Friday, February 26, 2010

Happy Birthday VH!

Gentle Readers, you might have realized that, as of late, there have been a spate of posts about Victor Hugo. Now, why is this you might ask? To build up to Victor Hugo's birthday today, of course!

The Amateur Historian, it must be admitted, feels herself unworthy of snarking just one moment of Hugo's life on his birthday, of all days, and so will let Graham Robb, who is quite possible The Literary Biographer of 19th century French authors, do the talking for her:

"[During the Paris Commune, the] whole city had paid tribute [to Victor Hugo], from the actress who called herself to 'Cosette' to the schoolteacher who called herself 'Enjolras'... 'Enjolras' was Louise Michel, soon to be adored and detested as one of the fiercest anarchists of the Commune, the so-called 'Red Virgin'. The thought of this martyr of socialism baring herself in front of her childhood hero has caused some discomfort to her admirers. A broad-minded socialist regime might have made it the subject of a commemorative postage-stamp."

The Amateur Historian would never use any other postage-stamp ever.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lost in translation

Even the most profound of literary geniuses have their little slip-ups. As the Gentle Reader may have noticed, the Amateur Historian possesses a certain fondness for Victor Hugo, whose life might as well have been the subject of one of his novels (and, to a certain extent they were; though some literary critics have floated the theory that all writing is, to a certain extent, autobiographical, Hugo drew inspiration for all of his works from his own life).

The Amateur Historian believes that Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was the first to point out that it took an odd sort of genius for a man exiled for about fifteen years to English-speaking islands in the Channel to never learn a word of English. It would have been useful for Hugo to learn at least one as, in his novel Les Travailleurs de la Mer, set on and dedicated to the island of Guernsey, Hugo lovingly devoted an entire chapter to his character's 'bug-pipe'.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Everything Should End with Partial Nudity

During the struggles for power between the Girondins and the Jacobins, debates could very quickly dissolve into shouting matches full of really bizarre insults or over-dramatic gestures against each other. Today this seems somewhat nonsensical, but, within the context of 18th century political life, this was perfectly reasonable. It was probably something of a feat to give a speech without an illustrative prop, an insult at whoever spoke before you, or an express wish for martyrdom.

Take, for example, this debate between three Jacobins (Robespierre, a delegate, Marat, a delegate and newspaper editor, and David, a delegate and painter) and one Girondon (Pétion, a delegate), from April 12, 1793, which ended on a more dramatic note than your usual legislative debate:

: I demand censure of those who protect traitors.
Marat: Bravo, bravo!
Robespierre: And their accomplices.
Pétion: Yes, their accomplices, and you yourself. It is time at last to end all this infamy; it is time that traitors and perpetrators of calumny carried their heads to the scaffold; and here I take it upon myself to pursue them to death.
Robespierre: Stick to the facts.
Pétion: It is you I will pursue! [The Amateur Historian would like to add, 'No, duh'.]
David: (suddenly running into the middle of the hall) Strike here! (tears open his shirt and thumps his bare chest) I propose my own assassination! I, too, am a man of virtue! Liberty will win in the end!
Marat: (unacademic phrases the secretary did not see fit to record)

Needless to say, nothing else got done that day.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

How Very... Romantic

Happy Valentine's Day, Gentle Readers! The Amateur Historian will admit to preferring February 15th over February 14th, as, on the 15th, one can purchase pink-wrappered candy for 50% off. It is a very pleasant way to boost one's endorphin levels (and one's cholesterol, but no matter).

In honor of a very romantic holiday, the Amateur Historian would like to offer up quite possibly one of the most Romantic (in the sense of the literary and philosophic movement where one's demise was considered a perfectly reasonable subject of conversation, as long as one did not adhere to classical meter while doing so) gestures ever made by The French Romantic himself, Victor Hugo. The portrait of Hugo, to the left, was drawn by his then wife-to-be, Adèle Foucher, whom the young Hugo adored beyond reason. When his mother died and Hugo began spending his days standing across the street from the Foucher household, waiting to see Adéle come to the window, Adéle's parents became understandably alarmed. They whisked Adéle off to Dreux, ostensibly to visit a relative, but really to put a 25 franc coach ride between her and her poetic stalker.

A week later, Hugo arrived in Dreux, having marched on foot for fifty miles from Paris. After bathing in a river, he went to the Hôtel du Paradis, where the Fouchers were staying, and wrote a note to them about the remarkable coincidence that they should also be in Dreux, since he just happened to be there "in search of Druidic monuments".

M. Foucher was, to his credit, extremely impressed and invited Hugo to stay with them and write Gothic odes, provided they were about their rented holiday home instead of Adéle. Hugo and Adéle were married a year later.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

How Eloquent, M. Hugo

Victor Hugo was never one for staying silent when he could make speeches, and the mini-rebellion against Napoleon III's coup d'etat in 1851 was no exception. Upon hearing that several representatives had been arrested, troops had invaded the National Assembly, posters had been put up declaring a state of siege against the machination of liberal deputies and socialists, the bell-towers had been guarded, and all municipal drums (used to call people to arms, like the bell towers) had been punctured, Victor Hugo knew what to do. He grabbed his representative's sash and started agitating for rebellion.

Sure enough, Victor Hugo's quartier erected barricades (and was one of the few quartiers to do so). Victor Hugo dashed off wordy counter proclaimations, printed on an early form of carbon paper by illegal printing presses and attempted to harangue other quartiers into open rebellion. He was not very successful, as he admits in his memoirs:

Hugo: Follow my sash to the barricades.
A Worker: That's not going to put another forty sous in my pocket, is it?
Hugo: You are a cur.

Sometimes, the Amateur Historian admits, one ought to let history speak for itself.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Romantic Army on the March off Cliffs!

In belated honor of this blog's one year birthday, have a free opera from Paris! This is Massenet's Werther. Unfortunately the subtitles are in French, but the Amateur Historian would like to point out two scenes of Romantic OTT that need to be seen- 82:16-83:00 where Werther falls to the floor and curls into a fetal position at the loss of Charlotte, and 88:18-30, where Werther jumps off a wall in lieu of any other civilized way of ending a conversation. I highly recommend the opera, which is lovely, musically speaking, and suffers only slightly from being a Romantic work of literature that got reinterpreted into Victorian sentimentalism.

The Amateur Historian adores Romanticism, but is more of Byron's camp than Wordsworth's. The best Romanticism is done with a straight-face, but with tongue firmly in cheek.