Potentilla ‘Emilie’ has been chosen for the Victor Hugo Garden to commemorate Emily de Putron (1834-1865), the Guernsey-born fiancee of Victor Hugo’s younger son, François-Victor Hugo. It is planted next to Iris ‘Immortality’ to evoke Victor Hugo’s celebrated speech at Emily’s graveside.
The message reads: ‘Two hearts in love are like two volumes of a single work that became separated, but which Providence reunited on the same shelf.’
Toto est décidément pris par cette sylphide inconnue. Il ne tient pas ici. La jeune beauté l’adore à ce qu’il paraît, et ne le lâche pas. Ça fait passer l’exil. Adèle Foucher to Julie Chenay, c. 1856
Toto has definitely fallen for this unknown sylph. He is finding it difficult here. It appears the young beauty adores him, and doesn’t leave his side. It”ll make exile easier.
14 janvier 1865. Mort de Mlle Emily de Putron. Grande douleur pour Victor, et par conséquent pour moi. [Carnet 1865]
14 Januiary 1865. Death of Miss Emily de Putron. Great grief for Victor, and in consequence for me.
From Actes et paroles: Ce que c’est que la mort. L’enterrement d’une jeune fille.
What death is. Burying a young girl.
Emily was buried in the newly inaugurated Cimetière des Indépendants at Le Foulon in Guernsey on 19 January 1865. François-Victor, overwhelmed, left the island with his mother the day before her funeral. Victor Hugo made a speech over her grave which was reported in newspapers all over the world and became famous, both for its beauty and for its references to the immortality of the soul and the constant presence of the dead amongst the living. He represented Emily as gazing at the crowd from the open grave, listening to his speech. The image of Emily’s soul engaging with the living was taken up with gusto by the Spiritist movement and caused much controversy.
Giving this funeral oration may have had special significance for Victor Hugo, as he had not been able to make such a speech at his own daughter’s burial in 1843. Emily’s own words on her impending death, written to Victor Hugo ‘as a consolation to my parents’ are in a private collection in Guernsey. Hugo took on the role of ‘guardian’ of the ‘sleeping’ Emily on behalf of his son, to whom he sent a handful of grass plucked from her grave every year. For Victor Hugo, plants drew life from the earth around them, and sometimes that earth was over the grave of a loved one. Did the plant perhaps have some of the dead person’s soul in it? In his poetry, he wonders: do such graveyard flowers release the soul to the sky as perfume, perhaps? Similarly, around the 19th January every year The Victor Hugo in Guernsey Society visits her graveside and lays a floral tribute, accompanied by a reading from Hugo’s speech. Her iconic tombstone, on which an extract from the speech is engraved, is very worn and the Society is restoring it with funding from Visit Guernsey.
Emily (sometimes written Emilie), was the daughter of Matthew de Putron, a member of Victor Hugo’s small but loyal entourage of Guernsey friends, and Marthe Bourgaize. A shipbuilder and trader (possibly also a smuggler) Matthew helped Victor Hugo source builders and furniture when he first arrived in Guernsey, and was the model for Mess Lethierry, canny uncle of Deruchette in Toilers of the Sea. He lived near Hauteville – the De Putrons had held land in Hauteville for centuries – but was not a member of the island’s elite. In fact, one of the grand De Saumarez family wrote that they were very keen to make sure that their sons were not educated with the likes of ‘De Putron’s sons’. Matthew De Putron built large sea-faring vessels in a ship-yard in St Julian’s Avenue. No doubt Victor Hugo was particularly taken with the necessity for the harbour wall to be knocked down and rebuilt every time De Putron needed to launch a ship! Matthew De Putron had been a neighbour of Henry Marquand, the editor of the Gazette de Guernesey and devoted acolyte of Victor Hugo. Henry Marquand eventually marrried Matthew’s eldest daughter, Martha. His youngest, Mary, married Théophile Guérin, François-Victor Hugo’s great friend and fellow Guernsey exile.
François-Victor and Emily met and bonded over their shared love of Shakespeare: François-Victor was a committed anglophile and translated the complete works of Shakespeare into French while he was in exile with his father. Victor Hugo visited London in the company of Mr and Mrs De Putron, Emily and François-Victor (it was in London that the photograph of her (below) was taken), and became godfather to Mary’s child with Henry Marquand. Emily was godmother. Georges Victor-Hugo, Victor Hugo’s grandson, was very fond of his uncle François-Victor and writes warmly of Emily de Putron, whom he had never met but whom family tradition remembered as quiet and gentle. She died of tubercolosis in January 1865, while Victor Hugo was in the process of writing Toilers of the Sea. François-Victor never married and died in 1873 at the age of 45 from renal tubercolosis.
For more about the De Putron family links with Toilers of the Sea, see Gregory Stevens Cox, Les Travailleurs de la mer: some Guernsey perspectives, Guernsey, Toucan Press, 2016; Victor Hugo’s Guernsey Neighbours, Guernsey, Toucan Press, 2015; Love’s Labour Lost, Alderney, 2018.