Considered to be one of the greatest French writers, Victor Hugo was a Romantic movement novelist, poet, and dramatist from France. Today his two novels Les Misérables, published in 1862, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published in 1831, remain his most famous and well known works to this day. Hugo’s many poems and poetry compilations are still popular in France as well. Not only was he a prominent author, but Hugo was an advocate for many social causes such as abolishing capital punishment and was a supporter of republicanism as he grew up. His many works discuss the many social issues of the time.
Victor Marie Hugo was born on February 26, 1802 in Besançon, Doubs, France to French general Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet. He was the youngest of three sons, Abel Joseph Hugo and Eugéne Hugo. His father, Léopold Hugo had fought in the Napoleonic wars, viewing Napoleon as a hero, and was a freethinking republican, while his wife Sophie Hugo was a Catholic Royalist. Sophie may have been romantically involved with General Victor Lahorie as well, the godfather and namesake of Victor Hugo, her son.
Young Victor Hugo witnessed a period of political turmoil in his country as he grew up. Only two years after he was born, Napoleon became Emperor of the French and shortly before he turned thirteen, the Bourbon Monarchy was restored in 1814. His own two parents with their religious and political differences reflected the political and religious state of his country at the time as well.
In 1803, Sophie Hugo temporarily separated from Léopold when Victor was only a year old. She was constantly at odds with her husband due to his lack of Catholic views and became weary from constant travel and moving to Italy and Spain. With her three sons, Sophie settled in Paris for some time as her husband continued with his military career. Sophie mainly dominated and was in charge of both Victor Hugo’s upbringing and education. His mother’s devotion to the monarchy and to her faith are reflected in some of his early works of poetry and fiction. Huo didn’t rebel against the Catholic Royalist education his mother gave him until 1848 to became an avid republican.
Because of his father’s rank as an officer, the family moved and traveled often throughout his childhood. Hugo learned a lot as his family continued to travel. He saw the Alpines and the bright blue mediterranean sea on a family trip to Naples, Italy, also being in Rome during a time of many festivities and celebrations. At the time, Hugo was only five, but he would remember the trip vividly for the rest of his life. The trip lasted six months before they left Naples to go back to Paris.
Against his mother’s wishes, young Victor Hugo became engaged to Adéle Foucher, his childhood friend, when the two fell in love. He waited until his mother died in 1821 (when he was about nineteen) to marry Adéle because of the close relationship he had with his mother. The young couple got married in 1822.
A year after their marriage, Victor and Adéle Hugo welcomed their first child, Léopold, named for his father. Their son died in infancy, though. On August 28, 1824 their first daughter, Léopoldine, was born in Paris, also named for her paternal grandfather. They welcomed another son on November 4, 1826 named Charles. A third son, François-Victor Hugo was born October 28, 1828. Their last child and second daughter, Adéle was born on August 24, 1830.
Hugo’s first novel, Han d’Islande (1823) was published a year after he got married. Three years later, his second novel was published in 1826, Bug-Jargal. This novel was revised version of a short story published in Le Conservateur littéraire, a magazine Hugo and his brothers had started, in 1820. Five volumes of poetry were published in an eleven year period between 1829-1840. These volumes include Les Orientales (1829), Les Feuilles d’automne (1831), Les Chants du crépuscule (1835), Lea Voix intérieures (1837), and Les Rayons et les Ombres (1840).
Along with many other young authors of the time, François-René de Chateaubriand, who is considered to be the founder of Romanticism in French Literature, influenced Hugo. “Chateaubriand or nothing” was something young Hugo resolved to be. He found his life to parallel Chateaubriand’s in many ways as well. Like his predecessor, Hugo only furthered the romanticism cause and was greatly involved in Politics, later being forced into political exile.
Fame came to Hugo at an early age due to his passionate and eloquent works. He earned a royal pension from Louis XVIII at twenty years old when his first poetry collection Odes et poésies diverses was published in 1822. His early poems were admired, but with his second collection four years later Odes et Ballades revealed him to be a great poet and master of lyrical song.
In 1829, Hugo’s first mature work of fiction was published, Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (translated to: The Last Day of a Condemned Man). This short novel reflected social conscience that later made its way into his works. It influenced many writers in the generation to follow, Albert Camus, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, to name a few. Another short story, Claude Gueux, was published in 1834, showing Hugo’s early views on social injustice. Hugo himself viewed the short story as a precursor to Les Misérables, which would be published twenty-eight years in 1862. With his plays Cromwell (1827) and Hernani (1830), Huo became romantic literary movement figurehead.
When Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) was published in 1831, it was quickly translated and published in many other European nations. After the novel was published, people began to shame the City of Paris because they had left the Cathedral of Notre Dame neglected instead of restoring it. Many readers of the novel traveled to Paris to see the cathedral. From this book, people were inspired to appreciate pre-Renaissance buildings and keep them preserved.
Not long after Hugo’s eldest and favorite daughter married Charles Vacquerie, she drowned in the Seine at Villequier in 1843 at nineteen years old. Her heavy skirts pulled her underwater when the boat was overturned. Léopoldine’s husband Charles died as he tried to save her. Hugo was devastated when his daughter died. At the time, he had been traveling in the south of France with his mistress when he read about his daughter’s death in a newspaper. In his poem À Villequier he writes about his grief and shock over the death of his beloved daughter. He continued to write many more poems about the life and death of Léopoldine. Some historians and biographers have even said that Hugo was never able to recover from her death. One of his most famous poems of all, Demain, dés l’aube described him visiting her grave.
Plans for Hugo’s novel Les Misérables began as early as the 1830s. Hugo had thought up of a novel about social misery and injustice after witnessing the June Rebellion or the Paris Uprising of 1832. It took the author seventeen years to plan, write, and publish the novel. Lacroix and Verboeckhoven, a Belgian publishing house, began to issue press releases about Hugo’s upcoming the novel six months prior to its release in 1862. Only the first part of the novel “Fantine” was published originally, launched all at once in many major cities. Within hours, the first installments of the book was published, with the full novel to follow. It proved to have an enormous impact of French society. The novel took place in early nineteenth century France up to the June Rebellion, following characters stricken by poverty and revolution.
Though the book was quite popular, the critical reputation was not great. Hippolyte Taine called it insincere and Barbey d’Aurevilly complained that it was vulgar. Many others such as Gustave Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers, and Charles Baudelaire criticised Hugo’s novel. Because of its popularity though, the issues addressed in Les Misérables were brought to the attention and highlighted in the agenda of the National Assembly of France. Today the novel still remains to be a well known work of classic literature, having been adapted for cinema, television, and stage shows and translated into many languages. The popular musical Les Misérables, first appearing in Paris in 1980, has been performed in many countries and languages throughout the world.
In his next novel Les Travailleurs de la Mer (or Toilers of the Sea), Hugo strayed away from political and social issues in France. The book, published in 1866, was well received, perhaps because Hugo had been very successful a few years previously with Les Misérables. In this novel, a man attempts to win his father’s approval by rescuing his ship on Guernsey, a channel island where Hugo had spent time in exile.
With L’Homme Qui Rit (The Man who Laughs), Hugo returned once more to political and social issues in the novel, which was published in 1869. However, this novel was not nearly as successful as his previous works. Hugo began making comments that there was a growing distance between him and other literary contemporaries like Flaubert and Émile Zola. The two of them were becoming more popular and successful with their recent novels.
Hugo published his last novel in 1874. Quatre-vingt-treize (Ninety-Three) was about the Reign of Terror, which Hugo had avoided in his previous works of literature. At the time his popularity was only increasingly declining, but many will continue this novel to be on the same level as his previously popular works.
Finally Hugo was elected to the Académie française in 1841 after three unsuccessful attempts. This helped to solidify his position in the French world of art and letters. His election had been delayed by a group of French academicians, mainly Étienne de Jouy, fighting against what they called the “romantic evolution”. Upon this election, Hugo became more involved with politics. Four years later, King Louis-Philippe elevated him to the peerage. As a pair de France, he entered the Higher Chamber, speaking against the death penalty and social injustice while for freedom of the press and self-government in Poland.
A conservative, Hugo was elected to Parliament in 1848. He broke with the conservatives the following year when giving a speech that called for ending misery and poverty. Hugo continued to make speeches for universal suffrage and free education for children while in Parliament. He also continued to advocate to end the death penalty.
Hugo declared Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) a traitor to France openly when he seized complete power over France in 1851. Napoleon III established a new, anti-parliamentary constitution. Hugo relocated to Brussels then to Jersey. He was expelled from the latter for supporting a newspaper in Jersey that had been criticising Queen Victoria. Along with his family, Hugo settled at Hauteville House located in Saint Peter port, Guernsey. He would remain on the island in exile for fiftteen years from October of 1855 until 1870.
Though he was in exile, this did not stop Hugo from continuing with his career. He published famous political pamphlets speaking out against Napoleon III called Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d’un crime, both of which were banned in France but had a huge impact in the nation. Some of his most famous works were written while in Guernsey such as Les Misérables and widely praised poetry collections Les Châtiments (1853), Les Contemplations (1856), and La Légende des siècles (1859).
His work towards abolishing the death penalty were recognized when it was removed in the constitutions of Geneva, Portugal and Colombia. Hugo pleaded for Maximilian I of Mexico to be spared when he was captured by Benito Juárez, but his pleas did not work. It is shown in his complete archives that a letter was written to the United States of America to spare abolitionist John Brown. However, the letter did not even arrive in the U.S. until after Brown’s execution.
Napoleon III granted all political exiles amnesty in 1859, but Hugo declined and stayed in Guernsey. This would mean that he would have to stop criticising the government and politics, hence why he stayed in exile. Napoleon III fell from power and the Third Republic was proclaimed in 1870. Hugo finally returned home and was elected to the National Assembly.
During the siege by the Prussian army in 1870, Hugo was home in Paris. In fact, he was famously eating animals that the Paris zoo had given to him. The siege continued on and food continued to become more scarce. Hugo wrote in his diary that he was “eating the unknown”.
The Association Littéraire et Artistique Internationale was founded in 1878 with Victor Hugo a prime member and honorary president. It had been established due to Hugo’s concern for the rights of artists and copyright and led to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works in Berne, Switzerland in 1866.
Over the course of his life, Hugo’s religious views were constantly changing. He was a Catholic during his youth under his mother’s strong influence, later becoming a non-practicing Catholic. But as he grew older, Hugo was constantly expressing his anti-Catholic and anticlerical views. During his exile, he frequently practices spiritism and participated in Madame Delphine de Giradin’s séances. In his later life, Hugo went into rationalist deism, similar to that adopted by Voltaire. When questioned as to if he was a Catholic in 1872, Hugo responded with, “No. A Freethinker.”. His father, Léopold Hugo, had also been a Freethinker but had died in 1828.
Hugo had been recognized as a national hero when he returned to Paris in 1870. His popularity had been decreasing, but he nevertheless ran for reelection to the National Assembly two years later. He was elected to the newly created Senate on January 30, 1876, those his time in office was considered a failure.
Shortly after, Hugo suffered a mild stroke in 1878 while his daughter Adéle had been interned in an insane asylum and his two sons Charles and Françoise-Victor Hugo died all within a brief time period. Earlier, Hugo’s wife had died in 1868 in Guernsey. His mistress Juliette Drouet died in 1833, two years before Hugo himself died. Though he had lost all those close to him, Hugo still remained dedicated to political change.
For his eightieth birthday, Hugo was honoured one of the greatest tributes ever held to a living writer. On June 25, 1881 the celebrations began when he was presented with a Sèvres vase, which was a traditional sovereign gift. One of the largest parades in French history was held for him on June 27. Marchers stretched from the street Hugo was residing on down all the way to the centre of Paris. For six hours, they marched past him while he sat watching at the window. Not a single detail of the parade wasn’t dedicated to Hugo. Even the official guides were wearing cornflowers that alluded to Fantine’s song in his popular novel Les Misérables. The street Hugo was living on, Avenue d’Eylau, was changed on June 28 to Avenue Victor-Hugo.
On May 22, 1885, Victor Marie Hugo died at his home in Paris from pneumonia at eighty-three years old. Hugo is remembered as a prominent figure in literary history while also being a well known political and statesman, advocating for social justice and democracy for France. He was buried at the Panthéon, with more than two million people at his funeral procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthén. His crypt is shared with Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola. Now, most large towns and cities in France have named streets after the author.