Top critical review
Love in Strange Guises
on 11 September 2015
This decidedly strange novel deals with the love affair between Charles Saint-Beuve and Victor Hugo's wife Adele, and its aftermath. Saint-Beuve was initially Victor Hugo's friend and writing comrade. He and Adele became obsessed with each other after several meetings at Hugo's home, and before long took to meeting secretly, in churches and in hotel rooms. Saint-Beuve - who had believed he would never have a serious relationship with a woman, due to his strange hermaphrodite condition (about which he tells the reader in detail) - sometimes disguised himself to meet Adele as a woman, 'Charlotte', which seems to have added spice to their affair. The lack of sex bothered Adele not at all - she'd had enough with her virile husband. Unfortunately, even if the love affair was relatively chaste, Hugo still saw it as a betrayal - and his discovery of the affair marked the end of his friendship with Saint-Beuve, and eventually Saint-Beuve's dealings with the Hugo family, who ended up exiles in Guernsey due to Hugo's political troubles. Then, years later, Saint-Beuve and Adele met again - in order to deal with the bizarre behaviour of her daughter, also Adele (DeDe), who had gone mad and run away to Canada.
Humphreys narrates the story of Saint-Beuve, Adele and DeDe in clear, well-informed prose, and paints a deft picture of 19th-century Paris, and the stifling gentility of Guernsey. She's also good at describing Adele Hugo's frustrations, and Saint-Beuve's loneliness. It's hardly a cheering read, but in its quiet way it's an arresting one, and you always want to read on. The DeDe sections, largely narrated in letters, are more feverish in tone and more disturbing, particularly the sections narrated by DeDe, but also powerful. I think - bar the occasional slip - that Humphreys's research is pretty sound, and the photographs of the main characters dotted throughout the book are certainly fascinating.
So why only three stars? Firstly, I would have preferred a bit more narrative from Adele, and a tiny bit less from Saint-Beuve, whose rather flowery style could grate at times (though his liking for cats endeared him to me). I felt that at times Humphreys concentrated too much on Saint-Beuve's oddness, and not enough on his considerable talents as a scholar and his fascination with religion. But most of all, I felt Victor Hugo was unfairly treated. This book, for all its pathos and skill, was another in the line of 'genius-bashing', with Hugo depicted as a selfish, greedy, rapacious man, who appeared, after the days of his early friendship with Saint-Beuve, to have few redeeming characteristics. I'm sure, like many great men, that Hugo was far from perfect, but I think it's important to remember George Henry Lewes's statement that great virtues can exist in a man of genius as well as vices. Here I think we got all Victor Hugo's vices, but not nearly enough of the genius. This, coupled with the inevitable low-key ending of the book (Saint-Beuve died of a painful condition, Adele Hugo's last years were dull and sad, Adele junior went mad) made it rather depressing. Still, there was a lot to admire, and I'll definitely read more Helen Humphreys.