Two weeks ago, I wrote about a love letter that Victor Hugo wrote to his mistress, Juliette Drouet, shortly after fleeing France to live in exile. In that post, I remarked that over the course of their impressive 50-year relationship, Juliette penned roughly 20,000 letters to the storied author. It’s a mind-boggling number. Perhaps even more surprising is that the letters still exist. The University of Rouen, in partnership with the Sorbonne, is in the midst of a Herculean effort to transcribe them and put the text online. So far, they’ve posted close to 12,000 of Juliette’s missives. I say “transcribe” because photocopies of the original letters are quite difficult to read. Below, is an example.
But I digress. In recent weeks, I’ve read Juliette Drouet’s Love-Letters to Victor Hugo, by Luis Guimbaud, written in 1915. It’s a reasonable biography of Juliette’s life, which includes a few hundred of her letters spanning the years 1833, when she first met Hugo, until her death in 1883. There are probably better biographies but this one is available for free through the Gutenberg project. Understanding this woman has been a perplexing and sometimes frustrating task. At times, she seems resourceful and strong-willed. At others, she is prattling and insecure. Across the decades, her relationship with Hugo, oscillated like a high-frequency sine-wave between blissful and abusive.
What follows is some of what I’ve concluded about a complicated woman who lived and loved more than 150 years ago.
A Tumultuous Relationship
I don’t know how many of Juliette’s letters I’ve read at this point but the number is in the hundreds. Despite considerable effort, it was a challenge to find samples of her writing that portray the woman in a flattering light. A handful of themes repeat themselves ad nauseam and I categorize them as follows.
- Elated by a recent visit by Hugo, Juliette exudes joy and gratitude to have been graced by his presence.
- Juliette expresses her admiration of Hugo and/or his latest work, heralding his genius.
- Suspicious of Hugo’s absence or rumors of an affair, Juliette decries Hugo’s infidelity and the pain he continually inflicts upon her.
- Juliette belittles her self worth while honoring Hugo’s brilliance. She can only repay him with her unyielding devotion.
- After a heated quarrel, Juliette threatens to put an end to the relationship since both parties have hurled unthinkable insults at each other and will be better off without the other.
- Juliette begs Hugo to allow her to stop writing daily letters to him as the exercise has become repetitive and hollow.
Note that last bullet point. That’s right. The reason why there are 20,000 letters from Juliette to Hugo is that he insisted that she write to him every day! (She often wrote multiple letters in one day). Before I discovered this, I wondered why Hugo, a man of the people, known for extraordinary eloquence, would stick with a woman who, at least in my eyes, hounded him with myriad insipid reports. Extremely rare are the times when Juliette speaks of a current event or any incident outside of their couplehood.
Unfortunately, my perspective arises from a one-sided study. In addition, I’ve only seen a small fraction of what Juliette wrote. Hugo’s letters may also be online. However, I’ve not taken the time to search out his replies of apology or reciprocated adoration. Gradually, however, I’ve come to believe that Hugo, despite his stature, was burdened with his own insecurities. He stayed with Juliette, at least in part, because time and time again, her gushing praise lifted his spirits. Here is an example:
Vendredi soir, 8 h
Si j’étais tant seulement une femme d’esprit, je vous dirais, mon bel oiseau, comme quoi vous avez à vous tout seul la forme, le plumage et le chant !
Je vous dirais que vous êtes la merveille de toutes les merveilles, depuis celle qui sont jusqu’à celles qui ont été, et je ne dirais là que la simple vérité. Mais pour vous dire cela, MON SUPERBE, il me faudrait une voix harmonieuse qui n’appartient pas à l’espèce dont je fais partie : l’effraie, celle dont vous vous êtes si bien moqué tantôt. Ce n’est donc pas moi qui vous dirai à quel point vous êtes éblouissant et resplendissant. Je laisse cela à tous les oiseaux gazouillanta, parlant et sifflant : et ceux-ci, comme vous savez, ne sont pas les moins beaux ni les moins admiratifs.
Je leur laisse le soin de vous regarder, de vous écouter, de vous admirer. Moi, je ne me réserve que le droit de vous aimer. C’est peut-être moins harmonieux à l’oreille, mais c’est plus doux au cœur. Je vous aime. Je t’aime mon Victor. Je ne peux pas trop te le dire, je ne peux jamais te le dire assez comme je sens.
Dans tout ce que je vois de beau, je te reconnais. Les belles formes, les belles couleurs, les suaves odeurs, les sons harmonieux, tout ça, c’est toi, et toi, tu es bien plus que tout ce que je vois et que j’admire : tu es toi ! Tu n’es que le spectre solaire aux sept couleurs lumineuses, tu es le soleil lui-même qui éclaire, qui réchauffe, qui vivifie. Voilà ce que tu es. Moi, je suis une pauvre femme qui t’adore.
Friday, 8 p.m. (1835)
If I were only a clever woman, I would tell you, my beautiful bird, how you unite in yourself the beauties of form, plumage, and song!
I would tell you that you are the marvel of all marvels that have come and gone, and I would only be speaking the simple truth. But to tell you this, MY SUPERB ONE, I would require a voice more harmonious than that which is bestowed upon my species—the barn owl that you recently so well mocked. It is therefore not me who will tell you to what degree you are dazzling and resplendent. I leave that to the chirping birds, speaking and whistling : and they, as you know, are none the less beautiful nor less appreciative.
I leave to them the task of watching you, listening to you, and admiring you. For myself, I reserve only the right to love you. This may be less harmonious to the ear, but it is far sweeter to the heart. I love you, my Victor. I cannot say it to you too often, I can never say it as much as I feel it.
In all the beauty that surrounds me, I recognize you. Beautiful forms, beautiful colors, smooth perfumes, harmonious sounds, all of these mean you to me, and you, you are superior to all that I see and admire : you are you! You are not only the solar spectrum with the seven luminous colors, you are the sun himself, who illuminates, warms, and invigorates. That is what you are. For myself, I am the lowly woman who adores you.
On Stage, in the Audience, and Excluded from the Theater
Juliette met Victor Hugo in 1833, at the age of 27. A striking beauty yet lackluster actress, she had landed a part in Hugo’s play Lucrece Borgia. The young playwright was smitten and soon set his sights on Juliette, sweeping her off her feet. Shortly thereafter, Hugo installed her in an apartment where the two could meet in secret. Worried that her beauty would attract more attentive suitors, he insisted that she not go out unless he was with her. Sequestered in her Parisian flat, Juliette fretted her days away. Her acting career, which had never been stellar, slowly disintegrated into stardust.
Not surprisingly, Juliette was extremely jealous of Hugo’s leading ladies, some of which he was known to have slept with. Hugo promised to write parts for her and indeed he occasionally did so. Unfortunately, he was neither director nor casting agent and Juliette was always replaced with another actress. Her letters demonstrate the depth of her heartbreak and disillusionment when an eagerly anticipated role fell to one of her rivals. In 1839, the couple celebrated a secret marriage, marked by Juliette’s final renunciation of her acting career and Hugo’s vow to never leave her.
Hugo constantly controlled her movements. At times, she was allowed to go to the theater to see his latest production. However, Juliette was expected to report upon the actors’ performances, the staging, and the audience reaction. She enthusiastically carried out her duties yet was too-often crushed and infuriated when suddenly Hugo would rescind a prior promise to send her a ticket and she’d once again be left to spend an evening alone.
Juliette consoled herself with the realization that she was often the first person to read or hear Hugo’s plays, poetry, and prose. She became his copyist, often performing minor edits and even researching some of his characters. Her letters express overwhelming gratitude for this privilege and abundant appreciation of his manuscripts. She especially loved it when Hugo would take the time to recite his writing to her. In her defense, I somewhat agree that she did hold a place of extreme privilege. Hugo wrote some of the 19th century’s greatest masterpieces—stories that thrive to this day. Below is an excerpt from a letter in which Juliette wrote to Hugo regarding her eagerness to learn the fate of certain characters from Les Miserables.
Je suis très pressée de continuer mon TRAVAIL. Cette activité a plus d’une raison dont la première est très sincèrement l’ardente curiosité que j’ai de savoir ce que deviennent tous ces pauvres martyrs de votre imagination. Je m’y intéresse comme des personnages de vrai et qui me toucheraient de très près. Leurs malheurs me rendent très malheureuse et je voudrais griffer ce monstre de Javert et tuer ces hideux Thénardier. […]
Toutes ces sublimes choses me font désirer de tout savoir tout de suite et je voudrais ne m’arrêter qu’au mot : fin pour connaître le sort que tu réserves à tous ces pauvres gens. D’abord si tu ne rends pas les Thénardier les plus malheureux et les plus immondes des gredins tu ne seras pas juste. Je veux pour ma part que tu leur fasses tout le mal possible ou je ne serai pas contente. Je ne suis pas généreuse comme tu sais. D’ailleurs il n’y a pas de générosité qui puisse faire pardonner à de pareils monstres
I’m very pressed to continue my WORK. This eagerness has more than one motivation, the first of which is my sincere and ardent curiosity to know what’s to become of these poor martyrs of your imagination. I take interest in them as if they were real people that deeply affect me. Their misfortunes render me miserable and I would scratch this monster of a man Javert and kill those hideous Thénardiers. […]
All those sublime things make me want to know everything immediately and I don’t want to stop until I reach the word : end in order to know the fate that you have reserved for all these poor people. First, if you don’t render the Thénardiers the most unhappy and the most filthy of scoundrels you will not be fair. For my part, I want you to inflict as much pain as possible upon them or I will not be happy. I’m not generous as you know. Anyway there is no generosity that can excuse the acts of such monsters.
Juliette’s Life in Exile
In my previous post, introducing Juliette Drouet and Victor Hugo’s love affair, I described Juliette’s efforts to organize Hugo’s perilous escape to Brussels in 1851. After heavily criticizing Napoleon III and attempting to join a coup to overthrow the new emperor, Hugo found his life was in danger and he needed to flee into exile. Juliette arranged for false identity papers, a disguise, and a series of safe houses where Hugo could hideout as he made his way to Belgium. As I mentioned, she also looked after his precious manuscripts and personally delivered them to him after he had settled in Brussels.
A few months before their flight, Juliette learned of another of Hugo’s torrid affairs. Hugo had been seeing the actress Léonie Biard who upon learning of his commitment to Juliette, had begged Hugo to dump her. When he refused, Biard gathered up all of the love letters that she’d received from Hugo and delivered them to Juliette. Not for the first time, Juliette was enraged by Hugo’s infidelity. This time, however, rather than threatening to leave she redoubled her determination to remain at his side. The necessity to leave France served two important purposes. First, it saved her lover from prison, and second, it kept him far from Biard’s seductive and meddling grasp.
Ever vigilant, Juliette continued to look after Hugo’s manuscripts. She worried that Hugo’s works might fall into larcenous hands before they were published or before he’d received credit for having written them. Still in Brussels, in 1852 she wrote:
J’ai serré votre manuscrit sous clef ce matin. Maintenant je ne veux pas qu’il traîne sur ma table. Tu devrais de ton côté, mon Victor, n’en pas laisser une seule ligne dehors, cela devient de plus en plus prudent. Quant à moi je te promets de faire bonne garde. […] Personne mieux que toi ne peut prévoir toutes les embûches et toutes les trahisons. Aussi je te supplie de ne rien épargner pour les déjouer toutes. Pour cela il suffit d’un peu de soin et d’attention de ta part.
I secured your manuscript under lock and key this morning. These days, I don’t want it strewn across my table. You should on your end, my Victor, not leave a single line unguarded, doing so is becoming more and more sensible. As for me, I promise to be vigilant. […] No one better than you can foresee all traps and all betrayals. Yet I beg you to spare nothing in thwarting all of them. To do so, a little care and attention on your part will suffice.
Indeed, the couple’s life in exile began to settle into something somewhat resembling normalcy. They continued to maintain two residences, first in Brussels, then on the island of Jersey, and finally on Guernsey. Juliette seems to have been much happier during this period. She eventually lived in her own little house that Hugo bought for her. They had more time to spend together as Hugo was no longer distracted by the need to oversee the production of his plays, or by demands to attend business meetings or late-night soirées. Hugo also profited from the isolation, as he could now write with far fewer interruptions. Juliette’s persistent proximity was unlike that of Hugo’s wife and children, who would come and go from his side. His immediate family members would reside with him for months at a time and then return to France for long periods.
Increasingly, Hugo gave Juliette further work as a copyist to keep her busy but she also enjoyed preparing meals for him and the two went for regular walks together. Now permitted to leave her home by herself, she made a few friends and even became close to some of Hugo’s children. Oddly enough, Hugo’s wife Adèle actually came to accept Juliette and the two occasionally sent gifts to one another. One Christmas, Adèle invited Juliette to a party that the Hugo family was throwing for local children. Juliette declined the overture but expressed her appreciation. In her will, Mme Hugo asked her sons to look after Juliette in case of their father’s death.
A Return to Paris
In 1870, Victor Hugo ended his days of exile and returned to France. His wife Adèle had died in 1868 and in 1873, forty years after they’d met, he and Juliette settled into the same apartment in Paris. Juliette continued to work as feverishly as ever, still copying manuscripts and now taking full responsibility for managing Hugo’s home. Hugo was then 71 and you might think that is libido had settled somewhat. In September of that same year, however, Juliette discovered a love letter to him, written by one of their domestic employees. To make matters worse, the young woman, Blanche Lanvin, was the daughter of close friends.
Perhaps habituated to his betrayals, Juliette resigned herself to Hugo’s unrestrainable flings and carried on with life as the affair proceeded for the next five years behind her back. In October 1873 she penned this rather eloquent screed:
Paris, 16 octobre 73, jeudi soir, 4 h.
Il y a des choses qui ne se prouvent pas, mon cher bien-aimé, et qui se sentent mieux qu’avec tous les témoins et par toutes les enquêtes possibles, c’est l’amour vrai, sans bornes et incorruptible ; c’est la trahison impitoyable, permanente et lâche de la femme pour l’homme, de l’homme envers la femme et vice versa.
Lequel de nous deux a le droit de prendre Dieu à témoin de son amour, lequel de nous deux doit s’avouer coupable dans son for intérieur ? Dieu seul le sait et c’est à lui que je m’adresse dans cet infernal débat de ton amour et du mien toujours remis en question.
J’ai l’âme affolée à ce point de ne plus rien distinguer entre toi et moi. Tout ce que je sais c’est que je ne résisterai pas longtemps à ce conflit sans cesse renaissant de mon pauvre vieil amour aux prises avec les jeunes tentations qui te sont offertes quand peut-être tu ne les recherches pas, ce qui n’est rien moins que prouvé.
Hélas, tout ce que je sais, et Dieu sait que je ne mensa pas, c’est que, dans cette nouvelle et douloureuse épreuve, il y a des choses que toi et moi seuls connaissons et qu’on n’a pas pu deviner. Maintenant je te pardonne parce que je veux que Dieu te pardonne aussi, lui, qui a seul le droit de punir et le pouvoir de me délivrer au plus vite de cet enfer terrestre où mon pauvre cœur est mis à la torture depuis la première minute où je me suis donnée à toi.
Je lui demande de t’épargner toutes les souffrances que j’endure et de te rendre les serments imprudents et sacrilèges faits sur la vie de ton fils malade.
Paris, October 16, Thursday, 4:00.
There are things that can’t be proven, my dear beloved, and that are better sensed than examined with all possible witnesses and investigations, such is true love, without limits and incorruptible ; such is ruthless betrayal, permanent and cowardly of woman for man, of man against woman and vice versa.
Which of us has the right to take God as witness to their love, which of us must admit guilt within their heart of hearts? Only God knows and it is to him that I speak inside this infernal struggle between your love and mine continually called into question.
At this point, my panic-stricken soul can no longer distinguish between you and me. All that I know is that I won’t long withstand this incessant conflict rising from my poor aging love fighting against the young temptations that are offered to you when perhaps you are not seeking them, that which is nothing less than proven.
Alas, all that I know, and God knows that I’m not lying, is that, within this new and painful ordeal, there are things that you and I alone know and that no one else can guess. Right now I forgive you because I want God to also forgive you, he, who alone has the right to punish and the power to deliver me as soon as possible from this hell on earth where my pitiful heart has been placed on the rack since the first minute that I gave myself to you.
I ask him to spare you from the suffering that I endure and to free you from the rash vows and sacrileges made on the life of your sick child.
In the final years of her life, Juliette took great pleasure in welcoming Hugo’s grandchildren into her home. I’ve sadly not found time to tell you about Juliette’s daughter, Claire Pradier, born before Juliette began seeing Hugo and cared for largely by her father. It’s hard to imagine that all of Juliette’s sacrifices were worth it, but opportunities were scarce for women of the 19th-century. Juliette died on May 11, 1883, after years of suffering from stomach cancer. Hugo’s entourage dissuaded him from attending her funeral which took place the following day. Hugo’s friend, Auguste Vacquerie, a noted journalist and man of letters delivered the eulogy.
An Influential Mistress
It’s evident that Juliette meant far more to Victor Hugo than his other vassals of amusement. While not alone in the role, she was a lifelong partner that he heavily relied upon. Historians, psychologists, students of literature, and doctoral candidates of many stripes will undoubtedly be combing through both lovers’ archives for decades. There they are bound to uncover many more examples of Juliette’s contributions to Hugo’s life’s work.
One astute researcher recently revealed a link between Hugo’s poem Paroles dans l’ombre and words from a letter that Juliette had composed to him. In Juliette’s version, she complains to Hugo about his inattentiveness during a visit on the previous evening:
Songe que je t’ai très peu vu après tout puisque tu as travaillé tout le temps sans lever une seule fois les yeux sur moi et sans m’adresser une parole. Je sais bien que je pouvais te regarder, et je ne m’en suis pas privée, mais je ne te vois pas aussi bien quand tu ne me regardes pas un peu toi-même de temps en temps.
Consider that I barely saw you after all since you worked all of the time without once lifting your eyes to me and without addressing a single word to me. I well know that I could look at you, and did not deny myself that, but I don’t see you as well when you don’t look at me a little yourself from time to time.
Hugo’s poem which bears a striking resemblance to the letter:
Paroles dans l’ombre
Sans doute, je vous ai ; sans doute, je vous voi.
La pensée est un vin dont les rêveurs sont ivres,
Je le sais ; mais, pourtant, je veux qu’on songe à moi.
Quand vous êtes ainsi tout un soir dans vos livres,
Sans relever la tête et sans me dire un mot,
Une ombre reste au fond de mon cœuer qui vous aime;
Et, pour que je vous voie entièrement, il faut
Me regarder un peu, de temps en temps, vous-même.
Words in the Shadow
Doubtless, I have you ; doubtless, I see you.
Thought is a wine which makes its dreamers drunk,
I know it ; nevertheless, I wish you’d dream of me.
When you are thus all through an evening in your books,
Without lifting your head and without saying a word to me,
A shadow rests at the bottom of my heart that loves you;
And, for me to see you entirely, you must look at me a little, from time to time, yourself.
So concludes my brief look into the life of Juliette Drouet. I leave it to others to sort through her prolific output and match it to the mountains of correspondence and classical masterpieces that her dominating lover produced. My hope is that as such discoveries are made, they’ll give us better insights into Juliette’s existence and that she’ll emerge as a smart and industrious beauty who despite her limited options helped to create a literary genius that the world salutes to this day.
End note: I hope you’ve enjoyed reading at least half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing this post. The translations were particularly fun for me but may well be subject to other interpretations. Please let me know in the comments if you see Juliette’s words in a different light. The same holds true for my descriptions of historical events and timelines.
- Project Gutenberg ebook, Juliette Drouet’s Love-Letters to Victor Hugo
- Université de Rouen, Juliette Drouet, Lettres à Victor Hugo
- Open Edition Journals, « La page sortie de mon encrier » : les révélations de Juliette Drouet sur la genèse de l’œuvre de Hugo
- Internet Archive, Full text of “Victor Hugo et Juliette Drouet; d’après les lettres inédites…”
- Wikipedia, too many pages to recall