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July 05 , 2009

Juliette Drouet's Love-Letters to Victor Hugo (Illustrated)


A POET, a great poet, loves a princess of the theatre. He is jealous. He forces her to abandon the stage and the green-room, to relinquish the hollow flattery of society and the town; he cloisters her with one servant, two or three of his portraits, and as many books, in an apartment a few yards square. When she complains of having nothing to do but wait for him, he replies: “Write to me. Write me everything that comes into your head, everything that causes your heart to beat.”

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Such is the origin of the letters of Juliette Drouet to Victor Hugo. They are not ordinary missives confided to the post and intended to assure a lover of the tender feelings of his mistress: they are notes, mere “scribbles,” as Juliette herself calls them, thrown upon paper hour by hour, cast into a corner without being read over, and secured by the lover at each of his visits, as so many trophies of passion.

When Juliette Drouet’s executor, M. Louis Kock, died in Paris on May 26th, 1912, he had in his possession about twenty thousand. He had added to them the letters of James Pradier to our heroine, those of Juliette to her daughter, Claire Pradier, and the answers of Claire Pradier to her mother.

This collection of documents passed into the hands of a Parisian publisher, Monsieur A. Blaizot, who has been so good as to allow us to examine them and compile from them a volume concerning Victor Hugo and his friend.

At first sight the task presented grave difficulties—nay, it seemed almost impossible of execution. To begin with, it would have been futile to think of publishing the whole of the twenty thousand letters; in the second place, it might appear a work of supererogation to reconstruct from them in detail the story of a liaison well known to have been uneventful, almost monotonous, and more suggestive of a litany or the beads of a rosary than of tragedy or a novel.

We have attempted to surmount these objections in the following manner:

In the first portion we present the biography of Juliette Drouet in the form of a series of synthetic tableaux, each tableau summarising several lustres of her life. We thus avoid the long-drawn-out narrative, year by year, of an existence devoid of incident or adventure.

In the second, we publish those letters which strike us as peculiarly eloquent, witty, or lyrical. In the light shed upon them by the preliminary biography, they form, as one might say, its justification and natural sequel.

At the outset of her liaison with the poet Juliette does not date her “scribbles”; she merely notes the time of day and the day of the week, until about 1840; we have therefore been obliged to content ourselves with the classification effected by her in the collection of her manuscripts, and preserved by her executor.

From 1840 she dated every sheet. Consequently our work simultaneously achieves more precision and certainty.

When its difficulties have seemed insuperable, we have derived valuable encouragement from the sympathy of the literary students and friends who had urged us to undertake it, or were assisting us in its execution. We have pleasure in recording our thanks to the following: MM. Louis Barthou, Beuve, A. Blaizot, François Camailhac, Eugène Planès, Escolier, etc. b We have often wondered what the charming woman whose ideals, tastes, and habits have, by degrees, become almost as familiar to us as her handwriting, would have thought of our efforts. As far as she herself is concerned there can be but little doubt. She would have made fun of the undertaking. By dint of moving in the society of men of high literary attainments she had acquired a very modest estimate of her own wit and talent. In 1877, when the architect Roblin one day discovered her sorting out her “scribbles,” he thought she was attempting to write a book and gravely asked her “when it was to be published.” “What an idea!” she cried, and burst out laughing.

Such was not the opinion of Victor Hugo, however. That perfect artist attached the utmost importance to the writings of his friend. Each time she wished to destroy them he commanded her to preserve them. Whenever she proposed to bring them to a close, he insisted upon her continuing. We possess an unpublished letter from the poet in which he exclaims:

“Your letters, my Juliette, constitute my treasure, my casket of jewels, my riches! In them our joint lives are recorded day by day, thought by thought. All that you dreamed lies there, all that you suffered. They are charming mirrors, each one of which reflects a fresh aspect of your lovely soul.”

Surely such a phrase conveys approbation and sanction sufficient for both Juliette Drouet and her humble biographer.

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