When Putney met Paris
In Paris we stayed near the wonderfully understated Place de Vosges once the home to 18th aristocrats. And a little later Victor Hugo. It was his house at number six we visited. Which reminded me of the great anecdote when one of Putney’s finest came to pay homage to the great man.
Of course I talk of ginger mopped Algernon Charles Swinburne who lived in Putney for the last thirty years of his long life(1837-1909). From the age of 12 the precocious boy which he always remained worshipped Victor Hugo his poems, his plays, his novels. While others such as Spahho, Marlowe, Baudelaire and Villon may have been Swinburne’s adopted brothers and sisters it was Hugo who was “master, father and lord”.
Swinburne of course had no half measures and his hero worship knew few bounds. So after a life of writing literary praise when he was invited to the celebratory dinner in Paris in November 1882 he and his Putney minder Watts-Dunton (with tooth ache) soon packed their bags.
The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of the first playing of “le Roi S’Amuse”. A play that had been repressed under Louis Phillipe and Louis napoleon. For little Swinburne this was a major moment in his life ,he was to come face to face “the greatest writer since Shakespeare.” Typically the meeting would develop into pure farce.
It started well, when introduced Hugo kindly said “je suis heureux de vous serrer la main comme a mon fils”. I am as happy to shake your hand as I would my son. After the dinner Hugo proposed a toast to his guest who because he was stone deaf didn’t get a word. But that didn’t stop him getting up and making a fulsome response.
Hugo’s reactionto this over the top reference to Dante, Shakespeare and Blake all sung in English-French was “mais qu’st-ce qu’il me reconte la?Qu’est-ce qu’il me racnte”. But how can I reply to this, How can I reply?
To give a dramatic flourish to his outlandish words Swinburne threw down his wine glass and smashed it. Hugo a bourgeois writer to his core was horrified to see one of a vintage set of glasses destroyed in such a way. Nevertheless a few nights later at the play’s performance of which Swinburne,of course, heard nothing, Hugo graciously asked his fan to his box.
Three years later Hugo dies. His ardent supporter sitting in his villa at the bottom of Putney Hill wrote,” I cannot understand why the sun manages to go on rising…I do so want the man-The hand that pressed mine, the mouth that smiled on me, the glorious eyes that deigned to rest on mine with such unexpected kindness”.
As one of his contemporaries wrote “there is something absurd about Swinburne, that makes people turn and laugh at him in the streets.” And down the years.
Brighter is our town and its future fair;Because he walked these streets, because he breathed it’s air.”