Who knew, Hugo?

June 6, 2015

I was astonished to learn the following about Victor Hugo (1802–1885), author of Les misérables (1862) and many other texts.

[Hugo’s] love affair with Juliette, though discreet, was another of the worst kept secrets in Paris. By the time the item went public, Victor and Adèle had agreed upon a discreet open marriage, exactly as his own parents had, a thoroughly contemporary arrangement. She slipped off through the escalier dérobé to see Sainte-Beuve and Victor left the front door to meet Juliette — and others.

The Hugo myth has it that whereas he naturally betrayed Adèle, his wife, while of course still loving her for eternity, he was faithful to Juliette, his muse and true love for fifty years. The day Juliette died, the story goes, he retired his quills, pining for the rest of his days. The reality is more interesting and inspiring to Parisians in its dark convolutions: half of Victor’s soul went to his wife, the other half plus his heart and loins to his mistress. Why just one mistress? What could be better than multiple mistresses, multiple lives, and secret staircases everywhere?

Hugo’s astonishingly Technicolor existence is never shown in the movies because it is too racy. His was a life of glory, uxorious devotion and serial adultery, fame, treachery, admirable heroism, enduring priapism, towering talent, altruism, narcissism and conspicuous consumption alternated with hair-raising escapes, exile, discomfort, and genuine danger. If you were allowed only one romantic French hero, the outside bearded sphinx Hugo would be a fine choice.

Hugo might indeed be my romantic French hero!

Source: David Downie, A Passion for Paris (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015).