There’s a certain talent required to write serious historical fiction. Some may assume that if an author uses real events as the basis for a story, the writer simply has to fill in the blanks. While some do indeed take that tack, poet and novelist Helen Humphreys has built a career out of finding drama in the spaces between the events of the historical record. Her latest effort, set in 19th-century France, takes things one step further by using actual historical figures as protagonists.
The Reinvention of Love tells the story of renowned literary critic Charles Saint-Beuve’s affair with Adèle Hugo, wife of the celebrated author Victor. Despite being the best-known member of the love triangle, Hugo is allocated a minor role in Humphreys’ story. He is the catalyst bringing the other two together, but Humphreys paints such an unlikeable portrait of the man that the reader feels little sympathy for his cuckolding. He is portrayed as a raging egomaniac with an artistic temperament and little time for his wife beyond the confines of their boudoir.
Hugo befriends Saint-Beuve after the critic praises some of his early poetry. Saint-Beuve, an aspiring poet himself, latches onto Hugo with an eye to bolstering his own career by association.
Neither man pays much attention to Adèle as their companionship grows, until Saint-Beuve visits the Hugo residence one day while Victor is out. Adèle, finally allowed to emerge from her husband’s grand shadow, charms the author’s young friend. Adèle’s loneliness, coupled with Saint-Beuve’s desperate need for validation, form the perfect bedrock for their scandalous pairing.
As a narrator, Saint-Beuve is entertaining, if at times tiresome. Droll and quick-witted, his sense of humour is both cutting and self-deprecating. But he is so vicious in describing himself that one wonders why the lovely Mme. Hugo would ever have allowed him near her. “I am an ugly man,” says Saint-Beuve. “I have a sex the size of a snail. Most people don’t like me, certainly not after they get to know me. I am arrogant and reckless and foolish. Sometimes I change my mind about what I am saying mid-sentence. I can write moderately well, but that isn’t enough to save me.”
Adèle’s voice is much livelier than that of Saint-Beuve. While there is a level of formality to her language befitting the time, her tone is lighter and less curmudgeonly. She, too, has a sense of humour that sparkles, but it is the passages describing the death of her eldest daughter and son-in-law that are the most touching and satisfying to read. Here, she describes the burial: “The words are said. The bodies are lowered. The words are said. The dirt hits the wooden coffin lids, like rain lashing at the window on a winter’s night. The words are said. The wreaths are placed. The hands are clasped. The wind subsides.”
The poetry in this passage is powerful, and it’s interesting that Humphreys uses the voice of Adèle, the non-writer in the trio, to give full rein to her powers as a prose stylist. It is almost as if, unbound by the restraints of Saint-Beuve’s better-known voice, Humphreys is able to let her own shine through Adèle’s.
The love affair is doomed, of course, and if the book has any major flaw, it is that Humphreys draws out the story for too long. Once the affair has ended, the narrative continues, but the momentum is lost. We learn about Saint-Beuve’s career and the petering out of the Hugos’ marriage amid Victor’s growing fame and self-
imposed exile. Though the additional glimpses into the lives of the characters are interesting, the later chapters seem superfluous. The reader begins to sense that, with so much research under her belt, Humphreys felt the need to cram in as much information as possible.
But at least these story arcs relate to the earlier events. The final chapters, devoted to Adèle’s youngest daughter (also named Adèle) feel completely out of context. The younger Adèle, also known as Dédé, was obviously mentally unstable, and after being spurned by an erstwhile lover, spent more than 40 years in an asylum until she died at age 85. Tragic, yes, but a relevant part of Saint-Beuve and Adèle’s love story? Not really.
Though The Reinvention of Love is not without faults, it will likely find a welcoming audience among fans of Humphreys’ previous novels. The book lacks the sense of urgency found in Coventry (2008), or the polished romanticism of Afterimage (2000), but still reverberates with beautiful language and Humphreys’ trademark knack for balancing surprising notes of humour and lightness with poignant descriptions of hardship, loss, and suffering. The novel is ambitious, to be sure, and while it may not be her best, it is certainly a worthwhile read.