Copertina Hugo

Victor Hugo: from celebration parades to the procession of grieves

This is the last of three articles about the life of Victor Hugo.

I told you about his unhappy marriage, his infidelity, the devastating loss of his most beloved daughter, of the long and melancholic exile he had to face with his family and the unlucky love escape of his last daughter Adèle, who had been sectioned in an asylum right when she came back to France.

Adèle Hugo
Adèle, 26 years old, photographed by her brother Charles during the exile (1856).

On the validity of Adèle’s “madness” diagnosis, there is more than a shadow of a doubt.

Adèle Hugo was certainly very sensible, and before her escape, she had suffered for four days of an unspecified “nerve crisis”. This instability couldn’t raise any suspicions on what the young woman was plotting, anyway. After the loss of her adored older sister, Adèle’s temper had changed, falling into melancholy and lethargy.
During the exile, she had solitude and silence as her faithful companions, and it looked like every fire in her had been ultimately extinguished forever.
Today we’ll talk about “depression sickness”, but those days it was rather called “melancholic temperament”, which was quite the roar for high society women. Nothing worrying, then.

Hugo e le due Adèle
Victor Hugo in the middle, his wife Adèle on the right and his melancholic daughter Adèle on the left.

Someone slanders and says that Hugo had Adèle locked away because he couldn’t tolerate her independent spirit. Certainly, he never forgave her for her love escape, or the anxiety, the worry, and the scandal that it brought on them. However, it is yet again necessary to dive into the period’s mentality to better understand.

“Madness” diagnosis, at the time, had such undefinable lines – especially when women were involved – that I don’t really think that the famous writer has to be even accused of falsifying it.
An out-of-control woman, who didn’t want to accept the role imposed on her by society, simply had to be mad, that was the only possible explanation that society had, supported by scientific and medical theories of the time.
Adèle’s fate was unfair and inhuman but, – alas – very common for her times.

Adèle’s institutionalization wasn’t the only thing bittering Victor Hugo’s return in France after the long political exile.

The joyous welcome back of his readers rapidly turned into an unending line for condolences.
Three years after the death of his wife Adèle, Victor Hugo’s beloved oldest son, dynamic and cheerful Charles, suddenly died of a heart attack when he was just at barely 44 years old.

Charles Hugo
Charles Hugo (1826-1871), a journalist, was arrested for having written an article against the death penalty. During the exile, his passion for photography produced various portraits of his family.

Charles left to his father Victor two of the greatest joys of his life (and he didn’t have many, as we are seeing): little Georges and Jeanne.

Hugo e nipoti
Victor Hugo with his two grandchildren, children of Charles Hugo. He dedicated his book to them: “The art of being a Grandfather”.

From the famous movie “The Crow” we all remember the quote: “It can’t rain all the time”. This doesn’t apply to Victor Hugo’s life.

Just after two years, gentle François-Victor, little Adèle’s favorite brother and the one who had always defended her died succumbing to a cruel “chest” illness. François-Victor was known to have translated from English the “Complete writings of William Shakespeare”, published in 18 volumes from 1859 to 1866 – clearly, the art of writing ran in the family.

François-Victor Hugo
François-Victor Hugo (1828-1873), Adèle’s favorite brother.

At last, the most dreaded grief came, the one which would announce Victor Hugo his own demise: the partner of a lifetime, who had always remained faithful and devoted, who had adored and revered his genius, defended him, took care of him and always forgiven him, sweet Juliette Drouet, left him forever.

Victor Hugo never touched a pen again, and followed her two years later.

Juliette Drouet
Juliette Drouet (1806-1883) portrayed at 62.

Someone pointed out that besides such a prideful and selfish man as Victor Hugo was only a remissive woman like Juliette could resist, who had renounced to her acting career for him, and to her social life (she had to inform jealous Victor of her every move!).
I partially agree, but at the same time, I can’t stop myself from thinking that such a tormented man like the author of Les Misérables couldn’t in any way face his terrible destiny without a rock to grasp at, like Juliette was, supporting him, healing the deepest wounds of his spirit, shedding some light on the darkest shadows of his desperation.

Victor_Hugo_Le_pendu
“Le pendu” (‘The Hanged’), a drawing by Victor Hugo, done in 1854 during his exile.

Hugo’s personal life leaves its mark, even if summarized like this, and I wanted to retrace it because I think that legendary characters like him, once dressed again in their humanity, have much more to teach us.

For example, here’s a quote that has an entirely different sound knowing that Hugo the man wrote it:

«To die is nothing. Not to live is frightening».