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To Christopher Gortner, who helped me find this novel’s soul.
And to Liz Berry, who helped me find its heart.
There are thoughts which are prayers. There are moments when, whatever the posture of the body, the soul is on its knees.
Every story begins with a tremble of anticipation. At the start we may have an idea of our point of arrival, but what lies before us and makes us shudder is the journey, for that is all discovery. This strange and curious story begins for me at the sea. Its sound and scent are my punctuation. Its movements are my verbs. As I write this, angry waves break upon the rocks, and when the water recedes, the rocks seem to be weeping. As if nature is expressing what is in my soul. Expressing what I cannot speak of out loud but can only write, here, in secret, for you, Fantine.
This is the story of a lost man. An exile not just from his beloved country but also from his sanity. I believe it to be a true and honest account. Whether or not you will, I know not. But I owe you this effort—to try to explain my actions and myself and how what transpired came to be.
This story begins in the south of France in early September of 1843. The first scene, as fate would have it, set against the sea.
I had been on a monthlong holiday with my mistress, whom you know of course as Juliette D. We had been traveling for three weeks when we reached the Island of Oléron. The weather was oppressively hot without breeze or relief.
“So this is what living in hell must be like,” I said as we rode to our hotel. Ah, but I had no idea how portentous those words were.
Everywhere we went the talk was about the monstrous weather and the mystifying plague that had stolen the lives of dozens of children. Even my beloved bay offered nothing pleasant for once. There were no invigorating sea breezes, no birdsong. As I walked the salt marshes, forced to step in seaweed to avoid the mud, only the distant voices of the convicts, one after another, as they were counted in for the evening kept me company.
For the first time in my life I was unhappy by the sea. It seemed death was in my soul. As if the island was a coffin laid in the sea with the moon as torch.
Concerned about the mysterious fevers and wanting to escape the melancholy atmosphere, we decided not to stay as long as planned and made immediate arrangements to depart the following morning.
On the boat the next day, the talk among the sailors continued to be morbid as they focused on several recent drowning incidents that had occurred in the vicinity.
“As if death is following us,” I told Juliette.
By the time we arrived at Rochefort on the mainland we were depressed, tired and thirsty. Since we had a few hours to wait for the evening coach to La Rochelle, we proceeded to the main square to find refreshments. Café de l’Europe was open and not crowded. We found seats and ordered beers.
There were newspapers available. Juliette picked up a copy of
and I, a copy of
Just then a square-bodied woman passed in front of the window, distracting me from the front page. She had a child with her, a little girl of eight or nine. As they walked by, the woman tripped and went sprawling. The child stood frozen for a moment, as if astonished her mother was capable of falling. Then, her face etched with grave concern, the little girl knelt down and gently offered her mama her hand.
I drew the moment in my mind. A scene to pull up when I was writing, an image to file away for future use. I wanted to remember the
worry on the child’s face and the love on the mother’s as she let her girl help her up.
Then, with my usual foreboding, I readdressed the news. Politicians are fools and the games they play are fools’ games. There are lives at stake and yet these men solve nothing with their endless posturing except to fatten their own wallets. Power corrupts morals and turns men to monsters all. Not surprisingly, the newspaper was filled with worrisome articles about all this and more. Spain was in crisis . . . there were rumblings of yet more conflict in Paris . . . and then my own name swam before my eyes.
I was not unused to seeing items about my politics or my poetry in the papers, but this was different. Terrible words leapt out and assaulted me. Suddenly I could not breathe. Sweat poured down my face. This was not possible. I could not be reading the words correctly.
“What is it, Victor?”
I looked up but could not focus on Juliette’s face.
“Something horrible,” I said, and pushed the paper toward her. The words I’d just read ran through my mind, repeating as they would for hours, days, months and years to come . . .
“A yacht has capsized . . . on board was M. Ch. Vaquerie’s wife, Leopoldine, the daughter of Victor Hugo . . . The corpse of M. Pierre Vaquerie was recovered. It was first assumed that M. Ch. Vaquerie, who is an experienced swimmer, had been washed downstream in the attempt to save his wife and relatives . . . the net dredged up the lifeless body of the unfortunate young woman . . .”
In the newspaper, I discovered what my wife, Adele, who was at home in Le Havre, had known for days what my sons and other daughter already knew: my eldest daughter, my dearest Didine, had drowned along with her husband of only eight months in the Seine in Villequier.
For the next few hours Juliette and I wandered through the town, waiting for the coach to be readied that would take us back to Paris. Juliette told me later how the sun beat down on us, and how we walked around the square and into the countryside to try to escape the heat and the prying eyes of townspeople who had heard the news and, recognizing me, followed the progress of our sad stroll.
But I don’t remember any of that. I could only see images of the terrible accident. I pictured the boat sailing down the river. Wind whipping the waves into a frothy frenzy. The boat keeling. Dipping. Rocking. Then capsizing. The ferocious current swirling around the bodies. My darling’s face surprised by the watery chaos. Struggling to swim in the churning current. Her dress billowing out around her. Her arms reaching for help. Desperate for air, she must have swallowed mouthfuls of that muddy river. I imagined her face underwater. Her skin losing color, her graceful hands flailing. Fish swimming into and becoming tangled in her beautiful hair. Her eyes wide, searching the murky darkness for a ray of light to climb toward.
It was not possible that this report was true, I kept telling Juliette, even as I knew it was, even as the grief began to form around me in a pool, then a stream, then a river, then an ocean. Until I too was going to drown.
Ah, if only I could join Didine, that at least would be relief.
With every step we took, I absorbed more of the horror of what had occurred. Soon guilt was pounding at me, like waves in a storm.
I had been with my mistress on holiday while my child died. My wife, Adele, was alone dealing with this tragedy.
And worse—would Didine even have been on the boat if I had been in residence in Le Havre? Adele and I might have been invited on the boat. And if I’d been there, maybe I could have saved her.
But I had not been there and the daughter of my heart, the child of my soul, was gone.
• • •
There is no greater unrelenting sadness that a man can bear than to lose his child. But that is what happened to me and what ultimately brought me to the state of mind I was still in, two years ago, when I first arrived in Jersey, in a self-imposed political exile from my beloved France. A decade of grieving had deposited me on a slim shore of hope. Though I do not believe in formal religions or the clergy, I have strong convictions. I have faith that we live again and I anticipate another life for me and for those I love. How could I not? If there were
no continuation, what would be the point of all this suffering we are forced to endure? What kept me breathing one day to the next was the idea that Didine was not gone for all time.
My love for my daughter is at the heart of this story. My delightful daughter. My sunshine. I know every father says this, but she truly was special. Even in this world she was visibly living a higher life. I had seen her soul. It had touched me. In this world of misery, suffering and horrible injustice, Didine was my own wonder, my own happiness. And in Jersey, she became my own madness.
After someone you love so dearly dies, you are absent from the world for a time, living only loss. The pain of existing without the other is too hard to bear. Only slowly do you return to life. To being hungry, not just eating for sustenance. To pouring a glass of good wine, not just drinking to quench a thirst. To hearing the words of those around you and answering. To being stirred into having indignation at the statesmen, at the clergy, at the government. One returns slowly. And then one dawn as you watch the sun rise, you realize your daughter is dead but you are still alive.
What I didn’t know then was that an ache, as steadfast as my love, would remain. My grief for Didine is a living thing. My longing to see her again has never abated, never lessened. I never stopped yearning to hear her speak, to watch her eyes fill with laughter, to feel her lean over my shoulder to read what I am writing. Oh, if only I could just once more engage in conversation with my daughter about my ideas—my ideas that were hers also.
For all these years I have ached to dream about her just once. To have her visit me even behind my closed eyes. I prayed to the terrible God who had taken her to allow me to see my daughter again. Even if only to say good-bye. To apologize to her for not being there when she was buried. To tell her I grieved even more because of that. I prayed to him who is not kind or just to let me glimpse where she was so I might know she had passed through his gate and was safe in heaven’s arms. Not even in sleep was I allowed a visitation with my dead.