Monday, November 28, 2011

Dickens meets Victor Hugo

Today, a story I learned from Claire Tomalin's new biography of Charles Dickens. In 1846, the thirty-four-year-old Dickens, having just written the chapter of Dombey and Son that ended poor Paul Dombey's life, wandered Paris with his best friend, John Forster, and called on Victor Hugo. Tomalin's account, which draws on Forster's biography of Dickens, shows Dickens to have been simultaneously impressed and amused:
Hugo made a profound impression on both of them with his eloquence, and Forster observed that he addressed "very charming flattery, in the best taste" to Dickens. Dickens thought he "looked like the Genius he was," while his wife looked as if she might poison his breakfast any morning; and the daughter who appeared "with hardly any drapery above the waist . . . I should suspect of carrying a sharp poignard in her stays, but for her not appearing to wear any."
The casual references to murder sent me to my shelves to see what I could learn about the life of Hugo, whose work I've barely read. And the journals of the Goncourt brothers didn't disappoint. Here, from August 5, 1873, is a reflection that follows a visit to the Hugo household:
Left to myself, I started thinking about that family, about that father, that genius, that monster--about that first daughter who had been drowned, and that second daughter who had been carried off by an American and brought back to France raving mad--about those two sons, one dead and the other dying--about Mme Hugo, committing adultery with her son-in-law--about Vacquerie, marrying one daughter, sleeping with the mother, and practically raping his sister-in-law--and finally about that Juliette, that Pompadour of the poet's, still pursuing, with her kisses, at his late date, the dying son. A Tragic Family, such is the title the dying man gave a novel he once wrote--and such is the title of the Hugo family.
Wow. A helpful note from editor Robert Baldick puts a little more detail behind this litany of disaster:
Leopoldine and Charles Vacquerie had been drowned at Villeguier on 4 September 1843, six months after their marriage. Hugo's surviving daughter, Adele [the one who caught Dickens's eye] had followed an English officer called Pinson to America in 1863; brought back by Francois-Victor Hugo [Hugo's son, who was dying at the time of the Goncourts' visit], she had been committed to a lunatic asylum where she died in 1915. The author of Une Famille tragique was not Francois-Victor, but his elder brother Charles, who had died in 1871. Francois-Victor himself was to die soon afterwards, on 26 December 1873. No evidence has come to light to substantiate the accusation levelled by Goncourt at Mme Victor Hugo.
The tone of the Goncourts' reflection--and especially its opening sentences--brought to mind Anthony Powell and A Dance to the Music of Time. So when the editor's note cleared Madame Hugo alone of all charges, I found myself thinking of a passage from the Book of Revelation that Powell's narrator, Nick Jenkins, recalls as he reflects on some ancient debauchery:
Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments, and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
A suitable reward, perhaps, for resisting the urge to match her husband affair for affair--to say nothing of the more serious urge, detected by Dickens, to slip a soupcon of poison into his morning crepe.


  1. The "drowned daughter" mentioned in the Goncourt journals was the subject of one of Hugo's most famous poems. If you take an introductory course in French poetry, there's a very high probability that you will encounter it.

  2. andrea1:21 PM

    Truffaut's film "L'histoire d'Adele H." (1975) is loosely based on the story of Adele Hugo.

  3. Anonymous1:17 PM

    Thank you for these interesting "back stories" on Hugo. Found your blog by serendipity. Presently reading Les Miserables and seeing so many common threads that remind me of Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations, I was looking for information about connections to the two writers.