Hugo in London
by Marina J. Neary
In 1854, at the height of Crimean War, Victor Hugo, the legendary French romantic, comes to London in search of inspiration for his next novel. He meets Jocelyn Stuart, a delusional young benefactress, who promises to show him “the real England.”
Hugo disguises himself as a sailor and enters Bermondsey, where he immerses himself in a world of boxing matches, circus performances and gang wars. Roaming London’s most notorious slum, he encounters Dr. Grant, a Cambridge-educated opium dealer; Wynfield, a charismatic bandit; and Diana, a sickly servant girl who bears a disturbing resemblance to Hugo’s dead daughter. Their surreal adventures become the basis for Hugo’s subsequent novels.
When danger befalls Hugo’s new friends, he vows to protect them, even if it means turning against his old friends and risking his own safety. How far will a grieving father go for the memory of his child?
Infused with dark humor and melancholic folk ballads, Hugo in London is a tribute to one of France’s most prolific literary icons.
An empty arena at “Ponies & Lollipops,” a circus in Southwark. Brigit and Ingrid, dressed in their show costumes, are playing cards.
BRIGIT (with a mixture of humor and horror): Poor Grandpa O’Malley must be tossing in his grave. His Irish angel, playing Castilian poker, with a Swede, in London!
INGRID: Grandpa Larsson is tossing on the bottom of the ocean. He dreamed of marrying me off to a Lutheran minister. If all those dead grandpas started tossing at once, it would be one horrid earthquake!
They look at each other, cover their faces with cards and laugh.
BRIGIT (fans herself with cards): I keep thinking of that French sailor who winked at me from the crowd.
INGRID (sternly): I keep telling you, dear: sailors are worthless. They never give presents. And you almost fell off the tightrope that night! Now would be a rotten time to get crippled. Camberwell Fair is in two weeks. It’s much like a coming-out ball — for circus girls. That’s how Sallie Chester befriended that factory overseer.
BRIGIT (indignantly): He pushed her down a stairwell!
INGRID (matter-of-factly): So the man was drunk. She drove him to it. Then later he bought her a new hand purse with a brass buckle shaped like a lion’s head. It was well worth a few bruised ribs.
BRIGIT: What good is a fancy purse if there’s no money in it?
INGRID: At least Sallie got an apology present. How many girls endure smacks and punches and get nothing for it? Do you know what happened to Millie Price?
Suddenly they hear voices and straighten up.
BRIGIT (rolls her eyes and makes a grimace): There she comes. Miss Stuart... One can hear her giggle from a mile away. The most vexatious sound on earth!
INGRID: And Reverend Barclay is with her, naturally. (Taps Brigit on the wrist) Quickly, hide the cards. Last time he took the whole deck away. Remember? (Mocking) “It’s the Devil’s game.”
Enter Jocelyn, arms linked with Hugo, who is disguised as a sailor. Rev. Barclay walks behind them, hands locked behind his back, shaking his head, face expressing contempt and disgust. Ingrid and Brigit jump to their feet and clear their throats.
JOCELYN (with patronizing benevolence): Carry on, girls! You aren’t in the way.
Brigit and Ingrid curtsey and leave in a haste.
JOCELYN. (to Hugo): How skittish they are.
BARCLAY: That’s because they haven’t had their daily dose of opium yet.
HUGO (ecstatically): Ah, the lights, the props, the smell of cheap liquor... It is as if—
JOCELYN: As if we were in one of your novels? (Steps forward and twirls) Take a look. It’s more than a circus or a boxing rink. It’s a true Bohemian temple where blood, sweat and whiskey are shed every night.
HUGO (points to his apparel): This is hellishly romantic, Jocelyn dear, but I’m afraid I don’t fully understand the purpose of this transformation.
JOCELYN: But Victor, this isn’t Westminster.
HUGO (looks around and nods): So I’ve noticed.
JOCELYN: It would be imprudent to flaunt a gold watch in a place where you can have your throat cut for a shilling.
HUGO (bashfully): Exactly how much is a shilling? I fear that my grasp of the English currency is rather weak.
JOCELYN: Don’t worry, Victor, by the end of this excursion you’ll be an expert on all things English.
HUGO: Couldn’t this cultural enrichment be done from the comfort of Westminster?
JOCELYN: In your last letter you said you were seeking inspiration. Well, you won’t find it in Westminster. That part of London is an aberration, an oasis of greed and pretense. So I give you England: raw, unembellished, as experienced by those you glorify in your novels. You know of whom I speak: sailors, beggars, clowns, robbers.
HUGO (squeamishly): But must we immerse ourselves in their world?
JOCELYN: What sort of question is that? The only way for you to understand these people is to become one of them — unless, of course, you aren’t serious about our cause.
Barclay wedges himself between Jocelyn and Hugo.
BARCLAY (with mock astonishment): Oh, but that would make Mr. Hugo a hypocrite!
JOCELYN (condescendingly): Now, Reverend, curb your jealousy.
BARCLAY: You think I am jealous?
JOCELYN: Naturally, Victor’s arrival disrupted our theological debate. But you’ve nothing to fear. Our alliance is safe. You’ve been my spiritual guide for how long now?
BARCLAY (sarcastically): Two months — practically an eternity!
JOCELYN: Now it’s time to make room for someone else. We’re all on the same side. For the sake of our cause I humbled myself. I stopped wearing jewelry, dressed in black and started teaching at an orphanage. I even denounced my aristocratic roots.
BARCLAY: Before denouncing your aristocratic roots, you need to prove them first.
JOCELYN: What’s there to prove? King William is my father.
BARCLAY: And your mother is but a nameless Scottish actress!
JOCELYN: I have half a million pounds to my name.
BARCLAY: Agreed, your father took good care of his bastards. Still, no money can buy you a title. I may’ve called you Duchess on occasion, and you’ve called me Bishop. Those are just benign jokes between two friends.
JOCELYN (defensively): Well, the queen herself invites me to family outings.
BARCLAY: Every royal family needs a black sheep, and you’ve practically volunteered for the role! You’re the laughing stock of Westminster.
HUGO (indignantly): Jocelyn, why do you allow him to speak to you in this manner?
BARCLAY (claps his hands): And now you have Mr. Hugo filling your head with bosh! You wouldn’t humble yourself for Christ, but you’d humble yourself for this pompous Frenchman. He brainwashed you!
JOCELYN: I beg your pardon?
BARCLAY: He convinced you that you’re a mythical creature, something between a mermaid and a hydra, but in reality you’re just a madwoman. It’s painful to watch your childish crusade against customs and common sense.
HUGO: Jocelyn, why did you bring this lunatic along? Do we need him?
BARCLAY (to Hugo): What, are you afraid I have too much influence over her?
HUGO (dismissively): You don’t intimidate me, Reverend. You annoy me.
BARCLAY: For your knowledge, I’m the one who encouraged Jocelyn to invite you here. I knew that after she met you in person, her illusions would vanish.
HUGO: You don’t care for Jocelyn. You aim to crush her spirit, meager as you are. Mediocrity loves company. I won’t let you carry out your plan. I cherish her too much.
BARCLAY: So you can add her name to the list of seduced and abandoned women!
HUGO (spitefully): Pull your mind out of the gutter, Reverend. My interest in Jocelyn is purely esthetic. I have other women to satisfy my carnal needs.
BARCLAY: I’m aware of your escapades. Weren’t you on a trip with your mistress when your daughter drowned? And you found out about the accident a week later.
JOCELYN (gasps): Reverend! How unkind of you.
HUGO (points his finger at Barclay with disgust): You’re beyond repulsive!
BARCLAY (bows): Thank you. Admit it, Mr. Hugo, you provoked me.
HUGO: Then attack me! Why touch the memory of my child?
BARCLAY: You’ll make a spectacle out of anything, even a family tragedy. Clearly, your grief doesn’t stop you from chasing skirts, even in exile. You write obscene letters to English women from your island. And then you pull your hair and howl: “Leo, my angel!” like you’re the only man to have ever lost a child.
HUGO: At least I’m still a father — something you’ll never be. You’ll stew in your pettiness for another few years. And when you die, nobody will remember you. (Beats his chest) Whereas I am immortal! My daughter is immortal.
Barclay and Hugo face each other. Jocelyn gasps and stands between them.
JOCELYN: Gentlemen, I implore you...
Copyright © 2008 by Marina J. Neary