Hugo is recognized as the most influential French Romantic writer
of the 19th century and is often identified as the greatest French
poet. His best-known works are doubtless the novels Les Misérables
and Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). Poetry was
another of his vocations: among many volumes, Les Contemplations
and La Légende des siècles stand particularly high
in critical esteem. Though extremely conservative in his youth,
he moved to the political left as the decades passed; he became
a passionate supporter of republicanism and of a European Union.
His work touches upon most of the political and social issues and
artistic trends of his time.
life and influences
Victor Hugo was the youngest son of Joseph Léopold Sigisbert
Hugo (1773–1828) and Sophie Trébuchet (1772-1821).
He was born in 1802 in Besançon (in the region of Franche-Comté)
and lived in France for the majority of his life. However, he
chose to go into exile during the reign of Napoleon III —
he lived briefly in Brussels during 1851; in Jersey from 1852
to 1855; and in Guernsey from 1855 to 1870 and again in 1872-1873.
early childhood was turbulent. The century prior to his birth
saw the overthrow of the Bourbon Dynasty in the French Revolution,
the rise and fall of the First Republic, and the rise of the First
French Empire and dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon
was proclaimed Emperor two years after Hugo's birth, and the Bourbon
Monarchy was restored before his eighteenth birthday.
opposing political and religious views of Hugo's parents reflected
the forces that would battle for supremacy in France throughout
his life: Hugo's father was a high-ranking officer in Napoleon's
army, an atheist republican who considered Napoleon a hero; his
mother was a staunch Catholic Royalist who is believed to have
taken as her lover General Victor Lahorie, who was executed in
1812 for plotting against Napoleon.
followed her husband to posts in Italy (where Léopold served
as a governor of a province near Naples) and Spain (where he took
charge of three Spanish provinces). Weary of the constant moving
required by military life, and at odds with her unfaithful husband,
Sophie separated permanently from Léopold in 1803 and settled
she dominated Hugo's education and upbringing. As a result, Hugo's
early work in poetry and fiction reflect a passionate devotion
to both King and Faith. It was only later, during the events leading
up to France's 1848 Revolution, that he would begin to rebel against
his Catholic Royalist education and instead champion Republicanism
many young writers of his generation, Hugo was profoundly influenced
by François-René de Chateaubriand, the founder of
Romanticism and France’s preeminent literary figure duing
the early 1800s. In his youth, Hugo resolved to be “Chateaubriand
or nothing,” and his life would come to parallel that of
his predecessor’s in many ways. Like Chateaubriand, Hugo
would further the cause of Romanticism, become involved in politics
as a champion of Republicanism, and be forced into exile due to
his political stances.
precocious passion and eloquence of Hugo's early work brought
success and fame at an early age. His first collection of poetry
(Nouvelles Odes et Poésies Diverses) was published in 1824,
when Hugo was only twenty two years old, and earned him a royal
pension from Louis XVIII. Though the poems were admired for their
spontaneous fervor and fluency, it was the collection that followed
two years later in 1826 (Odes et Ballades) that revealed Hugo
to be a great poet, a natural master of lyric and creative song.
his mother's wishes, young Victor fell in love and became secretly
engaged to his childhood friend Adèle Foucher (1803-1868).
Unusually close to his mother, it was only after her death in
1821 that he felt free to marry Adèle (in 1822). He published
his first novel the following year (Han d'Islande, 1823), and
his second three years later (Bug-Jargal, 1826). Between 1829
and 1840 he would publish five more volumes of poetry (Les Orientales,
1829; Les Feuilles d'automne, 1831; Les Chants du crépuscule,
1835; Les Voix intérieures, 1837; and Les Rayons et les
ombres, 1840), cementing his reputation as one of the greatest
eligiac and lyric poets of his time.
Hugo did not achieve such quick success with his works for the
stage. In 1827, he published the never-staged verse drama Cromwell,
which became more famous for the author's preface than its own
worth (the play's unwieldy length was considered "unfit for
acting"). In his introduction to the work, Hugo urged his
fellow artists to free themselves from the restrictions imposed
by the French classical style of theatre, and thus sparked a fierce
debate between French Classicism and Romanticism that would rage
for many years. Cromwell was followed in 1828 by the disastrous
Amy Robsart, an experimental play from his youth based on the
Walter Scott novel Kenilworth, which was produced under the name
of his brother-in-law Paul Foucher and managed to survive only
one performance before a less-than-appreciative audience.
first play of Hugo's to be accepted for production under his own
name was Marion de Lorme. Though initially banned by the censors
for its unflattering portrayal of the French monarchy, it was
eventually allowed to premiere uncensored in 1829, but without
success. However, the play that Hugo produced the following year—Hernani—would
prove to be one of the most successful and groundbreaking events
of nineteenth-century French theatre, the opening night of which
became known as the "The Battle of Hernani".
the work is largely forgotten, except as the basis for the Verdi
opera of the same name. However, at the time, performances of
the work sparked near-riots between opposing camps of French letters
and society: Classicists vs. Romantics, Liberals vs. Conformists,
and Republicans vs. Royalists. The play was largely condemned
by the press, but played to full houses night after night, and
all but crowned Hugo as the preeminent leader of French Romanticism.
It also signalled that Hugo's concept of Romanticism was growing
increasingly politicized: Hugo believed that just as Liberalism
in politics would free the country from the tyranny of monarchy
and dictatorship, Romanticism would liberate the arts from the
constraints of Classicism.
1832 Hugo followed the success of Hernani with Le roi s'amuse
(The King Takes His Amusement). The play was promptly banned by
the censors after only one performance, due to its overt mockery
of the French nobility, but then went on to be very popular in
printed form. Incensed by the ban, Hugo wrote his next play, Lucréce
Borgia (see: Lucrezia Borgia), in only fourteen days. It subsequently
appeared on the stage in 1833, to great success.
George (former mistress of Napoleon) was cast in the main role,
and an actress named Juliette Drouet played a subordinate part.
However, Drouet would go on to play a major role in Hugo’s
personal life, becoming his life-long mistress and muse. While
Hugo had many romantic escapades throughout his life, Drouet was
recognized even by his wife to have a unique relationship with
the writer, and was treated almost as family.
Hugo’s next play (Marie Tudor, 1833), Drouet played Lady
Jane Grey to George’s Queen Mary. However, she was not considered
adequate to the role, and was replaced by another actress after
opening night. It would be her last role on the French stage;
thereafter she devoted her life to Hugo. Supported by a small
pension, she became his unpaid secretary and travelling companion
for the next fifty years.
Angelo (play) premiered in 1835, to great success. Soon after,
the Duke of Orleans (brother of King Louis-Philippe, and an admirer
of Hugo’s work) founded a new theatre to support new plays.
Théâtre de la Renaissance opened in November 1838,
with the premiere of Ruy Blas. Though considered by many to be
Hugo’s best drama, at the time it met with only average
success. Hugo did not produce another play until 1843.
Burgraves played for only 33 nights, losing audiences to a competing
drama, and it would be his last work written for the theatre.
Though he would later write the short verse drama Torquemada in
1869, it was not published until a few years before his death
in 1882, and was never intended for the stage. However, Hugo's
interest in the theatre continued, and in 1864, he published a
well-received essay on William Shakespeare, whose style he tried
to emulate in his own dramas.
Victor Hugo's first mature work of fiction appeared in 1829, and
reflected the acute social conscience that would infuse his later
work. Le Dernier jour d'un condamné (Last Days of a Condemned
Man) would have a profound influence on later writers such as
Albert Camus, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Claude Gueux,
a documentary short story about a real-life murderer who had been
executed in France, appeared in 1834, and was later considered
by Hugo himself to be a precursor to his great work on social
injustice, Les Misérables.
Hugo’s first full-length novel would be the enormously successful
Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), which was published
in 1831 and quickly translated into other languages across Europe.
One of the effects of the novel was to shame the City of Paris
to undertake a restoration of the much-neglected Cathedral of
Notre Dame, which was now attracting thousands of tourists who
had read the popular novel. The book also inspired a renewed appreciation
for pre-renaissance buildings, which thereafter began to be actively
began planning a major novel about social misery and injustice
as early as the 1830s, but it would take a full 17 years for his
most enduringly popular work, Les Misérables, to be realized
and finally published in 1862. The author was acutely aware of
the quality of the novel and publication of the work went to the
highest bidder. The Belgian publishing house Lacroix and Verboeckhoven
undertook a marketing campaign unusual for the time, issuing press
releases about the work a full six months before the launch.
also initially published only the first part of the novel (“Fantine”),
which was launched simultaneously in major cities. Installments
of the book sold out within hours, and had enormous impact on
French society. Response ranged from wild enthusiasm to intense
condemnation, but the issues highlighted in Les Misérables
were soon on the agenda of the French National Assembly. Today
the novel is considered a literary masterpiece, adapted for cinema,
television and musical stage to an extent equaled by few other
works of literature.
turned away from social/political issues in his next novel, Les
Travailleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea), published in 1866.
Nonetheless, the book was well received, perhaps due to the previous
success of Les Misérables. Dedicated to the channel island
of Guernsey where he spent 15 years of exile, Hugo’s depiction
of Man’s battle with the sea and the horrible creatures
lurking beneath its depths spawned an unusual fad in Paris: Squids.
From squid dishes and exhibitions, to squid hats and parties,
Parisiennes became fascinated by these unusual sea creatures,
which at the time were still considered by many to be mythical.
returned to political and social issues in his next novel, L'Homme
Qui Rit (The Man Who Laughs), which was published in 1869 and
painted a critical picture of the aristocracy. However, the novel
was not as successful as his previous efforts, and Hugo himself
began to comment on the growing distance between himself and literary
contemporaries such as Flaubert and Zola, whose naturalist novels
were now exceeding the popularity of his own work. His last novel,
Quatrevingt-treize (Ninety-Three), published in 1874, dealt with
a subject that Hugo had previously avoided: the Reign of Terror
that followed the French Revolution. Though Hugo’s popularity
was on the decline at the time of its publication, many now consider
Ninety-Three to be a powerful work on par with Hugo’s more
well known novels.
life and exile
After three unsuccessful attempts, Hugo was finally elected to
the Académie Francaise in 1841, solidifying his position
in the world of French arts and letters. Thereafter he became
increasingly involved in French politics as a supporter of the
Republic form of government. He was elevated to the peerage by
King Louis-Philippe in 1841 and entered the Higher Chamber as
a Pair de France, where he spoke against the death penalty and
social injustice, and in favour of freedom of the press and self-government
for Poland. He was later elected to the Legislative Assembly and
the Constitutional Assembly, following the 1848 Revolution and
the formation of the Second Republic.
Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) seized complete power in 1851, establishing
an anti-parliamentary constitution, Hugo openly declared him a
traitor of France. Fearing for his life, he fled to Brussels,
then Jersey, and finally settled with his family on the channel
island of Guernsey, where he would live in exile until 1870.
in exile, Hugo published his famous political pamphlets against
Napoleon III, Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d'un crime.
The pamphlets were banned in France, but nonetheless had a strong
impact there. He also composed some of his best work during his
period in Guernsey, including Les Misérables, and three
widely praised collections of poetry (Les Châtiments, 1853;
Les Contemplations, 1856; and La Légende des siècles,
Napoleon III granted an amnesty to all political exiles in 1859,
Hugo declined, as it meant he would have to curtail his criticisms
of the government. It was only after the unpopular Napoleon III
fell from power and the Third Republic was proclaimed that Hugo
finally returned to his homeland in 1870, where he was promptly
elected to the National Assembly and the Senate.
Hugo's religious views changed radically over the course of his
life. In his youth, he identified as a Catholic and professed
respect for Church hierarchy and authority. From there he evolved
into a non-practicing Catholic, and expressed increasingly violent
anti-pope and anti-clerical views. He dabbled in Spiritualism
during his exile, and in later years settled into a Rationalist
Deism similar to that espoused by Voltaire. When a census-taker
asked Hugo in 1872 if he was a Catholic, he replied, "No.
never lost his antipathy towards the Catholic Church, due largely
to the Church's indifference to the plight of the working class
under the oppression of the monarchy; and perhaps also due to
the frequency with which Hugo's work appeared on the Pope's list
of "proscribed books" (Hugo counted 740 attacks on the
Les Misérables in the Catholic press).
the deaths of his sons Charles and François-Victor, he
insisted that they buried without crucifix or priest, and in his
will made the same stipulation about his own death and funeral.
However, although Hugo believed Catholic dogma to be outdated
and dying, he never directly attacked the institution itself.
He also remained a deeply religious man who strongly believed
in the power and necessity of prayer.
Rationalism can be found in poems such as Torquemada (1869, about
religious fanaticism), The Pope (1878, violently anti-clerical),
Religions and Religion (1880, denying the usefulness of churches)
and, published posthumously, The End of Satan and God (1886 and
1891 respectively, in which he represents Christianity as a griffin
and Rationalism as an angel). "Religions pass away, but God
remains", Hugo declared. Christianity would eventually disappear,
he predicted, but people would still believe in "God, Soul,
years and death
When Hugo returned to Paris in 1870, the country hailed him as
a national hero. He went on to weather, within a brief period,
the Siege of Paris, a mild stroke, his daughter Adèle’s
commitment to an insane asylum, and the death of his two sons.
(His other daughter, Léopoldine, had drowned in a boating
accident in 1843; his wife Adele passed away in 1868; and his
faithful mistress, Juliette Drouet, died in 1883, only two years
before his own death.) Despite his personal loss, Hugo remained
committed to political change.
Hugo's death on May 22, 1885, at the age of 83, generated intense
national mourning. He was not only revered as a towering figure
in French literature, but also internationally acknowledged as
a statesman who helped to preserve and shape the Third Republic
and democracy in France. More than two million people joined his
funeral procession in Paris from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon,
where he was buried.
Many are not aware that Hugo was almost as prolific in the visual
arts as he was in literature, producing more than 4,000 drawings
in his lifetime. (Some reproductions can be viewed on the internet
at ArtNet and on the website of artist Misha Bittleston). riginally
pursued as a casual hobby, drawing became more important to Hugo
shortly before his exile, when he made the decision to stop writing
in order to devote himself to politics. Drawing became his exclusive
creative outlet during the period 1848-1851.
worked only on paper, and on a small scale; usually in dark brown
or black pen-and-ink wash, sometimes with touches of white, and
rarely with color. The surviving drawings are surprisingly accomplished
and "modern" in their style and execution, foreshadowing
the experimental techniques of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
would not hesitate to use his children's stencils, ink blots,
puddles and stains, lace impressions, "pliage" or folding
(i.e. Rorschach blots), "grattage" or rubbing, often
using the charcoal from match sticks or his fingers instead of
pen or brush. Sometimes he would even toss in coffee or soot to
get the effects he wanted. It is reported that Hugo often drew
with his left hand or without looking at the page, or during Spiritualist
séances, in order to access his unconscious mind, a concept
only later popularized by Sigmund
kept his artwork out of the public eye, fearing it would overshadow
his literary work. However, he enjoyed sharing his drawings with
his family and friends, often in the form of ornately handmade
calling cards, many of which were given as gifts to visitors when
he was in political exile. Some of his work was shown to, and
appreciated by, contemporary artists such as van Gogh and Delacroix;
the latter expressed the opinion that if Hugo had decided to become
a painter instead of a writer, he would have outshone the artists
of their century.