The following essay was originally printed in Victor Hugo. Madame Duclaux. London: Constable and Company, 1921.
THE France into which Victor Hugo was born was not unlike our recent world of the Great War. The armies of the Republic, having repelled the invaders, had seethed over her borders into Holland, into Italy. All Europe was in ebullition, and felt the dread of the triumphant conqueror who led the armies of France.
- Eighteen Hundred and Two. Sparta gives way to Rome.
- Napoleon begins to bud in Bonaparte.
- Now where the Emperor's forehead presses home
- 'The mask of the First Consul bursts apart.
- 'Twas in Besançon, an old Spanish city,
- A child was born, by chance, a wind-swept grain
- Whose double root was Brittany, Lorraine,
- Mute, sightless, pale was he, a thing to pity,
- So faint, so frail, no baby but a ghost,
- All, save his mother, gave him up for lost.
- His fragile neck fell sideways like a reed,
- His cradle and his coffin came together:
- This child whose name Life would not write or read,
- This dying child that could not hope to weather
- The morrow of his birth 'Tis I!
Victor was but six weeks old when his father, Commandant Joseph Leopold Sigisbert Hugo, was sent from Besançon to Marseilles, and thence lo Corsica, to Elba, accompanied in all these changes of garrison by his wife and his three little boys: Victor had two elder brothers, Abel and Eugene. But this hard and roving life tried too severely the feeble health of the youngest-born. When, in 1804, the Major was ordered to Italy, to the front, the young mother felt that her place was not on a battlefield. She parted from her husband, took her babies to Paris, and devoted herself to the care of them. Not till October 1807 did she take them to rejoin their father, now Colonel Hugo, Governor of the province of Avellino and the right hand of Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples. Napoleon's Roman peace had settled on the reluctant conquered country, and the Governor of Avellino thought to offer his family a settled and illustrious home.
Of that long journey Victor, who was but five years old, remembered little: a sledge-ride on the snow of the Alps; the grey, piled roofs of Susa, a flood at Parma, the bridge of Saint-Angelo at Rome, and the barracks:
- ou mon p6re, jeune homme,
- Nous regardait jouer dans la caserne a Rome,
- A cheval sur la grande épée, tout petits,
and Naples shining in the sunshine with the sea at her feet; the child said that the city wore a white dress fringed with blue.
Naples was a glimpse, an unforgettable vision, and the little band went still farther south. They stopped at Avellino, where the Governor of the province, Colonel Hugo, in full uniform, stood waiting to greet them on the steps of a great marble palace, fissured by earthquakes. The child remembered of Italy what a child can grasp: the vast room in which he slept alone, with a rift in the wall through which he saw the changing landscape outside; the brilliance of the air, the golden sunshine, the burning heat, the general splendour of the scene; but especially the precipices, filled with nut-bushes that, in the eyes of a little boy, made the peculiar charm of that great landscape. The nuts of Avellino are famous the world over; their oval "avelines" are larger than any other hazels; and when the Hugo children discovered that Victor, by a fortunate idiosyncrasy, was insensible to giddiness, they saw that he spent most of his time clambering about the almost perpendicular walls of those ravines gathering nuts. I have often wondered whether the poet's frequent use of the metaphors or images, "abime," "gouffre," "précipice," and even "la bouche d'ombre," may not be due to that early experience; he had felt the attraction of the abyss at an age when most children stray not far beyond the kitchen-garden. At five years old he observed and remembered. And Colonel Hugo, writing to his mother in Burgundy, remarked that the child was already unusually sedate and deliberate.
Abel is the most amiable of boys, tall, polite, more deliberate than children are generally at his age, and, like his brothers, very good-tempered.
Eugene has the handsomest face in the world, and is as lively as quicksilver less inclined, I fancy, to study than his brothers.
Victor, the youngest, shows a great aptitude for learning. He is as deliberate as his elder brother and very thoughtful. He speaks little, and always to the purpose. His reflections have often struck me. He has a very sweet face.
This sweet but solemn baby showed already one of the chief qualities of the future poet's genius: the faculty of absorption, of reflection, of an extraordinary retentiveness. Already in this early journey he acquired the first elements of that sense of glory which in later years enabled him to represent with such splendour in his verse the great adventure and the nomadic triumphs of the Empire. As he was to sing in his Odes et Ballades ("Mon Enfance "), in an early poem still embued with the stiff, almost stilted, quality of Napoleon's epoch:
- My childhood in the world of war was spent
- 'Mid the piled arms, the dusty wains, the tent--
- I've slept upon the gun-carriage o' nights.
- I loved the fiery chargers and their manes,
- The stirrup's creaking where the bright spur bites.
- I loved the thundering forts with lofty flanks,
- The drawn sword of the chief leading the ranks,
- The mounted sentry in a lonely glade,
- The tried battalions marching through the towns
- With a torn banner, all its wounds displayed.
- My envious soul admired the swift hussar,
- His breast embroidered with the gold of war,
- The lancer, all his snowy plumes a-stir,
- The tall dragoon whose Scythian helmet flaunts
- A mare's tail mingled with a tiger's fur.
Victor's wanderings were far from finished. His father's chief, Joseph Bonaparte, was barely settled on his throne in Naples, contented with his lot and determined to conciliate his people, when Napoleon decided to create him King of Spain. This meant leaving Italy and conquering an unwilling and unwanted crown. Spain was in no humour to recognize the monarch thrust upon her; Spain, like King Joseph, would rather matters had remained as they were, but it was impossible to gainsay the glorious tyrant who shaped Europe as it suited his fancy. Joseph with a sigh left the sunny Chiaja and set out at the head of his troops. The Governor of Avellino felt in honour bound to accompany his patron upon his dangerous expedition,
- Parmi les chars poudreux, les armes éclatantes,
- Une muse des camps m'emporta sous les tentes,
- Je dormis sur I'affut des canons meurtriers,
- J'aimai les fiers coursiers aux crinieres flottantes,
- Et l'éperon froissant les rauques e" triers.
- J'aimai les forts tonnants, aux abords difficiles,
- Le glaive nu des chefs guidant les rangs dociles,
- La vedette, perdue en un bois isolé
- Et les vieux bataillons qui passaient dans les villes
- Avec un drapeau mutilé.
- Mon envie admirait et le hussard rapide,
- Parant de gerbes d'or sa poitrine intrépide,
- Et le panache blanc des agiles lanciers,
- Et les dragons, melant sur leur casque gépide
- Le poil tache du tigre aux crins noirs des coursiers.
but it was naturally impossible to undertake the Peninsular War in the company of a young wife and her babies. Madame Hugo and the little boys were regretfully sent back to Paris after a brief year's visit, leaving in the future poet's imagination no accurate image but
Un vague faisceau de lueurs incertaines,
a wandering cluster of uncertain gleams. Farewell to blue seas and marble palaces rent by earthquakes! Italy counts for little in the formation of Victor Hugo--he was but six years old when he left it! he perceived of all that grandeur and beauty just such a haunting glimpse as he caught of the landscape of Avellino through the rift in his bedroom wall.
When Madame Hugo brought her two younger boys, Eugene and Victor, to Paris in 1808, she took a temporary lodging in the rue de Clichy; but, after the palace at Avellino, how cramped and narrow seemed the Parisian flat! Madame Hugo was no townswoman. At fifteen years of age, during the civil war in Vendée, she had scoured the woods of the Bocage with Madame de la Rochejacquelein; as a woman of thirty she still loved air, space, and a noble adventure. She was to find them all in a roomy old house with a garden on the southern side of the Seine. It was a portion of the ancient convent of the Feuillantines left untouched by the Revolution:--Impasse des Feuillantines, No. 12--an isolated mansion in a deserted quarter of the left bank of the Seine. The garden had long since run wild, it was full of trees and birds, with in one corner a ruined chapel, less a town garden than a park, deep and vast, shut in by high walls, almost a field in the middle, at the edges almost a wood. Paris had many such gardens in 1808, and has some still; one such waves its unpruned loose-hanging branches below my balcony even as I write. When Madame Hugo took her little lads to inspect this fairyland they greeted it with shouts of delight, rushing here and there like wild things: here at last was the equivalent of the abyss of Avellino! Their eyes were not large enough nor their legs long enough to take in all its possibilities.
"See what I've found!"
"Oh, that's nothing. Look here!"
"OH! OH! A swing!"
"An avenue of horse-chestnuts!"
"A cistern gone dry! A fort! It'll make a fort!"
"I say! Come here!"
"Apples! Oh, and pears! Oh, and a trellis of grapes!"
"And they're ripe!"
I doubt if the future poet in his career of perhaps unparalleled glory was ever to know happier hours.
- Three brothers; each was but a little lad;
- Our mother bade us play, but she forbad
- The ladders and the flower-beds in the grass;
- Three brothers--I the youngest of the three--
- We munched our crusts with such a hungry glee
- The women laughed aloud to see us pass.
Madame Hugo was not very sensitive to the charms of Nature; she cared little enough for mountains and landscapes, but she loved a garden, and, more than anything, she loved the health and happiness of her boys: those years in the Impasse des Feuillantines were probably the pleasantest of her life.
We know all about that garden not only from Victor Hugo's poetry, though more than once he has described that early Eden but also from the author of Victor Hugo racontt par un Umoin de sa vie, in later years the poet's wife, but in those early times a little playmate, a comrade, one year younger than Victor, who shared all their fun, stormed their forts with the boys, and sometimes, with bandaged eyes, was driven in the wheelbarrow from end to end of their domain, and not let free until she had guessed the exact spot where she stood. There was the swing, too; Adèle Foucher, trembling and protesting, was launched high in the air by three vigorous pairs of arms; but none of the boys could swing himself so high as Victor--right up into the branches of the trees, as though he never meant to come down!
The garden was so full of trees and flowers and birds and rabbits, that one scarcely knew which to prefer: the first lilacs and crocuses in spring, the long summer evenings, the apples and grapes of autumn or the snowballs in winter; the garden was not only our poet's fairyland, but his school. He had, however, another master. Madame Hugo was a Royalist; she discovered in the neighbourhood an ex-priest of the Oratory, the Pre de La Riviere, nominally married (in order to put the hounds of the recent Revolution off the scent) to an old housekeeper of his, who waited on him still. The "Pre de La Riviere," ex-priest, ex-aristocrat, had become the "Pere Lariviere" (or, as we might say, Daddy Rivers), who taught reading and writing to the shopkeepers' children of the quarter. He furbished up his half-forgotten Greek and Latin for the little Hugos; and the poet always retained a kind remembrance of this early tutor, "naif comme un savant, malin comme un enfant." Three-and-forty years after, in an hour of deadly peril, when he had to escape from Paris under a feigned name (which while hiding his identity might still be recognized by his wife), he chose the name of his old master, the Pere Lariviere.
This old hedge-schoolmaster of the Paris streets was not Victor Hugo's principal tutor. It so fell out that a more important part of his education was to be undertaken by his godfather--an unknown godfather whom the child had rarely seen. General Lahorie had been a comrade of General Hugo's when both were young, during the campaign in Vendee. Since then Lahorie had fallen upon evil days. He was one of those old captains of the First Republic who in their hearts had never accepted General Bonaparte's elevation to the Empire. They were Republicans, these old soldiers; but if it were shown that a monarchy was a necessity of State, they would have preferred a legitimate king, their born superior, to a fortunate comrade- at-arms. In disgust of Napoleon, Lahorie had conspired with General Moreau to restore the Bourbons. Moreau's plot had been discovered in 1804 and the two Generals had been condemned to death, but had contrived to escape Moreau out of France, Lahorie into hiding, travelling as it were underground from one friend's house to another. By 1808 he had pretty well worn out his welcome, his old haunts were all known to the police, a price was on his head; he was at his wits' end where to go. It was then that Madame Hugo discovered the deserted convent and the abandoned garden of the rue des Feuillan tines. The brave lady took into her charge the man who was her Victor's godfather and sheltered him for a year and a half. Even the children at first did not know of the refugee, who took up his quarters in an abandoned chapel, converted into a sort of tool-house, in the grounds the one spot, the one forbidden Blue- beard's chamber, where they were not allowed to penetrate: their mother kept the key. But, of course, at last these intrepid little marauders discovered the General; they were sworn to secrecy, and thenceforth he was their companion. "II comprenait les jeux." He told them wonderful stories; he served camp-dinners on the garden-steps; he read Tacitus with Victor and gave him all Voltaire's plays. His godson never forgot certain of his phrases the solemn way, for instance, in which he once said, "Avant tout, la liberte!" Victor had been accustomed to hear more often of "la gloire." ... In the eyes of General Lahorie the friends of liberty were generally the enemies of Napoleon. Despite his seclusion, he had resumed his plotting and his planning with the partisans of the Bourbons. Madame Hugo, as I have said, was a Royalist; and I cannot help wondering whether she were not an aider and abettor in some of these conspiracies whether, perhaps, her real aim in taking the roomy solitary house and forsaken garden of the Impasse des Feuillantines were not the facility which they afforded for secret comings and goings. There, at any rate, Lahorie lived in safety, undiscovered, invisible and happy. At last, one day in 1810, the Minister of Police having assured a common friend that so belated a conspirator ran no risk of arrest and that the General might walk the streets of Paris a free man, Lahorie left that enchanted garden. His little playmates were never to see him again! On the morrow he was again arrested and thrown into prison a prison which he was to leave but for one day, in 1812.
Meanwhile Victor Hugo began to appreciate Napoleon.
In the case of so retentive a nature we cannot exaggerate the importance of first impressions.
One which was always to remain with Victor Hugo was that of the Strong Man, silent and still, unmoved by the stir that his glory awakes in an attentive and enthusiastic world, dominating his environment in an Olympian calm.
One of his earliest memories was the illumination of all Paris for the birth of the King of Rome in 1811. "J'avais sept ans," he says; but he was really nine. The triumph and festival that irradiated all the city penetrated even the garden of the Feuillantines, and Victor, excited, exalted, escaped from his mother's care (she hated to see her boys running after soldiers) and followed the crowd to the neighbouring Place du Pantheon. There was such a throng as the child had never seen, soldiers, citizens, all singing at the top of their voices : "Veillons au salut de l'Empire." The sides of the square and all the neighbouring streets were packed with troops, and in the middle there was a space of glory, hedged round by the Old Guard, where, followed by a train of kings and princes, appeared Napoleon. He alone was apparently unmoved. He stood there mute, grave, rather shabby, in his old cocked hat and legendary grey great-coat that seemed to mock the dazzling uniforms of his satellites.
Victor was puzzled: Why was the Emperor so much less splendid? Are splendour, noise, applause, a form of homage rendered by inferiors?
For some reason, General Hugo was in Paris. The children seldom saw their father,
Ce héros au sourire si doux,
whom they were to learn to love in after life; but they revered him as a supreme court of appeal. On the morrow, therefore, as father and son were walking on the slope of Saint Genevieve's Hill, the child put the question to his father: Why were the kings, the generals, and even the soldiers, so noisy and so splendid, and the Emperor so shabby and so calm? The sun was setting and all the western sky was aflame while the town at their feet looked grey and still. The General thought a moment, and then replied, "You must never go by appearances! There is more flame in the centre of that grey earth than in those fiery clouds! The Emperor, too, is full of secret fire and unevident splendours:
- "Ainsi travaille, enfant, Tame active et féconde
- Du poète qui crée et du soldat qui fonde,
- Mais ils n'en font rien voir."
This vision of the Emperor and this explanation of his father's crystallized in the child's mind. At seven years old--or rather at nine years old--they inspired him with the idea of a dignity inherent in itself and superior to circumstance--a first conception of the Olympian.
The impression was soon to be deepened and strengthened by a long visit to Spain. There was a certain affinity of nature between the little boy who, at five years old, had been described as "sedate and deliberate" and the Spanish conception of the Hidalgo: Something austere, and yet a little emphatic; reserved, but magnificent; and grandiose perhaps rather than simply great. Above all, the spectacle of a conquered country resisting in every fibre the dominion of the conqueror, and esteeming itself vastly superior to that conqueror, enforced in the child's mind the sense, already conceived, that exterior success and triumph should not be considered as essential goods. Self-approval, self-esteem are more important than the applause of others. Dignity, perseverance, strength of will, and even obstinacy, are arms sufficient, with which a valiant soul may achieve its true victory in this world. . . .
General Hugo was King Joseph's right-hand man in Spain; he was Governor of Madrid and Count of the Empire, and was admirably lodged in the splendid palace of Prince Masserano. But he had little leisure to enjoy its magnificence. Spain was in a state of seething unrest. The French army of occupation was incessantly harassed. The General was absent when his wife and children arrived in Madrid, and for six delightful weeks the three little lads ran wild in palace and patio, saturated with sunshine, with beauty and splendour, with the delicious brilliant far-niente of the South. But at last the father came home; and the General (if he had thought his labours at an end for a while as an imposer of discipline) found at home new worlds to conquer. On the following Monday Eugene and Victor were sent to school; Abel, the eldest, being twelve years of age, was reserved for the glory of a Royal Page at Court.
The school which opened its immense and heavy gates to receive the two little French brothers was the College of Nobles. The masters were monks; the pupils were Spaniards of the bluest blood, inwardly disdainful of the sons of the invader. These young hidalgos addressed each other by their titles: "Count," "Marquis." They were full of arrogance and pride. They knew to a nicety the value of a title or a coat of arms, and doubtless were aware that Don Eugenio de Hugo and Don Bittor de Hugo were viscounts, and indeed nobles, of a very recent date. Between these newcomers and their environment a secret hostility was intensified by an impulsive act of Madame Hugo's. Mistrustful of the sombre passion inherent in Spanish Catholicism, and aware of the vibrating delicacy of her children's nervous constitution, she had declared to the deep-eyed monk who took her sons in charge that they were Protestants in order to secure them against his religious instruction. Her Voltairean equanimity had not realized the full measure of the disfavour to which she exposed her little boys: Conquerors, heretics, enemy aliens, the young Hugos were not loved. Eugene bore in his cheek the mark of a stab, dealt (with a pair of scissors) by the hand of Frasco, Count of Belverano, a warrior of his own age. Victor had his own troubles with another pupil called Elespuru. He neither forgave nor forgot; years later, de Belverano was to figure as the least sympathetic personage in Lucrezia Borgia, and Elespuru as one of the quartet of fools in Cromwell.
This severe and claustral education was perhaps, on the whole, a beneficial change from the charming riot and gay liberty that attended Madame Hugo's system of free natural growth and expansion. The children learned the meaning of self-control, discipline; they acquired a high ideal of courtesy. A certain gravity and ceremonial in these young Spaniards attracted Victor. For one of them he formed a friendship which, with his customary fidelity, he was never to forget; and, fifteen years later, Ramon, Duke of Benavente--pensive, intellectual, condemned to a life of solitude and sorrow--figured as the subject of one of our poet's Odes. Grafted on the trunk of Spain, the fresh French young shoot appeared to prosper, when again the upheaval of Europe changed the shaping destiny of a child. Victor Hugo was now ten years of age. We are in 1812. . . .
1812 the turning-point of Napoleon's fortunes. The defeat of his armies in Russia was for him more than an overwhelming disaster it was, in Talleyrand's phrase, "the beginning of the end." From East to West the vanquished nations began to lift their suffocated heads; a breath of hope and life stirred in the air like a waft of spring, and nowhere more irresistibly than in Spain--in proud, bitter, injured, trampled Spain.
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