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Victor Hugo

French Writer

1802-1885


LOVE IN PRISON

Narrated by Lloyd James

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BESIDES misdeeds, robberies, the division of spoils after an ambuscade, and the twilight exploitation of the barriers of Paris — burglars, and jail-birds generally have another industry: they have ideal loves.

This requires explanation.

The trade in slaves moves us, and with good reason; we examine this social sore, and we do well. But let us also learn to lay bare another ulcer, which is more painful, perhaps: the traffic in white women.

Here is one of the singular things connected with and characteristic of this poignant disorder of our civilization:

Every jail contains a prisoner who is known as the "artist."

All kinds of trades and professions peculiar to prisons develop behind the bars. There is the vendor of liquorice-water, the vendor of scarfs, the writer, the advocate, the usurer, the hut-maker, and the barker. The artist takes rank among these local and peculiar professions between the writer and the advocate.

To be an artist is it necessary to know how to draw? By no means. A bit of a bench to sit upon, a wall to lean against, a lead pencil, a bit of pasteboard, a needle stuck in a handle made out of a piece of wood, a little Indian ink or sepia, a little Prussian blue, and a little vermilion in three cracked beechwood spoons,—this is all that is requisite; a knowledge of drawing is superfluous. Thieves are as fond of colouring as children are, and as fond of tattooing as are savages. The artist by means of his three spoons satisfies the first of these needs, and by means of his needle the second. His remuneration is a "nip" of wine.

The result is this:

Some prisoners, say, lack everything, or are simply desirous of living more comfortably. They combine, wait upon the artist, offer him their glasses of wine or their bowls of soup, hand him a sheet of paper and order of him a bouquet. In the bouquet there must be as many flowers as there are prisoners in the group. If there be three prisoners, there must be three flowers. Each flower bears a figure, or, if preferred, a number, which number is that of the prisoner.

The bouquet when painted is sent, through the mysterious means of communication between the various prisons that the police are powerless to prevent, to Saint Lazare. Saint Lazare is the women's prison, and where there are women there also is pity. The bouquet circulates from hand to hand among the unfortunate creatures that the police detain administratively at Saint Lazare; and in a few days the infallible secret post apprises those who sent the bouquet that Palmyre has chosen the tuberose, that Fanny prefers the azalea, and that Seraphine has adopted the geranium. Never is this lugubrious handkerchief thrown into the seraglio without being picked up.

Thenceforward the three bandits have three servants whose names are Palmyre, Fanny, and Seraphine. Administrative detentions are relatively of short duration. These women are released from prison before the men. And what do they do? They support them. In elegant phraseology they are providences; in plain language they are milch-cows.

Pity has been transformed into love. The heart of woman is susceptible of such sombre graftings. These women say:

"I am married." They are married indeed. By whom? By the flower. With whom? With the abyss. They are fiancées of the unknown. Enraptured and enthusiastic fiancées. Pale Sulamites of fancy and fog. When the known is so odious, how can they help loving the unknown?

In these nocturnal regions and with the winds of dispersion that blow, meetings are almost impossible. The lovers see each other in dreams. In all probability the woman will never set eyes on the man. Is he young? Is he old? Is he handsome? Is he ugly? She does not know; she knows nothing about him. She adores him. And it is because she does not know him that she loves him. Idolatry is born of mystery.

This woman, drifting aimlessly on life's tide, yearns for something to cling to, a tie to bind her, a duty to perform. The pit from amid its scum throws it to her; she accepts it and devotes herself to it. This mysterious bandit, transformed into heliotrope or iris, becomes a religion to her. She espouses him in the presence of night. She has a thousand little wifely attentions for him; poor for herself, she is rich for him; she whelms this manure with her delicate solicitude. She is faithful to him with all the fidelity of which she is still capable; the incorruptible emanates from the corruptible. Never does this woman betray her love. It is an immaterial, pure, ethereal love, subtile as the breath of spring, solid as brass.

A flower has done all this. What a well is the human heart, and how giddy it makes one to peer into it! Lo! the cloaca. Of what is it thinking? Of perfume. A prostitute loves a thief through a lily. What plunger into human thought could reach the bottom of this? Who shall fathom this immense yearning for flowers that springs from mud? In the secret self of these hapless women is a strange equilibrium that consoles and reassures them. A rose counterbalances an act of shame.

Hence these amours based on and sustained by illusion. This thief is idolized by this girl. She has not seen his face, she does not know his name; she sees him in visions induced by the perfume of jessamine or of pinks. Henceforward flower-gardens, the May sunshine, the birds in their nests, exquisite tints, radiant blossoms, boxes of orange trees and daphne odora, velvet petals upon which golden bees alight, the sacred odours of spring-tide, balms, incense, purling brooks, and soft green grass are associated with this bandit. The divine smile of nature penetrates and illumines him.

This desperate aspiring to paradise lost, this deformed dream of the beautiful, is not less tenacious on the part of the man. He turns towards the woman; and this preoccupation, become insensate, persists even when the dreadful shadow of the two red posts of the guillotine is thrown upon the window of his cell. The day before his execution Delaporte, chief of the Trappes band, who was wearing the strait-jacket, asked of the convict Cogniard, whom, through the grating in the door of the condemned cell, he saw passing by: "Are there any pretty women in the visitors' parlor this morning?" Another condemned man, Avril (what a name), in this same cell, bequeathed all that he possessed—five francs—to a female prisoner whom he had seen at a distance in the women's yard, "in order that she may buy herself a fichu a la mode."

Between the male and female wretch dreams build a Bridge of Sighs, as it were. The mire of the gutter dallies with the door of a prison cell. The Aspasia of the street-corner aspires and respires with the heart of the Alcibiades who waylays the passer-by at the corner of a wood.

You laugh? You should not. It is a terrible thing.

More information about Victor Hugo from Wikipedia

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