Profile Books, $29.99
In nineteenth century Paris, literary journalist Charles Sainte-Beuve meets playwright and author Victor Hugo. Victor is delighted with a positive review Charles has made of his work, and invites him to visit. They become friends, a friendship that lasts many years until Charles confesses he’s having an affair with Victor’s wife.
Charles’s love for Adèle Hugo is the defining, and possibly only, romance of his life, somewhat enhanced by Adèle’s acceptance of (and delight in) his unusual physical condition: ambiguous genitalia caused by hypospadias. Their unusual romance sees them rendezvous in parks and often in church with Charles dressed in his mother’s clothes masquerading as “Charlotte”.
When the romance fades, Charles obsessively writes of his love, first as poetry, then within the novel Volupté. Victor Hugo’s fame grows, as does his egocentricity.
Victor and Adèle’s eldest daughter dies tragically. The Hugos move into exile in the Channel Islands. The younger daughter eventually goes mad. Charles and Adèle’s futile emotions smoulder unbidden in the background.
A fascinating story for history buffs is kneecapped by awkward tense shifts and clunky structure. The most interesting bits are rushed through; tedious details take forever. The affair’s fictionalised minutiae (“I love your ears.” … “I love your eyes” … “I love your eyes.”) seem far too pedestrian for such momentous figures of French literary history.
Reviewed September 2011