The Honey Spurge is a native of the Canary Islands, and suited to a temperate climate. It’s name means ‘bearer of honey’. An often-cited quotation of Victor Hugo’s comes from his play of 1832, Le Roi s’amuse, which was banned in France because it was interpreted as criticising the king and then, to add insult to injury, adapted without Hugo’s permission into an opera, Verdi’s celebrated Rigoletto:
Life is a flower, its honey is love.
It’s the eagle in the sky united with the dove,
It is force allied with trembling grace,
It’s your hand in my hand sweetly finding its place.*
Unfortunately for the heroine Blanche, the king, of whose winning speech (Act II Scene 4) this is an extract, is a bad boy seeking to seduce her.
When Victor Hugo was a little more than a baby, his father was sent as battalion commander to Corsica to help reinforce the army there. The island had only recently been annexed to France. He arrived in January 1803, with his three sons and their governess, but without his wife. Sophie Hugo stayed in Paris to fight a court case, and perhaps also to be near a man she greatly admired and who might already have been her lover, General Victor Lahorie, after whom her son Victor had been named. Little Victor, eleven months old, missed her greatly; the adult Victor was to draw a veil over his stay in Corsica. Her husband also missed her, as his letters to her fulsomely point out, but as the days and weeks passed he found someone else to take her place, a young poor and soon to be fatherless Corsican girl, at 19 ten years younger than Leopold: Maria-Catalina Thomas. Sophie finally caught up with Leopold on the island of Elba; the English were threatening to attack and she insisted on taking the children away with her. Leopold tried to reconnect with Sophie but the relationship was breaking down. Eventually he openly treated Catherine (as she was known) as his mistress and later as his wife; he tried to obtain a divorce from Sophie on the grounds of her adultery with Lahorie; after the death of Sophie he did indeed marry her. Victor was thrilled to greet his gallant soldier father at Les Feuillantines, and overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of his time in Spain while Leopold was a commanding officer there, but his mother turned the young Hugo against his father and they were not reconciled until after her death. Leopold had been ennobled by Napoleon and was now Vicomte Hugo, but had fallen out of favour. He died only a few years after his wife, at the house in rue Plumet where Victor had been a frequent visitor, leaving Victor to regret the lost time he never spent with his father and to represent him as the hard-done by and tragic Pontmercy in Les Misérables, himself a gardener.
*Another version, from Tony Harrison’s (1937-) adaptation of Le Roi s’amuse:
‘Love’s the honey hidden in life’s flower,
love’s grace supported in the arms of power.
The eagle soaring with the gentle dove,
prey and predator at peace, that’s love, that’s love.’
Victor Hugo/Tony Harrison, Le Roi s’amuse/The Prince’s Play, Faber and Faber Limited, London, 1996.