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Friday, 7 August 2015

Victor Hugo


Victor Hugo was born on February 26, 1802 in Besançon, near Dijon in eastern France. He was the third son of Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1774–1828) and Sophie Trébuchet (1772–1821).

Victor's army officer father was a freethinking republican who considered Napoleon a hero. His mother was the daughter of a sea captain. She was a staunch royalist and Catholic and a follower of Rousseau.

His mother and father did not get along and most of Victor's early days were spent in Paris where his mother preferred to live.

As an adolescent, Victor contributed essays to the Conservateur Litteraire (The Literary Curator.) and wrote a tragedy at the age of 14.


In 1822, aged 21, Hugo married his raven haired childhood sweetheart, his cousin Adèle Foucher.

His brother, Eugène, went mad when Hugo married Adèle, whom the brothers had known since childhood and whom Eugène was secretly in love with. He died at Charenton Asylum on February 20, 1837.

They had five children, Léopold (b. 16 July - 10 October 1823); Léopoldine (b. 28 August 1824 - 4 September 1843); Charles (b. 4 November 1826 - 13 March 1871); François-Victor (b. 28 October 1828 - 26 December 1873); Adèle (b. 24 August 1830 - 21 April 1915).

Léopoldine drowned on September 4, 1843, when her boat capsized on the River Seine in Villequier. She died when her wet, heavy skirts pulled her down, and her husband also met his end trying to save her. This tragic event had a great impact on the work and personality of Hugo,  The writer 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 in a cafe. He dedicated numerous poems to the memory of his daughter, notably À Villequier from his 1856 collection of poetry, Les Contemplations.

Portrait of Léopoldine Hugo. Painted by Auguste de Châtillon in 1836

Within a brief period in the early 1870s, Hugo suffered a mild stroke, his daughter Adèle was interned in an insane asylum, and his two sons died.

The story of Hugo's delirious daughter Adele's obsession with the British army officer Albert Pinson inspired the 1975 biographical film The Story of Adele H., starring Isabelle Adjani. The French actress earned an Oscar nomination for her role.

Hugo wasn't faithful to Adèle. He had a 50 year relationship with the actress Juliette Drouet, whom acted as a secretary and travelling companion. The writer only escaped sentencing for adultery in 1845 by a royal pardon.

A tireless and unfaithful lover to the end, one of Hugo's grandsons caught his grandfather in the arms of a young laundress. The 70 year  old man's reaction was "Look little George, this is what they call genius."

Victor Hugo slept with so many prostitutes that on the day he died, all the brothels in Paris closed to mourn.


Hugo wrote as much as 100 lines of verse or 20 pages of prose each day.

When feeling lazy and not in the mood for writing, Hugo got his servants to take away all his clothes for several hours so that he would be forced to stay indoors and work on his books or plays.

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.

With his play Cromwell in 1827, Hugo became one of the most conspicuous figures in France and leader of the literary romanticists.

His 1830 verse play Hernani was a spectacular success. By shattering the artificial rules that had previously governed the writing of French drama, Hugo brought freedom to the French stage and signaled a triumph of romanticism over the previous dramatic conventions of the French theater.

Hugo was on the edge of bankruptcy, until the success of Hernani made him the leader of French Romanticism movement and the enemy of classicists. Several times performances of the play led to fisticuffs between the two parties.

Victor Hugo, worried about the declining state of Notre Dame wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame so people would appreciate it more

Victor Hugo locked away his clothes to avoid the temptation to go outside, to write The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

Hugo's novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, was published on January 14, 1831 and was quickly translated into other languages across Europe. The apogee of French Romanticism, it tells the story of how the fifteenth century gypsy dancer in Paris, Esmeralda, is coveted by the cathedral’s archdeacon Claude Frollo and loved by the hunchback bell ringer, Quasimodo.

Notre-Dame de Paris 1st edition cover. Wikipedia

The success of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame inspired a renewed appreciation for pre-Renaissance buildings, which thereafter began to be actively preserved. It especially shamed 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 1923 movie Hunchback of Notre Dame was Universal's most successful silent film, grossing over $3 million.

Hugo began planning a major novel about social misery and injustice as early as the 1830s, but it would take many years for Les Misérables to be realized and it was finally published in 1862.

Les Misérables was an almost immediate success, the first Parisian edition of 7,000 copies selling out within 24 hours.

On one occasion his publishers were wishing to know how Hugo's latest novel was progressing. They simply wrote "?". Hugo replied just as plainly "!"

Hugo was the most popular writer of his time. On his 80th birthday there were nationwide celebrations.

Woodburytype of Victor Hugo by Étienne Carjat, 1876.


After the death of his daughter Léopoldine in 1843 Hugo started a career in politics and became member of the Paris chamber where he fought for left wing ideas.

In 1848, Hugo was elected to the Parliament as a conservative. The following year  he broke with the conservatives when Hugo gave a noted speech calling for the end of misery and poverty. Hugo’s advocacy to abolish the death penalty was renowned internationally.

Hugo participated directly in the 1848 Paris insurrection, helping to smash barricades and suppress both the popular revolt and its monarchist allies.

In 1851 Hugo was banished for opposing Napoleon III's coup, which was quite a cause célèbre at the time.

While in exile, Hugo mounted a campaign of propaganda and subversion that attempted to wreck Napoleon III’s regime. He published his famous political pamphlets, Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d'un Crime. The pamphlets were banned in France, but nonetheless had a strong impact there.

Victor Hugo in 1853

After Napoleon III fell from power and the Third Republic was proclaimed in 1870 Hugo returned to his homeland from Guernsey where he was promptly elected to the National Assembly and the Senate. He became a prominent member but resigned in frustration.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche included Hugo in his list of "impossible people", describing him as "a lighthouse in a sea of absurdity."


Hugo was mortified to be descended from commoners - he "adopted" other, more illustrious Hugo ancestors, and designed a crest for himself with the words "Ego Hugo."

Hugo had a cat called Chanoine (The Canon). It was originally called "Gavroche", he renamed it as it was so indolent. He also has one called Mouche, which is French for "fly" as in the insect.

Hugo lived on the Channel Islands between 1852-1870 until the fall of Napoleon III. He lived at Hauteville House, in Guernsey from 1855.

Hugo produced more than 4000 drawings. Originally pursued as a casual hobby, drawing became his exclusive creative outlet during the period 1848–1851, when he made the decision to stop writing in order to devote himself to politics.


Victor Hugo's death from pneumonia on May 22, 1885, at the age of 83, generated intense national mourning. An honor guard of twelve young poets flanked his coffin and all the street lamps en route were draped in black crepe. More than two million people joined his funeral procession in Paris from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon, where he was buried.

Hugo on his deathbed

Victor Hugo shares a crypt within the Panthéon with Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola.

Most large French towns and cities have a street named after Hugo.

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