Baisez-moi belle Juju! Victor Hugo and the Joy of his Juliette

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The fifty-year affair between Victor Hugo and Juliette Drouet became integral to the poet’s life and character. Falling in love with the renowned courtesan when she was cast in the production of 'Lucrèce Borgia' in February 1833, Hugo insisted that his ‘Juju’ remain at his side for the remainder of their lives. He owed her not only his freedom when she arranged for his escape from Paris immediately after the 1851 coup d’état, but also the reproduction and preservation of much of his work. She tirelessly copied out many of his manuscripts and even ensured they survived intact when she followed him into (and out of) exile. Hugo’s promise that ‘je vais bientôt te rejoindre’ following her death in 1883 was perhaps his last prophetic act, having been left inconsolable at the loss of ‘mon ange’. Within Hugo studies, Juliette nonetheless tends to be seen as a victim of both her love and indeed Hugo’s egotism. Throughout his life, Hugo amassed countless affairs and liaisons with young and virile women, never denying to himself his physical attraction to the beauty and vigour of youth. ‘J’aime les jeunes femmes, non les vieilles. Je ne suis pas bouquiniste en amour.’ As such, Juliette is perceived by biographers like Elliott Grant and Joanna Richardson to play the role of the redeemed courtesan in Hugo’s self-centred fantasies whilst forced simultaneously to endure heartache as her ‘Toto’ pursued his other creative indulgences both at work and in the bedroom. This she did with unfaltering loyalty, imprisoning herself in a supremely testing relationship that is illustrated across the some 20,000 letters she wrote to him. In this chapter, I challenge the one-sided nature of these appraisals of Juliette by questioning the extent to which Hugo himself also became utterly dependent on their partnership. This insistence on Juliette being in his life is evident in 'Le Livre de l’anniversaire' – an old leather-bound book whose pages of Spanish poetry had been ripped out by Hugo to make way for letters and poems he would write to Juliette every year on the anniversary of their love, and which she stored next to her bed as a keepsake. Rather than merely representing the gift of a cad to placate his often put-upon mistress, this small collection reveals much of the fragility of Hugo’s self-identity. The ritualistic and testimonial nature of the writing here underlines that Juliette brings constancy to a dramatic life that was famously marked by personal loss and relentless change. This sense of the eternal that Hugo commemorates in their love is a vital component of his Romantic worldview; one which he cannot do without and which confirms both neediness and anxiety on his part. In turn, these readings will call into question Hugo’s clichéd characterisation as a 'grand homme' by qualifying his self-assured masculinity as at once forthright and yet highly insecure.
Translated title of the contributionBaisez-moi belle Juju! Victor Hugo and the Joy of his Juliette
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication'Joie de vivre' in French Literature and Culture
EditorsTimothy Unwin, Susan Harrow
Pages211 - 224
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)9789042025790
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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