to keep herself alive somehow, and when the poor thing had pledged everything she possessed at the pawnbroker’s, she wrote plaintively: “This is the only money my talents have earned for me so far.” She might perhaps have been reduced to some desperate measure, had not chance placed her in the path of Félix Harel.
Although an incorrigible Bonapartist, and consequently a conspirator by trade, Harel seems to have been above all a man of the theatre: in the midst of his political preoccupations, one can always discern his predilection for things pertaining to the stage. He also had a very definite conviction that politics and the drama, statesmen and ballet-dancers, have always been closely linked together. So, whether he was for the moment pamphleteer, financier, or prefect, whether he was holding an appointment, or in full flight, he always had a finger in some theatrical pie, either as a director, a manager, or a private adviser.
At the time he first met Julienne, he was filling the latter capacity at the Théâtre Royal, in Brussels. He presented the young woman. Without further training than that which Pradier had directed from afar, we know that she made her first appearance in Brussels, at the beginning of the year 1829—to be exact, on February 17th.
On that day she informs Pradier that her début has been successful, and that the Brussels press is favourable. He at once thanks Providence and decides that she can henceforth support herself by her talent. He writes: “Is not this a great pleasure to you? Does it not lift a weight from your heart, you who have such a noble soul? How sweet is the bread one has earned so honourably! For my part, I feel that all your faults are condoned by the trouble you are taking. Your perseverance will be rewarded, never doubt it. Go on working! Time can never hang heavy when one is labouring honestly; study carries more flowers than thorns.”
Having spoken thus, the artist returned to his business and his pleasures, not without having exhorted Julienne to remain in Brussels as long as possible. He was not ignorant of the passionate desire of the young woman to see her babe once more, but he feared that, if she should not find an engagement in Paris like the one she enjoyed in Brussels, she would again be, morally at least, on his hands. Therefore, redoubling his cautious advice and his counsels of prudence, he implored her not to relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty.
However, nothing deterred her. Julienne, as she used to say afterwards, would rather have trudged the distance that separated her from her child on foot, than have waited any longer. The events of 1829 spared her the trouble. Owing to certain evidences of internal discontent, the government of Charles X was developing liberal proclivities. Among other political exiles, it allowed Félix Harel to return, and with him his illustrious mistress, Mlle. Georges.
Julienne shared their lot. She accompanied them, not only to Paris, but to the Theatre of the Porte St. Martin, which, under Harel’s influence, rapidly became the stronghold of romanticism, and on February 27th, 1830, she made her début on its boards in the part of Emma, in L’Homme du Monde, by Ancelot and Saintine. Then she migrated almost at once to the Odéon, of which Harel had just undertaken the management, without, however, resigning that of the Porte St. Martin. She played various parts there throughout the year 1831.
We shall hear later on that she was beautiful, but for the present we must confine ourselves to the question of her talent and dramatic qualities. It has been hinted that she owed her success solely to her lovely face and graceful figure, and that she was one of those ephemeral favourites who reap popular applause in return for the exhibition of their charms. The truth seems to be that “la belle Juliette,” as she was already called, gave proofs of distinguished powers, although one is fain to admit that, at this distance of time, it is not easy to define her capacity with any exactitude. For one thing, it was never Juliette’s good fortune to play an important part which has since become a classic, and by which her true qualities could be gauged: in Harel’s troupe the first-class parts were already justly monopolised by Mlle. Georges and Madame Dorval. Also, nearly all the plays in which Juliette appeared are nowadays looked upon as antiquated and sometimes even absurd. In fact, it is difficult to conceive how they ever could have been given. It will be wiser, therefore, to rely mainly on Pradier’s letters to discover what were the natural gifts which could have inspired that artist to make of his mistress an actress, and even a tragedian.
Pradier, then, considered Juliette well equipped by nature in respect of sentiment, intelligence, and voice production; but he criticised in her a certain timidity and lack of assurance, sufficient to mar her entrances and cover her exits with ridicule. He also thought fit to observe to her that, once she was on the scene, and had overcome her initial fright, she overacted her parts, and was not sufficiently natural; she forgot to address herself to the audience, and would speak into the wings, and neglect to vary her gestures, intonations, and pauses.
To sum up, fire, intelligence, and an adequate vocal organ, but shyness, awkwardness, monotonous delivery, and hesitation in gesture and gait: such seem to have been the dramatic qualities and shortcomings of “la belle Juliette.” The testimony of Pradier has been confirmed by that of L’Artiste.
If there is any need to say more, we can judge by an analysis of her engagements with Harel. On February 7th, 1832, Harel signs a contract with her for thirteen months, to begin from the March 1st following. He brings her back from the Odéon to the Porte St. Martin, and promises her the modest salary of four thousand francs per annum, payable monthly. But he does not treat her as a “general utility” actress—on the contrary, he insists that she keep principally to the part of jeune première in comedy, tragedy, and drama; that she learn daily at least forty lines or verses of the parts which shall be allotted to her; that she furnish at her own expense all the dresses necessary for her parts; that she be present at all rehearsals called by the administration of the theatre. On January 13th, 1833, the two agree that the engagement shall be prolonged on the same conditions until April 1st, 1834. Between whiles, Juliette continued to create parts.
It must be confessed that she led the customary life of a theatrical star. From the Boulevard St. Denis, where she lived, to the Boulevard du Temple, which was then the hub of the social world and the centre of amusement, the distance was negligible. She was therefore present at every scene of this ceaseless round of entertainment. Her wardrobe enjoyed a certain renown. Her journeys, one of which was to Italy towards the end of 1832, helped to keep her before the public. Beautiful as a goddess, merrier than ever, her bearing unconcerned, her arm lightly placed within that of the chance companion of the moment, her eyes flashing fire, though her heart might be full to bursting, she sailed towards Cytheræa without apparent regret, without thought of return. It was at this moment that Victor Hugo succeeded in bringing her back into port, and keeping her there for ever, the slave of one master, the woman of one love.
The Romance Between Juliette Drouet and Victor Hugo
Chapter Two – Princess Négroni
Two portraits of Victor Hugo are extant: one by Devéria executed in 1829, the other by Léon Noël in 1832. What a change is visible in the short space of three years! The “monumental” brow which reminded Théophile Gautier of the “fronton de temple Grec” is the same; but, whereas in 1829 it was instinct with lofty thought and pleasant fancies, in 1832 worry and suspicion have already scored it deeply with lines of care. In 1829 Devéria recognised and rendered the characteristic expression of the poet: that bright, upward glance which ten years before had caused the author of the Odes to be compared to a stained-glass archangel. In 1832 Léon Noël saw a fixed, overshadowed gaze, whose severity is further accentuated by knitted brows. In 1829 fleshy, sinuous lips always half ready for a smile or a kiss, indicate both sensuality and humour. In 1832 they are tightly compressed, their outline exaggeratedly firm; they give the impression of having forgotten joy and learnt to express only will. Even in the quality of the flesh-tints the artists disagree. According to Devéria the pallor natural to the poet bears the impress of health and placidity, whereas Léon Noël’s rendering reveals sickliness and a sense of doom.
What, then, had happened between the dates of the two portraits? Had the whole character of the poet changed? Had he lost some precious article of faith or conviction, or was it that the mainspring of his enthusiasm had failed him? Nay—his soul still cherished the same treasures of idealism. The former penitent of the Abbé Lammenais still preserved at thirty his ardent, perhaps even narrow Catholicism, his cult of purity, his contempt for physical indulgence, his delight in the joys and duties of family life. Eager for self-sacrifice, rich in the hopes and illusions he confided to his few intimate friends, he dreamed of sharing everything with the people, towards whom the trend of events inclined him to turn; just as he had once written Les Lettres à la fiancée for a single reader, so he had now published for the crowd Les Feuilles d’Automne, the curious preface to that collection, and in the collection itself the sublime Prière pour tous. His was a soul profoundly religious, and a lofty mind which aspired to raise itself ever higher.
But he did not live by thought alone. Many of those who watched him working without intermission, with a method and a will that defied human weakness, who saw how numerous were his lectures, how varied his researches, and who witnessed the incessant travail of his imagination, thought that the author of Hernani and Dona Sol must be lacking in human sensibility. He protests against this. In a letter to Sainte-Beuve he says:
“I live only by my emotions; to love, or to crave for love and friendship, is the fundamental aim—happy or unhappy, public or private—of my life.”
He might equally have added: “That is why for the last two years my brow is no longer placid, why my eyes seek the ground, why my lips are so bitterly compressed.”
The secret of the change in Victor Hugo’s physiognomy lies in the treachery of his wife and his best friend. Love and friendship failed him together. His moral distress was immense, his pain unfathomable. They inspired him with plaints so touching that, after hearing them, one asks oneself whether it can ever be possible for him to forget or recover. One despairs of the healing of the man who writes:
“I have acquired the conviction that it is possible for the one who possesses all my love to cease to care for me. I am no longer happy.”
Calmness did return to him, however. It was thus: For the last ten years, that is, practically ever since her marriage, Madame Victor Hugo had behaved in such a manner that when the day of the betrayal dawned, in which she was the accomplice of his friend, the poet was able to consider her with contempt. Although fairly gifted in appearance, she possessed neither taste nor cleverness in the matter of dress; she had always shown herself to him in careless attire and unfashionable gowns. Absent-minded and limited in intelligence, she remained uncultured and oblivious of the genius of her husband, and of achievements of which she appreciated only the financial value. In addition, she had declined to share the noble ideal originally proposed to her by her twenty-year-old bridegroom: love considered as
“the ardent and pure union of two souls, a union begun on earth to end not even in heaven.”
The poet was thus authorised, and even forced, to seek happiness in the arms of some other woman. If Victor Hugo had wished to avoid that “other woman “ he would have had to remain for ever concealed in his tower of ivory—which certainly did not happen.
He emerged from it in the spring of 1832, on May 26th, and appeared at an artists’ ball. There he saw Juliette for the first time; but she was so beautiful and so captivating that he was afraid of her, and dared not address her. Five years later he recorded this impression of admiring timidity in the book in which they had agreed to celebrate all their anniversaries, namely the Voix Intérieures.
For more than six months the poet lacked the courage to seek his vision again, but in the early days of 1833 he found Juliette among the actresses Harel suggested to him at the Porte St. Martin for his play, Lucrèce Borgia. He accepted her at once and gave her a small part, that of Princesse Négroni. Then the rehearsals began. Juliette admits in one of her letters that she showed herself very coquettish and mischievous.
According to her, the poet made up his mind the first day and the first hour. But matters did not really proceed so easily. Victor Hugo, who, as stated above, cherished the highest and purest moral ideal, must have carried his principles with him into the wings and on the stage. He was not partial to actresses; he was suspicious of them, and made no secret of the feeling. One must picture him rather as on the defensive than bold and adventurous.
His attire and appearance were not calculated to ensure his social success. We hear from Juliette herself that he wore his hair en broussaille, and that his smile revealed “crocodile’s teeth.” Allowing himself to be dressed by his tailor in the fashions of four or five years earlier, his trousers were firmly braced above the waist, tightly drawn over his boots, and fastened under the instep by a steel chain. To sum up, as a dandy who writes these details concludes, he was a worthy citizen desirous of being in the fashion, but unable to compass it.
Fortunately the said citizen could speak, and his words of gold were sufficient to gloss over any personal disadvantages. To men he discoursed of his hopes and plans, and even his forecasts for the future; to women of their beauty and the supremacy of such a gift. Men found his arrogance intolerable, and complained that they must always either listen, or talk to him of himself. But women liked him for abasing his pride before them; they appreciated his good manners, his urbanity, and the incomparable art with which he cast his laurels at their feet. The god took on humanity for them; they were careful to pose as goddesses before him. Juliette possessed everything needful to accomplish this end.
She was about to enter her twenty-sixth year; very shortly afterwards, Théophile Gautier wrote this fulsome description of her, to please the master:
“Mademoiselle Juliette’s countenance is of a regular and delicate beauty; the nose chiselled and of handsome outline, the eyes limpid and diamond-bright, the mouth moistly crimson, and tiny even in her gayest fits of laughter. These features, charming in themselves, are set in an oval of the suavest and most harmonious form. A clear, serene forehead like the marble of a Greek temple crowns this delicious face; abundant black hair, with wonderful reflections in it, brings out the diaphanous and lustrous purity of her complexion. Her neck, shoulders, and arms, are of classic perfection; she would be a worthy inspiration to sculptors, and is well equipped to enter into competition with those beautiful young Athenians who lowered their veils before the gaze of Praxiteles conceiving his Venus.”
These elegant phrases probably represent very imperfectly the impression produced by Juliette. We have had the privilege of perusing some of the proposals addressed to her, and we have read the cruel novel Alphonse Karr prided himself on having written about her. Everything conspires to show that she shone and dazzled especially by her all-conquering air of youth and ingenuousness. When she passed, spring was over. Her age, condition, manner of life, had made of her a woman, while her smile and movements kept her still a girl. Her gait was, in fact, so fairy-like that her admirers all make use, certainly without collusion, of the adjective, “aérien.” Her face presented a perfect image of calmness and purity. Did she raise her eyes, a soft, velvety, sometimes mournful gaze was revealed—did she lower them, it was still the dawn, but a dawn concealing itself behind a veil.
All beautiful countenances have a soul; upon Juliette’s could be read less contentment than unsatisfied ardour, more melancholy than serenity. Neither luxury, nor pleasure, nor flattery, was able to satisfy the dearest desire of her heart from the age of sixteen, which was to become the passionate companion of an honest man. She lent herself to her lovers, but her eyes made it plain that she still sought the perfect one to whom she would some day capitulate. According to herself—and we have no reason to doubt her—she selected Victor Hugo as soon as she made his acquaintance. She expended herself in advances and coquetries, and infused into the study and expression of her small part all the art of which she was capable. In the third act of the play, when Maffio said to her: “L’amitié ne remplit pas tout le cœur,” (“Friendship does not fill all the heart”) she had to query: “Mon Dieu, qu’est-ce qui remplit tout le cœur?” (“My God, what does fill all the heart?”)
It seems that at rehearsals she did not wait for Maffio’s answer, but turned subtly towards the poet and sought him with her eyes. He, however, still hung back; a tradition attributed to Frédérick Lemaître, which we have carefully verified, informs us that he surprised even the actors of the Porte St. Martin by the respectful tone he maintained towards his beautiful interpreter. Far from addressing her in the familiar manner customary in theatrical circles, he called her Mademoiselle Juliette, kissed her hand, and bowed low before her. Frédérick could not believe his eyes.
At last the evening of the first performance arrived; the success of the piece was immediate. Juliette had her share of it. She was so beautiful as the poisoner that, as Théophile Gautier says, the public forgot to pity her unhappy guests and thought them fortunate to die after kissing her hand. After the third act she received congratulations even from Mademoiselle Georges, who folded her in her arms and covered her with kisses. As for the author, we do not know what he did in the first blush, but the next morning he wrote thus:
“In Lucrèce Borgia, certain personages of secondary importance are represented at the Porte St. Martin by actors of the first order, who perform with grace, loyalty, and perfect taste, in the semi-obscurity of their parts. The author here thanks them. Among these, the public particularly distinguished Mademoiselle Juliette. It can hardly be said that Princesse Négroni is a part: it is in some sense an apparition; a figure, beautiful, young, fatal, which floats by, raising one corner of the sombre veil that covers Italy at the commencement of the sixteenth century. Mademoiselle Juliette threw into this figure an extraordinary virility. She had few words to say, but she filled them with meaning. This actress only requires opportunity, to reveal forcibly to the public a talent full of soulfulness, passion, and truth.”
Nothing could be better said or more openly declared, and the interpreter of the part was thus informed of the intentions of the author. He adopts her, makes her his own, is ready to share his own glory with the youthful renown of Négroni. For her he will conceive marvellous parts; she will create them.
Juliette understood him perfectly. With the ardour of a twenty-five-year-old imagination excited by love, she began to dream of her poet, of their two lives henceforward united in a common success. While Victor still wavered, still hesitated whether to seek this actress of whom thousands of alarming anecdotes were current, she made foolish projects, settled trivial details, savoured one by one those joys of the dawn of love which so many women prefer to the delights of possession.
He came at last on February 27th, Shrove Sunday, towards the end of the afternoon. The weather had been beautiful, one of those soft spring days that enhance the beauty of Parisian women and make the men pensive. The streets were littered with booths, noisy with fireworks, discordant with raucous voices. The Boulevard du Temple exploited a fair where, on that particular day, masks and songs added variety and movement.
Victor Hugo, who lived in the Place Royale and never drove in a cab, had to cross this scene on foot. His thoughts were still confused; he, who was ordinarily so determined in his plans, still debated whether he should mount the actress’s stairs. After all, this child seemed fond of him—but whom was she not fond of? Who was there that did not figure on the list of her lovers? Yesterday, Alphonse Karr, loutish, a babbler, a writer of romances, fairly honest, but so ponderous in his pretentious and everlasting coat of black velvet! To-day a Russian Prince who was said to have offered Juliette a marvellous trousseau, copied from the wedding outfit of Madame la Duchesse d’Orléans. He was also credited with the intention of installing her in a sumptuous apartment in the Rue de l’Échiquier…. What should a poet, a great poet conscious of his mission, want with such a girl?
Then a voice sang in the memory of Victor Hugo, a voice almost supernatural, like those with which he used to endow the good fairies in the days when he covered the margins of his lesson-books with fancies. “Mon Dieu,” it wailed, “qu’est-ce qui remplit tout le cœur?” And at last the poet walked up to place the answer at the feet of his new friend.
Like all great hearts, Victor and Juliette fell head over ears in love, and thought of nothing else. The poet was no longer to be found in the Place Royale, or, if he was, he remained abstracted, a stranger at his own hearth. He, usually so precise, so punctual and methodical, now neglects his guests and is late for meals. When evening comes and his drawing-room is filled with voices, song, and discussion, and with women who smile upon him and men who render him homage, he forgets everything, even to be polite. His eye is on the clock, he longs for the blessed hour of the rendezvous at 9, Rue St. Denis. Sometimes he snatches up a stray sheet of paper and scribbles feverishly. Verse or prose? More often it is verse, for it will be offered to Juliette, and nothing flatters her so much as these poetical surprises created in the midst of the din and diversions of a social circle.
Neither did she give herself in mean fashion. From the very beginning she said to him:
“I am good for nothing but to love you!”
She threw herself thoroughly, magnificently, into the part.
Thus quoth she—and wrote likewise, for she, also, wrote from everywhere: from her room, from a friend’s house, from her box at the theatre, from a chance café. For her tender “scribbles,” as she calls them, any scrap of paper will serve, even an envelope or the margin of a newspaper; and for instrument a pencil, a blackened pin, even a steel pen, that novel invention of which every one is talking, but which she hardly knows how to use.
Of the form of her letters she takes little heed. No lexicon is needed to say that one loves. A woman in the throes of passion does not worry about grammar. Juliette is of that opinion, and that is why her early letters are so full of charm. They exhale the perfume of love, and also its timidity.
Her letters were not merely a means of giving vent to her feelings: they seemed to her the only occupation fit for a sweetheart worthy of the name, when the lover is absent or delayed. On February 18th, 1833, Victor Hugo had left her early in the morning. She had rushed to the window to follow him with her eyes as long as he was in sight. At the corner of the Rue St. Denis, as he was about to turn into the Rue St. Martin, he looked back; they exchanged a volley of kisses. Then she found herself lonely indeed, oblivious of her surroundings, like a somnambulist who walks and speaks and acts in a dream. Around her was an immense void, in her heart one sole desire: to see the poet again, and never to part from him. It was to fill that void and beguile that desire that she took up the habit of writing to him.
He, on his part, repaid letters and messages as much as possible with his own presence. Any time he could snatch from his children and work and visits to publishers or theatre-managers, he gave to Juliette. As Lucrèce Borgia continued to reap a signal success—the greatest, from the financial point of view, that the Porte St. Martin had ever experienced—Harel asked the author for a new play. Victor Hugo wrote Marie Tudor in very few days, and the principal parts had just been allotted: to Mademoiselle Georges the Queen, to Juliette, Jane. Under pretext of rehearsing, we find our lovers lunching together almost every day. If there was really a rehearsal, they met again afterwards on the stage, and tasted the rare pleasure of sharing their work, as they shared their pleasure. When they did not rehearse, they hurried out of town. Furtively yet boldly, timidly but merrily, they started on one of those strolls, partly Parisian, and partly suburban, which, according to Juliette, were the chief enchantment of their liaison.
Paris was not then the dusty conglomeration of eight-story-high houses it now is. Instead of spreading over the surrounding country, it allowed the country to encroach upon itself. At the foot of Montmartre (which Juliette always calls a mountain), real windmills waved their long arms; along the Butte aux Cailles a genuine brook purled among the lilacs and syringa; on the summit of Montparnasse, when there was dancing, artists and poets, dandies and grisettes, trod actual grass, to the sound of fiddles! Juliette had always in her a strain of bohemianism. We may therefore picture her in short, striped, pleated skirt, tight at the waist but flowing out wide at the bottom over white stockings, a little silken cape covering her queenly young bosom, without concealing its fine lines, her head surmounted by a rose-trimmed bonnet with black ribbons, clasping the arm of her “friend” with sparkling eyes and cheeks as rosy as her headdress. Happiness, as she used to say in after-days, is so light to carry, that her feet hardly touched the ground. Her pride in her companion was such that her glance defied Heaven.
“When I hold your arm,” she wrote to him, “I am as proud as if I had made you myself.”
She did remake him, to a certain extent, for it was she who insisted upon his becoming younger and smarter in appearance. He now trained his chestnut locks over his Olympian brow, in careful but unromantic fashion; his black eyes, with their blue depths, resumed their upward glance, when they were not plunged in those of his mistress; his complexion, which had been so pale, now gained colour, and soon, when Auguste de Châtillon paints the poet’s miniature for Juliette’s pleasure, he will be able to endow him with lips less eloquent than caressing, without straying from the truth.
“The dear little fashionable,” as his companion called him, compressed his sturdy figure into a really handsome blue coat opening over a shot waistcoat. His immaculate linen, and the scarlet ribbon of the order Charles X had bestowed upon him in his youth, stood out in pleasant contrast to the sombre hue of his coat. His tiny feet, and hands as delicate as Juliette’s own, completed this somewhat incongruous exterior.
And the two made expeditions together, wherever they knew of, or hoped to find, moss and trees, and an attractive shelter. They went to Montmartre and Montrouge, to Maison Blanche and St. James, to Bicêtre and Meudon, Fontainebleau, Gisors, St. Germain-en-Laye, and Versailles. Sometimes the poet pondered his work as he walked. Silence was then the order of the day; so Juliette was silent. But more often they talked, made plans for the future, babbled merry nonsense, and exchanged kisses. Or else they discussed their past: Victor told of his studious childhood spent poring over books, of his early works, laborious and chaste. Juliette recalled her bare-footed school-girl pranks. Both gloried in the radiant memories of their youth.
But in the midst of those halcyon days of simple pleasures, Fate began to show herself unkind. First came the failure of Marie Tudor, then Juliette’s disappointment at the Comédie Française, and, in addition, the persecution of her creditors and the consequent quarrels with Victor Hugo, with their subsequent scenes of tender reconciliation.
The poor girl was, in fact, overwhelmed with debt. When Victor Hugo, desirous of setting her free for ever, asked her to draw up a detailed statement of her affairs, she nearly broke down under the task, for there were not only ordinary bills, such as 12,000 fr. to Janisset the jeweller, 1,000 fr. to Poivin the glove-maker, 600 fr. to the laundress, 260 fr. to Georges the hair-dresser, 400 fr. to Villain the purveyor of rouge, 620 fr. to Madame Ladon, dressmaker, 2,500 fr. to Mesdames Lebreton and Gérard for dress materials, 1,700 fr. to Jourdain the upholsterer—but also fictitious and usurious debts intended to disguise money loans, and all the more numerous because they were for the most part invented under the direction of an attorney who answered to the name of Manière. She took good care not to reveal to Victor Hugo, whose own burdens, and practical, economical mind, she was well acquainted with, the amount of her expenditure and the magnitude of her liabilities. The moment came, however, when the creditors realised that they had to deal with a pretty woman inefficiently vouched for by a poet. They lost patience and threatened her, and it was then that Juliette had recourse to money-lenders. The remedy was worse than the evil. Stamped paper soon flooded her rooms. Her furniture was seized, and also her salaries from the Théâtre Français and the Porte St. Martin. She tried to save a few clothes, and was had up for illegally making away with the creditors’ property. Her landlord threatened her with expulsion; she imagined herself homeless, and lost her head.
Instead of confiding in Victor Hugo, her natural protector, she had recourse to former friends. There were many such, from Pradier, the sculptor, to Séchan, the scene-painter of the Opera and other theatres. Pradier replied with advice; he was not without just pretext for refusal, for, since her intrigue with Victor Hugo, Juliette no longer wrote to the father of her child except “par accident et monosyllabes” or else in a school-girl’s handwriting, calculated to cover the pages in very few words. Séchan and a few others were less stingy; they sent small but quite insufficient contributions. She was therefore forced to take the big step of revealing the whole truth to the beloved.
The scene was stormy, although Victor Hugo did not hesitate for a moment before complying with an obligation that was also a satisfaction, since it secured his possession of Juliette. Fussy and meticulous though he was in the small circumstances of life, he knew how to be generous and even lavish in the great—but Juliette’s petty deceptions had infused doubts in his mind; moreover, he was in love and therefore jealous. Towards the end of 1833 and in the early part of 1834, suspicion, anger, unjust recriminations and noisy quarrels became almost daily affairs. As invariably happens in these cases, friends, male and female, interfered. Juliette was slandered by Mademoiselle Ida Ferrier, her understudy in the rôle of Jane at the Porte St. Martin—who would, if rumour may be trusted, have gladly understudied her also in the heart of Victor Hugo—also by Mademoiselle Georges, who was getting on in years and could not forgive the lovers for not acknowledging her sovereignty in the green-room and drawing-room as they admitted it upon the stage. To aspersions and reproaches Juliette opposed, not only indignation, but angry words, violent retorts, and sometimes even insulting epithets; or else she protested in innumerable letters and notes, rendered eloquent by their sincerity. She complained that she was “attacked without the means of defence, soiled without opportunity of cleansing herself, wounded without chance of healing”; she affirmed her intention of putting an end to the situation by suicide or final rupture. Generally Victor Hugo arrived in time to calm her frenzy with a caress or a soothing word, and then Juliette would try to resign herself and let hope spring uppermost once more. But Victor Hugo, under the influence of some new tittle-tattle, resumed his grand-inquisitorial manner, and the tone, words, reproaches and even threats appertaining to the part. The creditors continued to harry her without intermission; so in the end the couple passed from words to actions.
As we have stated above, Juliette’s furniture had been seized, and she was about to be turned out of her apartment in the Rue de l’Échiquier. She had endeavoured vainly to interest her friends, past and present, in her difficulties. Even Victor Hugo, disheartened probably by the difficulties of the task, had returned a refusal. The lovers therefore exchanged farewells which they thought final, and on August 3rd Juliette started for St. Renan, near Brest, where her sister, Madame Kock, was living.
Happily she travelled by the Rennes diligence, and there were many halts on the way. From the very first of these she sent an adoring letter to the poet. She wrote again from Rennes, from Brest once more, and lastly from St. Renan. Victor Hugo responded with expressions of poignant regret and remorse, according to those who have read them. He promised to do his very best to find the few necessary banknotes to satisfy the biggest creditors. In the end, he set out for Rennes himself, and rejoined his friend. The lovers returned to Paris on August 10th.
Now commences the most singular period of the life of Juliette, one which has been aptly entitled an “amorous redemption after the romantic manner.” For nearly two years Victor Hugo, taking his mistress as the subject of his experiment, put into practice the theories, in part religious, and in part philosophical, which he professed concerning courtesans, namely: the expiation of faults by faithful, passionate, disinterested love; love itself being considered as a species of sesame, capable of opening wide the doors of science, and throwing light upon all hidden things.
The first condition of redemption was poverty, voluntarily, almost joyously, accepted. The furniture of the Rue de l’Échiquier must be sold and the beautiful rooms given up. A tiny apartment consisting of two rooms and a kitchen was taken for Juliette at No. 4, Rue du Paradis au Marais, at a yearly rental of 400 fr. There she shivered through the winter, and spent part of her days in bed to economise her fuel; but at least she proved that she loved truly and was deserving of love.
No more dresses or jewels … every evening Victor Hugo repeated to his mistress that dress adds nothing to the charms of a lovely woman, that it is waste of time to try to add to nature where nature herself is beautiful; and proudly, as if indeed she were clothed in the hair-shirt of her former mistresses at the convent, Juliette wrote: “My poverty, my clumsy shoes, my faded curtains, my metal spoons, the absence of all ornament and pleasure apart from our love, testify at every hour and every minute, that I love you with all my heart.”
But there can be no true reformation or conversion without work. So Juliette must work; she must study her parts, make her clothes and even some of Victor Hugo’s, patch others, keep her little house in order, and spend what leisure she can snatch, in copying the works of the master, cutting out extracts from the newspapers, classifying and collecting his manuscripts and proofs.
When he had completed this splendid programme, of which almost every part, as we shall presently see, was carried out to the letter, the poet experienced an overpowering need to find himself alone somewhere with the woman he had finally subjugated. His mind was still quite Virgilian. He had not yet arrived at confusing duty with politics and happiness with popularity. His greatest enjoyment, next to love, was in rural pursuits, and for the indulgence of these he flattered himself he had discovered in Juliette a companion worthy of himself. The lovers had barely settled in the Rue du Paradis au Marais before they went off to the valley of Bièvres. Half mystics, half pagans, worshipping equally at the shrines of the forest divinities and those of the village churches, they entered upon the consummation of what they themselves called their “marriage of escaped birds.”
The Romance Between Juliette Drouet and Victor Hugo
Chapter Three – ‘La Tristesse d”Olympio’
In the neighbourhood of Paris, about four miles from Versailles, nestles a valley which the modern devotees of romance should deem worthy of a visit. Not because it boasts of any special features, such as mighty torrents thundering from giddy heights into abysmal precipices below—on the contrary, its character is harmonious and serene, more like a French park decked with flowers by nature, and watered by chance—but because in these classic surroundings, about the year 1830, circumstances led the great men of the new school to seek temporary repose for their fretted souls. To us, these peaceful meadows, flanked by pensive willows weeping on the borders of the silent Bièvres, must evermore be peopled by those troubled shades: by Lammenais, the priestly keeper of consciences, Montalembert, the angelic doctor, Sainte-Beuve, the purveyor of ideas, Berlioz, the musician, and, lastly, by the poet, Victor Hugo, who followed meekly in the rear, while awaiting the glory of conducting the procession.
They used to arrive in the summer, some for a couple of days, others for weeks together, to stay with Monsieur Bertin, editor of the Journal des Débâts and owner of Les Roches, a property situated midway between the villages of Bièvres and Jouy-en-Josas. Genial and lively, as Ingres represents him in his celebrated portrait, Monsieur Bertin loved to divine, promote, and, where needful, encourage their vocations and plans. His housekeeping was on a modest scale, but his hospitality delightful—a mixture of go-as-you-please and kindly despotism; perfect freedom outwardly, but, in reality, careful ministrations skilfully disguised.
Louise Bertin, the eldest daughter of the old man, and one of the muses of the period, willingly divided her time between the kitchen and the drawing-room, cookery-books and poems. As an ardent musician, tolerably familiar with the best literature, her mind was full of quaintness, while her heart was instinct with kindliness. When, perchance, she had surfeited her guests with sonatas and song, she would be seized with fear lest she should be interfering with their habits or inclinations, and would hastily substitute anarchy, by commanding each one to choose his own occupation, and pursue his meditation, walk, or game unhindered.
Of them all, Victor Hugo seems to have been the girl’s favourite, and the one who made the largest use of this generous welcome and charming liberty. As soon as the periwinkles blossomed, he settled his wife and children at Les Roches, while he himself came and went between Paris and Bièvres. Gradually he grew to associate the valley with his joys and sorrows; it became one of those familiar haunts to which one instinctively turns, with the comforting assurance of finding there the outward conditions suitable to one’s moods. As a young father, he made it the fitting frame for family joys; when his love was flung back in his face and his friendship betrayed, he returned to seek, if not consolation, at least faith and hope for the future. A year later, again under the shelter of Les Roches, he thought he had found solace. The valley meant something more than an invitation to dawdle: it filled him with sensuous suggestion; he longed to place his ideal of an unquenchable love at the feet of a woman, and to pronounce the word “Forever.”
With the connivance of Madame Victor Hugo, who shut her eyes, and that of Mademoiselle Louise Bertin, who smiled her toleration, this happiness came to him at length; not indeed in the first year of his passion for Juliette, but in the early part of the second. He brought his mistress to Bièvres and to Jouy on July 4th, 1834, a little before the tragic crisis that so nearly separated the lovers, as we have related in the foregoing chapter.
Juliette immediately fell in love with the scenes the poet had so often and so eloquently described to her. Of their joint visit to the Écu de France, the little inn at Jouy-en-Josas, she drew up, in fun, one of those mock official reports in which she excelled. They decided to return and lunch, no matter where, or how, provided it was neither too near nor too far from Les Roches. Then they set out in quest of rooms, which they eventually found in the hamlet of Metz, on the summit of the hill above Jouy on the northern side. They returned to Paris after paying over to the proprietor, Sieur Labussière, the sum of 92 frs. for a year’s rent. Thither they came in September for a sojourn of six weeks, after the troubled interval described above.
The little house does not seem to have been altered at all. It was originally built for the game-keeper of the neighbouring château, which belonged to Cambacérès. It still spreads its white frontage, pierced with green-shuttered windows, against the background of woods. It consists only of a ground-floor and an attic; a rambling vine covers its walls; around it are scattered a barn, some outhouses, and an orchard, whose steep sides slope downwards to a gate opening on to the Jouy road.
With the assistance of the landlady, Mère Labussière, as she calls her, Juliette undertook to perform the lighter tasks of housekeeping in the mornings, and it was understood that Victor Hugo should visit her every afternoon unless some grave impediment prevented him. But the walk from Les Roches to Les Metz was long: not much under two miles, by rough roads. The lovers agreed therefore to meet half-way, by a path settled beforehand, and to abandon the Labussière roof-tree for some leafy bower. Thus began, as Juliette writes, their “bird-life in the woods.”
Victor Hugo had a choice of three ways when he went to meet his lady. One led across the valley of Bièvres; another, along the pavement, as the high road from Bièvres to Versailles was called; and lastly there was the woodland path, which they both preferred. Victor Hugo started by the Vauboyau road, plunged into the woods skirting the boundary of the Château of Les Roches, then, turning to the left, walked straight on as far as the four cross-roads at l’Homme Mort, and bore to the right towards the Cour Roland. There, in the hollow of a hundred-year-old chestnut-tree, all bent and twisted, his lady-love would be awaiting him.
Clad in a dress of white jaconet striped with pink, such as she usually affected, her head covered with an Italian straw hat, left over from the days of her former affluence, with swelling bosom, rosy cheeks, and smiling mouth, she resembled a flower springing from the rude calyx formed by the aged tree. A wide-awake flower, indeed, for, from the first sign of the approach of Victor Hugo, she would fly to him, and afford him one more opportunity of admiring the far-famed aerial gait, that fairy footstep, so light that it had been compared to the sound of a lyre.
Then followed kisses, caresses, a flood of soft words, more kisses, and a rapid rush into the cool green depths whither the twitter of birds invited them. When they issued forth again, silent now, Juliette walked first, making it a point of honour to push aside the branches and thorns before her poet; and he was content, gazing upon the tiny traces left upon the moss or sand by the feet that looked almost absurd by reason of their minuteness.
At the far end of a clearing a fountain burbled. Juliette made a hollow of her little hands and collected a delicious draught for their burning lips. Drops dribbled from between her fingers, and, seeing them, her lover knew that here was a fairy able to “transmute water into diamonds.”
We must not imagine, however, that the treasure of their love expended itself entirely in this sportive fashion. If it be true that passion is the stronger for an admixture of intellect, it follows that only persons of distinguished parts are capable of extracting the full measure of delight from sentimental intercourse. Victor Hugo was far too wise to neglect the training of the sensibilities of his young mistress. Like some block of rare marble, she submitted herself to this able sculptor in the charming simplicity of a nature somewhat uncultivated and rugged, as she herself owns, and he perceived in the formless material the growing suggestion of the finished statue he was soon to evolve. The forest was the studio whither he came every afternoon to cultivate, through novel sensations and delights, his own poetry and eloquence. The forest gave him colour for colour, music for music….
At other times Victor Hugo encouraged in Juliette an inclination for prayer and tearful repentance. He retained, and she had always possessed, strong Catholic sensibilities. The mere satisfaction of sensuality without the hallowing influence of absorbing love spelt defilement, from their point of view. Hence followed painful remorse for a past which the lover liked to hear his mistress bewail, and which she despaired of ever redeeming. Her rôle was the abasement of Magdalen; his, the somewhat strained attitude of an apostle or saviour.
Nothing could be more peaceful or uneventful than Juliette’s evenings. She devoured with the appetite of an ogress the frugal supper put before her by Madame Labussière, repaired the damage done to her clothes by the afternoon’s ramble, or studied some of the parts in which she hoped to appear sooner or later at the Théâtre Français. At ten o’clock she went to bed. This was the much-prized moment of her solitude, when she retired, as she says, into the happy background of her heart to rehearse in spirit the simple events and delights of the day, to recall the face of her lover, see him, speak to him, and hang upon his answers; then, as drowsiness gradually gained the upper hand and clouds dimmed the dear outline, to surrender to slumber. It was at Les Metz that she coined the happy phrase:
“I fall asleep in the thought of you.”
Sometimes the wind moaning in the heights awoke her, and she resumed her sweet musing. The poet was in the habit of working at night; she would picture him in his room at Les Roches, bending over his writing-table. Then she “blessed the gale that made her the companion of the dear little workman’s vigil across the intervening space.”
As soon as dawn broke she was up again. She jumped out of bed, ran to the window, opened the shutters, and interrogated the heavens—not that she feared rain, any more than she minded “blisters on her feet or scratches on her hands”—but she had only two dresses, a woollen and a linen, and the condition of the weather controlled her choice of the two. Her toilet was rapid, her breakfast simple.
She spent the remaining time copying the manuscripts confided to her by Victor Hugo. Then, lightly running, as she says, like a hare across the plain, she started for the rendezvous. As becomes a loving woman, she was always first at the trysting-tree. She scrutinised the intertwined initials she herself had carved upon its bark, or conned again from memory the verses she had found the day before in its hollow trunk. She “sings them in her heart,” presses them to her bosom, and kisses the letters she has brought in answer.
For the chestnut-tree served them as a letter-box as well as a shelter. According to an arrangement between them, the first thing they did on arrival was to deposit within its friendly shade everything they had written in the course of the preceding day for, or about, one another. On Juliette’s part, especially, the letters became more and more numerous: two, four, sometimes six per day. She no longer wrote, as at first, to expatiate upon her passion or assure the poet that she loved him with real love, or to relieve boredom and make the hours of her solitude pass more quickly. She wrote because Victor Hugo, who had formerly been indifferent to her “scribbles,” now exacted them as a daily tribute, and reproached her if they were too brief or not numerous enough. This jealous lover had discovered the advantages of a pretty woman’s mania for writing. When thus occupied, he reflected, she is contented. He also found that her letters were full of enthusiasm, humour, feeling, fun, and poetry, and he therefore desired that they should be preserved; one day, when Juliette had thrown a packet of them into the fire in a fit of temper, he made her write them all over again.
Juliette might protest prettily, entrench herself behind her ignorance, and allege her want of intelligence; but the more she pleaded that she knew not how to write, the more her lover insisted upon her doing so. No one has ever carried to greater lengths that form of affectation which consists in vilifying oneself in order to gain praise. Having thus placed herself, as far as her style is concerned, in the kneeling position she prefers, Juliette remains there. It is at Les Metz that her letters commenced to be a hymn of praise in honour of her divinity. Adoration and excessive adulation are their basis; for form and imagery, Juliette does not hesitate to borrow from the sacred writings she had studied at the Convent of Petit-Picpus. Sooth to say, this mixture of religiosity and passion presents an aspect both disproportionate and pathetic. When love raises itself—or degrades itself—to this almost mystical adoration, one cannot be surprised if it ends by believing in its own virtue. Having adopted the forms of religion, it insensibly acquires its importance and dignity; it ennobles itself.
We do not possess Victor Hugo’s answers, but partly from the note-books in which his lady-love punctiliously copied and dated the poems addressed to her, and partly from the dates inscribed at the bottom of each page in the collected works of the poet, we know which of his verses were composed during his sojourn at Les Metz. It is not too much to say that the author of Feuilles d’Automne was never more happily inspired. Nowhere did he more closely approach the classical model he had chosen at that time, the gentle Virgil.
The lovers returned to Les Metz twice: once in October 1837 for a few days, and again, for a day, on September 26th, 1845. In 1837 it was Victor Hugo who directed the expedition and took the lead. He sought one by one the traces of their amours; his eccentric genius admired nature’s grand indifference, which had failed to preserve them intact for his honour and pleasure, and, deploring this ingratitude concerning outward things, he composed that masterpiece, La Tristesse d’Olympio. He laid it at the feet of Juliette, who accepted it, read and reread it, and learnt it by heart, without criticising it.
In 1845, the pilgrimage was hers; she planned it and begged for it, writing on August 19th: “I have an inexpressible longing to see Les Metz again. We absolutely must go there.”
They did. Early in the month of September Juliette arranged the little journey. Which dress should she wear? The striped organdy one, or the blue tarlatan shot with white, she had worn a few months previously, at the reception of St. Marc Girardin at the Académie Française? She chose the former because her lover preferred it; the same reason determined her to wear a straw hat “trimmed with geraniums above and below the brim.” Thus decked, with cheeks rosier than usual, and eyes glowing, Juliette climbed with her poet into the omnibus from Paris to Sceaux.
Victor Hugo disliked omnibuses, and especially that one. He remembered his many drives in it with his friend Sainte-Beuve, at the time the latter was most assiduous in his visits to Les Roches, and in spite of himself he seemed to see the ghost of Joseph Delorme in the back seat, with his ecclesiastical appearance, and his mania for nestling cosily between two fat people. Silently the poet dwelt upon these memories, while Juliette volubly recalled others. She wondered whether they would find the beggar at the foot of the Bièvres hill, into whose hands she had often emptied her purse, in order that alms should bring them luck, and whether the baker in the Square still made those little tarts her lover used to be so fond of.
At last the omnibus deposited them at Bièvres in front of the Chariot d’Or. The striped organdy dress created a great sensation among the village children. Juliette rushed off to the little church; nothing was changed—the same simplicity, the same silence, the same brooding peace as in the old days. The young woman fell on her knees, then, together, the lovers returned to the Chariot d’Or, breakfasted, and started to walk to Les Roches. There again, in Juliette’s opinion, everything was unchanged. To the left, behind tall grasses, the river flowed unseen and unheard. In deference to the needs of man and those of the valley, its course had been diverted, and it now spread itself through meadows and orchards. Its presence could be divined from the abundance of flowers and reeds born of its moisture.
When they reached Les Roches, Juliette insisted upon abandoning the valley for the forest. They ascended through Vauboyau to the wood of l’Homme Mort. She walked straight to a chestnut-tree which she said she recognised; then she found a mountain-ash upon whose bark she had once carved their interlaced initials; after that the spring, and the paths. She wished to revisit what she called “the chapels of their love,” to pay at each one a tribute of devotion.
At length they reached Les Metz and the house of the Labussière. Delirious enchantment! Everything was just as she remembered it: the gate, the bell, the kitchen-garden, the mile-stone upon which she used to sit to watch for her lover when the rendezvous was at the cottage; the bed, with its curtains of printed cotton, the rustic wardrobe, the oak table…. “Heaven,” she cried, “has put a seal upon all the treasures of love we buried here! It has preserved them for us,” and she longed to take possession of them all and carry them away with her.
How charming Juliette is at this moment, and how superior to Olympio! How preferable is her enthusiasm, with its power of bringing back to life the dead past, to the melancholy which disparages and kills! One sole interest animates her. Her instinct is creative, for where the poet sees death she perceives life. The roses he thought faded and scattered, she admires in full bloom; she can still breathe their perfume. From the dust and ashes he has tasted and bewailed, she draws the savour of honey. In this instance, surely, her love does not merely aspire to sit on the heights with the poet’s genius, as she claimed—it soars far beyond it.
The Romance Between Juliette Drouet and Victor Hugo
Chapter Four – The Shackles of Love
Victor Hugo never succeeded in making Juliette adopt his conception of love. He craved something calm, placid, regular as a time-table in its manifestations; but she was wont to object:
“Such a love would soon cease to exist. A fire that no longer blazes is quickly smothered in ashes. Only a love that scorches and dazzles is worthy of the name. Mine is like that.”
And indeed it would not be easy to name an object that this woman did not cast into the crucible of her passion between the years 1834 and 1851. Everything was sacrificed—comfort, vanity, renown, talent, liberty. Then she turned to her poet. She adopted his tastes, his ambitions, his dreams for the future; she shared his joys and sorrows; she exaggerated his qualities, and sometimes even his faults. She lived only in him and for him.
We are about to witness a completeness of self-abnegation that raises Juliette Drouet almost to the level of the mystics of old; afterwards we shall scrutinise one by one the details of the cult she rendered to Victor Hugo.
After selling the bulk of her furniture and quitting the luxurious apartment she occupied at 35, Rue de l’Échiquier, Juliette, it will be remembered, had settled down in a tiny lodging costing 400 frs. a year, at 4, Rue de Paradis au Marais. She and Victor Hugo determined to live there together, poor in purse, but rich in love and poetry. The said love and poetry must indeed have filled their horizon, for they have left no account whatsoever of that first nesting-place.
On March 8th, 1836, Juliette removed again to a somewhat more commodious apartment: 14, Rue St. Anastase, at 800 frs. a year. It comprised a drawing-room, dining-room, one bedroom, a kitchen, and an attic in which her servant slept. This district has fallen into decay, and is now dull and dreary. In those days it was chiefly occupied by the convent of the Hospitaliers St. Anastase, whence the street took its name, and a few houses more or less enclosed by gardens. The convent and gardens endowed it with a provincial tranquillity and an impenetrable silence which occasionally weighed upon Juliette’s spirits.
Her mode of life was not calculated to enliven her. A degree of poverty bordering on squalor simplified its details. Little or no fire: Juliette sometimes even lacks the logs she is by way of providing for herself. Then she spends the morning in bed, reading, planning, day-dreaming. She keeps careful accounts of her receipts and expenditure—accounts which Victor Hugo afterwards audits most minutely. When she rises, the cold does not prevent her from writing cheerfully, “If you seek warmth in this room you will have to seek it at the bottom of my heart.”
All luxuries in the way of food were reserved, as in duty bound, for the suppers the master honoured with his presence after the theatre. The rest of the time Juliette ate frugally, breakfasting on eggs and milk, dining on bread and cheese and an apple. When her daughter visited her she treated her to an orange cut into slices and sprinkled with a pennyworth of sugar and a pennyworth of brandy. The same simplicity reigned on high-days and holidays.
Juliette also denied herself useless fripperies and reduced to the strictest limits the expenses of her wardrobe. Everything she was able to make or mend, she made and mended, and it gratified her to compute the money she saved thus in dressmakers. The rest she bought very cheaply or did without.
In the month of August 1838, when she was about to start on a journey with Victor Hugo, she found herself in need of shoes, a dress, and a country hat. She bought the shoes, manufactured the dress, and had intended to borrow the hat from Madame Kraft; but this lady, who held some minor post at the Comédie Française, only wore feathered hats, so Juliette curses the extravagance that places her in an awkward predicament. A little later, on May 7th, 1839, she wanted to furbish up her mantle with ribbon velvet at 5d. a yard; but she found that she could not do with less than eight yards and a half. She bemoans her extravagance, saying, “Why, oh, why have I let myself in for this!”
In studying Juliette’s financial position one wonders that so much privation should be necessary, for, from the very beginning, Victor Hugo allowed her 600 or 700 frs. a month. He afterwards increased this sum to 800, and finally to 1,000 frs. in 1838, when he began to get better terms from publishers and theatre-managers. Surely such a sum should provide ordinary comforts—there should be no suggestion of squalid poverty?
The fact is that, in 1834, Victor Hugo had only paid off the most pressing of Juliette’s debts; but the result of his doing so was to rouse the energies of the rest of the creditors, and Juliette was overwhelmed by them. Sometimes she managed to pacify them by quaint expedients. For instance, to Zoé, her former maid, she offered, in place of wages, a box for Angélo; to Monsieur Manière, her legal adviser, she promised that, if he would extend her credit, “Monsieur Victor Hugo should read with interest” a certain plan of political organisation of which the said Manière was the author, but which alas, does not yet figure in the archives of the French constitution!
But more often she was forced to pay, and she had to save off food or dress. Then it was that money was skimped from the butcher and grocer to satisfy the former milliner or livery-stable keeper. In the month of May 1835, out of 700 frs. received, the creditors obtained 316; in June they got another 347; in July 278. Another cause for pecuniary embarrassment was the irregularity of Pradier’s contribution to the maintenance of his and Juliette’s child. Very often, but for Victor Hugo’s assistance, this item would have been added to the sum-total of her debts. But Juliette bore everything with the blitheness of a bird. She, who had hated accounts and arithmetic, now devoted her attention to them every day, sometimes more than once a day; she, who loathed poverty, encountered the most sordid privations with a smile; she, who once throve upon debts and promises to pay, now exclaimed: “I would do anything rather than fall into debt. How hideous and degrading such a thing is, and how splendid and noble of you, my adored one, to love me in spite of my past!”
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that she began to seek in work, especially theatrical work, an addition to her private resources. She took her career as an artist very seriously, and it was a great disappointment to her that her lover failed to desire her as an interpreter of his parts. He certainly did not. He allowed his jealousy full play, and wished to keep Juliette for himself alone. His tactics seem to have been to dangle promises ever before her, but to give her nothing; to procure dramatic engagements for her, and prevent her from fulfilling them.
In February 1834 he introduced Juliette to the Comédie Française, but a year later he declined to give her the smallest part in Angélo, which was produced there. In the course of 1836, 1837, 1838, he allowed Marie Dorval to monopolise all the important rôles in his former plays, and never once attempted to put Juliette’s name at the head, or even in the middle, of the bill. Yet he gave her fine promises in plenty, encouraged her to learn long passages from Marion and Dona Sol, and vowed he would some day write a play for her alone.
Thus kept in the background, Juliette passed through exhausting alternations of despair and confidence, gratitude and jealousy. For, as may easily be imagined, she was terribly jealous, and her suspicious mind exercised itself chiefly concerning actresses, whose lively manners and easy morals she knew, by professional experience. There was Mlle. Georges, already growing stout, no doubt, but ever ready to raise her banner and exercise her accustomed sovereignty. There was Mlle. Mars, who, though her looks were a thing of the past, still endeavoured to attract attention. Above all, there was Marie Dorval.
Ah, how Juliette envied Dorval! How she studied her in order to arm herself against her fancied rivalry! How often she took her moral measure! She knew that she was of the people, that she tingled with vitality from head to foot, that, though her primary impulses were virtuous, nature was yet strong within her…. She was well acquainted with “the voice that quivered with tears and made its insinuating appeal to the heart.”
Could Juliette fail to dread such a woman, one so versed by the practice of her profession in the wiles that attract men? Could she refrain from warning her lover against her, day after day, like one draws attention to a danger, a scourge, or a tempest? Far from it—she threatened to return to the theatre, to act in her lover’s plays, to be present at every rehearsal, to vie with her rival in beauty and talent and ardour. She learnt parts, and whole scenes, and filled her solitude with the pleasing phantoms her lover had once created, and that she dreamed of restoring to life on the stage.
Months passed; delicate circumstances obliged her to relinquish her plan of appearing at the Théâtre Français. She was on the verge of despair when, one evening in the spring of 1838, her lover brought her a new play he wished to read to her, according to his invariable custom. It was Ruy Blas. She at once claimed the part of Marie de Neubourg, and fell in love with the melancholy little queen who was hampered and hemmed in by the trammels of étiquette, as she herself was imprisoned within the limits of her icy apartment in the Rue St. Anastase. Victor Hugo asked for nothing better. He intended Ruy Blas for the Théâtre de la Renaissance, which was under the management of his friend, Anténor Joly. He requested the worthy fellow to engage Juliette, and the agreement was signed early in May.
We can picture the delight with which Juliette set about copying the play; nevertheless, she was assailed by melancholy fears: “I shall never play the queen,” she wrote; “I am too unlucky. The thing I desire most on earth is not destined to be realised.” And it is a fact that the part was taken from her almost as soon as it was given.
After 1839 her longing to go back to the stage calmed down gradually. At the end of that year it had completely faded. Her love’s tranquillity was greatly increased thereby, while she was driven to immerse herself still more completely in her amorous solitude and the disadvantages pertaining thereto.
For, in the same degree that he deprecated her being seen on the stage, Victor Hugo detested the thought of her going out alone, and he had managed to extract a promise from her that she would never make one step outside the house without him. She was, therefore, practically as much a prisoner as any châtelaine of the Middle Ages, or heroine of some of the sombre dramas she had formerly played. She had not even permission to go and see her daughter at school at St. Mandé, and, rather than trust her by herself, the poet would escort her to the dressmaker and milliner, or on her visits to the uncle whose name she bore, and who lay dying at the Invalides, to the money-lender’s, and curiosity-shop, and even the ironmonger’s!
When Victor Hugo thus lent himself to her needs, all went well, and Juliette, proud and happy, arm in arm with her “dear little man,” chattered away blithely. But a time came when the lover, monopolised by other cares, perhaps by other intrigues, was no longer so assiduous. Then the mistress protested and rebelled, with the fierce rage of a prisoned beast of the forest, bruising itself against the bars of its cage, in its agony for freedom.
Victor Hugo met her remonstrances with gentle reasoning and persuasive exhortations. However far Juliette went in her transports of anger, he was always able to pacify her. On September 27th, 1836, at the end of a long period during which the poet had not been able to give his friend even what she called the “joies du préau”—that is to say, a walk round the Boulevards—Juliette threatens to break out. For several weeks she has been attributing the sickness and headaches she constantly suffers from, to her sedentary life. Losing all patience, she addresses an ultimatum to him, proposing an assignation in a cab on the Boulevard du Temple. He does not appear. For three hours she waits inside the vehicle, then, in the certainty that he has failed her, she writes a letter in pencil, dated from the cab, No. 556, stating her intention to fetch her daughter and go off somewhere, anywhere, alone with her. “Thus,” she writes, “I shall free myself for ever from a slavery which satisfies neither my heart nor my mind, and does not secure the repose of either of us.”
However, the next day she did not start. She did not go out at all. She had resumed her chains and her prison garb. Her anger always evaporated thus, and turned to melancholy and resigned gentleness. In the end she came to feel that nothing existed for her, save a lover who sometimes came and sometimes stayed away. If he was present, she was alive; if absent, her mainspring was broken. But Victor Hugo continued to lead an ordinary life, while his mistress spent her days in the confinement of a cloister. It was probably about this time that Juliette resolved to set up in that cloister an altar for the cult of her lover. Finding herself impotent to attract and keep him by the sole charm of passion, she endeavoured to win him over by devotion, minute attentions, tender interest in everything he undertook, and by unbridled adoration of his person and work.
According to Juliette, who secured several stolen meetings in the poet’s own house, Victor Hugo suffered from a complete absence of the most ordinary comfort at home. His lamps smoked, as did his chimney on the rare occasions when a fire was lighted; he worked in a “horrible little ice-house,” with insufficient light and a half-empty inkstand; his bed was wretched, the mattress stuffed with what he termed nail-heads; when he dressed he found his shirts button-less and his coats unbrushed—as for his shoes, Juliette was ashamed of their condition. We learn from Théophile Gautier that the author of Hernani was a hearty eater, but that his meals were served up in confusion: cutlets with beans in oil, beef and tomato sauce with an omelette, ham with coffee, vinegar, mustard, and a piece of cheese. He made short work of this extraordinary mixture, and no doubt was often reminded of a line his mistress had once written to him on the subject: “When I think of what you are and what you do, and of the discomfort in which you live, I am filled with admiring pity.”
With the instinct of a loving woman and the resource of a clever one, Juliette was quick to take advantage of the human side of her god, and to supply him with the personal care he needed. She trained herself to be a cordon bleu and a sick nurse, a tailor and a cobbler. If Victor Hugo went to the theatre he found on his return to the Rue St. Anastase, a dainty repast of chicken, salad, and the milky puddings he liked, and all the year round a dessert of grapes, a fruit he had always been fond of. Juliette served him “kneeling”—so at least she affirms. She took umbrage if he did not allow her to select for him the biggest asparagus and the thickest cream. He was happy, so was she. If he had an attack of that “cursed internal inflammation which sometimes affected his head and sometimes his eyes,” his mistress would prepare liniments, tisanes, herb soups, which the romanticist meekly swallowed. She assumed a maternal manner, kissed him, coaxed him with soft words, tried to feed him with her own hands, and regretted that she could not give him her own health and take his indisposition upon herself. If he complained of the paucity and untidiness of his wardrobe, Juliette mended his socks and linen, ironed his white waistcoats, removed grease-stains from his coat, made him a smoking-jacket out of an old theatre-cloak, and manufactured “a capital greatcoat lined with velvet, with collar and cuffs of the best silk velvet, out of another.” Thus she managed by degrees to collect nearly all the poet’s clothes in her own room; his ordinary suits, as well as those he wore on great occasions, such as a reception at the Académie, or a sitting of the House. On one occasion she writes, in gentle self-mockery: “I was sorry, after you went, that I had not made you put on your cashmere waistcoat to-night; it was mended and quite ready for you. This morning I have been tidying all your things. Your coat occupies the place of honour in my wardrobe; your waistcoat and tie hang above my mantle, your little shoes and silk socks below. In default of yourself I cling to your duds, look after them, and clean them with delight.”
But Juliette’s great achievement, her triumph, was to create in her tiny apartment the right atmosphere for her poet to work in. His custom was to collect his thoughts during the day, and work them out at night. Juliette made him a cosy corner in her bedroom, close to her bed. She fitted it up with a table, an arm-chair, a lamp, and an ink-pot. Above the chair she hung portraits of his children, to make him feel at home. On the table, sheets of paper and freshly cut pens attested the presence and care of a devotee of genius. Whenever he came in the evening the poet settled down in what he himself called his work-room. His methodical habits and strong will enabled him to abstract himself from his environment and devote himself strictly to his labours as an author. Besides, he was under the impression that Juliette was fast asleep; but in that he did her less than justice. Sleep while he worked! Juliette could never have brought herself to do so. She watched him, and admired him. Sometimes she seized a pencil to scribble on any scrap of paper the expression of her veneration, and when the poet had finished he would find little notes such as the following:
“I love to watch even your shadow on the page while you write.”
That a poet should allow his person to be thus worshipped is nothing new; that he should desire to be admired in his works is still more natural. Juliette guessed this, and acquired the habit of applauding the slightest achievement of the master with loving enthusiasm. Part of the day she spent in copying his manuscripts, classifying them, making them as like as possible to printers’ proofs; and it may easily be imagined that she occupied much time reading them over and over again. Everything he wrote was equally sublime in her eyes. If she permitted herself to show preference for this or that work, it was only on condition that she should not be supposed to be depreciating some other.
In 1846, Victor Hugo having arranged to make a speech in the House on the “consolidation and defence of the frontier,” Juliette read it no less than three times: once in La Presse, again in Le Messager, and a third time in La Presse again. She made extracts from it and put it away among his archives; she then wrote gravely to the author that he had never been more pathetic or more eloquent. In the same manner she hoarded all his most trivial sketches and poorest caricatures, and pasted them into albums which she carefully hid. She was envious of Léopoldine, the poet’s daughter, who was doing the same thing, and naturally had more opportunities than herself of adding to the collection.
She was more greedy still of his theatrical output, for there her jealousy came into play. It is safe to affirm that for more than fifteen years, namely from 1834 to 1851, she interested herself in every single representation of the dramas of Victor Hugo. She was present at the Théâtre Français on the first night of Angélo on April 28th, 1835, and wished to go again on all the following nights, in spite of the bitter disappointment the play had caused her, through the frustration of her ambition to take part in it. She was there on February 20th, 1838, for the revival of Hernani; and on March 8th following, it was she who applauded Marie Dorval loudest, at the revival of Marion Delorme. While Les Burgraves was being written she demanded to know all about it from its earliest conception, and achieved her wish. When Victor Hugo read the play to her, she was very much moved and said: “I hardly know how to descend to earth again from the sublime altitude of your conception.”
She took part in the distribution of the rôles, and intrigued against Mlle. Maxime and Madame FitzJames, whom she did not want for Guanhumara. She championed Madame Melingue, who, in consequence, obtained the part. At last the first night arrived. There was a cabal, a violent, aggressive cabal, a sign of the reaction of the new practical school against the romantic school. Who sat in a prominent box and opposed the firmest front to the hissing crowd? Juliette! Who ventured to accuse Beauvallet of murdering the part of the Duke Job? Juliette again!
“To applaud thus your beautiful verses,” she wrote on March 13th, “and hurl myself into the fray in their defence is only another way of making love. Ah, I wish I could be a man on the nights the play is given! I promise you the subscribers of the Nationale and the Constitutionel would see strange things!”
The afternoons hung heavy in the lonely apartment of the Rue St. Anastase. Sometimes the poet looked in for a moment to bathe his eyes, or claim some other domestic attention; but, as a rule, his visits were made in the evening, after the parties and the theatre. His mistress, therefore, begged, and obtained, permission to receive a few of her friends. They were insignificant, but warm-hearted folk: Madame Lanvin, the wife of one of Pradier’s employés, who acted as intermediary, partly honorary and partly paid, between the sculptor and the mother of Claire Pradier; Madame Kraft, an employée of the Comédie Française who affected literary culture; Madame Pierceau, a worthy matron, and, lastly, Madame Bezancenot, a tried ally.
As a rule, Victor Hugo tolerated the presence of this little company; but, democratic though he might be in principle, it palled upon him before long, and he made some remonstrance. Then Juliette revealed to him that her need to talk about him had driven her to institute a regular course of “Hugolatry” among the good ladies. They made a practice of reading his poems, declaiming his plays, and showering praise on the independence of his character and the dignity of his life. In the face of such delicate proofs of the affection she bore him, it is not surprising that the poet should have entrusted to Juliette his most sacred hopes and ambitions. She was one of those in whom a lover may always confide, in the certainty of being ever sustained, encouraged, and approved. Thus it came about that she was cognisant of every effort Victor Hugo made, every step he took, and even of the intrigues by which he climbed gradually to the Académie Française, then to the Tuileries and the little court of Neuilly, and finally to the Chambre des Pairs.
Not that Juliette herself ever cherished special veneration for kings, princes, peers, or Academicians. Democratic and republican by the accident of birth, as she herself wrote, she likewise detested, on principle, everything that seemed likely to attract or keep Victor Hugo away from the Rue St. Anastase. Her first inclination, therefore, was to criticise with acerbity Academies, drawing-rooms, politics, and Courts; but the poet’s determination was not of the quality that is easily weakened by remonstrances. Juliette knew this. As soon as she realised that the habit vert was really the object of her idol’s desire, and that he had set his whole heart upon obtaining it, she abandoned her opposition and only indulged in gentle mockery calculated to cover the retreat of the unsuccessful candidate, and deprive it as much as possible of bitterness.
For Victor Hugo was, above all, an unfortunate candidate, at any rate of the Académie. In February 1836 he was refused Lainé’s fauteuil, and it was given to a vaudevilliste of the period, called Dupaty. At the end of November of the same year, Mignet was preferred before him, for Raynouard’s vacancy. In December 1839, rather than select Hugo, nobody was appointed in the place of Michaud. In February 1840, precedence over him was given to the permanent secretary of the Académie des Sciences, Monsieur Flourens. It was not until January 7th, 1841, that he was elected to Lemercier’s fauteuil by seventeen votes, against fifteen given to a dramatist called Ancelot, whose name an ungrateful posterity no longer remembers.
In all the peregrinations required by these five successive candidatures, Victor Hugo was invariably accompanied by Juliette. On December 24th, 1835, she writes to him: “One point on which I will tolerate no nonsense, is your visits. I insist upon accompanying you, so that I may know how much time you spend with the wives and daughters of the Academicians. I shall, by the same means, be able to gather up a few crumbs of your society for myself, which is no small consideration.”
The visits were begun between Christmas and the New Year, in cold, dry, sunny weather. Clad in black according to prescribed custom, Victor Hugo fetched his friend every day from the Rue St. Anastase, got into a cab with her, and showed her the plan for the afternoon: at such and such a time they must lay siege to Monsieur de Lacretelle; after that, to Monsieur Royer-Collard; then to Monsieur Campenon. Monsieur de Lacretelle was too diplomatic not to give plenty of promises and assurances; Monsieur Royer-Collard too good a Jansenist to fail in a blunt refusal to the author of Hernani. As for Monsieur Campenon, he had the reputation of being an honest man and an excellent amateur gardener. His conversation bristled with graftings and buddings. How should he humour him about his favourite pursuit, Victor Hugo asked his friend. Should he select roses or pears, myrtle or cypress? As the good creature was getting on in years, and counted more summers than literary successes, Victor Hugo unkindly inclined towards the last.
Juliette laughed merrily, and the poet would climb up numerous stairs, and return with a stock of entertaining anecdotes, which filled the cab with fun and colour and life. Then followed calculations of his chances; if they seemed promising, Juliette congratulated her “immortal,” as she called him in anticipation; if not, she made fun of the Académie once more.
At the end of the year the whole performance began over again. As in 1835, Juliette pretended not to attach much importance to the election of her lover, but this did not prevent her from hotly abusing the Académie when, a month later, the society again closed its portals to the leader of the romantic school.
It is the privilege of the Académie Française to be most courted by those who have oftenest sneered at it. No institution has ever been the cause of so much recantation. Juliette herself was to eat her words. On Thursday, January 7th, 1841, when Victor Hugo had at last triumphed over his brother candidate, it was no longer a mistress who wrote to him, but a general addressing a panegyric of victory to a hero: “With your seventeen friendly votes, and in spite of the fifteen groans of your adversaries, you are an Academician! What happiness! You ought to bring your beautiful face to me to be kissed.”
Victor Hugo yielded to her gallant desire, as may be imagined, and forthwith began to prepare for his reception. The poet aimed at a magniloquent and comprehensive speech which should embrace all the great names and ideas of the past, present, and future; something as vast as the empire of Charlemagne, and as noble as the genius of Napoleon. Juliette, on her side, dreamed of a dress of white tarlatan mounted in broad pleats and decorated with a rose-coloured scarf, like the one she had once admired on the shoulders of Madame Volnys, a hated rival at the Comédie Française.
Although the speech was only to be delivered in June, Victor Hugo had it ready by April 10th; he read it to his admiring friend the same night. The white tarlatan dress, alas, was longer on the way. Several reasons conspired against its completion. First of all, Juliette declared that she would concede to nobody the honour of presenting the new member with his lace ruffles: this involved an expenditure of about 23 frs., a heavy toll on the exchequer of the lovers. Secondly, Victor Hugo’s reception was to fall upon nearly the same date as the first communion of Juliette’s daughter, Claire Pradier, which was yet another cause of expense. The young woman bravely sacrificed her frock, and, having consoled herself by making a fair copy of the master’s splendid speech, she awaited the great day. But at the very moment she hoped to see it dawn without further disappointment, malicious fate brought her, and consequently Victor Hugo and the Académie, face to face with a fresh dilemma of the gravest importance, namely, the question of the pulpit for the momentous occasion.
The time-honoured affair was a wooden erection of mean appearance, stained to represent mahogany. On ordinary days it was contemned and relegated to the lumber-room of the Bibliothèque de l’Institut; but, on the occasion of the reception of a new member, custom prescribed that it should be placed under the cupola, in front of the agitated neophyte. Étiquette demanded that the latter should place upon it his gloves and the notes of his address; but the rickety thing had already borne so much eloquence in the past, that it tottered under the weight of its responsibilities. It stood weakly upon a crooked pedestal, in imminent danger of subsidence. Instead of being a haughty pulpit, equal to any occasion, it seemed to offer humble apology for its absurd existence.
Such was the farcical object Victor Hugo had to interpose between himself and Juliette, on the day of the great ceremonial. She lost her sleep over it; for a time, even the lace ruffles, and the speech, and the white tarlatan dress and rose-coloured scarf, retired into the background: “I am in a state of inexpressible agitation and worry over this wretched pulpit,” she wrote. “I shall be just at the back of it. I am in perfect despair! Truly, since this apprehension has taken possession of me, I have become the most wretched of women. I think if I cannot see your handsome, radiant face that day, nothing will keep me from bursting into sobs of rage and misery. The very thought fills my eyes with tears.”
In spite of himself, Victor Hugo shared one characteristic with Jean Racine: he could not bear to see a pretty woman cry. He therefore took decisive measures, and managed to assuage his friend’s grief. Juliette was assured that, whatever happened, she should contemplate her “dear little orator” at her ease—that is to say, from head to foot. Unfortunately, it was ordained that calmness should not inhabit this passionate soul for long together. The night preceding the reception, Juliette felt frightfully nervous, and, while Victor Hugo sat up correcting the proofs of his discourse at the Imprimerie Royale, she retired, saying irritably: “I am like the savages who take to their beds when their wives give birth to children.” At 4.30 a.m. she was already up, wrote several letters to her lover, dressed, and hurried to the Palais Nazarin, where she took up a position in the front row, before even the platoon of infantry detailed for guard had arrived.
According to the testimony of Victor Hugo’s enemies as well as of his friends, the reception surpassed in dignity and brilliancy anything the cupola had previously witnessed. The Court was represented by the Duc and Duchesse d’Orléans, the Duchesse de Nemours, and the Princesse Clémentine, in a tribune. Fashionable society and the world of letters jostled each other on the benches. There were women everywhere, even beside the most ancient and prim of Academicians. Old Monsieur Jay was partially concealed under billows of laces, gauzes, silks, and satins, worn by his neighbours, Madame Louise Colet and Mlle. Doze. Monsieur Étienne waggled his head between two monstrous hats so beflowered that, with one movement, he disturbed the fleurs du Pérou of Madame Thiers, and with the next, he ruffled the bunches of roses on Madame Anais Segalas’ head.
Juliette saw nothing of all this; neither did she heed the irrelevant babble of her neighbour on the right, Monsieur Desmousseaux of the Comédie Française, or of her guest on the left, Madame Pierceau. She was in a state of painful, yet delicious turmoil, and when Victor Hugo made his entry, she nearly fainted. Fortunately, the poet gave her a smiling look before beginning his speech, which restored her to life; and she settled down to listen to his eloquent words, as if she had not already written them out until she knew them by heart. To-day they seemed invested with fresh beauties, and she gave herself up to the enjoyment of the moment. The magnificent imagery which decked Victor Hugo’s first address at the Académie, concealed calculation of the most worldly wise description.
Victor Hugo aspired to the Chambre des Pairs as a stepping-stone to a power which would assist him to develop the moral and social mission he deemed to be the true function of a poet. To achieve this aim it was necessary that he should first belong to one of the societies from among which alone the King could legally select the members of that Assembly. The Académie was one of these, hence the successive candidatures of the poet, and the special tone of his discourse, in which all the political parties were blandished and caressed alike; hence, finally, the visits to Court, which increased in frequency after 1841.
Just as Juliette had practically burned in effigy almost all the Academicians of her time before she had the opportunity of becoming acquainted with them and finding them charming, so she began by criticising and censuring Louis Philippe and his children with the greatest severity. Were not these people going to wrest her poet from her? And for what? For the sake of empty honours and useless occupations! Therefore we find Juliette preaching to her lover the contempt of earthly greatness. She was fiercely jealous of the citizen-king.
In order to calm her apprehensions, Victor Hugo had only to reveal to her his secret plans; from the first moment that he mentioned the Pairie to her, she became complacent and Orléaniste. Whether the poet went to harangue the widow of the soldier-prince in the name of the Académie, after the accident of 1842, or whether he paid her a private visit, Juliette always insisted upon accompanying him to Neuilly, and there she would wait, sitting in a cab outside, whilst her lover coined honeyed phrases inside the palace.
The Duchesse was German, simple, a good mother, and deeply religious. Of Victor Hugo’s works, the only one she was familiar with was No. XXXIII. of the Chants du Crépuscule, Dans L’Église de….
“C’était une humble église au cintre surbaissé,
L’église où nous entrâmes,
Où depuis trois cents ans avaient déjà passé,
Et pleuré des âmes.”
The good lady probably thought these verses had been composed in a moment of deep fervour, in honour of a respected spouse. She congratulated the poet, quoted some of the lines to him, questioned him minutely about his children—and, while he enlarged on these domestic topics, the real heroine of the beautiful poetry so dear to the Duchesse, sat waiting below in the cab … dreaming of the future peer of France; she already saw him in imagination descending the great staircase of the Luxembourg, with a demeanour full of dignity. For her part, she was more than ever content to remain at the foot of the steps, in a posture of humility, among the crowd of watchers…. When the poet issued at last from the ducal apartments, she would tell him her dream, and he would complacently acquiesce.
The appointment of Victor Hugo to the Pairie appeared in the Moniteur of April 15th, 1845. It must be left to politicians to determine in what degree the presence of “Olympio” could profit the councils of the nation; but to Juliette’s biographer the entry of her lover into the Luxembourg seems a felicitous event. From that moment, in fact, the young woman ceased to be cloistered. Busier than ever, and perhaps less jealous, the poet permitted his mistress to accompany him to the Luxembourg and to return alone to the Marais. At first Juliette hardly knew how to take this unfamiliar freedom. With her lover absent, she had grown accustomed to semi-obscurity. The blatant sunshine seemed to mock her loneliness. She writes: “Nobody can feel sadder than I do, when I trudge through the streets alone. I have not done such a thing for twelve years, and I ask myself what it may portend. Is it a mark of your confidence or of your indifference? Perhaps both. In any case, I am far from content.”
Gradually, however, she fell into the new ways. She used to walk back from the Luxembourg by way of the Pont-Neuf and the Quais. She amused herself by trying to trace the footsteps of Victor Hugo and fit her own little shoes into them. When she reached home, she immersed herself deeper than ever in the preoccupations of her lover.
Occasionally, fortunately, she had a reaction. She read little: the letters of Madame de Sévigné, perhaps, or those of Mlle. de Lespinasse. She tended her flowers; for Victor Hugo had made her remove from No. 14 to No. 12 Rue St. Anastase, where her ground-floor rooms opened on to a garden. There, in a space of sixty square feet, she had four bushes of crimson roses, and a few dozen prolific strawberry-plants, destined to furnish the poet’s favourite dessert, throughout the summer. She attended to all the most trivial details in person, making them all subservient to her love.
In this wise—with the exception of a few bouts of jealousy of which we shall have occasion to speak later, Juliette’s days flowed almost happily. She no longer brooded over her past; redemption through love seemed to her an accomplished fact. When she turned to the future, it was with ideas borrowed from Victor Hugo certainly, but none the less consoling, since they authorised her to hope for the eternal reunion of souls beyond the confines of this earth. On December 31st, 1842, the poet had dedicated some delicate verses to her, which she learned by heart. They were part of a creed by which Juliette hoped to fortify her soul against the arrows of fortune—hopes fallacious in the event. First death, then treachery, were about to rend her faithful heart as a child’s toy is smashed.
The Romance Between Juliette Drouet and Victor Hugo
Chapter Five – Claire Pradier
About the year 1844, when Victor Hugo visited his friend on Sundays and holidays, he used to find seated at his private table, in accordance with his own permission, a tall girl of eighteen, very fair, very pale, with very black eyes—two prunes, as he said, dropped in a saucer of milk. Often she did not hear him enter. Bending her willowy neck and undeveloped bust over her books, she was immersed in study, perhaps also in rêverie. Sometimes he kissed her affectionately, at other times bowed formally. The lowly assistant-mistress of a suburban school, marvelling at the great man’s condescension, would rise blushing, and submit her pale brow to his lips. She would then ask permission to return to her task: the examinations were near at hand, and, as she was going in for a diploma, she must work.
Sometimes Victor Hugo smilingly took up the books scattered on the table, weighed the value of each with a glance, then, pushing them all aside with the back of his hand, sat down, saying: “Now then, Claire, I will be your tutor to-day,” and the lesson began, vivid, enthusiastic, brilliant as a poem.
The reader would be justly disappointed if we failed to relate the story of the girl to whom this “magician of words” thus unveiled the beauties of the French language. Besides, a deeper acquaintance with the daughter may lead to a better understanding of the mother; therefore, we append a short sketch of Claire Pradier.
She was born in Paris in 1826. Her father, the sculptor, undertook the care of her early childhood, while her mother, as we have learnt, was in Germany and Belgium. He put her out to nurse at Vert, near Mantes, with a married couple named Dupuis, and sometimes combined a visit to her with a little sport, in the shooting season.
He brought her back to Paris on October 15th, 1828. From letters of his which have been preserved, we are justified in believing that he derived some satisfaction from his educational rôle. His pen is prolific in praise of the child with “the locks of pale gold,” “the roguish brown eyes,” “the apple-red cheeks,” whose “nose ends in a pretty tilt” which reminds him agreeably of Juliette’s.
He discovers in his daughter a fine nature, plenty of intelligence, and so much feeling, that he hesitates for a time whether he shall apply his efforts to checking its development, or to cultivating it—in the first case, he would turn Claire into a semi-idiot in order not to let her passions become too strong for her happiness, and in the second, he might make of her an artist capable of the most splendid impulses and the noblest fulfilment.
If Pradier is to be believed, the child herself decided in favour of the latter. At the age of three, guided by paternal suggestion in the studio of the Rue de l’Abbaye, she chose for her favourite plaything a stuffed swan. From her games with this handsomely fashioned bird she imbibed a taste for pure lines and fine pose. She also listened to music given at Pradier’s house by sculptors and painters who aped the art of Ingres. She derived so much delight from it that she could never afterwards meet any of these self-engrossed performers without begging for a kiss. Finally, by his studies of dress, his clever manipulation of draperies, which he always preferred to the higher parts of his profession, Pradier taught her to appreciate light and colour. She had a vivid appreciation of the latter, and, during her short life, a mere trifle such as the blue of the sky, or the tint of a rose, gave her the most exquisite pleasure.
Having thus cultivated the sensibilities of the flower committed to his charge, Pradier was rewarded by the prestige attached to his rôle of master and guide; the father reaped in tenderness what the artist had expended in intelligence and effort. From her earliest infancy Claire showed a marked preference for this man, so ardent, so gay, who taught her to breathe and live among works of art; all her life she felt for him an affection that neither his mistakes nor his carelessness, or even his injustice, could damp. Meanwhile, ever prolific in good intentions, always ready with vows and promises, the artist was forming high hopes and ambitions for his daughter.
“We must hope,” he wrote to Juliette on that October 15th, 1828, when he took the child away from her nurse, “that she will live to grow up, and that we shall make a distinguished personage of her.” A little later, on September 28th, 1829, he writes: “Dear friend, you are fortunate in the possession of a Claire who will be a great solace to you in your old age.” Again, on July 4th, 1832: “Who can love her better than I do, especially now that I see her rare intelligence developing so satisfactorily and encouragingly for our designs?”
He planned for his little daughter the most singular and unexpected gifts: once it was to be the proceeds of his bust of Chancellor Pasquier, a commission he owed to Juliette and her friendship with the subject; another time it was the price of a house he possessed at Ville d’Avray and wished to sell; again, he designed to settle upon Claire the sum of 2,000 frs. he had lent to a cousin—fine words, as empty as the hollow mouldings that decorated the studio of the man. The cousin never returned the loan, the house at Ville d’Avray was sold, by order of the court, at a moment when the mortgage upon it far surpassed its value, and the bust of Chancellor Pasquier, though ordered, was never even rough-cast by Pradier.
Juliette had determined to live with Victor Hugo in the conditions of poverty indicated in a former chapter. Her natural delicacy prompted her to make the future of her child secure, and at the same time to release the poet from all anxiety on that score. In the latter part of the year 1833, therefore, she wrote to Pradier asking him to acknowledge Claire. The answer of the sculptor was as follows:
Your letter did not displease me at all, as you seem to have feared that it would. Its motive was too praiseworthy to cause me any sentiment contrary to your own. The only thing that vexes me is that I should be unable to do at once what you desire, and what I fully intend to do eventually, though in a manner carefully calculated not to interfere with the future or tranquillity of any other person. It grieves me that you do not realise what I feel towards you and Claire! I believed that all your hopes were centred in me! I am so crushed with debt that I cannot think of executing my intentions at present. Good-bye, get well and hope only in me. You have not lost me, either of you—far from it!
Good-bye, your very devoted friend, and much more,
It is easy to guess how annoyed Juliette was at the receipt of such a letter. She expressed her disgust to Victor Hugo in various notes in which she abuses her former lover: “Wretched driveller, stupid scoundrel, the vilest and most idiotic of men, a coward without faith”—such are the principal epithets she applies to him.
It has been said that the author of Lucrèce Borgia interfered and obtained from Pradier the acknowledgment of Claire. This is absolutely incorrect. It is probable indeed that the poet made the attempt; it seems certain that with the assistance of Manière, the attorney, he extracted from the sculptor the promise of an allowance; but there was no official recognition, and soon we shall find the father of Claire more disposed to repudiate her than to allow her the protection of his name.
For the moment he merely agreed that Juliette should put the child to school at Saumur with a Madame Watteville, whose Paris representative was a certain Monsieur de Barthès. He would have liked Victor Hugo and his friend to undertake the sole responsibility of the arrangements, but they prudently declined to do so, though they lavished kindness, caressing letters, advice, and treats, upon the little exile.
On May 28th, 1835, Claire, having suffered some childish ailment, received from her mother a doll and the following letter:
“Good morning, my dear little Claire. I hope you will be quite well again by the time you read this letter. Now that you are convalescent I can discuss serious matters with you. This is what I wish to say: Foreseeing that you may be in need of recreation, I send you from Paris a charming little companion who is most amiably disposed to amuse you. But, as it would not be fair that the expenses of her maintenance should devolve upon you during the time of her stay with you, I also send you a big purse of money for her upkeep. Spend it wisely, in accordance with your needs.
Monsieur Toto is no less anxious about her, than devoted to you. He therefore adds an enormous basket of provisions. I hope the little girl will not have eaten them all up on the way, and that there will still be something left for you.
This is not all. I have also been thinking of your clothes, dear little one, and I send you a shawl for your walks, a white frock with drawers to match, a figured foulard frock, a striped frock without drawers, and a sleeved pinafore.
Good-bye, dear good child. You must tell me if my selection is to your taste. Love me and enjoy yourself, so that I may find you tall and plump and pretty, when I come to see you again.
At other times, Victor Hugo himself wrote affectionately to his friend’s child. It is necessary to read these letters, so full of thoughtful tenderness, to gain a better knowledge of the warmth of the poet’s heart. Much should be forgiven him in consideration of it.
“We love you very much,” he wrote to Claire on May 23rd, 1833, “and you have a sweet mother who, though absent, thinks a great deal about you. You must get well quickly, and thank the good God in your prayers every night for giving you such a good little mother, as she on her part thanks Him for her charming little daughter.”
And a few days after, in a postscript to a letter to Juliette: “Monsieur Toto sends love and kisses to his little friend, and wishes he could still have her to travel everywhere with him. But, above all, he would like to caress her and look after her as his own child.”
As his own child—those words were indeed characteristic of Victor Hugo’s feeling concerning the little girl thus thrown across his path by chance, and unhesitatingly adopted by him. At first, Claire either did not realise, or was unwilling to return, his affection. She was jealous of the big gentleman who stole some of her mother’s attention from her. She was reserved and disagreeable.
Juliette was indignant, but the poet did not relax his efforts to win her. With the authority of Pradier, who was only too pleased to delegate it to him, he placed Claire, on April 15th, 1836, in a school at St. Mandé, 35, Avenue du Bel-Air, kept by a Madame Marre. From that moment, whether he paid her a surprise visit in the parlour on Thursday afternoons, with a Juliette beaming from the enjoyment of the trip, or whether she spent Sundays with her mother, Claire Pradier insensibly grew to connect Victor Hugo with Juliette in her affections, to give to them both equal respect, and to link them together in her prayers.
Exceedingly sensitive by nature, more eager for love than for learning, she fell into habits of day-dreaming in school, or out in the meadows, and only seemed to recover the brightness of cheeks and eyes when the lovers fetched her, and toasted her little cold, contracted fingers in their warm ones. Then the apartment in the Rue St. Anastase resounded with her merry chatter, and she joined eagerly in the rites of which Victor Hugo was the god and Juliette the priestess.
In 1840, when she had attained her fifteenth year, Claire’s mother thought it right to confide to her the secret of her irregular birth. She told her also of Pradier’s neglect, and Victor Hugo’s goodness. She exhorted her to be simple in her ideas, and not to set her ambitions too high. Claire manifested much chagrin and vexation at first, but presently her natural piety awoke and Juliette was able to write: “Claire is for ever in church.”
Victor Hugo took upon himself to open the girl’s eyes to the practical side of life, and to point out to her the necessity of preparing for a profession as early as possible. In response to these appeals to her reason, Claire soon accepted her lot with a brave heart. It was settled that at the age of eighteen, that is to say in 1844, she should be engaged as an assistant mistress in Madame Marre’s school, in exchange for board and lodging, but without salary. She agreed also to study for a diploma, and she hoped, when once she had gained it, to find some honourable and paid employment, by Victor Hugo’s help.
Claire fell to work with an ardour, a good-humour, and an intelligence, that drew from Juliette the warmest commendation for her daughter and gratitude for Victor Hugo.
One cannot but wonder whether Claire Pradier was really happy at heart, or whether that eighteen-year-old brow, pure and fair as Juliette’s own, perchance concealed a spirit weighed down by melancholy. She was good-looking certainly, and knew it. In her chestnut locks, her eyes, whose hue wavered between soft black and the blue of ocean, her rounded cheeks, often hectic with fever, the distinction of a tall figure and stately walk, she united—
“À la madonne auguste d’Italie
La flamande qui rit à travers les houblons.”
But beauty is no consolation to one who feels herself already touched by the icy finger of death, and who has, besides, no incentive to prolong the struggle for life. Claire felt thus.
Already, in earliest childhood, she had shown a delicate temperament, uncertain health, more nerves than muscle, more sensitiveness than vitality. During the whole of 1837, her cough never left her. In the years that followed, her figure scarcely showed any of the curves of youth. When her looks were praised, she smiled faintly, and her voice, which was lovely and caressing enough to recall to Victor Hugo the softest cadences of Les Feuillantines, scarce dared pronounce the word “to-morrow.”
Hence proceeded low spirits, which she was never able to shake off, though she usually managed to conceal them from her mother. Presentiments also beset her. “I often dream of those I love,” she wrote to her mother, “and when I wake up, I long to sleep on for ever.”
Mobile as the chisel he manipulated so skilfully, volatile as the dust of the plaster which powdered him, Pradier gave Claire neither regular assistance nor moral support. He had married, and was the father of several legitimate children. Unfortunate as was the celebrity of his wife and far-reaching the scandals provoked by her, he yet desired to preserve before his natural daughter a primly respectable attitude, and a modesty quite Calvinistic. He was as careful to avoid the occasions of meeting her, as Claire herself was eager to provoke them. The more she overwhelmed him with little presents, worked by her own fingers, tender evidences of an unconquerable affection, the more indifferent and discourteous he showed himself, forgetting to pay her monthly allowance, forgetting to give her New Year’s presents, forgetting even to keep his appointments with her, leaving her to wait patiently in the cold studio of Rue de l’Abbaye while he played the gallant on the boulevard.
He had, nevertheless, permitted the girl to make the acquaintance of his legitimate children, and had gone so far as to put his youngest child, Charlotte Pradier, at the same school, when he sent his two sons to Auteuil to a boarding-school. In the month of May, 1845, Claire, with an impulse natural in a girl of nineteen, wished to give the two school-boys the pleasure of a sisterly letter; she got Charlotte to write also. The sculptor heard of it and this is how he treated her trivial indiscretion:
“My dear Big Claire,
I have seen the headmaster of … who has informed me that you and Charlotte have written to J…. Pray write as seldom as possible. I do not think young girls should use their pens to reveal their sentiments. Such a habit is too easily acquired; they should know how, yet not do it. Besides, the children see each other every fortnight, and that is enough. Please do not sign yourself Pradier to them any more. Such a thing becomes known and might cause gossip. You do not need the name, to be loved and respected.
Be frank and fear nothing. Your good time will come some day. You must be prudent in all respects. The children must accustom themselves to your position as it is; they will take more interest in you later. Also, as I am on these subjects, pray use some other formulæ in your letters to me than ‘adored father,’ or ‘beloved.’ I am not accustomed to them. Such epithets are only appropriate to a god. Call me anything else that comes natural to you. It is unnecessary that I should prompt you; your feelings will be your best guide.
Please write more legibly, for I receive your letters at night; and, above all, write only when you have something special to say. You must not become a scribbler about nothing—I mean for the mere pleasure of using your pen.”
How such a letter must have wounded the heart which once beat so tenderly for Pradier! Neither the caresses of Juliette nor the soothing words of Victor Hugo were able to comfort Claire. One month after her father had thus disowned her, she went up for her examination, and, partly through grief, partly through timidity, failed utterly. It was the last stroke.
Not that her constitution showed any immediate sign of the shock it had sustained, or broke down at once. Her physical appearance remained unchanged, but death entered her soul and lurked there henceforward, as sometimes it lies under the depths of waters which flow calmly to outward seeming.
She made her will.
From that moment Claire Pradier lived like those resigned invalids who, raising their gaze to the heaven above them, no longer heed the passing of the hours, while they await the supreme summons. She waited. Her mother, seeing her still apparently healthy, failed to realise her condition, and took the beginning of this mute colloquy with death for a mere return of her daughter’s former depression. Nevertheless, an incident which happened in the month of February 1846 gave to Juliette also one of those presentiments which cannot deceive. Like Claire, she waited.
It was not for long. On March 21st, 1846, having gone to St. Mandé to see the young assistant mistress, she took with her the design and material for a piece of work Victor Hugo had asked for. The idea was to embroider his family coat of arms on coarse canvas, in colours selected by himself. This complicated heraldic work was to adorn the backs of two Gothic arm-chairs in his rooms in the Place Royale.
Contrary to her usual habit, Claire showed very little interest in the poet’s plans; she listened absently and spoke very little. A dry cough shook her frame from time to time, her cheeks burned with fever. Juliette walked home by way of the Avenue de Bel-Air, the Barrière du Trône, and the Faubourg St. Antoine. Victor Hugo, who was always anxious about her, was to meet her half-way. He did so; she was walking slowly, with bent head, and when he asked for news of his embroidery, she burst into tears.
The poet understood in an instant. By his instructions, Claire was removed to Rue St. Anastase the very next day; Triger, her mother’s doctor, was instructed to visit her daily. Not venturing to pronounce at once the dread name of consumption, he spoke of a chill and chlorosis. Claire scarcely heeded, and indicated by a feeble gesture that she was too spent to care. The head she tried to raise from the pillow, fell back as if too heavy for the frail neck. Her large dark eyes gazed through space at some melancholy vision. Her hands upon the white sheets hardly retained strength to clasp themselves in a caress or a prayer.
She begged that Pradier might be informed of her illness. He wrote first, and then came. He demonstrated his affection by theatrical gestures and well-chosen words. Then he placed a villa, which he said he possessed at Auteuil, at the disposal of the invalid and her mother. The so-called villa proved to be one floor in a tenement house, 57, Rue de La Fontaine. Claire was taken there in the early part of May. Her mother accompanied her. Victor Hugo visited them nearly every day, but neither the compliments of “Monsieur Toto” nor the roses he brought his ex-pupil, nor the exhortations of Doctor Louis, whom he brought with him one day, were successful in restoring colour to the countenance of one whose blood-spitting left her every day paler and more exhausted. Claire hardly dared raise herself in bed; icy sweats drenched her, and she moaned continuously, in a manner terribly painful to those who were forced to stand by, helpless.
On June 6th, she asked to see the Vicar of St. Mandé, her confessor. On the 16th, she received the Last Sacraments. On the 18th, delirium supervened, and she expired on the 21st. They buried the girl in the first place at Auteuil, but when her will was read, in which she had written, “I desire to be buried in the cemetery of Saint-Mandé. I also beg that Monsieur l’Abbé Chaussotte should celebrate my funeral Mass, and that green grass should be grown on my grave,” Victor Hugo and Pradier agreed to have the coffin exhumed. The ceremony took place on July 11th. Juliette, who was more dead than alive, was not present; but Victor Hugo and Pradier walked together behind the funeral car, leading the white procession of Claire’s young pupils and companions. The sculptor, always full of intentions, plans, and chatter, discoursed in a low voice of the magnificent tomb he would raise with his own hands to the memory of his daughter. It should be, he said, “a sacred debt; I shall execute it with so much love that my chisel will never before have fashioned anything so chaste or so beautiful.”
After the long, slow journey through Paris in the sunshine, they reached the cemetery of Saint Mandé. Near the tomb of the poet’s friend, Armand Carel, a freshly dug grave yawned, gloomy and covetous. There was some singing, some blessing, the turmoil of a congested crowd; then they separated, but not without a renewal of Pradier’s promise.
Eight years later he died himself, without having discharged his “sacred debt.” One more resolve had fizzled out in empty words. Victor Hugo was then living precariously in exile, but as soon as he heard of the sculptor’s end, he wrote off and ordered a decent headstone for Claire, and directed that the grave should be sown with green grass. Upon the tomb were carved four of the lines he had erstwhile written for Juliette’s consolation, and he set about composing others. Thus it came about that, to the very last, Claire Pradier was protected by the father of Léopoldine against two of the fears that had most alarmed her youthful imagination, “a neglected grave in some distant cemetery, and a faded memory in the hearts of men.”
The Romance Between Juliette Drouet and Victor Hugo
Chapter Six – On an Island
Juliette relates that when she had occasion to admonish her maid, or find fault with a tradesman during her residence in Jersey and Guernsey, the answer she invariably received was: “It cannot be helped, Madame; we are on an island….”
The phrase tickled her fancy, and she adopted it and made use of it on many occasions.
The reader of the following chapters must likewise accept the axiom that, “on an island,” things are not quite the same as on the mainland; for, only by so doing, will he be enabled to peruse without undue astonishment the extraordinary narration of the life led in common by Victor Hugo, his wife, sons, friends, and mistress, between 1851 and 1872.
Its beginning dates from the poet’s sojourn in Belgium without Madame Victor Hugo, at the beginning of his exile; that is to say, in the last weeks of the year 1851 and the first half of 1852. Not that his precarious circumstances and prudent, somewhat middle-class habits, permitted him to house Juliette under his own roof: indeed, their liaison was never more secret. But, at Brussels, the problem of the relations henceforth to exist between the sons of Victor Hugo and she whom they already called “our friend, Madame Drouet,” first came up for solution. It was at Brussels also, that Juliette set herself to simplify it, if not settle it, by her devotion, unselfishness, and unremitting attentions.
At his first arrival on December 14th the poet had taken rooms at the Hôtel de la Porte Verte in the narrow street of the same name. He remained there barely three weeks, and on January 5th, 1852, took a small room on the first floor of No. 27, Grand’ Place. It was “furnished with a black horsehair couch, convertible into a bed, a round table, which served indifferently for work and for relaxation, and an old mirror, over the chimney which contained the pipe of the stove.”
Juliette never went there, but we learn from the poet’s complaints to her, that the couch was too short for a man, the mattresses hard, and offensive to the olfactory nerve, and that sleep was difficult to obtain, on account of the noises in the street. But with the first streak of dawn outside the lofty window, the “great façade of the Hôtel de Ville entered the tiny chamber and took superb possession of it”; the atmosphere became impregnated with art and history. The poet’s fine imagination and ardour for work did the rest. Hence the tone of his letters to his wife, who had remained behind in France, was almost joyous. It was full of masculine courage. Hence, also, that air of “simple dignity and calm resignation,” which characterised his bearing in exile, “adding to his inherent nobility and charm,” and drawing from Juliette the enthusiastic exclamation: “Would that I were you, that I might praise you as you deserve!”
Truth to tell, she merited a rich share of the praise herself. The little comfort Victor Hugo was able to enjoy, and the moral support he needed more than ever, came to him solely through her.
She lodged almost next door, at No. 10, Passage du Prince, with Madame Luthereau, a friend of her youth, married to a political pamphlet writer. For the modest sum of 150 frs. a month, of which 25 were paid to her servant, Juliette obtained food, shelter, and sincere affection. But what she appreciated more than all these, was the liberty she enjoyed of superintending from afar the poet’s domestic arrangements, and preparing under the shadow of the galleries the dishes and sweetmeats he partook of in the publicity of the Grand’ Place.
Every morning at eight o’clock her maid, Suzanne, conveyed to Victor Hugo a pot of chocolate made by Juliette, linen freshly ironed and mended, and sometimes even the modicum of coal the great man either forgot, or did not trouble, to order.
When Suzanne had swept and cleaned the room which Charras, Hetzel, Lamoricière, Émile Deschanel, Dr. Yvan, Schoelcher and sometimes Dumas père daily enlivened with their wit and littered with the ashes from their pipes, she returned at about two o’clock. She found her mistress busy preparing the master’s luncheon—a cutlet generally, which Juliette took the trouble to select herself, in order to make certain that the butcher cut it near the loin! Suzanne started off again bearing the cutlet, the bread, the plates and dishes, and even the cup of coffee! Obedient to her mistress’s injunction, she hurried through the street, for, at any cost, the luncheon must not be allowed to get cold.
When Charles Hugo joined his father in February 1852, it might be supposed that Juliette would relinquish her rôle of cordon bleu; but nothing was further from her intention. She merely proceeded to supplement the daily cutlet with a dish of scrambled eggs, in honour of the young man. Hugo having opened the necessary credit, she continued the task she had undertaken, and prepared two luncheons instead of one. Again, when on May 24th Madame Victor Hugo came for the second time to visit her husband in Brussels, it was Juliette who undertook to cook a little feast for her. In the agitation caused by such a high honour, she forgot to add an extra fork. She worried for the rest of the day over the omission, and apologised in successive letters to the poet, in the terms a devoté might employ to confess a mortal sin.
But these occupations did not prevent the afternoons from hanging heavy on her hands. Victor Hugo spent them in writing Napoléon le Petit; or he organised expeditions to Malines, Louvain, Anvers, with friends; or he yielded to the material pleasures of Flemish life, and accepted invitations to dine at some of those culinary institutes on which Brussels so prides herself.
But none of these resources were open to Juliette. Confined within the four walls of her narrow chamber, her only view was of roofs, and a dull wall, pierced by a single dirty window; she spent whole hours watching a canary in its cage, through the thick panes. She likened her condition to that of the tiny captive. At other times, she allowed her thoughts to roam among past events, and brooded over the packet of letters so cruelly sent to her the year before; she dwelt upon the grief she had endured for many months, the choice the poet had finally made in her favour, and their joint excursion to Fontainebleau to celebrate the reconciliation. Under the depressing influence of the grey Belgian sky, always partially obscured by thick smoke, she realised that her splendid vitality and her love for novelty had departed for ever. Then she allowed jealousy to resume its sway over her, more powerfully than ever.
In this mood, she once more resolved to set Victor Hugo free: “If you tell me to go,” she wrote on January 25th, 1852, “I will do so without even turning my head to look at you.” But again he bade her stay.
Gravely, then, without showing any symptom of her former coyness, she proposed to discontinue her letters.
Fortunately, at this very juncture, the unwelcome attentions of the Belgian police, who were nervous about the forthcoming publication of Napoléon le Petit, had decided Victor Hugo to leave Brussels and go to Jersey. Juliette was to go also, either in the steamer with him, or in one starting a few hours later. Naturally he urged her to go on writing, if only to bridge over the short separation. She admits that when she landed at St. Helier, on August 6th, 1852, hope had once more gained the ascendant within her breast. For the first time in her life, she was about to enjoy the society of her “dear little exile,” her “sublime outlaw,” all by herself, far from the madding crowd.
Victor Hugo resided at first in an hotel at St. Helier, called La Pomme d’Or. Later he settled on the sea-front at Marine Terrace, Georgetown, in an enormous house which, owing to its square shape and skylights, resembled a prison.
Juliette had intended to put up at the Auberge du Commerce, but for twenty years she had never sat at a table d’hôte without the protection of the poet. The proximity of tradespeople and farmers proved insupportable to her. On August 11th she began a search for a suitable boarding-house, and presently concluded a bargain with the proprietress of Nelson Hall, Hâvres-des-Pas, for lodging at eight shillings a week, and board at two shillings a day. This made a monthly expenditure of about a hundred and fifteen francs, to which was added twenty-five francs, the wages of Suzanne, her maid.
Like Marine Terrace, Nelson Hall’s chief claim to maritime advantages was its name. At Victor Hugo’s house there were no large windows overlooking the sea, and in Juliette’s ground-floor rooms, a high paling screened the topmost crest of the highest wave.
Our heroine tried to console herself by listening to the surge of the ocean, and copying the nearly completed manuscript of L’Histoire d’un crime, or the poems the poet intended to add to the volume of Les Châtiments. At the end of September she moved upstairs to a large room on the first floor of the house, whence a wide view could be had of the barren scenery of Hâvres-des-Pas, from the battery of Fort Regent on the right, to the rocks of St. Clément on the left; but Juliette’s peaceful contemplation was constantly disturbed by the violence of the proprietress, a drunkard, who was renowned all over the island for the vigour with which she beat her husband when in her cups.
A further removal was therefore decided upon in January 1853, and carried out on February 6th. Juliette went to live in furnished apartments next door, consisting, as in Paris, of a bedroom, drawing-room, dining-room, and kitchen, on the first floor. They overlooked a vast stretch of sand and shingle, rocks and seaweed.
At first Victor Hugo seldom went to his friend’s house, but met her each day at the outset of his walk and took her with him along roads where the magic of summer glorified every blade of grass. From end to end of the island, Dame Nature had transformed herself into a garden, where all was perfumed, gay, and smiling. Juliette, walking arm in arm with her lover, could feel the glad beating of his heart; her upraised eyes noted that his dear face seemed less worried. With the ingenuity of a twenty-year-old sweetheart, she entertained him of his own country, and invoked memories of the journeys they had made together in former days to the Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees. The exile remembered, not the rain, nor the omnibuses, nor the thousand trifles recalled by Juliette, but France … his own beautiful France…. Under the influence of that voice which had once made him free of the realm of love, his country was restored to him for a fleeting moment.
The lovers were unpleasantly surprised by the week of tempests which ushered in the equinox, and was followed without a pause by the setting in of winter. “Everything became sombre, grey, violent, terrible, stormy, severe.” Day and night rain fell, and “the drops chased each other down the window-panes like silver hairs.” Amidst the uproar to which frenzied Nature suddenly delivered herself, the daily tramps were perforce discontinued.
Fortunately for Juliette, Victor Hugo found Nelson House warmer than his house at Marine Terrace. His wife had recently joined him, but had brought with her neither comfort nor the serene atmosphere propitious for an author’s labours. As in the old days of the Rue St. Anastase, therefore, he set up a writing-table near the fire in Juliette’s sitting-room, with a few volumes of Michelet and Quinet, and a novel or two by Georges Sand; and every day, after lunching with his own family, the poet came to work in his friend’s room. Juliette determined to “find the way back to his heart through his appetite,” as she wrote to him, so she insisted upon his dining with her. She appealed to his greediness as well as to his hospitable instincts, assuring him that nowhere else could he so successfully entertain his new companions, the exiles, as at her abode. Soon she gave two “exiles’ dinners” a week, then three, then four; finally, she had one every day.
With the assistance of his two sons, whom he had at length presented to Juliette, Victor Hugo presided at these feasts with an affability born in part of a desire for popularity. Juliette showed herself more reserved, more severe. Accustomed to treat the poet as a divinity, she could not tolerate the familiarity of these petty folk. “A brotherly cobbler is not to my taste,” she said harshly. “I cannot resign myself to this consorting of vulgar mediocrity with your genius.”
Her sweetness to the two sons of the poet was as marked as the haughtiness of her manner towards the victims of the Coup d’État. For twenty years she had longed to be friends with them. As far back as 1839, on the occasion of a distribution of prizes at which Charles and François Victor were to cover themselves with honours, she wrote: “What a pity I cannot witness their triumph! I love them with all my heart, and would give my life for them; but that is not enough. I will avenge myself by praying that they may remain always as they are at present: charming and good.”
Later we find her treasuring their portraits, anxious about their little childish ailments, pleading for them when they incurred punishment, and overwhelming them with little presents manufactured by her pen or needle, whenever she received the master’s sanction to do so.
What joy it must have given her to receive officially at her table these children grown to manhood! As soon as she became acquainted with them, she raised the young men to the level of Victor Hugo in the order of her preoccupations, and resolved to do nothing for the father, in the way of spoiling and cherishing, that she did not do also for the sons. If she copied Les Contemplations, she protested that she must also write out François Victor’s translation of Shakespeare. If she sent Suzanne to Marine Terrace with a herb soup for the master, she bade her carry six lilac shirts for Charles.
Even young Adèle and Madame Victor Hugo accepted her good offices without demur. For Adèle, Juliette picked the earliest strawberries and the first roses of the Nelson Hall garden; she embroidered handkerchiefs on which Charles had designed the monogram, and bound together the serial stories of Madame Sand, cut from magazines. For Madame Victor Hugo she prepared a certain soup made of goose, which, she said, was most succulent. She lent her Suzanne, her own servant, for the whole time Marine Terrace was without a cook, and meanwhile went without a servant herself, and did her own cooking. She spoilt her skin and wore down her nails, but she took a pride in her devotion and self-abnegation, and resolved to carry them even further. She dreamt of entering Victor Hugo’s household for good, to assume in all humility the position of an ex-mistress become housekeeper.
However numerous may have been the wrongs Victor Hugo inflicted upon this woman, whose jealousy he never ceased to excite, one must admit that he felt and appreciated the greatness of her love. Like a great many men, the artist in him recognised a moral worth that no longer satisfied his needs as a lover; he experienced generous revulsions, under the influence of which he paid her carefully studied attentions, which bore a semblance of impulse and spontaneity gratifying to her feelings.
The young queen, Victoria, having paid France, in the person of Napoleon III, the gracious compliment of a visit in August 1855, the exiles of Jersey dared address an insolent letter to her, which was published by their quaintly-named journal, L’Homme. True to his native chivalry, Victor Hugo declined to sign this manifesto; but he was indignant when the authorities of Jersey marked their disapproval by expelling its three authors. He protested vigorously against their punishment, and was in his turn driven from the island on August 31st.
He went to Guernsey, a neighbouring island, bleaker and less temperate in climate. He settled at first at No. 20, Rue Hauteville, St. Pierre Port. On May 16th, 1856, he bought a roomy, substantial house built on the shore at some former period by an English pirate. It only required restoration, to make it a suitable residence. It was called Hauteville House.
Here again, Juliette lived successively at the inn, and at a boarding-house kept by a Frenchwoman, Mademoiselle Leboutellier. But when she found that Victor Hugo could no longer content himself with a temporary house, and intended to send for the furniture and art-collection he had stored at the rooms in Paris, she begged him to include her in his plans, and let her have her own things also. She was tired of so-called English comfort, with its hard beds, narrow sheets, straight-backed chairs, and tiny wardrobes.
Victor Hugo gave a generous assent to her request. He took a little house for her, called La Pallue, close to, and overlooking, Hauteville House. The faithful Suzanne was despatched to France to pack and send to Guernsey all the Hugo family’s and Juliette’s possessions. She returned on August 9th. The furniture and art-collection arrived on the 20th of the same month.
A busy time followed, for the lovers. They threw themselves feverishly into the excitements of removal, decoration, and treasure-hunting. Victor Hugo dropped spiritualism and photography, which had been his recreations in Jersey, to become architect, cabinet-maker, and joiner. He undertook the supervision of Juliette’s arrangements as well as his own, bought antique Norman furniture, which he turned to various uses, manufactured carpets and curtains out of Juliette’s old theatre frocks, designed panels and mantelpieces, and the many incongruous articles which now decorate the Musée Victor Hugo, and which his friend aptly called “a poetical pot-pourri of art.”
In this wise, the fitting up of the two houses lasted over a considerable period. We learn from Juliette that the poet was still busy with his dining-room on April 2nd, 1857, and on May 28th, 1858, he wrote to Georges Sand: “My house is still only a shell. The worthy Guernseyites have taken possession of it, and, assuming that I am a rich man, are making the most of the French gentleman, and spinning out the work.”
Juliette, whose dwelling was more modest, had the enjoyment of it sooner. She settled into La Pallue at the beginning of November 1856, and had the happiness henceforth of seeing her friend many times a day. He had constructed on the roof of Hauteville House a room that he somewhat pretentiously named his “crystal drawing-room,” and that we should call a belvedere; it was roofed and covered in with glass on all sides. His bedroom opened out of it.
Every morning he sat and worked there, at a flap-table affixed to the wall, when the cold did not drive him to some warmer part of the house. Beneath his gaze spread the low town, the port, the group of Anglo-Norman islands, and, in clear weather, the coast of Cotentin. At his back, and slightly higher up, Juliette, from her little house, kept watch and ward over him. From that moment it may be said that, though Juliette’s body was at La Pallue, her heart and mind inhabited Hauteville House.
Unfortunately, as winter progressed, the storms grew worse, and a darkness reigned that made reading and copying difficult. “Like a great lake turned upside down,” the sky hung lowering above the gloomy houses, and only allowed the pale rays of a leaden sun to pierce through it, at infrequent intervals. The rest of the time the atmosphere remained charged with rheumatic-dealing clamminess.
Juliette, just entering her fiftieth year, bore the rigours of the climate with difficulty. She would have died of it, she declared, had she not been upheld by the influence of love. She was a martyr to gout, and greatly dreaded being crippled by it. She brooded long and often upon death and the dead. Whether under the influence of a priest, or in response to some inward prompting we cannot tell, but she reverted for a time to her former religious practices.
In April 1863, when Juliette was slowly recovering from another attack of gout, Victor Hugo realised the extreme humidity of La Pallue. On the advice of his sons, who seem to have been of one mind with him on the subject, he decided that Juju, as he called her, should move as quickly as possible, and that he should for the second time assume the functions of architect, upholsterer, and decorator of her new dwelling.
Juliette offered a prolonged and strenuous resistance to the plan, for the house chosen for her possessed the grave inconvenience of being at some distance from Hauteville House. The idea that she would no longer be able to watch every movement of her lover, drew from our heroine lamentations and loving reproaches. But Victor Hugo was adamant, and on February 2nd, 1864, the anniversary of the first performance of Lucrèce Borgia, “Princesse Négroni” took up her abode in the new house, which she named Hauteville Féerie.
There again the poet had arranged everything himself. Remembering Juliette’s attachment for her rooms in Rue St. Anastase, he had endeavoured to reconstitute faithfully its curtain of crimson and gold, its peacocks embroidered on panels, its china, the porcelain dragons which adorned the dresser, and especially the numerous mirrors that reflected and multiplied the furniture, knick-knacks, and embroideries.
When Juliette was shown this “marvel,” she said she had no words to express her admiration and gratitude. Then, knowing how often Madame Victor Hugo was away on the Continent, and how uncomfortable the poet was at home, she offered to act in turn as hostess and housekeeper to him.
In 1863 we find her assuming Madame Victor Hugo’s duties during the short absence of the latter, and at the end of 1864, during a further one which lasted until February 1867, she divided her time equally between Hauteville House and Hauteville Féerie.
But there is a difference in her methods of ruling the two establishments. At Hauteville House she governs without obtruding herself, wisely, discreetly, somewhat mysteriously. She directs the servants, reproves them if necessary, superintends the accounts, and keeps down expenses. But she carries out her task from her place in the background. Officially, the poet lives alone with his sons and his sister-in-law, Madame Julie Chenay; when he entertains friends from Paris, Juliette’s name is not mentioned.
At Hauteville Féerie, on the contrary, our heroine is at home. It behoves her to comport herself as the mistress of the house, and expend her gifts of mind, as well as her talents as a manager. As she says, “she must be both lady and housekeeper.”
In this double rôle it might be supposed that she would be reluctant to receive the exiles presented to her by Victor Hugo, whose society is so distasteful to her. Not so. Once more Juliette accepts, through duty and devotion, that which she never would have tolerated on her own account.
The poet was bored, alas! Though he was composing splendid poetry, his long dialogue with Mother Nature was beginning to pall upon him. His somewhat theatrical genius demanded more than a fine stage; it required a public. Without it, the author of Les Châtiments was but the shadow of the poet of Ruy Blas. No doubt the bronzing of his skin by the salt breath of the sea, and the virulence of his spite against Napoleon III, lent him a fictitious appearance of spring and vigour; but there were times when he flagged sadly, and when despondency and fatigue expressed themselves in the droop of his lips, the sagging of his ill-shaved cheeks, the wrinkles on his brow, and, especially, the heavy pockets beneath his eyes. His attire betrayed his complete neglect of himself. When he walked through the Place de Hauteville in his Girondin hat all battered by the wind, his cashmere neckcloth carelessly knotted under an untidy collar, his open coat revealing a buttonless shirt in summer, and in winter, a faded scarlet waistcoat which Robespierre himself would have despised, the little children he so loved ran from him as if he were accursed.
Juliette grasped these mute warnings, and, as soon as she was established in the vast frame of Hauteville Féerie, she attempted to reconstitute the society she had once presided over at Jersey. She even endeavoured to enlarge the circle and admit a few new-comers.
Juliette was able to maintain the simple dignity to which she attached so much importance, and from which she departed only in favour of her poet, in the most delicate circumstance of her life, namely, when Madame Victor Hugo offered her her friendship. She did not decline it, but, where many might have erred by an excess of satisfaction and familiarity, she showed a discreet reserve highly creditable to her. Since their exile, the relations of the two women had undergone a great change. On the one hand, Madame Victor Hugo’s perpetual pursuit of pleasure, her constant fatigue, her laziness, and her incapacity to manage a house, had gradually involved her in the network of attentions, civilities, and petting, Juliette lavished upon her and hers. The reports brought to her by her sons and servants of the doings at Hauteville Féerie, had given her a good opinion of our heroine; her natural kindliness did the rest, and she showed herself disposed to treat in neighbourly, and even friendly, fashion one whom she might justly have hated as a rival.
On the other hand, Juliette no longer felt that jealousy of the mistress against the legitimate wife, that she had experienced at the beginning of her love-story. But actual friendship between Madame Victor Hugo and Juliette was hindered for a long time, by the fear of English criticism, and of those Guernseyites of whom Victor Hugo wrote, that they made even the scenery of the island look prim. Juliette dreaded the unkind tittle-tattle the exiles would not fail to retail to her, if she accepted the advances from Hauteville House. Therefore, during the first ten years at Guernsey, she only set foot in her friend’s house once, in 1858, to inspect the treasures the master had collected in it. Madame Victor Hugo was absent that day.
At the end of 1864, the wife of the poet became more urgent in her invitations. She was about to depart to the Continent, to undergo treatment for her eyes; her absence might be, and indeed was, indefinitely prolonged. However careless she might be in housekeeping matters, she was probably loath to commit her husband to the tender mercies of her sister, Madame Julie Chenay, who boasted of possessing neither aptitude for business nor a head for figures. She saw the use that might be made of the poet’s friend, and opened negotiations by inviting her to dinner. But Juliette declined. This policy of self-effacement was continued by her even during the long absence of Madame Victor Hugo in 1865 and 1866. When Victor Hugo pressed her to dine with him, in secret if necessary, she wrote: “Permit me to refuse the honour you offer me, for the sake of the thirty years of discretion and respect I have observed towards your house.”
In the end, however, Madame Victor Hugo gained the day, and overcame this dignified reticence. On her return to Guernsey on January 15th, 1867, she declared her intention of paying Juliette a visit. The diplomatic abilities of the poet were taxed to the uttermost in the regulation of the details of this important event. The visit took place on January 22nd. It was impossible to avoid returning it. Juliette did so on the 24th, and thenceforth, no longer hesitated to cross the threshold of Hauteville House. She went there almost every day, to revise the manuscript and the copies of Les Misérables with the help of Madame Chenay; in 1868, she spent the whole month of May under its roof, while her faithful Suzanne was in France.
Similarly, she no longer minded being seen in public with Victor Hugo and his sons, and even his wife, during the journeys they made together. Whereas in 1861, for instance, on a journey to Waterloo and Mont St. Jean, we still find her dining apart, and seeming to ignore Charles Hugo, in 1867, she is constantly at the latter’s house in Brussels, attending the family dinners and enjoying the charm of what she calls “a delicate and discreet rehabilitation” by Madame Hugo and her daughter-in-law. She took her share in their joys as in their sorrows.
It was at Brussels that the three grandchildren of the poet were born, and there also that he lost successively, in April and August 1868, his eldest grandchild and his wife. He mourned the latter with the sorrow of a man from whom the memory of his early love has not faded. As for Juliette, her regret was thoroughly sincere. She did not venture to attend the funeral, in deference to outside gossip; but when, a few days later, she went to the house and saw the empty arm-chair Madame Victor Hugo’s indulgent personality had been wont to occupy, she could not restrain her tears.
Victor Hugo and his friend returned to Guernsey on October 6th, 1868. They continued to inhabit separate houses, but dined together at one or the other. They also resumed their sea-side walks, and their long talks, of which the chief topic was the second son of Charles Hugo, an infant who had been left behind at Brussels.
The infirmities of increasing age occasionally prevented our heroine from following her indefatigable companion. She would then remain at her chimney corner, reading the Lives of the Saints or some devotional book. She was more than ever prone to reflect upon death. She had been greatly shocked by the rapidity with which Madame Victor Hugo had succumbed, and she felt that her turn, and that of the poet, must soon come. She prayed ardently that she might be permitted to go first.
In August 1869 Victor Hugo took Juliette with him, first to Brussels, where Charles Hugo and Paul Meurice joined them, and then to the Rhine, which held so many sweet memories for both. On their return to Guernsey on November 6th, he proceeded to plan a journey to Italy for the following winter. He also made arrangements for the revival of Lucrèce Borgia at the Porte St. Martin. The journey to Italy was never carried out, but on February 2nd, 1870, on the anniversary of its first performance, Lucrèce had a brilliant success.
The old poet was enchanted.
Foreseeing the fall of the Empire, and guessing that the French were sick of a régime which, during the last eighteen years, had confused government with spying, and politics with police, he redoubled the activity of his propaganda, and indited letter after letter, manifesto after manifesto. The more Juliette confessed to the lassitude of age, the more he seemed to defy his years.
The Romance Between Juliette Drouet and Victor Hugo
Chapter Seven – That Which Brings Satisfaction to the Heart
When Victor Hugo grasped the full extent of the national disaster in August 1870, he started immediately for Belgium. On the proclamation of the Republic, he proceeded to the frontier, where a few official friends awaited him.
The scene that took place on his arrival was impressive, though somewhat theatrical. The “sublime outlaw” asked for the bread and wine of France. After he had eaten and drunk, he begged Juliette to preserve a fragment of the bread, and buried his face in his hands with the gesture of one who is dazzled by too much light. Juliette relates that big tears flowed through his clenched fingers. The bystanders stood in silence, awed by his emotion….
The poet and our heroine stayed with Paul Meurice at Avenue Frochot for a time, and then went to the Hôtel du Pavillon de Rohan. Finally they settled, he in a small furnished apartment at 66, Rue de la Rochefoucauld, and she close by, in a fairly spacious entresol rented at fourteen hundred francs, at 55, Rue Pigalle.
But hardly had they resumed the peaceful tenor of their ways when they were forced to uproot again. On February 8th, 1871, Victor Hugo was elected a member of the Assemblée Nationale, and, as he could not bear to be parted any longer from his grandchildren, he removed his whole household to Bordeaux, including his son Charles, his mistress Juliette, and the little heroes of L’Art d’être grandpère. They started on February 13th, and the poet took his seat on the 15th. On March 8th he felt it his duty to resign, on account of the refusal of his colleagues to allow Garibaldi to be naturalised a Frenchman. He was about to leave, when a fresh sorrow struck him down: this was the sudden death of Charles Hugo, on March 13th.
The body of the unfortunate and charming young man was taken back to Paris, and the funeral took place on the 18th, in the sinister scenario of the rising insurrection. On the 21st, Victor Hugo went to Belgium to make arrangements for his grandchildren’s future. Two months and a half later, he was expelled from Brussels, for rewarding its hospitality by throwing his house open as a refuge to the political miscreants who had just fired Paris and shed the blood of their compatriots. He was the object of a violently hostile demonstration on May 27th, 1871, and afterwards received the decree of expulsion. He went to Vianden, in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and returned definitely to Paris in September 1871. Juliette had accompanied him everywhere.
No sooner was the luggage unpacked, than she bravely undertook to amuse him, by forming a small circle of his friends and admirers, in her drawing-room at Rue Pigalle. But the undertaking was beyond her powers. Her long sojourn in a solitary island and her complete absorption in one sole object, had resulted in the loss of what might be termed her social talent. In France, and especially in Paris, everything was new to her, everything caused her agitation.
The state of her health was not such as to restore her equanimity. She suffered from gout and heart-disease, was growing stout, walked with difficulty, slept badly, and was terribly weary: “I am so tired,” she writes, “that I feel as if even eternity would fail to rest me.”
Victor Hugo, therefore, gave up the entertainments at Rue Pigalle; the boxes were repacked, and on August 14th, 1872, the party returned to that island where everything spoke to the exile of former joys, from the anemones he loved, to the cherry-tree he had planted himself.
In the mornings, at half-past eleven, Victor Hugo used to make his joyous appearance at Hauteville Féerie, and escort his friend to Hauteville House, where the luncheon-table was proudly attended by Georges and Jeanne. In the afternoon, a family drive was organised. The largest carriage on the island was hardly big enough to contain the dear beings by whom he loved to be surrounded. The hours drifted peacefully towards dusk.
While our heroine lived on future hopes and past memories, Victor Hugo enjoyed the present more than ever. Every one knows of his gallantry, and the bold front he offered to advancing age. Amongst other comforting illusions, he chose to believe that women prefer old men, and he gloried in proving his theory. With more sense than she has been credited with, Juliette sometimes managed to close her eyes and ears; at other times she gently rallied him, congratulating him on the success of his most recent exploit. But more often it must be admitted that her temper was not equal to the nobility of her nature. To jealousy was presently added the pain of humiliation and offended dignity, caused by a vulgar intrigue, conducted under her very eyes, at her own fireside.
At last, at the end of the visit to Guernsey, which had turned out so differently from her expectations, Juliette came to a grave decision. She resolved to abandon the field to the frail beauties whom chance, desire, or self-interest, gathered around her poet, and to retire to live at Brest with her sister, or at Brussels with her friends the Luthereau.
Having borrowed 200 frs. from some one, Juliette actually started on September 23rd, 1873, without leaving the smallest note of farewell for Victor Hugo. But he lost no time in despatching a letter of recall, and he couched it in terms so eloquent, and so pathetic, that once more the poor woman was fain to overlook the past. She returned to Rue Pigalle on September 27th. She subsequently wrote to the kind hosts with whom she had taken refuge: “I have been very foolish, very cruel, very stupid; but I am rewarded. If one could hope for a second resurrection like this, one might be almost tempted to go through it all again.”
Shortly after Juliette’s act of defiance, her friend imposed the fatigue of a new removal upon her. The author of L’Art d’être grandpère had just lost his son, François Victor. More than ever he turned to his little grandchildren for consolation, and at the end of 1873, he decided to join households with them and their mother. For a rental of 6,000 frs. a year, he took two apartments, one above the other, at 21, Rue de Clichy. On April 28th, 1874, Juliette took possession of the third floor with her maid, while Madame Charles Hugo, her children, and the poet, settled in the fourth.
The receptions and dinners began again almost at once. At first they were weekly, then bi-weekly, and finally daily. The table was large and well attended. In addition to the five people forming the family party, including Juliette, there were rarely fewer than seven guests. Our heroine, in her capacity of chief steward, usually provided for twelve. She liked the fare to be simple and substantial: sole Normande, côtelettes Soubise, and poulets au cresson were the chief items of the repast.
Housekeeping on this scale demanded a staff of competent servants. Juliette had five, for whom she was responsible. She superintended their expenditure, their purchases, and the use to which they put the provisions; she commended good work and reproved faults, and in fact fulfilled the functions of a majordomo in a situation where the daily expenditure exceeded £4 for food, and approximated £2 for wines and spirits. She also had to supervise the department of the invitations, draw up lists, and sort the guests of each day, so as to temper the solemnity of a Schœlcher or a Renan, with the wit and froth of a Flaubert or a Monselet.
Juliette assumed this charge, submitted the names to Victor Hugo, wrote the letters, opened the answers, and classified them. If anybody failed at the last moment, she telegraphed to some one on the “subsidiary list,” as she called it, and only ceased her efforts when she was assured of being able to offer to the gratified master a full table and a numerous and docile court.
She was now at the head of that court, but it must not be supposed that it was by her own desire. On the contrary, she practised the most severe self-effacement. Clad in black, wearing as her only jewel a cameo set in gold, representing Madame Victor Hugo, and bequeathed to her in the latter’s will, she usually sat at the chimney-corner in a large arm-chair. Fatigued by her laborious preparations, it frequently happened that she fell asleep in the drawing-room, as Madame Victor Hugo had been wont to do. This lapse of manners so covered her with confusion, that she made a vow either to bring her health up to the level of her devotion or else to disappear from view. She did, in fact, redouble her activities, to an extent astonishing in a septuagenarian. She undertook to follow the aged poet whenever he mingled with crowds. At Quinet’s and Frédéric Lemaître’s funerals, she was present in the throng, an infirm old woman, watching from a distance, over a Victor Hugo, upright as a dart, and full of vitality. Did he wish to make an ascent in a balloon, she was there; when he conducted a rehearsal, or read one of his early dramas to his modern interpreters, it was she who led the applause, declared that the voice of Olympio had retained all its strength and beauty, and that he had never read better.
In the period between 1874 and 1878 it must be conceded that Victor Hugo did his best to secure to his friend a greater degree of mental tranquillity than she had ever enjoyed before. He was careful to conceal his infidelities from her, and often succeeded in averting scenes and reproaches; or, if denial seemed impossible, he tried to palliate his fault and gain indulgence by addressing to her one of those poetical odes in which he excelled, and from which she derived such pride and joy.
But these were only passing revivals of youthful emotions, in the poet as well as in his friend. They resemble those bonfires of dead leaves, lighted by labourers in autumn on the summit of bare hills—their flame can ill withstand the slightest puff of wind. Such a puff blew upon the old couple in the course of the year 1878.
Juliette was greatly troubled about the state of her health. She wrote to the poet, on January 8th: “I feel that everything is going from me and crumbling in my grasp: my sight, my memory, my strength, my courage.”
On June 28th of the same year, at one of those copious banquets to which he still did full justice, and in the midst of an argument with Louis Blanc concerning Voltaire and Rousseau, Victor Hugo had a cerebral attack which alarmed his friends exceedingly. His speech faltered, he gesticulated feebly.
Two doctors summoned in haste failed to give reassurance, and prescribed absolute rest in the country. On July 4th, the poet was escorted to Guernsey by a large retinue consisting of his grandchildren, the Meurice family, Juliette, Monsieur and Madame Lockroy, Richard Lesclide, and another friend, Pelleport. But no sooner had they reached the island, than Victor Hugo began to show symptoms of agitation. It could not be on account of his illness, for he was living quietly and comfortably, rejoicing at the amusement the season afforded his friends, and taking his own share of it. But, according to the testimony of one who has published a book concerning the master as witty as it is frank, the reason was that he had left behind him in Paris the heroines of several intrigues; amongst others, the young person whose behaviour had occasioned Juliette’s fit of anger and departure for Brest, and he was fearful lest the post should convey to Guernsey the forlorn cooings of the deserted doves, and that some echo of them should reach Juliette.
Our heroine was certainly informed of some of the circumstances, for on August 20th, 1878, while still at Guernsey, she wrote the old man a letter which is a revelation of the changed character of their intercourse. Victor Hugo answered somewhat crossly and contemptuously, and nicknamed Juliette “the schoolmistress.”
On his return to Paris on November 10th, he consented to remove to the little house at Avenue d’Eylau where he ended his days, and which was then almost in the country. Juliette took the first floor, and he occupied the second. But presently she arranged to spend the nights in a spare room next to his, so that she might be at hand to attend upon him if necessary.
From that moment it may be said that her life declined into uninterrupted sadness and servitude. She was suffering from an internal cancer, and knew that she was condemned to die of slow starvation! Nevertheless, she played her part of sick nurse with a devotion and a minute attention to detail to which all witnesses tender their homage. She it was who entered the poet’s chamber each morning, and woke him with a kiss; she, who put a match to the fire ready laid on the hearth, and prepared the eggs for his breakfast; she, who waited on the old man while he ate, opened his letters, made extracts from them when necessary, and answered the most important. It was she, again, who undertook to keep her beloved friend company until midday, and to amuse him, and acquaint him with the current political and literary news.
The task was heavy enough to weary a much younger brain. Juliette found it almost beyond her strength. In 1880 she was so overwrought that she had become nervous, irritable, and restless. At night, when her offices of reader and sick nurse were over, it must not be supposed that she was able to sleep. From her bed in the adjoining room, with eyes fixed, and ear on the stretch, she watched the slumber of her dear neighbour, under the great Renaissance baldachino, with its crimson damask curtains. Did he cough, she rose hurriedly and administered a soothing drink; but if she coughed herself, and thus ran the risk of awaking him, she was furious, longed for a gag, and tried to suppress the labouring of her suffering breast. She cursed the years that had made her love a burden to its object, and chid her body for a bad servant no longer subservient to her will.
Severe as were the physical sufferings she bore so patiently under shadow of the night, Juliette preferred them to the sadness she endured during the long, solitary afternoons, while her former companion was at the Senate, at the Académie, or elsewhere.
We must picture her at that period, not as Théodore de Banville represents her in his formal description, but as Bastien Lepage painted her with more truth, about the same time. Disease has made cruel inroads on the grave, serene, once goddess-like features. Her poor countenance is worn and wasted, covered with a fine network of wrinkles, each one of which tells its tale of suffering. Her hair, whose sheen was formerly likened by poets to the satin petals of a lily, and which once fell naturally into crown-like waves, is roughened and harsh, and has assumed that yellowish tinge which so often presages death. Her lips, no longer revived by kisses, are pale, her eyes heavy and anguished, her smile faded.
Seated by the fire in winter, and at the open window overlooking the Avenue d’Eylau in summer, she who was the “Princesse Négroni,” now presents the woeful appearance of a grandmother without grandchildren.
Sometimes she tries to pray. She calls death to her aid, she complains of the slowness with which the bonds of the soul loose those of the body.
In September 1882, she made a short journey with Victor Hugo to Veules, to stay with Paul Meurice, and to Villequier, to stay with Auguste Vacquerie. She took to her bed immediately on her return. By a great effort of will, she got up once more, to attend the revival of Le Roi s’amuse on November 25th; then she finally returned to her chamber and never left it again.
Neither her body nor her mind was capable of assimilating nourishment. She waved happy memories aside.
Every afternoon the old poet paid her a visit. He disliked any mention of death, and could not bear the sight of suffering. If we are to believe Juliette, he had made a rule that every one must forswear melancholy, and shake off sad thoughts, before appearing in his presence. Docile as ever, the sick woman endeavoured to smile when he entered her room. She listened submissively to the arguments by which he sought to persuade her that she did not really suffer, that there is no such thing as suffering. Up till May 11th, 1883, the very day of her death, there remained thus about one hour of the day during which she still had to play her part, restrain her moans, and look cheerful. She did it to the best of her power, and doubtless, in the triumph of that daily victory gained over torture by her indomitable spirit, she found at last the answer that the poet should have put into the mouth of Maffio—she discovered that “That which brings satisfaction to the heart” is neither desire, nor caresses, nor even love: it is self-sacrifice.
Written by Louis Guimbaud, Translated by Lady Theodora Davidson (2015)