At the same time, there were defects in his intellect and character which are perceptible in what he wrote, as well as in what he did. He had the Gallic wit in great measure, but he was absolutely devoid of any sense of humor. This is why, in both his prose and his poetry, his most tremendous pages often come perilously near to bombast; and this is why, again, as a man, his vanity was almost as great as his genius. He had good reason to be vain, and yet, if he had possessed a gleam of humor, he would never have allowed his egoism to make him arrogant. As it was, he felt himself exalted above other mortals. Whatever he did or said or wrote was right because he did it or said it or wrote it.
This often showed itself in rather whimsical ways. Thus, after he had published the first edition of his novel, The Man Who Laughs, an English gentleman called upon him, and, after some courteous compliments, suggested that in subsequent editions the name of an English peer who figures in the book should be changed from Tom Jim-Jack.
“For,” said the Englishman, “Tom Jim-Jack is a name that could not possibly belong to an English noble, or, indeed, to any Englishman. The presence of it in your powerful story makes it seem to English readers a little grotesque.”
Victor Hugo drew himself up with an air of high disdain.
“Who are you?” asked he.
“I am an Englishman,” was the answer, “and naturally I know what names are possible in English.”
Hugo drew himself up still higher, and on his face there was a smile of utter contempt.
“Yes,” said he. “You are an Englishman; but I—I am Victor Hugo.”
In another book Hugo had spoken of the Scottish bagpipes as “bugpipes.” This gave some offense to his Scottish admirers. A great many persons told him that the word was “bagpipes,” and not “bugpipes.” But he replied with irritable obstinacy:
“I am Victor Hugo; and if I choose to write it ‘bugpipes,’ it is ‘bugpipes.’ It is anything that I prefer to make it. It is so, because I call it so!”
So, Victor Hugo became a violent republican, because he did not wish France to be an empire or a kingdom, in which an emperor or a king would be his superior in rank. He always spoke of Napoleon III as “M. Bonaparte.” He refused to call upon the gentle-mannered Emperor of Brazil, because he was an emperor; although Dom Pedro expressed an earnest desire to meet the poet.
When the German army was besieging Paris, Hugo proposed to fight a duel with the King of Prussia, and to have the result of it settle the war; “for,” said he, “the King of Prussia is a great king, but I am Victor Hugo, the great poet. We are, therefore, equal.”