VICTOR HUGO'S LIFE.*
THE present publication carries the biography of the great con- temporary French poet to the period of his admission to the French Academy in 1841, thus completing, the writer tells us, the history of the specially literary period of his life,—a new publication being promised, which is to narrate his political career. According to a generally spread rumour, which the preface to this "authorized translation" accredits, the work is penned by the poet's own wife. From what is generally under- stood of that lady's character, however, it is difficult to believe that she has much exceeded the part of an amanuensis to her husband, and even without the statement of the "authorized" translator, it would be obvious to all who are familiar with Victor Hugo's modes of style and thought, that it must have been prepared "under the eye of the poet himself." Viewed in this light, the work falls into the class of those autobiographies which the great French writers of the present day—George Sand, Chateaubriand, Gttizot, Lamartine, &e.—appear to be in the habit of publishing, or at least selling, in their lifetime, and we may fairly expect it to reproduce the characteristics of its fellows. It especially recalls George Sand's " Memoires de Ma Vie" in the fulness with w bleb the early history of the hero is recorded, com- pared with that of his later life. Thus the whole first volume only carries us as far as the poet's eighteenth year, the second stretching over the whole period of his greatest literary activity, from the publication of his first volume of poems, the" Odes et Ballades," to the representation of his last drama, the "Bur- graves."
Not that this is to be wondered at. Few men have the moral hardihood to be thoroughly candid towards their past selves—of .any but the years of childhood and early youth. In dealing with their later life, moreover, if they are often sorely tempted to be reticent on their own behalf, it becomes as often their duty to be so on account of others. It is thus one of the neces- sary disadvantages of memoirs published with the sanction of a living person who is the subject of them, or by him, that of necessity they cannot tell all. Such works are, in general, what they profess to be, only up to the period of the hero's start- ing in the world ; after this they can be little more than a selec- tion of anecdotes threaded together by order of date. But as, indeed, for most readers the story of the childhood and early youth of remarkable men has a peculiar fascination,—whilst, on the other band, it is precisely that which others are least likely to tell correctly (since the most competent witnesses of the facts to be recorded belong to an older generation than the hero, who himself must be presumed to have reached maturity by the time be sits down to tell the tale),—there is, probably, even with- out recurring to the much-tried philosophy of Dr. Pangloss, but little cause for complaint. So that, on the whole, whilst we can in general only take an autobiography as the beginning of a true biography, with a chronological appendix to its later portions, we should always be grateful for getting it, as the very best of all beginnings. All thanks, therefore, to Madame and Monsieur Victor Hugo, for having given us this instalment of a work which should be a most valuable one.
But small thanks, if any, to their " authorized " translator. Most painfully ill-translated is the book. One could imagine it the joint concoction of an Englishman very ignorant of French, and of a Frenchman but imperfectly acquainted with English. To the latter we might attribute such Galliciams as "fishing with a line ;" "the wings of the pigeon" (I) i.e., the ailes de pigeon ; a the editor of the review," i.e., its publisher; "this brave youth," meaning, in one French sense of the French word, "honest ;" " the revolution of July had naturally suppressed the censure," i.e.," cen- • Victor Hugo : a Life related by one who has witnessed it, containing a Drama, in three acts, entitled "Inez de Castro," and other unpublished works. Two vols. tfAuthorised Lniuslatiou.) London: W. H. Allen and Co. 1863.
sorship," &c. ; or the ignorance of English geographical terms dis- played in such expressions as "the route of the Fourche* Caudines," "La Pouille had also its bands," "the groves of Guide." But to no Frenchman can be ascribed the portentous blunders which palpably disfigure almost every single passage of which the translator has innocently offered to us the text, and which, by the discredit they throw on the whole of his labours, must entirely destroy the value of the English version as a library work. These are strong words, and such as require, no doubt, to be justified by instances. In the first piece which is offered to us in the original :—
" D'une antique echoic, Chargeant lee appuis incertaixts,"
Loading the unsteady supports of an old ladder,' is rendered, "charging from the tottering steps, &c." In the same piece,
"Joust de maint email perfide," a plaything to many a treacherous shoal,' is rendered "joy of many perfidious rocks." In the second piece, "Le Dernier Barde," to take one blunder out of several, "Tout s'ebranle," all is in
motion '—applied to an invading host, becomes "all give way !"
The bards on a rock, " Debout, foulant aux pieds lea mobiles brouillards, agitant leurs robes funebres," 'upstanding, treading on the moving mists, shaking their funereal robes,' appear in Eng- lish, "On foot (I) trampling on the moving fogs, which agitate their mournful robes.'' " Leur trepas it l'Ecosse deserts annonce assez son avenir," their death to wasted Scotland sufficiently announces its future,' actually becomes "the future announces to deserted Scotland but too surely their decease ! " It would be tedious to enumerate one only in twenty of such blunders ; pronouns of the third person translated as of the second (" lid," by " thee ") ; the value of genders and tenses entirely over- looked. " Tu fus l'appui du Corse et mentant pour ea gloire," Thou wast the support of the Corsican, and lying for his glory,' rendered by "Thou west the prop of Corsica, and lying for her glory." " Assez de la louan,ge il fatigue la voix " (speaking of the first Napoleon), He wearied the voice of praise full enough' by "Enough of praise, it but fatigues the voice (I) ; gross ignorance of the dic- tionary itself; "Sous l'orme et sous Perable," "Beneath elm and maple," translated " 'neath elms and 'neath the shade," &c. Some instances are absolutely grotesque. In a piece addressed to the telegraph, i.e., the old " semaphore "—
" Qnand sur ton front muet posant sea plods
La Renommee errait sur toe tours immobiles,"
When, on thy silent brow placing her nimble feet, Fame wan- dered o'er thy motionless towers' (following a line which speaks of the "bold despot)," becomes, "When, on thy voiceless form he stood with active feet, Renown would wander on thy silent towers," substituting thus, at least to the reader's eye, even if not in the translator's intention, for the image of the loud-voiced goddess, just placing her nimble feet on the brow of the motion- less semaphore, as she leaps from tower to tower, the incon- gruous one of the bold despot himself standing on the form of the telegraph, and playing a sort of devil's tattoo on it with his feet, whilst Fame wanders on its towers.
"Tel enfin, qui jadis jouet d'un empirique Croyait mule vertus au baguet magnetique Contre un remede utile aujourdhui &chalk Prefererait mourir a vivre vaccine."
Translated: "He, in fact, who formerly the plaything of an empiric, believed a thousand virtues to exist in the magnetic bucket for every useful remedy let loose in our day, preferred to die rather than live vaccinated." It is hardly necessary to point out that Victor Hugo is by no means responsible for the droll image of useful remedies "let loose" like a pack of hounds, the real sense being, "against a useful remedy now open-mouthed, would rather die, &c." The same word, " dechainer," difficult, indeed, to translate in its metaphorical sense of passing all bounds in insulting clamour, brings ill luck to the translator in the very next page, where the monks who "Se dechainaient pour le grand St. Thomas," "railed out of all measure for great St. Thomas's sake," are ludicrously repressnted as "unchaining themselves to please the great St. Thomas." It is refreshing, indeed, to meet in the course of the second volume with a certain number of untranslated extracts. But wherever we find text and translation side by side, the inveterate habit of blundering crops out, as in p. 424 (last but two), where the traditore shows himself ignorant of the French idiom by which the reflective verb is used in a passive sense, and (speaking of the Duchess of Berry's betrayal by Deutz) translates, " Ne so met point en vente," by "Sells not herself," this being but one out of three gross mistakes on the same page. Of course, where the translation is so imperfect, misprints in the French cannot be wanting. They swarm.
It must be confessed that a writer suffers who has to be approached through the medium of such a translation.
It is, however, scarcely uncharitable to say that Victor Hugo's life is nut altogether a favourable specimen of its class, and seems, at least, to fall considerably short of what its subject promised. As might have been expected, the first volume is the most interesting. It is, in fact, to a great extent a biographical sketch of General Hugo the father, in whom one is glad to recognize the prototype of the elder Pontmercy in the " Miserables "—a fact which is, indeed, fully admitted by the author. The details of the poet's schooling, both at the College of the Nobles in Madrid, and also at the "Pension Cordier "in Paris, have much freshness, though far less than George Sand's marvellously told story of her early convent- days. At the Pension Cordier there seems to have been much more liberty allowed to the boys than is usual in French schools. The two Hugos, Victor and his brother Eugene, got up theatri- cals, for which they composed the pieces, and divided their schoolfellows under their rule, the " Dogs " obeying "Vic- tor,". and the "Calves" Eugene, and each potentate ex- ercising despotic sway. So real became this mock sove- reignty, that in desperate cases the old abbe who kept the school used actually to appeal to the "kings" to exercise their authority over refractory scholars. The poet was at this time twelve years old ; Eugene Hugo, who afterwards lost his mind, was older—by how much appears to be nowhere stated. The interest of the work keeps up through the narrative of the poet's earliest literary efforts and precocious success. The writer says :— •
" I have in my possession about ten copybooks full of verses written by Victor whilst at school. At the close of the index of the first and earliest book, which contains eighty-five pieces of poetry, I see written. (See the index to the 11th Volume.) This was in 1815; the author was then thirteen years of age."
At fifteen he obtained an honourable mention for a piece of poetry from the French Academy, and would, it is said, have won the prize if he had not stated his age in his verse, which piece of information the unbelieving academicians mistook for au attempt to hoax them. He failed the next year at a similar competition in Paris, but won two prizes at the" Floral Games" of Toulouse, then a third, which made him at eighteen an academician of Toulouse. His poetical success was at this time in nowise hindered by his political opinions, which were of the whitest, thanks to his Mother's influence—a Voltairian Royalist. He wrote odes, which were read and praised by Louis XVIII. ; Château- briand, the Duke de Rohan, and other magnates sought his acquaintance ; he was offered and declined an attacheship to the French Embassy at Berlin ; was invited to attend the famous " sacre" Of Charles X. Soon, however, a different influence began to-bear upon him. His father and mother had been for years estranged. The mother's death in 1821 did not at first bring the father nearer to the sons. General Hugo objected to the latter devoting themselves to literature; offered to maintain them if they would adopt some profession. Victor declined the offer, and with 800 francs (321.), which he had earned, made his start in the world. He lived for a year on 700f.; married on a 1,000- franc pension given to him by the King out of his privy purse, upon the success of the first volume of Hugo's poems, the "Odes et.Ballades." His brother Eugene's madness at last brought him in contact with his father, and his opinions began to undergo the sort of change which he has himself described in his " Miser- ables" in reference to Marius, a character which in many respects seems to answer to his own. A few years later the "Ode k !a Colonne" (1827) marked his altered views. From this moment the young Royalist poet was reckoned to the Opposition by friend and foe alike.
Unfortunately for Victor Hugo, however, he was both politician and poet. His politics being now deemed liberal, he might seemingly have reckoned on the support of the Liberals. But the political Liberals were in great measure desperate literary Conser- vatives, and at Victor Hugo's first meeting with Armand Carrel, a dispute as to the comparative merits of Chiteaubriand (till Victor Hugo appeared the leader of the literary innovators) and Bossuet had led to a bond fide challenge from Carrel, which, however, a mutual friend prevailed on the latter to tear up. This is probably the main explanation of the storm which was aroused by the performance of Victor Hugo's first dramas,—his political and literary opponents uniting to cry him down. The story, famous in the annals of French contemporary literature, of the first performance of Hernani, and of the " tribes " of wild- looking- youth who took the place of the professional claque to defend the piece, is told with considerable vivacity.
Nevertheless, the whole latter part of the second volume is soon felt to be hasty, fragmentary, and incomplete. It scarcely professes to be more than a history of the poet's works, and. those which are mainly dwelt upon are precisely such as are of least interest to the reader,—Victor Hugo's theatrical pieces, which few can read without feeling that they are con- structed almost entirely upon false principles, and that, notwith- standing the evidence which they afford of the writer's power, they will do far less than his poems properly so called to per- petuate his fame. The latter, except the above-named.
"Odes et Ballades," are avowedly little more than mentioned, because they were always and increasingly successful. Yet it is.
precisely these, as bearing most on the inner life of the writer,. which really possess most interest for all who wish to understand Victor Hugo as a man. It is true that they sometimes refer to. matters which the " witness " of the poet's life who writes thee. present autobiography can hardly be expected to dwell upon; and pieces like "Chantez, Chantez, Jenne Inspiree " and its congeners must await biographical comment from other hands.
But the narrative will be felt at once by all who knew young Paris in those days to be singularly jejune and imperfect, oven as- respects the most permissible details. One misses, for instance,. any mention of that free access which Victor Hugo allowed to ,
schoolboys, especially (when he lived in the Place Royale) those. of the neighbouring College Charlemagne,—a circumstance which goes far to explain the willing enthusiasm of the " tribes" at the representation of his pieces. The great war of " Classics " and "Romantics" is only sketched in its set theatrical battlefields,.
not as it was waged in every salon and class-room almost
throughout France, in the days when the possession of a. volume of Victor Hugo was almost sure to draw down punishment on a schoolboy, and, as a necessary consequence, was to be found in the desk or the pocket of almost all who had a soul above cakes and marbles. For the professor, Victor Hugo.
ceased to live with the "Odes et Ballades ;" perhaps the " Moise," his prize poem of 1820, might find sufficient grace to be given. out for translation into Latin verse, as having still in it, along with Corneille, Racine, Boileau, &c., somethine. of "nobleness" and "eternal truth." For the schoolboy, on the contrary, Vid- tor Hugo only began to live w:th the "Orientates," which the powers that were, of course, utterly tabooed.
Imperfect in breadth, the narrative is equally so in depth. Hurried about from stage to stage, we scarcely get a glimpse into the man's own soul. We are told how he took a confessor„ once upon a time, and that confessor Lamennais ; how at 'an. early period there grew up in him the idea of " uniVersal tolera- tion," how he thought "but little of what is conventional in the.
matter of popular beliefs or traditions." But we must turn to his works, if we would wish to see how the" open secrets" of life and.
eternity have offered themselves to the mind of this, the foremost. literary Frenchman of the day, and there is nothing in the present record of his life to show that Olympio's haughty pretension to compose his poetry out of "denial, doubt, and faith," is not the key to his fluctuaut philosophy.
To be brief, the witness of Victor Hugo's " life " appears scarcely to have observed much of what we wished to know, and
has told still less. Her work in the original is probably a valuable contribution towards the poet's biography, but it cannot claim to be anything more.