Victor Hugo writes of Lamartine in Things seen, 24 June 1849:
‘Some of Lamartine’s mistakes are as great as he is, but for a fortnight he was the shining light of a dark revolution.’
Rosa ‘Duchesse d’Abrantès, Moss rose, France, Robert, 1851
Laure Junot, Duchesse d’Abrantès (1784-1838) was a celebrated member of the cultural milieu in France in the early years of Victor Hugo’s life and a friend of the Bonaparte family. Her husband, Andoche Junot, was a general in Napoléon’s army. His behaviour, after receiving a wound in the head in battle, became erratic. A devoted friend of Napoléon from early in his career, he was flamboyant and dissipated. He took part in many battles and was made governor of Paris and of Portugal, not without incident. Like Victor Hugo’s father, Léopold, also a general in Napoléon’s army, he fell out of favour, was elevated to the peerage and sent off to the political and military quagmire of Spain, in effect a demotion. He committed suicide in 1813, after which his wife Laure, who was noted for her beauty, wit and extravagance, made a career for herself as a writer.
Once the mistress of the author Balzac, she died in poverty in 1838. The Paris glitterati, many of whom had abandoned her in her life, came out for her funeral. Victor Hugo, who along with Chateaubriand and Dumas was one of the leading mourners, was aghast when the authorities refused to allow a monument for her to be erected in Père Lachaise cemetery. He wrote a poem extolling her and protesting about the harsh treatment of her memory and by extension that of Napoléon Bonaparte, whom Victor Hugo admired all his life.
There are many letters between Hugo and the Junot family; a letter from the Duchesse d’Abrantès inviting Victor Hugo to dinner is in Guernsey’s Priaulx Library collection.
‘Duchesse d’Abrantès ‘ was obtained from Roses Loubert in France.
Rosa ‘Alphonse de Lamartine’, Hybrid Perpetual, France, Ducher, 1853
On 2 June 1846, Victor Hugo wrote to his friend Mme de Girardin: ‘The friendship between me and Alphonse de Lamartine has been a wonderful thing for me, 26 years with never a cloud between us’.
Undisputedly one of the major figures of French Romanticism, Lamartine (1790-1869) was 12 years older than Victor Hugo. His career followed a similar trajectory to that of Hugo until the advent of the Second Republic, when his success waned. His literary fame began in 1820 with an enormously popular collection of poems, Meditations. He was a poet, novelist, historian and politician. Like Hugo he changed from monarchist to Republican, but he lacked Hugo’s conviction. While in the government he tried to appoint Victor Hugo mayor of the 8th arondissement in Paris and to persuade him to become the Minister for Education, but Hugo refused. A book by Lamartine on the history of the French Revolution helped inflame socialist feeling. It was he who proclaimed the Republic in the Revolution of 1848, while Victor Hugo, not yet a Republican, was pleading for a regency. However, Lamartine’s enthusiasm for the Republic was short-lived. When Victor Hugo made his celebrated speech against Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in the National Assembly in 1851, ‘What! Because we had a Napoleon the Great, we must needs have a Napoleon the Little!’, Lamartine attacked him in his newspaper Le Conseilleur du Peuple. Others had accused Hugo of playing to the audience, of a piece of theatre: Lamartine instead wrote that Hugo’s speech was an ‘ardent piece of invective’ more suited to a Greek or Roman orator. Not that it wasn’t the work of a ‘great artist’: but it was out of place. A devoted Christian and a royalist, Lamartine was essentially a conservative who had difficulty with the notion of equality. He stood against Louis-Napoléon in the election that followed but received a miniscule proportion of the vote, which had been conducted under universal male suffrage.
The two friends nevertheless had plenty in common. Lamartine, like Hugo, spoke out against slavery, having been one of the founders of the French Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1834, spoke in favour of the abolition of the death penalty, and was with Victor Hugo one of the only vocal supporters of the struggle of the Serbian people against the Ottomans. He shared Hugo’s wish to improve the safety of seafarers, becoming an Honorary Member of the Humane Society of Dunkirk, a maritime life-saving society founded in 1834.
In 1862 Adèle Hugo was planning an album of her music, set to the work of great poets. Just at the time that her father was publishing Les Misérables, her mother, Mme Hugo, went to see Lamartine to ask him the favour of providing some verses for her daughter to set to music. Mme Hugo writes that Lamartine was working all hours of the day to keep his head above water, and that he owed money to several of his countrymen, locals to his area who were not particularly well-off and who had died before he could repay them. Mme Hugo felt sorry for Lamartine. The letter Adèle wrote to her mother in response to this news is in Guernsey’s Priaulx Library. Soon after, Victor Hugo sent his old friend his new novel, with an open invitation to review it if he wished, despite the fact that they both knew Lamartine disagreed with much of the novel’s content. There was, wrote Lamartine to Hugo, ‘conflict between our ideas, although none whatsoever between our hearts.’ Victor Hugo wrote a famous letter to Lamartine in June, 1862, which begins: ‘If the radical is the ideal, then yes, I am a radical.’
‘Yes, a society that allows abject poverty, yes, a religion that allows Hell, yes, a humanity that allows war, seem to me an inferior society, religion, humanity, and it is towards a higher society, a higher religion and a higher humanity that I aspire: a society without a king, humanity without borders, religion without any book. Yes, I fight against the priest who sells lies and the judge that rules unjustly. To universalise property (which is the opposite of abolishing it) while suppressing parasitic behaviour, that is how one reaches this goal: every man an owner but no man master, this is what I think is the true social and political economy. The goal is far off. Is that a reason not to move towards it? … Dear Lamartine, we have been friends for forty years and we are not yet dead: you will not want to ruin that past nor that future, I am sure. Do with my book and with me what you will. From your hand can come nothing but light.
Your old friend, Victor Hugo.’
Unfortunately, and predictably, Lamartine was unable to accept Les Misérables, a book with ‘brotherhood for its base and progress for its peak,’ as Hugo warned him. He only approved of the garden chapter, ‘The Idyll of rue Plumet’. Fundamentally, he thought the book was dangerous, because ‘not only does it fill with too much fear those who have struck lucky in the social order, but it gives those who are unlucky too much hope.’
Victor Hugo did not hold Lamartine’s detailed and unfavourable review against him. Shortly afterwards, he sent a letter of condolence to him on the death of his wife.
Hauteville-House, 23 May 1863
You have been struck a heavy blow; I need to bring my heart close to yours. I venerated the woman you loved. Your elevated spirit sees beyond the horizon; you can see life in the future clearly. There is no need to say to you: hope. You are one of those who know.
She is still your companion: invisible, but present. You have lost the woman, but not the soul. Dear friend, let us live amongst the dead.’
Lamartine died in 1869 and despite Hugo writing to him that his poems were ‘Genius, genius, genius!’, he has never been subject to quite the world-wide fame and lasting devotion that Victor Hugo has enjoyed.
‘Alphonse de Lamartine’ was obtained from Roses Loubert in France.