Six months after her wedding, Le'opoldine Hugo drowned in the Seine with her husband, Charles Vacquerie. A sharp wind knocked over their new sailboat in the autumn of 1843 and the couple died after becoming entangled in the boat's sails. She was 19, he was 36.
Her father, Victor Hugo, wrote a poem every year on the anniversary of her death. The poems would later become a part of one of his greatest literary achievements, "The Contemplations." Hugo -- national poet, artist, exiled statesman, family man -- often wrote the poems on the shores of the Seine in Villequier, near the house from which his daughter and son-in-law set out to their deaths 142 years ago.
The home is now the Victor Hugo Museum of Villequier, located about a two-hour drive northwest of Paris in Normandy, just outside the village of Caudebec. The French are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Hugo's death this year and the museum offers a glimpse into the life of the author of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." It is a house filled with family souvenirs, French literary history and sadness.
The Hugo family came here summers during the courtship of Le'opoldine and Charles, whose family owned the three-story brick home. Today, the Maison Vacquerie is as it was when the Hugos and their in-laws lived there, with reminders of that life throughout.
Hugo's children never had to go far for amusement; their father's pen was always nearby. Thirty-six of his original pen-and-ink drawings are in the house, including those he drew to amuse his children. They would often find by the head of their beds another episode of the loves of Monsieur Fanfan Troussard, simply scrawled in ink by the French academician.
Hugo took the three surviving children for walks in the Norman countryside, and they often figure in his poetry. The youngest son, Franc,ois-Victor, became a translator of Shakespeare. And Charles busied himself with the then-new art of photography, the legacy of which is numerous photos of the Hugo and Vacquerie families. Many are at the museum.
The house is rich in these family memories, including letters Hugo wrote to his beloved children. He would survive all but one -- Ade le, who was institutionalized in 1872. She died in a mental hospital in 1915, 30 years after her father. Hugo also outlived his wife, Ade le, and his mistress, Juliette Drouet.
A room at Villequier is dedicated to Drouet, the French actress who left a Russian count to become the poet's lover. She was accepted as a member of the family. One of the most memorable pieces in the collection is a letter she wrote to Hugo's wife. Madame Hugo had invited her husband's lover to a tea for the poor children of Villequier; Drouet graciously refused the invitation.
The Juliette Drouet room leads into the bedroom of Le'opoldine and Charles, which overlooks the point in the river where they drowned. Letters and pictures trace their courtship, marriage and their deaths.
"It is the home of Le'opoldine," says Elisabeth Chirol, the museum's curator. But Le'opoldine was its mistress for only six months.
Like her father, she wrote constantly. In her short life she produced 510 pages of prose, first published in Paris in 1976. All of her correspondence -- 136 letters to her father and friends -- her diary and her scrapbook are in the museum. She wrote to her father on her wedding night and he responded with a letter that would eventually become one of the poems in "The Contemplations."
When she was 12, Le'opoldine asked to leave school so she could continue her studies at home with her father. She instantly loved the Norman countryside near Villequier when she first saw it at age 15.
"I need to speak to you of all the marvels that I saw. All the parts of the Seine are so beautiful that during the crossing we did not have a minute's boredom," she wrote of the river that would eventually take her life. "I thank you, Papa, from the bottom of my heart, for it was you who taught us to appreciate and enjoy beautiful things."