The Reinvention of Love, By Helen Humphreys

A forgotten lover emerges from behind Victor Hugo's shadow

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The Independent Culture

The cramped streets of pre-Haussmann Paris are the evocative setting for the fiction-alisation of the life of literary critic Charles Sainte-Beuve. A much respected "homme de lettres" in his day, Sainte-Beuve is now largely remembered for his affair with Adele Hugo, wife of Victor Hugo. Although the liaison was brief, the consequences were significant and far-reaching.

The friendship between Sainte-Beuve and the Hugo family began shortly after the young critic favourably reviewed a collection of Hugo's poems. Invited over for dinner, Sainte-Beuve soon became a fixture in the Hugo household, spending increasing amounts of time in the company of Adele and her four children. All might have gone along smoothly until, in a fit of guilt, Sainte-Beuve confessed to his host about his feelings for his wife.

Although Adele and Sainte-Beuve's physical relationship was short-lived, it was an idiosyncratic one – and one whose complications lie at the heart of this book. Sainte-Beuve is thought to have been born intersex – a form of hermaphroditism that made him hesitant about approaching women. Although he generally dressed as a man, he occasionally posed as a woman called "Charlotte", something Adele seemed to have found more exciting than off-putting. The two lovers went to great lengths to steal time in the Jardin de Luxembourg and spent long afternoons in "rather sordid" hotels. After their enforced separation, Helen Humphreys has Sainte-Beuve hiding in the shrubbery to catch a glimpse of his beloved's face.

In an attempt to capture the intensity of their affair, Humphreys's account is narrated by each of the lovers as a series of reminiscences. Relating historical happenings in the present tense can create grammatical glitches, but in this case the immediacy of their voices makes up for the occasional awkward sentence. Towards the end of the book, Humphreys turns her attention to Adele's daughter who often accompanied her mother on her afternoon trysts.

This informative account rescues Sainte-Beuve from Hugo's shadow.

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