Fathers of literature

Postcard from Paris 5

The nineteenth century in France produced some giants of literature (often literally so!): Zola, Balzac, Hugo, Dumas, Flaubert, Verne, to name just a very few. Even today, their books are read and loved not only in France but all over the world, and pilgrimages are made to houses associated with them. Such outsize figures often had outsize lives, and having gone around two of the literary houses in particular recently, that of Victor Hugo in Paris and that of Jules Verne in Amiens, I was struck by the contrasting way in which their massive fame impacted on their family life. 

Hugo and Verne had many things in common; a great closeness to their energetic mothers; a great self-confidence, a huge appetite for life (which of course also meant mistresses!); an interest in the political and social affairs of their time which in Hugo’s case led to an involvement in national politics that saw him go into exile for a while, and in Verne’s case an immersion in local politics which saw him sit on the town council. 

Both men also of course had enormous literary fame in their own lifetime, and were lionised all over France and in fact internationally, with not only umpteen editions of their work in print, but also lots of merchandising: there was Victor Huge ink and paper, and Jules Verne board games and figurines! Both men were also voracious in their research interests, with vast libraries, and collections of pictures, charts, diagrams. Hugo was quite a good amateur sketcher and many of his quick-fire drawings of people in the street, in court, etc, survive, some on exhibition in the Musée d’Orsay; while Verne was a very keen amateur sailor whose knowledge of the sea and of boats came in handy in creating authentic detail for his books. 

But whilst in Hugo’s house you get lots of references to his family and his children, especially his beloved daughter Leopoldine, who shared many of her father’s interests, and from whose untimely death at the age of 19 he never recovered from, in Verne’s house, there is barely a mention of his children at all, though there is quite a lot about his parents and siblings. In fact so striking is this absence that at first I thought maybe he’d not had any children–but then read a passing mention about his only son, Michel Verne, who actually directed several films based on his father’s work. My novelist’s instincts and suspicions were aroused—I sniffed some family drama connected with this silence. And later, reading a life of Jules Verne, I realised that my suspicions were right. 

His wife Honorine was quite close to her children, especially her daughters, who do not seem to have caused any particular trouble. But Michel Verne was a quite different matter. He was a naughty boy who grew into a delinquent who caused so much trouble that as a teenager he was even placed by his father in a ‘maison de redressement’ or what in Australia we’d call ‘juvie’–a juvenile detention centre. From troubled boy he grew into a troubled man with a complicated and messy personal life marrying hastily and later divorcing (a scandal at the time of course, especially in regards to his old-style hypocritical father, who believed in at least the facade of married respectability if not the reality!), having children with different women, trying and failing at many different business ventures(including films) and having to be bailed out financially more than once by his father as an adult. 

It is the classic tragic case of ultra-famous father breeding ultra-troubled child—a child who desperately wanted to please a father who had little time for him and did not understand him at all (some of the things Verne is known to have said about his son are very harsh indeed) and who to get some attention played up constantly. It’s clear too that while Verne’s daughters were spared the heavy pressure of trying to measure up to their father’s creative talents, Michel wasn’t, as is evidenced by his increasingly desperate attempts to make some mark in the creative field. Alas, though in the Verne museum his film-making attempts are mentioned, they’re not even listed by name. In the end poor Michel is reduced to being only a fleeting ghost in his father’s passing parade, a sad example of the price of fame.


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