Snippets 90. John Swinton was a popular journalist, who was chief editor of the New York Times during the 1860s. In 1883 he launched John Swinton’s Paper, an influential publication campaigning for the rights of workers in America. His views may have been influenced in some measure by a visit to Britain three years earlier, during which he witnessed the worst examples of poverty he had ever seen on the streets of London, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Perhaps at this point he saw a future for the working classes of America that he was keen to avoid. His journey was chronicled in the very short book John Swinton’s Travels (1880), in which he also related details of time spent in France. A highlight of the trip was a visit to the house of Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Victor Hugo’s fete day was announced, and it was my fortune to take part in its celebration at his new house, during my stay in Paris, It was in the garden behind his house that the aged poet, philosopher and politician, beloved by France and honored by the world, welcomed his friends in the evening after the family dinner, in which those two grandchildren, whose names shine in the lustre of his literary genius, took part. The garden, lined with trees of heavy foliage, and enriched with shrubbery and tropical plants and flowers, was transformed into a fairy scene by variegated lanterns, lights, flags, and other decorations among the branches and leaves; and you might see at one spot a small supply of fireworks which the two dainty youngsters, who were frolicking about after their flight from the dinner table, had procured and were to set off as a surprise in honor of their grandfather.
Victor Hugo made his appearance on the balcony fronting the garden in which his friends were enjoying themselves. Among the foliage near his left was his marble bust, taken in his youthful prime of about 28 or 30; on his right, in a leafy bower, hung an oil painting representing him in the full maturity of perhaps 50; and between these two he himself stood, 78 years of age, solid, white-bearded, severe-faced, serene-faced, not altogether unlike a Jupiter upon whom time had told. It was an interesting spectacle — interesting indeed. His friends of both sexes, among whom were many authors and artists of celebrity, pressed forward and around him; there were salutation and embracing and kissing of hands, and gifts of flowers, and words of enthusiasm and affection, and he whom they called “the master” accepted their homage with dignity, courtesy, and cordiality. An enchanting young American lady, who had accompanied her mother with myself to the fete, presented him with a conflux of flowers, and the beaming joy with which he seized them and, like a courtier, kissed her hand, was the reward. Suddenly he broke from his friends; he saw among the shrubbery of the garden the two grandchildren on whom he dotes, just as they set off one of their little fire-rockets; and as he stood alone on the illuminated gravel walk at the point to which he had hastened, they set off other baby fireworks among the decorated bushes till he clapped his hands with glee and shouted “Bravo” in slender voice. Till the last little star was sent up into the air he gazed with patriarchal joy at the grandchildren, leaving behind the older intellectual lights, and then the boy and girl found in his fervor how proud he had been of their display. He chatted gayly with his friends as he passed around among them, but he never lost sight of his favorites; and it was evident that, in life as in literature, he well knew “the art of being a grandfather.”
Victor Hugo died five years later, in 1885, at the age of 83.
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