Victor Hugo’s macabre tribute to Sarah Bernhardt

Victor Hugo by Étienne Carjat 1876 - full.jpg

Victor Hugo

French novelist, poet, dramatist and accomplished artist Victor Hugo was born on 26 February 1802. He shares a birthday with my brother, John Fitzsimons, who is also a very accomplished artist. We know Hugo best for his novel Les Misérables (1862), which has been adapted for stage and screen. You can read it here. Most of us (me included) probably assume that the iconic image of “Cosette“, which adorns a million T-shirts is a modern one. In fact it was drawn by French artist Émile Bayard for the original edition of Les Misérables.

Portrait of Cosette by Emile Bayard (1862)

Yesterday (25 February) was the anniversary of the première of Hugo’s historical drama Hernani, ou l’Honneur Castillan, an event that sparked riots between Romantics, drafted in by Hugo, and Classicists, who felt that their values were under attack.

The audience fights during a performance

The audience riots at the premiere of Hernani

Decades later, in 1877, when French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), one of Wilde’s Women, triumphed as Doña Sol,  the woman central to the plot,  Hugo presented her with a human skull. On it, he inscribed the words:

Squelette, qu’as tu fait de l’âme?

Lampe, qu’as tu fait de la flamme?

Cage déserte, qu’as-tu fait

De ton bel oiseau qui chantait?

Volcan, qu’as-tu fait de la lave?

Qu’as-tu fait de ton maître, esclave?*


Skull presented to Bernhardt by Hugo, which is in the V&A Collection, London

Bernhardt adored his macabre tribute, and used it as Yorick’s skull in the grave scene in Hamlet when she played the eponymous prince.

*Skeleton, what have you done with your soul?
Lamp, what have you done with your flame?
Empty cage, what have you done with
The beautiful bird that used to sing?
Volcano, what have you done with your lava?
Slave, what have you done with your master?

Sarah Bernhardt is one of the stars of my book Wilde’s Women



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