The Reinvention of Love, By Helen Humphreys

A forgotten lover emerges from behind Victor Hugo's shadow

Emma Hagestadt
Thursday 05 July 2012 18:14
Comments

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in