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.
Enter Wynfield wearing a sailor jacket with the collar elevated, covering the lower part of his face. Two beggar children accompany him, singing to the tune of “Fairy King.”
Have you visited the gibbet on the haunted hill?
Dead man’s bones clank and dance though the air is still.
In the hallowed eye sockets merry lights still glow.
From his height he gazes at the wretched world below.
And you’ll feel a hint of terror running through your veins.
And you’ll know you’re in a country where high justice reigns!
Wynfield gives the children a few coins, ruffles their hair, and they skip off.
WYNFIELD (salutes the children): Stay out of prison... Don’t drink dirty water.
KIP: You sound horrid, Wyn.
WYNFIELD: I’ve had a fever for three days. Half of London is down. Dr. Grant says it’s the worst outbreak in twenty years. In two weeks they’ll be dumping corpses out on the streets. Won’t that be a merry sight? And the smell!
KIP: Ah, Wyn, you always have cheerful news to share. That’s why we love you so.
WYNFIELD: So where’s the crowd you promised? (Nods at Hugo, Barclay and Jocelyn) Two old men and a schoolmistress. Where are the lads from the Parliament?
KIP: Give them another hour or two. They’re on Westminster time. Besides, they need to get drunk before they come here. Nobody crosses this threshold sober.
WYNFIELD: Well, these three don’t look even tipsy. It only takes a few sober guests to ruin merriment for everyone else.
BARCLAY: Wynnie, there’s somebody I want you to meet. (Points to Hugo): Don’t be misled by his fat belly. He’s a champion boxer on his native island.
WYNFIELD: I’ll be damned!
BARCLAY: Easy with profanities. We’re in the presence of a lady. Now, this gentleman has been dying to meet you. Just a few minutes ago he was boasting that he could defeat you in the boxing-ring.
HUGO (indignantly): I never claimed that.
BARCLAY (pats Hugo on the back and pushes him forward): Come, now is not the time to be modest. Here’s your chance to come fist to fist with Southwark’s boxing legend.
WYNFIELD: You flatter me, Reverend. I’m no boxing legend. I’m better known for my comedies.
BARCLAY: Enough of this false modesty! Now, our friend from Guernsey claims he can knock you out with one punch.
WYNFIELD (menacingly): Let him try! He can take his broken skull home.
BARCLAY (rubs his hands): Then we’ll have ourselves a splendid match.
KIP: I’ll serve as a referee! We’ll have a match tonight, when the crowd arrives.
BARCLAY: No, it can’t wait until tonight! This match will take place this instant.
HUGO (retreats): No, truly... It won’t be necessary.
BARCLAY: You can’t retreat now!
HUGO (to Wynfield): Young man, save your strength. Don’t waste it on me.
WYNFIELD: Oh, I have enough strength for half of Southwark.
KIP: And look! Half of Southwark is already here.
Dancers, jugglers, acrobats and boxers gather around.
JOCELYN: They’ve returned — my sweet circus rats! Not a trace of former bashfulness!
WYNFIELD: That is because they’ve all taken sips from my opium flask — fresh from Dr. Grant’s kitchen. (Offers the flask to Jocelyn) Would you like a taste, my lady?
JOCELYN (raises her palms): Let’s save the magic potion for the troupe.
WYNFIELD: Oh, I see; if we drink from the same flask, it will be almost like a kiss!
Jocelyn winces. The performers start laughing and elbowing each other.
BARCLAY (to Hugo, incitingly): Here’s your chance to defend a lady’s honor. If you retreat now, you’ll be twice the coward.
The performers surround Hugo, and pull his jacket off.
BARCLAY: We must have a prayer first. (Stands between Wynfield and Hugo, places his hands on their heads): Lord, bless these fighters. Harden their fists. Amen.
The performers echo “Amen.”
KIP: On your marks, gentlemen!
Hugo remains on the spot, dumbfounded. Wynfield takes a few steps back, bouncing. The performers line up against the wall, jumping and cheering.
WYNFIELD: God help you, Frenchie!
Hugo raises his fists hesitantly.
KIP: Get set. Engage!
WYNFIELD: For England!
He punches Hugo in the chest. Hugo wavers and collapses. The performers gasp and become silent.
KIP (stands over Hugo): Monsieur? Won’t you retaliate?
BARCLAY (dismissively): He’s faking. It must be one of those Guernsey tricks.
KIP (pokes Hugo with the tip of his boot): No, he’s not faking.
BARCLAY (reproachfully): Wynfield, look what you’ve done!
KIP: Now that was quick. (To the performers): Get rid of the body.
WYNFIELD (kneels over Hugo and listens to his heart): He’s not dead! Take him to my father’s house. He’ll patch him up in no time.
KIP: Yes, take him to the Famished Bear. Our guest has already tasted of English hospitality; now he’ll taste of English medicine.
The performers drag Hugo’s body away.
JOCELYN (throws her arms up in disgust): I’ve had it with you!
She turns around and leaves. Barclay hurries after her.
Copyright © 2008 by Marina J. Neary