#MondayBlogs Victor Hugo and Vianden

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The view from Victor Hugo’s room with Vianden castle in the distance.

It’s been a challenging year for the DH Lawrence Society with the recent closure of Durban House. But there’s reasons to be optimistic. Visit Britain recently announced a funding initiative ‘Destination Britain North America’ hoping to attract tourists from across the pond to the region. Possible locations on their itinerary could include Lawrence’s Birthplace Museum or Breach House in Eastwood. It was with this in mind that I recently headed over to Vianden, Luxembourg to visit Victor Hugo’s former home (37 Rue de la Gare) to see how they preserve their literary heritage.  

Lawrence wasn’t a fan of Victor Hugo’s poetry. In a letter to Henry Savage (11 July 1913) he dismissed it as ‘strutting stuff’ accusing him of being a ‘loud trumpeter’. Lawrence also made short shrift of Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862) complaining ‘the tragic fate of the humble poor was the stunt of that day. Les Miserables stands out as the great monument to this stunt’. It’s the kind of observation that could easily lead to Lawrence being interpreted as a fascist but, as James Moran points out, ‘in Lawrence’s plays the working-class characters refuse pity and certainly avoid humility, instead appearing with complex motives and desires, as the opposite of the tendency that he identified in Hugo’.

Victor Hugo was a political exile who fled France in protest at Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the Emperor of the French from 1852 to 1870. His 19 years of exile took him across Europe, with Vianden becoming a regular stop off point between 1862 and 1871. Although he didn’t write any novels while here he wrote around 50 poems. But his diaries and letters are what intrigued me the most as they offer important insights into his personality. For example, on 14 July 1871, a fire broke out, setting ablaze the thatched roofs of ten downtown houses. With the Mayor away on business, Hugo took control, organising a line of buckets to pass water through the night.

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Bust of Victor Hugo on the bridge. The Fantastic Castle painting. 

Hugo was a keen artist and 60 of his 3,500 wash drawings reference Luxembourg. One of these, The Fantastic Castle (1847), is of a medieval castle and includes a body hanging from a pole. Hugo was highly critical of capital punishment, largely because he had seen so many French Communards executed during the civil war for their beliefs, and so this tiny dangling body juxtaposed against the towering walls of the castle captures the powerlessness of ordinary citizens in the face of brute force.

The Victor Hugo House is on a bridge and runs over two floors. Hugo lived here for two and a half months in 1871, his longest stay in Vianden. He rented one room on the first floor, with three windows overlooking the Our river and the imposing 10th century castle Ville et Château, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. In 2002 a wall was removed to enlarge the room and it now replicates the original room, with a sculpture of Hugo (by Herbert Labusga) sat down writing at a desk. Framing this are various letters as well as a 15 minute audiovisual show (in French) in which professional actors and musicians recreate aspects of his life.

The museum was first conceived of on 30 June 1935 when a Victor Hugo committee was formed. The inaugural speeches didn’t touch on Hugo’s political views given the rise of extremist movements at the time. But this changed a fortnight later when 2000 young people, gathered by the students’ association ASSOSS, demonstrated against the pervasive forces of Nazism and Fascism. Extracts from Hugo’s Chatiments/Punishments (1853) were read out, warning against the dangers of totalitarian socio-political regimes. This struck a chord with the gathered masses, earning Hugo the title of ‘keeper of the Grail of human rights’. The main speaker, Frantz Clement, would later be assassinated at the concentration camp of Dachau.

During the war the house remained open, operating as a library with nationalist books. The bust of Hugo which had been placed on the bridge in 1935 was removed to be kept safe from looters. It was found in a hearse after the war. When the Nazi’s left Vianden on 12 September 1944 they blew up the bridge. The house was so badly damaged it had to be flattened. It was reconstructed to the exact dimensions and opened on 1 August 1948.

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The attic in the Victor Hugo museum and me next to one of the many places named after the French author. 

I knew barely anything about Victor Hugo before I visited the museum, and so is yet another reminder of the importance of preserving literary heritage. Audio guides are available which will keep you occupied for a good two to three hours. In the attic are banners with quotations hanging from wood beams, a library containing various editions of his work, and interactive terminals with access to over 500 documents, biographies and a series of literary games to help younger audiences better understand his legacy. One of these is a puzzle game whereby you piece together jumbled up elements of some of his paintings. It’s a clever touch, educating through play.

Vianden is also home to the Caricature and Cartoon Museum (48 Grand-Rue) but is only open between June and August. The Ancien Cinema Cafe-Club (23 Grand-Rue) is also worth a visit. In addition to an eclectic mix of furniture and a range of drinks and sandwiches, it shows silent films in the day, making it a great spot to do some writing. A return to Vianden (50mins on train, 15 mins on bus) is 6 Euros.

Musée littéraire Victor Hugo, 37, rue de la Gare, L-9420 Vianden. Tel: (+352) 26 87 40 88 www.victor-hugo.lu  

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Lorenzo in Taos: 1 – Come on Over to my Place

 

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In 1932 Mabel Dodge Luhan published a memoir of her life with the Lawrence’s in Taos, New Mexico. Published two years after his death, it offered a vital insight into the controversial author who had rubbed everyone up the wrong way and consequently caused great intrigue. The opening chapter includes lots of letters from the Lawrence’s and commentary from Luhan. By all accounts Lawrence comes across as a right pain in the arse – indecisive, guttural, and highly sceptical of the community Luhan had built for herself.      

In the preface to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir, Lorenzo in Taos, she warns ‘that I could only tell in these pages how we all were then’. It’s an apology of sorts, recognition that her invitation to Lawrence and Frieda to come experience life in New Mexico ‘does not end happily.’

Luhan invited Lawrence because she wanted him to experience the country before the ugly face of modernity came along and ‘exploited’ and ‘spoiled’ it. She hoped he would be able to record New Mexico ‘in that queer way of his,’ as he had done in Sea and Sardinia. In explaining his vivid skill of capturing ‘the feel and touch and smell of places,’ Luhan observes, ‘perhaps it is because, when he is writing, the experience is more actual to him than when it occurred. He is in the place again, reliving in retrospect more vividly than he was able to do at the time it happened.’ Ouch.

Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts, was used to getting what she wanted. But just to make sure she sent an Indian necklace to Frieda that carried ‘some Indian magic’ and some Desachey and Osha leaves for Lawrence to lure him over.

Lawrence replied on 5 November 1921, proudly reporting ‘we are very practical, do all our own work, even the washing, cooking, floor-cleaning.’ But this is because he loathes ‘servants creeping around’. Rather than thank Luhan for her kind offer of putting them up, he takes an early prod, enquiring whether he’ll encounter ‘a colony of rather dreadful sub-arty people’.

On reading Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Luhan had detected ‘capabilities in him that would enable him to understand the invisible but powerful spirit that hovered over the Taos Valley.’ But getting him over was turning out to be more difficult than she had imagined. Despite accepting her invitation, they were in no hurry. On the 22 January 1922, Frieda wrote to Luhan explaining Lawrence ‘doesn’t feel strong enough’ to face America yet but they had a cunning plan. They would take a detour to Ceylon on their travels as ‘strengthened with Buddha, noisy, rampageous America might be easier to tackle.’ Why not join them?

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Mabel Dodge Luhan

Luhan knew what they really meant. ‘They were scared. They wanted to see me, take a look,’ effectively try before you buy. ‘People were always warning other people about me,’ she confides, suggesting either her fears were justified or that she had an inflated sense of her own self-importance. But it’s not about her. It’s all about him. And the one thing Lawrence can’t stand is the arty literary crowds whom he describes as ‘smoking, steaming shits.’ So he advises Luhan to ‘spit on every neurotic, and wipe your feet on his face if he tries to drag you down.’ Then he calms down a bit and sends a postcard as he sets sail from Naples, thanking Luhan for being ‘so kind’ but that it is his destiny to venture elsewhere for a bit.

On 10 April, 1922, Luhan receives a letter from Kandy, Ceylon. Needless to say Lawrence is not happy. He complains of ‘the scents that make me feel sick…the nauseous tropical fruits…the little vulgar dens of the temples.’ Charming. And if she thought for one moment the experience had increased his urge to head to Taos, she was wrong. He was now heading to Australia. But he was still excited at the thought of coming to America, expressing these sentiments in his unique fashion. ‘I wish I could come to America without meeting the awful ‘cultured’ Americans with their limited self-righteous ideals and their mechanical love-motion and their bullying, detestable negative creed of liberty and democracy.’ Luhan is clearly a bit frustrated at these ‘silly detours’ and believes that the delay ‘strengthened something in me that he hated’, that being, a strong feminist principle.

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“Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe” Garry Shead, oil on board.

When Lawrence writes from Australia on 9 June he’s keen to emphasise that his visit has been as an anonymous traveller and that when he does finally make it to Taos he doesn’t want her to inform ‘anybody we are coming.’ On the 18 July he is finally ready to come to Taos, not because he wants to but because Australia has nothing left to offer him – ‘Have done my novel and have nothing further to do.’ Frieda, on the other hand, has more pragmatic demands, requesting ‘don’t give us too little a place to live in, we are much too quarrelsome…we mustn’t be too much on top of each other or we get on each other’s nerves.’

At this point, Mabel Dodge Luhan must have regretted invited them over. They’ve delayed their arrival date, disclosed they bicker, and Lawrence has been highly critical of the arty community that Luhan has strived to develop, at her own cost, over the years. But there you have it. One year of fannying around and Lawrence is finally ready to fulfil his ‘real desire to approach America from the West.’ Or is he? ‘I thought of stopping off at Yosemite Valley but feel – Oh Damn scenery…’

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How could we represent his indecision or his rudeness to Luhan? How could we represent his time in Taos? If you have an idea about this or other artefacts you think should be included, you can submit ideas here.

 

Further Reading