The Supreme Achievement of Victor Hugo’s Genius
THE greatest thing that Victor Hugo ever did, according to Francis Gribble, an English commentator, was not to write “Les Miserables,” nor to overwhelm the world with his Olympian fecundity of poetry and rhetoric. It was to fasten upon humanity “the Hugo legend.” By this phrase Mr. Gribble means that curious mingling of romance, of misrepresentation, of idealization, that has come down to us as Victor Hugo. The real personality of the man, the actual facts of his life, Mr. Gribble would have us believe, were something very different from what is generally accepted.
For many years the question has been debated whether Victor Hugo was a great man or a great windbag. “Perhaps,” Mr. Gribble suggests, “he was both; and perhaps admirers and detractors may meet on common ground in admitting that his most sublime achievement was the construction of the Hugo legend; the legend of himself as not only the central pillar and head corner-stone of the Romantic Movement, but also as a uniquely sympathetic personality— ‘Victor in drama, Victor in romance.'”
At the time when Hugo was living in Guernsey, “simultaneously maintaining two establishments and a high moral tone,” he induced his wife to write his life while he was diverting himself in the society of Juliette Drouet. The resulting volume is “Victor Hugo raconte par un temoin de sa vie.” It is crammed, from beginning to end, Mr. Gribble declares, with vainglorious statements flagrantly at variance with fact. Madame Hugo knew as well as her husband that his boasts were the figments of his imagination. Yet she wrote them out with obedient docility, “in the flowery language of the advertisement of a patent medicine,” and the world accepted them as if they had been revelations from on high. “One feels constrained to begin,” Mr. Gribble remarks, “by firing a salute to a legend so triumphantly accredited, even if truth requires one to proceed to the invidious task of pulling it to pieces. If Victor Hugo was a liar, at least he lied sublimely.”
Hugo’s first lies, it seems, relate to his family history. Noble ancestors, he felt, were essential to his sublimity; and as he had none, he invented some, giving out that he was a scion of the house of the Hugos of Lorraine, and a great-grandson of Charles-Hyacinthe Hugo, “chevalier, conseiller-maitre en la chambre des Comptes de Lorraine.” “It is not true,” Mr. Gribble asserts; “all the descendants of Charles-Hyacinthe Hugo, chevalier, etc., have been traced, and Victor Hugo is not included in their number. Victor Hugo’s descendants have been traced, and there is no chevalier to be found among them. His father was an officer who had risen from the ranks; his grandfather was a carpenter; his great-grandfather and his great- great-grandfather were peasants. Of the women whom they married, the most distinguished was a nursery governess. Among the collaterals we find a corn-factor, a baker, a barber, and three dressmakers— useful and even honorable members of the community, but not either aristocratic or romantic.” In the same spirit, Victor Hugo said of his mother that as “a poor girl of fifteen” she “fled to the bocage and became a brigand (that is, a Vendean insurrectionist), like Madame de Bonchamps and Madame de la Roche-jacquelein.” It is a romantic story, but there is not a word of truth in it. “Sophie Trebuchet,” Mr. Gribble tells us, “remained in Nantes from the beginning to the end of the Vendean revolt.” Mr. Gribble disposes similarly of stories of Victor Hugo’s precocity and, in particular, of the story that Chateaubriand, in the poet’s early days, saluted him as “enfant sublime,” amazed by the dazzling splendor of his “Ode on the Death of the Duc de Berri.” It was the sort of thing that Chateaubriand ought to have said, but, as a matter of fact, he denied ever having used the words. Hugo invented them, as he had invented his ancestors, for his own greater glory.