Victor Hugo to Juliette Drouet
Victor Hugo, the 19th century French
writer, wrote the letter extracted here soon after his mistress, Juliette Drouet, had risked her
life to save his. He possessed an apparently boundless energy for writing, politics, good food, and
beautiful women. And he indulged all of his enthusiasms. During his lifetime he won public adulation
for his revolutionary thinking about freedom. His reputation reached such a height that, when he died
in Paris, some two million people followed his coffin, and a day of national mourning was declared.
This extraordinary man shared this colorful life with his wife, Adèle Foucher, and a long
succession of mistresses, the most important of whom was the renowned beauty, Juliette Drouet.
Victor met Juliette in 1833, the year he married Adèle as wife,
Juliette as mistress, secretary, and nurse. she was 26 when they met--Hugo was 30--an aspiring actress
with a string of wealthy lovers, rehearsing as Princess Negroni, a minor part in one of Hugo's plays,
Lucrèce Borgia. The role offered her few lines, but Juliette gave it beauty, wit,
elegance, and a striking stage presence. From the first she fed Hugo's vanity, announcing:
"There is no such thing as a minor role in a play by Monsieur Victor Hugo."
They began a passionate affair, revolving around her complete devotion to him. Juliette gave up
her glittering social life and rich lovers, the stage and friends, and lived on an allowance provided
by Hugo. She seldom went out, and accounted to Hugo for everything she spent. She passed her days
copying his writings, and reading his poems. They took holidays together in France, Belgium, Holland,
Germany, and the Swiss Alps. Adèle, whose tears and protests were ignored by Victor, continued
to make public appearances as his wife. In truth, though, she had taken a lover herself. A year later,
Hugo and Juliette were together in Juliette's native Brittany when Adèle wrote:
"I do believe that in spite of everything, you love me, and that you are enjoying
yourself, since you are in no hurry to return. Truth to tell, these two certainties make me happy..."
As time passed both Victor's writing and his career prospered. In 1841 he was
elected to the French Academy. He became a deputy for Paris, first in the Constituent Assembly and then
in the Legislative Assembly. Throughout this period his affairs with other women were plentiful and,
unknown to Juliette, in 1844 he took another important mistress, Léonie D'Aunet. Adèle
became friendly with Léonie, seeing her as a potential ally against Juliette. Seven years later,
however, Victor began to find Léonie an embarrassment and the relationship waned. In
retaliation for his coolness, in June 1851 Léonie sent all the letters Victor had written her to
Juliette. Not only were they similar to letters Juliette herself had received over the previous 18
years, but also their receipt marked Juliette's first knowledge of her rival.
When Juliette confronted Victor, he admitted everything and offered a
solution that matched his vanity. He proposed a contest. Both women would continue as his mistress,
and the one who showed him the most love would win his favors. The challenge was accepted. In her
letter of June 28, 1851, Juliette wrote:
"In the name of all that you hold sacred, in the name of my great grief, beloved, do not
show any false generosity to me; do not tear your heart in pieces merely to spare mine...Have
pity upon me, dear God, spare me this last drop of bitterness which I must drink in seeing suffer
through my fault the man who I love better than life, better than happiness...O God! let him
be happy with another rather than unhappy with me..."
Léonie, in contrast, resented the terms of the contest from the beginning and objected to
the sacrifices demanded by Victor. Youth and beauty were on Léonie's side, but Juliette, happy
to bear any humiliation for Victor's sake, won the advantage.
In the wider world of politics Louis-Napoléon (president of the
Second Republic from 1850-52, and then emperor of the French, as Napoleon III, 1852-71) was bidding
to assume absolute power. victor vigorously apposed him. In December 1851, Louis-Napoléon
launched his coup d'état and Victor Hugo became a wanted man, in hiding, his life in danger.
Amid the slaughter on the streets, while Adèle was sick and could do little to help, Juliette
found safe houses for him, arranged false papers to get him out of the country and then, discreetly,
followed him into exile, first to Belgium, then to the Channel Islands. Léonie was forgotten
in the confusion. On December 31, 1851, Hugo wrote the letter extracted here to the woman who had
saved his life.
In exile for 20 years until Napoleon III fell from power, Victor Hugo
became a symbol of intellectual resistance to tyranny. In his heroic old age Juliette acted as
a secretary-companion and worshiper, living near, but apart from, the Hugo family. Not until 1867
did Adèle, realizing that she was dying, make peace with the woman who had shared her husband
for so many years. In the final months of her life, Adèle admitted to Juliette into the Hugo
family circle. Juliette wrote that she was:
"overjoyed, moved, dazzled, and happier than a poor old woman has any right to be."
Adèle died in 1868 and Juliette became Victor's publicly acknowledge partner, a wife in all
Following the proclamation of the Third Republic in 1871 Hugo and Juliette
returned to Paris where Hugo was regarded as a public hero and guardian of liberty. For a short time
he agreed to play a part in public affairs by serving as a deputy in the National Assembly, but he
found the work too arduous and resigned after the first month in order to live a quiet life with
Juliette. He was subsequently elected a senator by the people of Paris, and on his 80th birthday the
street where he lived, Avenue d'Eylau, was renamed Avenue Victor Hugo in his honor.
when Juliette died in 1883 Victor never fully recovered from the loss.
He outlived her by two years, but never wrote again, an indication of just how much Juliette's quiet
devotion over the years had meant to him.
Famous Love Letters
Messages of Intimacy and Passion
Edited by Ronald Tamplin