Thursday, November 5, 2015

Victor Hugo in the Marais & Elsewhere

In October 1832, thirty years old and already the titan of French letters,Victor Hugo moved with his wife Adèle and their two sons and two daughters into the spacious second-floor apartment in the Hôtel Rohan-Guéménée at No. 6 Place des Vosges, looking over the park.  Now the Musée Victor Hugo, it is a rich part of my “Great Days of the Marais” walking tour.

Riding high on the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, several lavishly praised books of lyrical poetry, and his riot-igniting play Hernani already behind him, Hugo was the Romantic Movement’s acknowledged leader. Here he wrote his most successful play Ruy Blas, three other dramas, poetry, and drafts of sections of Les Misérables. In 1841 he was elected to the Académie française and four years later elevated to peer of France as viscount by King Louis-Philippe. But during the Revolution of 1848, Hugo switched to the democratic side and was elected deputy to the Second Republic ‘s National Constituent Assembly.

Portrait of Adéle Hugo

Casting a pall over Hugo’s triumphs, however, was the calamitous state of his marriage. Adèle, his childhood sweetheart, came to see him as an egotist and a tyrant, and she entered upon an affair with Hugo’s close friend Sainte-Beuve. The double betrayal crushed him. But in January 1833 he met a lovely young actress engaged for a bit part in his play Lucrèce Borgia. From his first night with Juliette Drouet to her death half a century later, they spent hardly a day apart. “Jugu,” as he called her, unleashed in her “Toto” a passion for the erotic, and she thrilled to his poetry, as Adèle never had. Juliette became his copyist, putting his unruly scrawl into legible form until her eyes gave out in old age. Although they saw each other almost daily, they managed to exchange seventeen thousand notes and letters.

Portrait of Juliette Drouet

Toto set Jugu up in a modest apartment nearby on Rue Sainte-Anastasie. The back door of his house opened onto the Impasse Guéménée, providing convenient cover for his visits to her, and eventually, to many others. Juliette managed to live with his dalliances, but his serious affairs hurt.

Hugo loved being on the Place des Vosges, but on June 24, 1848, after street fighting broke out during a workers’ uprising, he wrote in his journal:

“Fourteen bullets hit my coach house door, eleven outside, three inside. A soldier of the line was mortally wounded in my courtyard. We still see the streak of blood on the paving stones.”

Bust of a young Victor Hugo

 Hugo quickly moved his family to the then-countrified neighborhood of Saint-Georges, in today’s Ninth Arrondissement. Three years later, in 1851, his fiery denunciation of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état forced him to flee from France, and he, his family, and Juliette went into exile, first in Brussels, then in the Channel Islands, remaining there until the fall of “Napoléon le Petit,” as Hugo dubbed him, in 1870.

The rooms in the Musée Victor Hugo are devoted to three periods of Hugo’s life:
  1. his dwelling place on the Place des Vosges …
  2. his exile in the island of Guernsey (we see a Medieval-themed room from his Hautville House and a Japanese-style room from Juliette Drouet’s house Hautville Fairy, pictured below)…
  3. and his last fifteen years in Paris.
An elderly Victor Hugo

The reconstituted bedroom from his final home on Avenue Victor-Hugo (named for him during his lifetime, a very rare honor) is dominated by the Louis XIII bed in which he died on May 22, 1885, at eighty-three. His last words were “Je vois la lumière noire”—“I see the black light.”

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