Sian Norris finds herself approving of the subversion of traditional sexual roles in the portrayal of Charles Saint-Beuve – "a man like no other" – in Helen Humphrey’s novel The Reinvention of Love
When I picked up Helen Humphreys’ The Reinvention of Love I was expecting a fairly standard historical romance – not bad thing as it’s my favourite genre. This perception was strengthened by the introduction on the front cover: “married to a great man, in love with a man like no other”. However, what I got was an extraordinarily subtle and emotive book that focuses less on a love affair and more on its painful and lonely aftermath. And, the central character, Charles Saint-Beuve, is truly “a man like no other”.
The novel follows the lives of Charles, his lover Adele and her husband, the celebrated writer Victor Hugo. It opens in the centre of the affair, with Charles – a journalist and wishful poet madly in love with Adele. In love to such an extent that he fights a duel to prove how brave and daring he is – how worthy he is of her love. This sets up his character from the beginning: rather grandiose and selfish with an obsessive streak.
Because the novel begins in the middle of Charles’ and Adele’s affair, Humphreys doesn’t follow the traditional narrative of a historical romance. Instead, the chief pre-occupation of the book is the lasting impact the affair has on Charles, Adele, Adele’s children and, to a degree, Victor. And whilst that impact is an emotionally devastating one, in many ways the joy of this book is that not much really happens. There’s no great denouement or grand gesture or grotesque tragedy – though there is tragedy, it’s just subtle: Charles’, Adele’s and Victor’s lives go on and on, but without love.
Charles meets Victor and Adele when they are neighbours. Charles, who is a reviewer for a Parisian literary journal, praises Victor’s poems and quickly becomes his closest friend. He sees himself as partly responsible for launching Victor into the literary scene, and, as Victor becomes more and more successful, Charles becomes rather resentful that his role in the success is not noted. He meets Adele, and the pair fall in love. Their affair is carried out in a series of clandestine meetings – in churches, in orchards, in hotel rooms. Their love is told in a series of vignettes – a visit to the theatre to see Victor’s play, a meeting in the church before they retire to their hotel. This style of expressing their affair allows Humphreys to subtly express its fleeting and transient nature – we never as a reader get a full sense of their romance. Instead it feels like a series of stolen moments and a collection of memories, a desire to be together that is never really fulfilled.
The affair ends when Victor discovers it. This happens fairly early in the novel and so the rest of the book is concerned less with the relationship between Charles and Adele and instead explores the rest of their lives. This works beautifully. In Adele’s stories the reader is preoccupied with the domestic: the tragedy of a child’s death, the different houses and gardens she lives in, and the further tragedy of her children’s failures to really mature and fulfil their potential. A big chunk of the novel is the mental breakdown of Adele’s youngest daughter and her obsessive love for a soldier that, in some ways, reflects the failure of her mother’s relationship. With Charles we follow his ambitious career path and his increasing self-obsession as he grows older.
An interesting quirk is Charles’ relationship with Victor. In the beginning, Charles looks up to Victor. He praises his poems and hopes that his friendship with the writer will improve his own poetry. Charles sees Victor as some kind of literary ideal and Victor trusts him – so much so that he takes Charles up to Notre-Dame as he seeks inspiration for his new novel. However, once the affair is discovered, the break-up between the two men is almost as painful as the separation of Charles and Adele. When they do meet again, Victor ignores his old friend – forgiveness is never granted. There’s a sense that Charles wants to get to Victor through Adele – either through a desire to be Victor or as a desire for Victor. Charles sees Victor as a great man, as an ideal man and, importantly, a man he can never be. He is a great writer, he’s respected, he’s virile and he has Adele. There’s a very subtle but still tangible feeling that the affair allows Charles to act out a hidden desire for Victor, but, more importantly, the affair gives him a chance to be his hero and his rival. The two are enmeshed in this rivalry and friendship in a way that Adele and Charles simply aren’t.
Adele is very sexual with Charles; she is passionate, sexually voracious and the language Humphreys attributes to her is that which we’d normally associate with a male voice, due to her desire to have and possess Charles: “I want to have you now”. Her open and visceral sexuality compares starkly with Charles’ more passive and romantic outlook on their affair. She takes on a stereotypically masculine role in their sexual relationship; she commands and she possesses. Literary love affairs tend to follow a cultural stereotype of submissive female sexuality; with the man possessing and having the woman, not the other way around.
Interestingly, Charles often dresses as a woman when he meets Adele; something that is done as a disguise but it is also apparent that Adele finds this sexually stimulating, saying she loves him by his other name – “Charlotte”. This is just one aspect of the novel that plays around with sexuality and gender.
But what makes this book more interesting than most historical romances, what makes Charles a “man like no other” is a twist that comes early in the novel. Charles Saint-Beuve shares his secret with us: he is born with both sets of sex organs – he is a “hermaphrodite”. This raises interesting questions about gender and sexual identity in the novel, as well as allowing us to consider the impact his gender has on his relationship with Adele and Victor. This is particularly pertinent in relation to questions about his desire to be or his desire for Victor.
It is important to note that Humphreys absolutely does not treat this subject as sensationalist; it isn’t even all that central to the plot, which concerns itself with the lasting impact of the affair on their lives. Instead it creates another layer to the complex and subtle relationships that form this delicate and intriguing novel. It also possibly explains why Adele is willing to risk an affair with Charles – she is clear on the fact that she wants no more children with Victor. It also raises interesting and radical feminist questions about the act of sex itself, questions that I think are all too often ignored or not even considered both in literature and in wider discussions. Charles and Adele are having sex, their affair is very sexual, however according to a patriarchal-defined version of sex, then it would be argued that they aren’t having “real” sex. And this idea of who gets to define what sex is and isn’t is of course a huge issue in feminist discourse – even pertaining to wider issues around control of women’s sexuality. I love how the book tackles this traditional and one-dimensional view of sex and sexuality in its period setting. It is this twist that I think will make this book interesting to feminists who are curious about gender roles and the performance of masculinity and femininity.
The Reinvention of Love is, on the whole, a subtle and dreamy book that illuminates the end of an affair and its lasting impact on the protagonists’ lives. It explores issues around gender, sexuality and homosociality, whilst keeping a very real and moving focus on the domestic tragedies of a stifling and increasingly loveless marriage.