I knew I wanted to read Helen Humphrey’s most recent novel, The Reinvention of Love, the moment I heard it fictionalised the strange love triangle that existed between Victor Hugo, his wife, Adèle, and the critic Charles Saint-Beuve. I’d read Helen Humphreys before and knew her to be an excellent wordsmith as well as a writer fascinated by extreme and sometimes tragic scenarios.
Victor Hugo and Charles Saint-Beuve began as the best of friends, not least because Saint-Beuve wrote an early review of Hugo’s poetry that praised him as a genius. But it wasn’t long before Adèle, Hugo’s statuesque wife, became the person that Charles most wanted to see. When the novel opens, the affair is in its richest, most tempestuous phase. Saint-Beuve, a man of eccentric and often unstable temperament, a man with low self-esteem who considered himself so ugly as to be unlovable, but with a clever, waspish mind and a burning ambition to star on the literary stage, has thrown away all caution in his passion for Adèle, a miraculous love he thought he would never find, and which he is sure will never come again. For Saint-Beuve has a secret, and one that he believes presents an unusual challenge to love relationships. Adèle Hugo is disillusioned with her marriage to Hugo, which has grown stale and predictable. Hugo’s enormous ego and his complete commitment to his writing have squeezed her out and left her sidelined and mostly ignored. Humphreys presents the love between Charles and Adèle as genuine and extraordinary, a love on which a serious long-term relationship could be founded; only Charles’ friendship with Hugo causes complications, and in a moment of weakness, he confesses to what he has done.
This is a richly plotted book in which a great deal happens, all of it drawn as closely as possible from the true histories of the protagonists, and it spans a long stretch of time, right up to the deaths of Charles and Adèle. Helen Humphreys has certainly picked a wonderful moment in French history and found biographies that read like the most lurid and gripping of mini-series. This was an unexpectedly swift read, beautifully evocative and vivid, bringing 19th century Paris to grimy cholera-infested life, and as an extra thrown in for free, it has a lot of fun with cross-dressing. I thought the love affair was persuasively told, and its repercussions rippling out through the years were intelligently traced. The long stretch of time encompassed by the narrative allows us to return to the main protagonists again and again, each time adding another layer of characterisation to create very rounded portraits. I thought this was particularly successful with Adèle; often women caught in the web of adultery narratives never come off too well, it’s too easy to see them as fickle and thoughtless. But watching Adèle’s rationalisations over the years, her courageous attempts to make the best of bad situations, the tragedies she had to withstand, and the long struggle with her conscience made of her a far more interesting character than if she’d been just another casualty of infidelity.
It’s not a perfect book, however. Real lives lack the shapeliness that fiction is so adept at bestowing on events, and in the author’s ambition to cover a lot of ground, the narrative occasionally trips over or speeds along in awkward ways. It must be very hard indeed for authors to decide which parts of the life story they should illustrate and which can be safely gestured towards, and I’m not always convinced that Humphreys makes the best choices. To an extent this doesn’t matter, because every part of the Hugos’ life is engaging. I thought that Helen Humprhey’s prose was mostly elegant and perceptive, but I have to admit some frustrations with the use of the present tense, which is particularly unwieldy in the first person narrative of Charles Saint-Beuve who insists upon it, even though his perspective seems to be coming from beyond the end of the story. And although Humphrey’s stated intention (at the back of the book) is to bring the story of Charles Saint-Beuve out of the shadows, and ‘to show that perhaps the more interesting story belongs, in fact, to the “lesser” man’, I couldn’t help but feel that it was good old monstrous Hugo who rather stole the show towards the end of it. In fiction, as in life, he simply couldn’t help himself. But if you are interested in 19th century French literature, this is an engrossing and lively account of some very, very odd people.