Victor Marie Hugo (French pronunciation: [viktɔʁ maʁi yɡo]; was a French poet, novelist, and dramatist. He is considered one of the most well-known French Romantic writers. In France, Hugo's literary fame comes first from his poetry but also rests upon his novels and his dramatic achievements. Among many volumes of poetry, Les Contemplations and La Légende des siècles stand particularly high in critical esteem. Outside France, his best-known works are the novels Les Misérables, 1862, and Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831 (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame).
Though a committed royalist when he was young, Hugo's views changed as the decades passed; he became a passionate supporter of republicanism, and his work touches upon most of the political and social issues and artistic trends of his time. He was buried in the Panthéon.
Hugo was the third son of Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1774–1828) and Sophie Trébuchet (1772–1821); his brothers were Abel Joseph Hugo (1798–1855) and Eugène Hugo (1800–1837). He was born in 1802 in Besançon (in the region of Franche-Comté). Hugo was a freethinking republican who considered Napoléon a hero; his mother was a Catholic Royalist who is believed to have taken as her lover General Victor Lahorie, who was executed in 1812 for plotting against Napoléon.
Hugo's childhood was a period of national political turmoil. Napoléon was proclaimed Emperor two years after Hugo's birth, and the Bourbon Monarchy was restored before his eighteenth birthday. The 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-ranked officer in Napoleon's army until he failed in Spain (one of the reasons why his name is not present on the Arc de Triomphe).
Since Hugo's father was an officer, the family moved frequently and Hugo learned much from these travels. On a childhood family trip to Naples, Hugo saw the vast Alpine passes and the snowy peaks, the magnificently blue Mediterranean, and Rome during its festivities. Though he was only five years old at the time, he remembered the six-month-long trip vividly. They stayed in Naples for a few months and then headed back to Paris.
At the beginning of her marriage, Hugo's mother Sophie 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 husband's lack of Catholic beliefs, Sophie separated temporarily from Léopold in 1803 and settled in Paris with her children. Thereafter she dominated Hugo's education and upbringing. As a result, Hugo's early work in poetry and fiction reflect her 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 and Freethought.
Young Victor fell in love and against his mother's wishes became secretly engaged to his childhood friend Adèle Foucher (1803–1868). Because of his close relationship to his mother, Hugo waited until after his mother's death (in 1821) to marry Adèle in 1822.
Adèle and Victor Hugo had their first child, Léopold, in 1823, but the boy died in infancy. The following year, on 28 August 1824, the couple's second child, Léopoldine was born, followed by Charles on 4 November 1826, François-Victor on 28 October 1828, and Adèle on 24 August 1830.
Hugo's oldest and favorite daughter, Léopoldine, died at age 19 in 1843, shortly after her marriage to Charles Vacquerie. She drowned in the Seine at Villequier, pulled down by her heavy skirts, when a boat overturned. Her young husband Charles Vacquerie also died trying to save her. The death left her father devastated; Hugo was traveling with his mistress at the time in the south of France, and first learned about Léopoldine's death from a newspaper he read at a cafe.
He describes his shock and grief in his famous poem À Villequier:
Hélas ! vers le passé tournant un oeil d'envie,
Sans que rien ici-bas puisse m'en consoler,
Je regarde toujours ce moment de ma vie
Où je l'ai vue ouvrir son aile et s'envoler!
Je verrai cet instant jusqu'à ce que je meure,
L'instant, pleurs superflus !
Où je criai : L'enfant que j'avais tout à l'heure,
Quoi donc ! je ne l'ai plus !
Alas! turning an envious eye towards the past,
inconsolable by anything on earth,
I keep looking at that moment of my life
when I saw her open her wings and fly away!
I will see that instant until I die,
that instant—too much for tears!
when I cried out: "The child that I had just now--
what! I don't have her any more!"
He wrote many poems afterwards about his daughter's life and death, and at least one biographer claims he never completely recovered from it. His most famous poem is probably Demain, dès l'aube, in which he describes visiting her grave.
Hugo decided to live in exile after Napoleon III's Coup d'état at the end of 1851. After leaving France, Hugo lived in Brussels briefly in 1851 before moving to the Channel Islands, first to Jersey (1852-1855) and then to the smaller island of Guernsey in 1855, where he stayed until 1870. Although Napoleon III proclaimed a general amnesty in 1859, under which Hugo could have safely returned to France, the author stayed in exile, only returning when Napoleon III was forced from power as a result of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. After the Siege of Paris, Hugo lived again in Guernsey from 1872-73 before finally returning to France for the remainder of his life.
Hugo published his first novel the year following his marriage (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 elegiac and lyric poets of his time.
Like many young writers of his generation, Hugo was profoundly influenced by François-René de Chateaubriand, the famous figure in the literary movement of Romanticism and France's preeminent literary figure during the early 19th century. In his youth, Hugo resolved to be "Chateaubriand or nothing," and his life would come to parallel that of his predecessor 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.
The precocious passion and eloquence of Hugo's early work brought success and fame at an early age. His first collection of poetry (Odes et poésies diverses) was published in 1822, when Hugo was only twenty 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 four years later in 1826 (Odes et Ballades) that revealed Hugo to be a great poet, a natural master of lyric and creative song.
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 (The Last Day 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 into restoring the much-neglected Cathedral of Notre Dame, which was 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 preserved.
Hugo began planning a major novel about social misery and injustice as early as the 1830s, but it would take a full 17 years for Les Misérables to be realized and finally published in 1862. Hugo 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. It 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.
The critical establishment was generally hostile to the novel; Taine found it insincere, Barbey d'Aurevilly complained of its vulgarity, Gustave Flaubert found within it "neither truth nor greatness", the Goncourts lambasted its artificiality, and Baudelaire – despite giving favorable reviews in newspapers – castigated it in private as "tasteless and inept". Les Misérables proved popular enough with the masses that the issues it highlighted were soon on the agenda of the National Assembly of France. Today the novel remains his most enduringly popular work. It is popular worldwide, and has been adapted for cinema, television and stage shows.
The shortest correspondence in history is said to have been between Hugo and his publisher Hurst and Blackett in 1862. Hugo was on vacation when Les Misérables was published. He queried the reaction to the work by sending a single-character telegram to his publisher, asking "?". The publisher replied with a single "!" to indicate its success.
Hugo 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, Parisians became fascinated by these unusual sea creatures, which at the time were still considered by many to be mythical.
The word used in Guernsey to refer to squid (pieuvre, also sometimes applied to octopus) was to enter the French language as a result of its use in the book. Hugo 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. 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 Émile Zola, whose realist and naturalist novels were now exceeding the popularity of his own work.
His last novel, Quatre-vingt-treize (Ninety-Three), published in 1874, dealt with a subject that Hugo had previously avoided: the Reign of Terror during 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 work on par with Hugo's better-known novels.
Political Life and Exile
After three unsuccessful attempts, Hugo was finally elected to the Académie française in 1841, solidifying his position in the world of French arts and letters. A group of French academicians, particularly Etienne de Jouy, were fighting against the "romantic evolution" and had managed to delay Victor Hugo's election. Thereafter he became increasingly involved in French politics.
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. However, he was also becoming more supportive of the Republican form of government and, following the 1848 Revolution and the formation of the Second Republic, was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and the Legislative Assembly.
When Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) seized complete power in 1851, establishing an anti-parliamentary constitution, Hugo openly declared him a traitor to France. He relocated to Brussels, then Jersey, from which he was expelled for supporting a Jersey newspaper that had criticised Queen Victoria and finally settled with his family at Hauteville House in Saint Peter Port, Guernsey, where he would live in exile from October 1855 until 1870.
While 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 or published 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, 1859).
He convinced the British government to spare the lives of six Irish people convicted of terrorist activities and his influence was credited in the removal of the death penalty from the constitutions of Geneva, Portugal and Colombia. He had also pleaded for Benito Juárez to spare the recently captured emperor Maximilian I of Mexico but to no avail. His complete archives (published by Pauvert) show also that he wrote a letter asking the USA, for the sake of their own reputation in the future, to spare John Brown's life, but the letter arrived after Brown was executed.
Although 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 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.
He was in Paris during the siege by the Prussian army in 1870, famously eating animals given to him by the Paris zoo. As the siege continued, and food became ever more scarce, he wrote in his diary that he was reduced to "eating the unknown".
Because of his concern for the rights of artists and copyright, he was a founding member of the Association Littéraire et Artistique Internationale, which led to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. However, in Pauvert's published archives, he states strongly that "any work of art has two authors : the people who confusingly feel something, a creator who translates these feelings, and the people again who consecrate his vision of that feeling. When one of the authors dies, the rights should totally be granted back to the other, the people".
Hugo's religious views changed radically over the course of his life. In his youth, he identified himself as a Catholic and professed respect for Church hierarchy and authority. From there he became a non-practicing Catholic, and increasingly expressed anti-Catholic and anti-clerical views. He frequented Spiritism during his exile (where he participated also in many séances conducted by Madame Delphine de Girardin), and in later years settled into a Rationalist Deism similar to that espoused by Voltaire. A census-taker asked Hugo in 1872 if he was a Catholic, and he replied, "No. A Freethinker".
After that point, Hugo never lost his antipathy towards the Catholic Church, due largely to what he saw as 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 Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Hugo counted 740 attacks on Les Misérables in the Catholic press). On the deaths of his sons Charles and François-Victor, he insisted that they be buried without a 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 actual doctrines of the Church.
Hugo's Rationalism can be found in poems such as Torquemada (1869, about religious fanaticism), The Pope (1878, 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", Vincent van Gogh wrote that Hugo declared (but actually it was Jules Michelet). Christianity would eventually disappear, he predicted, but people would still believe in "God, Soul, and the Power".
Victor Hugo and Music
Although Hugo's many talents did not include exceptional musical ability, he nevertheless had a great impact on the music world through the inspiration that his works provided for composers of the 19th and 20th century. Hugo himself particularly enjoyed the music of Gluck and Weber and greatly admired Beethoven, and rather unusually for his time, he also appreciated works by composers from earlier centuries such as Palestrina and Monteverdi.
Two famous musicians of the 19th century were friends of Hugo: Berlioz and Liszt. The latter played Beethoven in Hugo's home, and Hugo joked in a letter to a friend that thanks to Liszt's piano lessons, he learned how to play a favourite song on the piano – with only one finger. Hugo also worked with composer Louise Bertin, writing the libretto for her 1836 opera La Esmeralda which was based on the character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Although for various reasons the opera closed soon after its fifth performance and is little known today, it has been recently enjoying a revival, both in a piano/song concert version by Liszt at the Festival international Victor Hugo et Égaux 2007 and in a full orchestral version presented in July 2008 at Le Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon.
Well over one thousand musical compositions have been inspired by Hugo's works from the 19th century until the present day. In particular, Hugo's plays, in which he rejected the rules of classical theatre in favour of romantic drama, attracted the interest of many composers who adapted them into operas. More than one hundred operas are based on Hugo's works and among them are Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Verdi's Rigoletto (1851) and Ernani (1844), and Ponchielli's La Gioconda (1876).
Hugo's novels as well as his plays have been a great source of inspiration for musicians, stirring them to create not only opera and ballet but musical theatre such as Notre-Dame de Paris and the ever-popular Les Misérables, London West End's longest running musical. Additionally, Hugo's beautiful poems have attracted an exceptional amount of interest from musicians, and numerous melodies have been based on his poetry by composers such as Berlioz, Bizet, Fauré, Franck, Lalo, Liszt, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninov and Wagner.
Today, Hugo's work continues to stimulate musicians to create new compositions. For example, Hugo's novel against capital punishment, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, was adapted into an opera by David Alagna, with a libretto by Frédérico Alagna and premiered by their brother, tenor Roberto Alagna, in 2007. In Guernsey, every two years the Victor Hugo International Music Festival attracts a wide range of musicians and the premiere of songs specially commissioned from such composers as Guillaume Connesson, Richard Dubugnon, Olivier Kaspar and Thierry Escaich and based on Hugo's poetry.
Declining Years and Death
When Hugo returned to Paris in 1870, the country hailed him as a national hero. Despite his popularity Hugo lost his bid for reelection to the National Assembly in 1872. Within a brief period, he suffered a mild stroke, his daughter Adèle's internment in an insane asylum, and the death of his two sons. (Adèle's biography inspired the movie The Story of Adele H.) His wife Adèle had died in 1868.
His faithful mistress, Juliette Drouet, died in 1883, only two years before his own death. Despite his personal loss, Hugo remained committed to the cause of political change. On 30 January 1876 Hugo was elected to the newly created Senate. The last phase of his political career is considered a failure. Hugo took on the role of a maverick and got little done in the Senate.
In February 1881 Hugo celebrated his 79th birthday. To honor the fact that he was entering his eightieth year, one of the greatest tributes to a living writer was held. The celebrations began on the 25th when Hugo was presented with a Sèvres vase, the traditional gift for sovereigns. On the 27th one of the largest parades in French history was held.
Marchers stretched from Avenue d'Eylau, where the author was living, down the Champs-Élysées, and all the way to the center of Paris. The paraders marched for six hours to pass Hugo as he sat in the window at his house. Every inch and detail of the event was for Hugo; the official guides even wore cornflowers as an allusion to Fantine's song in Les Misérables. On the 28th, the city of Paris changed the name of the Avenue d'Eylau into Avenue Victor-Hugo. Letters addressed to the author were from then on labelled « To Mister Victor Hugo, In his avenue, Paris ».
Victor Hugo's death on 22 May 1885, at the age of 83, generated intense national mourning. He was not only revered as a towering figure in literature, he was a statesman who shaped 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. He shares a crypt within the Panthéon with Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola. Most large French towns and cities have a street named after him.
Hugo left five sentences as his last will to be officially published :
« Je donne cinquante mille francs aux pauvres. Je veux être enterré dans leur corbillard.
Je refuse l'oraison de toutes les Eglises. Je demande une prière à toutes les âmes.
Je crois en Dieu. »
("I leave 50 000 francs to the poor. I want to be buried in their hearse.
I refuse [funeral] orations of all churches. I beg a prayer to all souls.
I believe in God.")
Hugo produced more than 4000 drawings. Originally 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.
Hugo 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.
He 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 Freud.
Hugo 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.
The people of Guernsey erected a statue by sculptor Jean Boucher in Candie Gardens (St. Peter Port) to commemorate his stay in the islands. The City of Paris has preserved his residences Hauteville House, Guernsey and 6, Place des Vosges, Paris as museums. The house where he stayed in Vianden, Luxembourg, in 1871 has also become a commemorative museum.
Hugo is venerated as a saint in the Vietnamese religion of Cao Dai.
The Avenue Victor-Hugo in the XVIème arrondissement of Paris bears Hugo's name, and links the Place de l'Étoile to the vicinity of the Bois de Boulogne by way of the Place Victor-Hugo. This square is served by a Paris Métro stop also named in his honor. A number of streets and avenues throughout France are likewise named after him. The school Lycée Victor Hugo was founded in his town of birth, Besançon in France. Avenue Victor-Hugo, located in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada, was named to honor him.
In the city of Avellino, Italy, Victor Hugo lived briefly stayed in what is now known as Il Palazzo Culturale, when reuniting with his father, Leopold Sigisbert Hugo, in 1808. Hugo would later write about his brief stay here quoting "C’était un palais de marbre...".
In Havana, Cuba there is a park named after him and bust of Hugo stands near the entrance of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.
A mosaic commemorating Victor Hugo is located on the ceiling of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.