“Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo,” said Cocteau of his countryman. Seldom has a literary quip so accurately found its mark. Hugo, best known in the English-speaking world for his novels Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables, but also, indisputably, a titan of French poetry and in his day the most celebrated man in the world, was a ferocious egotist, convinced he spoke for all of humanity, if not for God.
“Even his name is triumphant,” muses his wife Adèle in The Reinvention of Love by Kingston, Ont.-based novelist Helen Humphreys. The thought occurs to Adèle at a time when the exiled Hugo is living with his family in Hauteville House in the Channel island of Guernsey — Hugo has mortally offended the regime of Napoleon III. The top floor of this dwelling, Adèle informs the reader, is occupied by a glassed-in office where Hugo has access to “sweeping views of the ocean and sky,” as well as his “vast collection of books” and a bedroom “where he beds, or attempts to bed, the succession of young maids who come to work in Hauteville House.” Hugo also cuts a glass window into the floor so he can see everything going on in the house. “Here he is,” Adèle comments, “at the top of the world. He has the machinery of the household below him and the infinite horizon in front of him.”
No doubt the ghost of Hugo is upset with Ms. Humphreys for writing a novel about him that is not primarily about him, but about three other characters that alternate the narration and whose lives have been destroyed by Hugo’s egotism — his wife, his youngest daughter, also named Adèle, and his wife’s lover, the famous critic Charles Augustin de Sainte-Beuve.
Theirs is an emotionally tumultuous drama that follows fairly closely the known facts. It is historically true, for example, that Sainte-Beuve and Mrs. Hugo had a scandalous love affair. It is true that Sainte-Beuve possessed a very small penis, incapable of becoming erect — an affliction known as hypospadia. It is true that Hugo’s daughter Adèle went mad.
Whether or not Sainte-Beuve ever wore his mother’s clothes and called himself Charlotte, I am not familiar enough with the biography of Sainte-Beuve to say. It would be interesting to know for a certainty, since the latter detail in the novel is not superfluous. As transvestites attest, wearing clothes appropriate to the opposite gender changes attitude. “I like being a woman,” Sainte-Beuve confesses. “There is a freedom in it that I find a relief. No one is going to challenge me to a duel. If I say something out of turn, I will be ignored or forgiven my outburst, not expected to pace twenty steps into the undergrowth with a loaded pistol.” As Charlotte, Sainte-Beuve also feels the freedom of having no past. “All I have is this moment of waiting for Adèle,” he allows, sitting in an empty church in his female costume. “It is so simple and so pure.”
Besides, with his small hands and tiny shoulders he looks better in his mom’s outfit.
Cross-dressing in the reverse direction equally liberates women. The female author George Sand, according to her friend Sainte-Beuve, “sports male dress in order to have more freedom in society.” Young Adèle, hopelessly and obsessively pursuing the British army officer Albert Pinson, wears a young man’s clothes while stalking her supposed lover. “There is such freedom when I go out in the evenings now,” she writes Pinson. “There is no finer calling card to the world’s pleasures than the dress of a man.”
The transformation of Charles into Charlotte underlines the contrast between the sexually deformed Sainte-Beuve and his opposite number Victor Hugo, “always pumped up on his own virility,” according to Sainte-Beuve. In cultural terms, this contrast is a traditional one — the fecund artist vs. the impotent critic. It is a humiliating position for Sainte-Beuve, but it may not be the worst consequence he has to face. Hugo is a much better shot than Sainte-Beuve and the latter has a real fear, given the French manhood test known as duelling, that his affair with Mrs. Hugo will have a fatal outcome.
Even lacking the combustibles of male potency and sexual attractiveness — Sainte-Beuve considers himself fat and ugly — the affair between the critic and Mrs. Hugo is genuinely passionate. Ever the intellectual, however, Sainte-Beuve must interrogate the love he and Mrs. Hugo are reinventing. “What draws two people together?” he asks himself. “Who sees love arriving?” he ponders on another occasion. Most pertinent of all is the question he addresses, “Why is love so difficult and so changeable?”
No answers appear, except one: “I will always be lonely and alone.” Late in the affair, Sainte-Beuve tells Mrs. Hugo — truthfully, it turns out — “I will never love anyone as I love you,” and she responds — also truthfully — “Nor I.” But in the end, she opts for her children and for the financial security of her marriage, though it means a lifetime of misery.
An even sadder counterpoint to their love is the story of Hugo’s daughter, also the subject of a Truffaut movie, L’Histoire d’Adèle H. The story is hair-raising. Young Adèle cannot relent in her pursuit of Pinson — she follows him to his army postings in Halifax and the Barbados — even when the message finally gets through that he does not love her. “There is no stopping,” she threatens him. “I will make you understand that you must love me. I will not leave you alone.”
Her mother suspects that life with her megalomaniacal father, who preferred his eldest daughter, was the underlying cause of young Adèle’s madness, and there are strong grounds in the novel for believing this to be true. But there is no remedy for her condition, and there is no consolation for the reader. Love is everything, it appears, and yet love cannot save us. Art is inspiring and insightful and yet the artist is often enmeshed in narcissism and insecurity. At their first meeting, for example, the young Victor Hugo is pathetically grateful for the praise Sainte-Beuve has given some of his poetry. Near the end of the novel, Hugo is able to dispense with Sainte-Beuve since the rest of the universe now seems to be applauding him. It is easy to forget, under these circumstances, that Sainte-Beuve is as greedy for praise as Hugo. Why can’t the world see, Sainte-Beuve wails silently, that his novels are just as good as Hugo’s?
Helen Humphreys has no need to feel insecure about The Reinvention of Love, an entertaining novel at the same time as it is emotionally harrowing. The work is a triumph of lucid, vigorous, suspenseful narrative, a historical fiction that wears the author’s knowledge of the past lightly, a convincing study of character that could be set in almost any civilized era.
source: National Post_ Philip Marchand