I recently came upon a list of the ten most beautiful love letters. In general, I find such lists rather pointless. In this case, however, most of the letters had been written by great French authors so it piqued my interest. Near the top was one that Victor Hugo wrote at the end of 1851 to his mistress, Juliette Drouet. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte had just staged a coup d’état which ultimately ended in the dissolution of the French National Assembly and re-established the French Empire. Hugo, a beloved man of the people and staunch critic of Napoléon III, joined others to launch a rebellion but quickly realized his life was in danger and that he needed to flee the country.
Juliette Drouet, at that point Hugo’s lover of nearly twenty years, risked her life to organize his perilous escape. As violent clashes broke out in the streets of Paris and in other towns and cities across France, Juliette arranged for false identity papers and set up a series of safe-houses where Hugo could remain hidden as he waited to cross into Belgium. Using a fake passport, Hugo arrived in Brussels on December 12. Juliette joined him two days later. With her she had brought a trunk, carrying all of Hugo’s past works and some yet to come. Among the latter was two-thirds of the still uncompleted Les Misérables.
Hugo wrote the exemplary love letter not long after the couple had established themselves in Brussels. Juliette maintained a separate apartment and while she cooked for Hugo, cleaned and mended his clothes, and performed countless secretarial duties, she never visited his residence. It was Juliette’s maid who ran the necessary errands each day between the two addresses. Hugo, on the other hand, often visited and sometimes worked from Juliette’s apartment. On December 31, 1851, he penned the impassioned words while Juliette was out and he anxiously awaited her return.
Victor’s Letter to Juliette with My English Translation
À Juliette, le 31 décembre 1851
Mon doux ange bien aimé, voici l’année qui finit, année de douleurs, année de luttes, année d’épreuves, l’année qui commence sera l’année d’espérance de joie et d’amour. N’en doute pas, car c’est tout mon cœur qui me le dit. Je suis proscrit, banni, exilé, séparé des miens, pauvre, errant, frappé au cœur et pourtant, quand je me tourne vers toi, il me semble que je vois le bon Dieu qui me sourit.
To Juliette, December 31, 1851
My dearly loved angel, here we are at year’s end, year of pain, year of conflict, year of hardship, the year that begins will be a year of hope of joy and of love. Do not doubt it, for all my heart tells me it is so. I am outcast, banished, exiled, separated from my loved ones, poor, wandering, heart-stricken and yet, when I turn toward you, it seems like I see the good Lord smiling upon me.
Tu as été admirable ma Juliette dans ces sombres et rudes journées. Si j’avais eu besoin de courage, tu m’en aurais donné, mais j’avais besoin d’amour, et sois béni, tu m’en apportais ! Quand, dans mes retraites toujours périlleuses, après une nuit d’attente, j’entendais le matin la clef de ma porte tressaillir sous ta main, j’oubliais tout, je n’avais plus de périls ni de ténèbres autour de moi, c’était la lumière qui entrait!
You have been admirable my Juliette during these dark and difficult days. If I had been in need of courage, you would have given it to me, but I needed love, and bless you, you brought it to me! When, in my always perilous hideouts, after a night of waiting, I would hear in the morning the key to my door trembling in your hand, I would forget everything, I no longer felt in danger nor the shadows encircling me, it was light that entered!
Ho n’oublions jamais ces heures terribles et pourtant si douces où tu étais près de moi dans les intervalles de la lutte ! Rappelons-nous toute notre vie cette petite chambre obscure, ces vielles tapisseries, ces deux fauteuils côte à côte, ces repas au coin de la table avec le poulet froid que tu apportais, ces causeries si tendres, tes caresses, tes anxiétés, ton dévouement ! Tu t’étonnais de mon calme et de ma sérénité. Sais-tu d’où me venaient cette sérénité et ce calme ; c’était toi. Vois tu, Dieu ne frappe jamais tout à fait, il nous a jeté ici, mais ensemble. Qu’il soit béni.
Oh let us never forget those terrible hours and yet so sweet where you were next to me during periods of struggle! Let us remember for the rest of our lives that little dark room, those old tapestries, those two armchairs side by side, those meals at the fireside table with cold chicken that you would bring, those chats so tender, your caresses, your worries, your devotion! You would be surprised by my calm and my serenity. Do you know where this serenity and this calm came from; it was from you. You see, God never strikes completely, he threw us here, but together. May he be blessed.
Dans ces années si vite écoulées, hélas, ton âme a dépensé des trésors de tendresse, de dévouement, de fidélité, de vertu, et pourtant cette belle âme est plus riche que jamais. Tes yeux m’ont donné bien des sourires, ta bouche bien des baisers, et pourtant ton doux visage est plus jeune que jamais. Tu as tout donné et tu as tout gardé. J’ai eu tout et tu as tout. Il n’y a que les astres du ciel qui puissent ainsi donner sans cesse leurs rayons sans diminuer leur lumière.
In those years so rapidly gone by, alas, your soul dispensed a wealth of tenderness, of devotion, of loyalty, of virtue, and yet that beautiful soul is richer than ever. Your eyes gave me many smiles, your mouth many kisses, and yet your sweet face is younger than ever. You have given everything and you have kept everything. I had everything and you have everything. Only the stars in the sky can thusly cast their beams ceaselessly without diminishing their light.
L’année qui vient de finir a été triste. Une moitié de mon cœur est morte. Oh ! Que tu as été douce pour moi dans ces heures d’angoisse ! Que Dieu te récompense et te bénisse ! Ton amour, ô mon ange, ressemble à la vertu. Je t’attends ce soir avec bien de l’impatience. On dirait que les battements de mon cœur voudraient hâter les pulsations de la pendule pour y arriver plus vite. Quand je ne serai plus qu’une cendre glacée, quand mes yeux fatigués seront fermées au jour, dis-toi, si dans ton cœur ma mémoire est fixée:
Le monde a sa pensée
Moi j’avais son Amour.
The year that has finished was sad. Half of my heart is dead. Oh! How sweet you were for me during those hours of dread! How God rewards you and blesses you! Your love, oh my angel, resembles virtue. I can hardly wait to see you this evening. One would say that the beating of my heart hastens the rhythm of the pendulum so as to get there more quickly. When I am nothing more than a frozen cinder, when my tired eyes no longer see the day, tell yourself, if in your heart my memory is etched:
The world has his thoughts
Me, I had his Love.
A Long and Prolific Love Affair
After reading this letter, I became curious about Juliette. It’s in researching her life that I learned much of what I’ve reported above. As fortune would have it, Juliette was Hugo’s mistress for 50 years. During that time, Hugo was married and had a family. He was an insatiable womanizer who had countless short and long-term flings with other women—well into old age. Some historians have described Juliette as his prisoner. Certainly, their relationship was fraught with jealous quarrels, threats of rupture, and joyous reconciliations.
In addition to being Hugo’s lover, the devoted Juliette spent her days copying and proofreading Hugo’s plays and poetry, clipping news articles and gathering research for his work, boosting the flamboyant author’s moral, and advising him on his relationships with publishers, agents, actors, even his wife and children. Throughout the decades, Juliette composed copious notes and letters of her own. In fact, Juliette wrote to Hugo nearly every day. When she died, she left behind more than 20,000 of her own documents, hand-written in quill and ink. Is it any wonder that Hugo gained tremendous strength from their relationship? She’s a fascinating figure who, like Kiki of Montparnasse, is rendered invisible in the shadow cast by her celebrated lover. I hope to learn and share more about her soon.
Update: In a subsequent post, I dig deeper into Juliette’s life and provide several examples of the letters she wrote to Hugo.
- Abricot, Les 10 plus belles lettres d’amour
- Internet Archive, D’après les lettres inédites de Juliette Drouet à Victor Hugo
- Parler d’amour, Lettre d’amour de Victor Hugo à sa maîtresse Juliette Drouet (1851)
- OpenEdition Journals, La page sortie de mon encrier » : les révélations de Juliette Drouet sur la genèse de l’œuvre de Hugo
- Le Manuscrit Français, Hugo ennemi d’État
- Gutenberg.org, Juliette Drouet’s Love-Letters to Victor Hugo
- Kim’s Famous Love Letters, Victor Hugo to Juliette Drouet