The affair between Adele Hugo, Victor Hugo’s wife, and Charles Saint-Beuve has gone down in history as a mistake made by everyone; a doomed love affair that simply never should have started. Chock full of details that only history can make believeable, like Saint-Beuve’s hermaphroditism and cross-dressing, and the intoxicating world of 19th century France, the book is really a love story about two people who have made mistakes but have never ceased longing for one another.
I knew I wanted to read another book by Humphreys after Coventry and she certainly hasn’t let me down here. The book is short, but it covers thirty years of the couple’s affair, even after one of them has passed on. We alternate between Adele’s and Saint-Beuve’s voices, witnessing their struggles to be together from both sides. Adele, obviously, cannot leave her husband, who grows increasingly famous, particularly because of her children, while Saint-Beuve struggles to become the man he longs to be in Victor’s ever-present shadow.
I had actually never heard of the affair between Saint-Beuve and Adele, but since reading this book have really come to realize that it was well known in its time and almost universally derided. Saint-Beuve in particular has borne the brunt of the ridicule, possibly because he was actually a hermaphrodite.
This makes for a very interesting book, but instead of making it seem at all vulgar or strange, Humphreys weaves it into his personality and makes his cross-dressing and his confusion sexually just another aspect of him, just like his desire to write is a part of him but does not define him. I thought this was an incredibly sensitive way to handle the subject and Humphreys does an extraordinary job, both with his personality and the way that Adele sees him and falls in love with him and is physically attracted to him despite things like cross-dressing which would immediately put off many straight women in the present.
Another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed, which I briefly alluded to above, is Saint-Beuve’s struggle to define himself. He virtually lives in Victor’s shadow – struggling to surpass Victor’s writing skills, falling in love with his wife, and even at times coveting Victor’s children. He tries so hard to set himself apart, but is all he really wants to be Victor. It’s a real struggle with individuality.
Humphreys is a beautiful writer and her words set nineteenth-century Paris alight. The atmosphere, especially when the couple are together, is wonderful and immediately grants us a sense of place.
A lovely, tender but sad read, The Reinvention of Love is the perfect choice for those who prefer their literary fiction set in the past with a whole heap of doomed romance.
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