This volume of memoirs has a double character--historical and
intimate. The life of a period, the XIX Century, is bound up in
the life of a man, VICTOR HUGO. As we follow the events set
forth we get the impression they made upon the mind of the
extraordinary man who recounts them; and of all the personages
he brings before us he himself is assuredly not the least
interesting. In portraits from the brushes of Rembrandts there
are always two portraits, that of the model and that of the
This is not a diary of events arranged in chronological
order, nor is it a continuous autobiography. It is less and
it is more, or rather, it is better than these. It is a sort of
haphazard ~chronique~ in which only striking incidents and
occurrences are brought out, and lengthy and wearisome details
are avoided. VICTOR HUGO'S long and chequered life was filled
with experiences of the most diverse character--literature and
politics, the court and the street, parliament and the theatre,
labour, struggles, disappointments, exile and triumphs. Hence
we get a series of pictures of infinite variety.
Let us pass the gallery rapidly in review.
It opens in 1825, at Rheims, during the coronation of CHARLES X,
with an amusing ~causerie~ on the manners and customs of the
Restoration. The splendour of this coronation ceremony was
singularly spoiled by the pitiable taste of those who had
charge of it. These worthies took upon themselves to mutilate
the sculpture work on the marvellous façade and to "embellish"
the austere cathedral with Gothic decorations of cardboard.
The century, like the author, was young, and in some things
both were incredibly ignorant; the masterpieces of literature
were then unknown to the most learned ~littérateurs~: CHARLES
NODIER had never read the "Romancero", and VICTOR HUGO knew little
or nothing about Shakespeare.
At the outset the poet dominates in VICTOR HUGO; he belongs
wholly to his creative imagination and to his literary work.
It is the theatre; it is his "Cid", and "Hernani", with its stormy
performances; it is the group of his actors, Mlle. MARS, Mlle.
GEORGES, FREDERICK LEMAITRE, the French KEAN, with more genius;
it is the Academy, with its different kind of coteries.
About this time VICTOR HUGO questions, anxiously and not in
vain, a passer-by who witnessed the execution of LOUIS XVI, and
an officer who escorted Napoleon to Paris on his return from the
Island of Elba.
Next, under the title, "Visions of the Real", come some sketches
in the master's best style, of things seen "in the mind's eye,"
as Hamlet says. Among them "The Hovel" will attract attention.
This sketch resembles a page from EDGAR POE, although it was
written long before POE's works were introduced into France.
With "Love in Prison" VICTOR HUGO deals with social questions,
in which he was more interested than in political questions.
And yet, in entering the Chamber of Peers he enters public life.
His sphere is enlarged, he becomes one of the familiars of the
Tuileries. LOUIS PHILIPPE, verbose and full of recollections
that he is fond of imparting to others, seeks the company and
appreciation of this listener of note, and makes all sorts of
confidences to him. The King with his very haughty bonhomie
and his somewhat infatuated wisdom; the grave and sweet DUCHESS
D'ORLEANS, the boisterous and amiable princes--the whole
commonplace and home-like court--are depicted with kindliness
The horizon, however, grows dark, and from 1846 the new peer of
France notes the gradual tottering of the edifice of royalty.
The revolution of 1848 bursts out. Nothing could be more
thrilling than the account, hour by hour, of the events of the
three days of February. VICTOR HUGO is not merely a spectator
of this great drama, he is an actor in it. He is in the
streets, he makes speeches to the people, he seeks to restrain
them; he believes, with too good reason, that the Republic is
premature, and, in the Place de la Bastille, before the
evolutionary Faubourg Saint Antoine, he dares to proclaim the
Four months later distress provokes the formidable insurrection
of June, which is fatal to the Republic.
The year 1848 is the stormy year. The atmosphere is fiery, men
are violent, events are tragical. Battles in the streets are
followed by fierce debates in the Assembly. VICTOR HUGO takes
part in the mêlée. We witness the scenes with him; he points
out the chief actors to us. His "Sketches" made in the National
Assembly are "sketched from life" in the fullest acceptation of
the term. Twenty lines suffice. ODILON BARROT and CHANGARNIER,
PRUDHON and BLANQUI, LAMARTINE and "Monsieur THIERS" come, go,
speak--veritable living figures.
The most curious of the figures is LOUIS BONAPARTE when he
arrived in Paris and when he assumed the Presidency of the
Republic. He is gauche, affected, somewhat ridiculous,
distrusted by the Republicans, and scoffed at by the Royalists.
Nothing could be more suggestive or more piquant than the
inauguration dinner at the Elysee, at which VICTOR HUGO was one
of the guests, and the first and courteous relations between the
author of "Napoleon the Little" and the future Emperor who was
to inflict twenty years of exile upon him.
But now we come to the year which VICTOR HUGO has designated
"The Terrible Year," the war, and the siege of Paris. This part
of the volume is made up of extracts from note-books, private
and personal notes, dotted down from day to day. Which is to
say that they do not constitute an account of the oft-related
episodes of the siege, but tell something new, the little side
of great events, the little incidents of everyday life, the
number of shells fired into the city and what they cost, the
degrees of cold, the price of provisions, what is being said,
sung, and eaten, and at the same time give the psychology of the
great city, its illusions, revolts, wrath, anguish, and also its
gaiety; for during these long months Paris never gave up hope
and preserved an heroic cheerfulness.
On the other hand a painful note runs through the diary kept
during the meeting of the Assembly at Bordeaux. France is not
only vanquished, she is mutilated. The conqueror demands a
ransom of milliards--it is his right, the right of the
strongest; but he tears from her two provinces, with their
inhabitants devoted to France; it is a return towards barbarism.
VICTOR HUGO withdraws indignantly from the Assembly which has
agreed to endorse the Treaty of Frankfort. And three days after
his resignation he sees CHARLES HUGO, his eldest son, die a
victim to the privations of the siege. He is stricken at once
in his love of country and in his paternal love, and one can say
that in these painful pages, more than in any of the others, the
book is history that has been lived.
Paris, Sept. 15, 1899.
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