The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphreys

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The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphreys

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Based on real events, this is the very strange story of the love triangle between French novelist, Victor Hugo, his wife and his one-time friend and critic Charles Saint-Beuve - a man who holds a strange secret and who has an equally strange affair with Hugo's wife. Told with wry humour, this sad story once again proves that fact is often stranger than fiction.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846687983

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'The Reinvention of Love' is one of those stories that is so bizarre and strange that it could only be based on factual events. Essentially it is a good, old-fashioned love triangle set mostly in Paris in the period from the 1830s to the 1860s; a world where fighting duels is a commonplace event. The triangle features the great French literary writer Victor Hugo, his wife Adèle and the altogether strange critic Charles Saint-Beuve who narrates much of this story, with brief breaks for Adèle's side of events and some letters written by the Hugo's youngest daughter, also called Adèle (but let's call her, as she was known to her family, Dédé to avoid confusion).

Humphreys notes that she was attracted to the story by the fact that Saint-Beuve's story is both fascinating and by the fact that it has not been dealt sympathetically to date and this is what she seeks to redress. In some ways she succeeds although quite frankly at some points in the story it appears that what Adèle was most attracted to about Saint-Beuve is that he simply wasn't the work-obsessed and driven Victor. I think it's fair to say that her taste in men didn't have much to recommend itself to the reader.

Saint-Beuve was an early admirer of Hugo's poetry and the two men struck up a strong friendship, although the critic's growing feelings for Victor's wife and a general sense of envy at both Hugo's success and his life certainly served to complicate the relationship. What is most strange about the whole affair is that Saint-Beuve had a secret condition, which comes as such a shock to the reader that I won't spoil by revealing here, but suffice to say that it makes Adèle's feelings for him more difficult to understand. It's fair to say that Saint-Beuve's self image and jealousy is somewhat more understandable though in this context, although it does raise far more searching questions of what was going on in Adèle's mind which is perhaps less clearly revealed. Perhaps she just wanted to be appreciated for who she was.

One particularly nice addition is the inclusion of some photographs and images of the key people and locations. Certainly Saint-Beuve was no oil painting and I think we can pretty much rule out superficial looks as Adèle's driving attraction.

There is a smattering of cross dressing going on throughout too - a contemporary and friend of Saint-Beuve was George Sand, a female writer who always presented herself as a man, while Saint-Beuve sometimes resorted to a disguise of Charlotte to meet with Adèle. Even more worryingly Adèle seems to have developed somewhat separate feelings for both Charles and Charlotte Saint-Beuve, despite the fact that they are one and the same. However, it is later on in the story when Dédé also takes to dressing up in male attire that some of the implications of what she must have seen in her childhood with her mother and Charles/Charlotte have sad ramifications.

It's a story that is often amusing, Saint-Beuve has an acerbic and often bitterly amusing line of thought, while the whole situation would be funny if it were not so sad. However, Hugo's own family suffered tragedy which have ramifications to the story. However, the focus here is very much on the less famous - namely Saint-Beuve and to a lesser extent on Dédé.

It's such a strange situation that it is a fascinating read, although in part because Humphreys has told it very much from Saint-Beuve's point of view for the most part, it leaves the reader with a number of unanswered questions.

Our thanks as ever to the kind people at Serpent's Tail for sending us a copy of this fascinating book.

If the strange love lives of great writers is what you are into, then look no further than A Man of Parts by David Lodge which looks at the love lives of HG Wells which will have a similar effect of making your eyebrows and jaw head in opposite directions.

Buy The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphreys at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphreys at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphreys at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphreys at Amazon.com.


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