A Mistress at the Library

He wrote of her:
‘The day when a woman who passes in front of you and gives off light as she walks you are lost, you are in love. There is only one thing to do: think of her so intently that she is forced to think of you.’

She wrote of him:
There can be no happiness greater than that I enjoyed this afternoon with you, clasped in your arms, your voice mingling with mine, your eyes in mine, your heart upon my heart, our very souls melded together. For me there is no man on earth but you.’

On a chilsome winter’s afternoon I turned a page in my daily Age and there she was – a glorious woman staring back at me. I was taken by her and went to the words to see what she was about. Alas she was only mentioned in passing – she was a great man’s mistress. It was all about him, the subject of a new exhibition at the State Library of Victoria. I took, as is my wont and pleasure these days, to the ether to discover more about the dazzling creature that captured my eye that afternoon. So, loving that Yarra City repository of books, I contemplated a jaunt to Melbourne to view yet another showing within its walls.


Victoria’s premier library is a fabulous place to be. From its expansive portico it is possible to sit and relax, observing the passing parade up and down the top end of Swanston. It is in its interior that the treasures lie – books ancient, our infamous criminal’s armour and the marvellous reading room. The latter, viewed from above, is indeed one of the city’s best sights. In total the contents can hold one in its thrall for hours. But sadly, in the end, I decided against yet another trip to Old Bearbrass. It would be silly to initiate a venture on the single etching of a comely illustrious man’s lover!

reading room

The centrepiece of the exhibition, featuring her, contained a French national treasure, rarely leaving that country – the original manuscript to Les Misérables. That very production was concurrently running on a stage somewhere in the metropolis – a double-header then perhaps? No, I’d viewed a local effort, which surprised me by being remarkably entertaining – but I am not big on iconic musicals, so again the notion was dismissed. The great man referred to is of course Victor Hugo. His story has been told countless times – but what of this woman who careered into his orb and knocked him for six?

She is described in an account of the times as a ‘...delicate beauty; the nose chiselled and of handsome outline, the eyes limpid and diamond bright, the mouth moistly crimson, and tiny, even in her gayest fits of laughter.‘ She was also a most mediocre actress, but it was her reputation as a fashion plate, in the manner of today’s supermodels, that set her apart – that and her succession of lovers. Of these there were too many to count – and that gilded her reputation, for better or worse. On an equal footing with the beds of her enamoured beaux, she adored casinos and thus was constantly in debt. She was quixotic. She was quicksilver. She was Juliette Drouet. And here’s what the ether told me of her.

Julienne (she tweaked with her given names to suit her purposes) was born in humble circumstances in France, in 1806. She was soon to be separated from her parents, Julien and Marie Gauvain, Raised by her uncle, René Drouet, she changed her name to his as her stage fame grew. She was described as an intelligent but precocious child with teenagerdom finding her a stunning and vibrant beauty as well. At a very tender age she caught the eye of sculptor James Pradier who became a father figure to her, as well as her first known lover. She posed naked for him, inspiring much of his oeuvre. But when life became far too tiresome for the worldly miss, he encouraged her to embrace acting to gain a focus for her energy. She was a shocker at it, she truly was – but her radiant looks ensured her continuous parts – as well as many shared beds, particularly if their owners could enhance her prospects. She believed it to be far too beneath her to be loyal to just one paramour – she had them simultaneously – all over Paris.


Toto, her nickname for Hugo, first came across her in 1833 when she was cast in his stage adaptation of the story of Lucrezia Borgia. Juliette still retained her plebeian enunciation of the French language and couldn’t act to save herself – but Hugo saw the way her very presence lit up his stage. She was hypnotic and thus he was soon besotted. He’d just discovered his childhood sweetheart and now wife, Adele, had done the dirty on him and so, poor man, he was very vulnerable. Juliette saw her chance and took it. She was also besotted, not by him so much as his fame – at least initially.

In her welcoming arms Hugo felt newborn and soon his ardour was being passionately reciprocated. First she fell for the trappings, but was soon truly in love. She became the epitome of the kept woman. To indicate what this meant at the time, there is much parallel between her situation and that of Dicken’s mistress, Nelly Ternan. The recent movie ‘The Invisible Woman’ describes Nelly’s lot once she, too, became ‘kept’. It could be a stultifying, desultory existence. Drouet bore it all to have time with Hugo.


He set her up in a residence near his family home, a place she never ventured from unless accompanied by or to meet her man. This they would try to do daily at a tree halfway between the two abodes. In it letters were left when it was impossible to have a face to face encounter. Fortunately many of their epistles of devotion to each other have remained for posterity. She went with Hugo on his long literary tours in the guise as his secretary, so it wasn’t all bad. Later in life Juliette accompanied him into exile in 1852, to the Channel Islands, when Victor chose the wrong side in one of France’s frequent political upheavals. Unfortunately she’d also given her Toto a taste for affairs so he was not faithful at all to her. They also quarrelled incessantly over her profligate spending – he was quite thrifty. But for Juliette Hugo remained her ‘perfect man’, her ‘...marvel of all the ages.’ She remained the ‘…lowly woman that adores you.’

Drouet died in Paris having attained the age of seventy-seven. Two years later her Toto passed. Six months before her demise she wrote to him – ‘I do not know where I will be this time next year but I am happy to sign my life certificate for 1883 with this one (sic) word: I love you.’


Juliette in later life

State Library of Victoria website = http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/

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