By Daniel Frezza
Few writers are successful as poets, novelists, essayists, and playwrights. Victor Hugo did it all—and served in France’s government.
Hugo was born in 1802, in Besançon, France. His father, Leopold, a soldier in the Revolution of 1789, attained the rank of general in the army of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. His mother, Sophie, was responsible for encouraging her three sons (Victor was the youngest) to pursue writing careers. Sophie and Leopold’s marriage was troubled and they legally separated in 1814. Leopold received custody, but the boys later chose to live with Sophie (Samuel Edwards, Victor Hugo: A Tumultuous Life [New York: David McKay Co., 1971], 33). Precocious and hard-working, Hugo could read and write by age five. By eighteen his poetry had attracted national attention. After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, France restored the former monarchy, and some of Victor’s poems had a strong royalist bent (Sophie’s influence). This pleased Louis XVIII, who invited him to tea (Edwards, 39).
Sophie died in 1821, and Hugo became close to Leopold, gradually absorbing his father’s admiration for Napoleon. This didn’t prevent Hugo from developing connections with the royal family. His first collection of poetry, published at age twenty, sold well and earned him a royal pension. Louis’s successor, Charles X, made Hugo a member of the Legion of Honor.
Now possessing an income, Hugo was able to marry the girl he had loved for several years, Adèle Foucher. Though they were deeply in love, the potential for a rift was present from the start: Adèle admitted she didn’t understand poetry (Andre Maurois, Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo [New York: Harper Bros 1956], 67). Adèle came to enjoy the benefits of her husband’s fame, but his writings were never of strong interest to her.
Between 1822 and 1840 Hugo published nine volumes of poetry, establishing his reputation as one of the greatest poets of his time; three novels, including the enormously successful Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame); andseveral successful plays. He didn’t seek production for his first play, Cromwell, realizing that the censors wouldn’t allow a portrayal of a leader who drove the Stuart kings from the throne of England (Edwards, 68). His second play was produced but ordered withdrawn because it portrayed a weak Louis XIII under the thumb of his chief minister Cardinal Richelieu. This was Hugo’s first experience of official displeasure.
In 1828 Hugo met the beautiful actress Juliette Drouet, and they became lovers. He supported her but required her to give up her former acquaintances and live quietly. Juliette agreed. Though at various times she considered leaving him, Juliette devoted the rest of her life to Hugo, copying manuscripts, organizing his research, handling his correspondence, and providing praise and inspiration (Edwards, 97–101)
Hugo’s next play, Hernani (1830), caused riots. The Romantic movement was already well-established in Germany, but conservative French taste still favored restrained neo-classical drama. Older audience members booed Hernani for putting feeling above reason, its lack of elevated language, and for mixing comedy with tragedy. Younger audience members adored it, and they prevailed. Setin sixteenth-century Spain, Hernani examines the theme of honor. The censors suspected that the honor of Charles X was possibly being questioned but hesitated to close such a rousing success (Edwards, 75).
Following the revolution of 1830 Charles abdicated. The legislature voted the crown to Louis-Philippe, a member of the royal family—emphasizing that he ruled by the will of the electorate, not birthright. For the next eighteen years he did little to improve the lot of the working class. During this period, Hugo decided that Napoleon had been the greatest French ruler and had established the best form of government (Edwards, 111). But he took care not to offend Louis-Philippe, who in 1845 made him a peer. This conferred membership in France’s equivalent to England’s House of Lords; Hugo was an active member, making several major speeches opposing capital punishment and censorship (Laurence M. Porter, Victor Hugo [New York: Twane Publishers, 1999], 68).
The revolution of 1848 drove Louis-Philippe from office and established the Second Republic. Hugo was elected to the new legislature; there he met Louis-Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Many, including Hugo, felt that a Bonaparte should be president of the new republic. Hugo supported his campaign and Louis-Napoleon was elected, but within a year Hugo was criticizing the new government for its repressive policies and for doing little to relieve poverty. In December 1851 Louis-Napoleon staged a coup, proclaiming himself emperor Napoleon III. Hugo’s arrest was ordered. Juliette helped him evade the soldiers sent to his home and persuaded him to escape to Brussels. There he wrote Napoleon the Little, a pamphlet attacking the emperor. Before smuggling thousands of copies into France, Hugo arranged for his family to join him, bringing their belongings. Adèle instead suggested auctioning their possessions to raise money. Hugo agreed, asking her to give his books to friends, expecting to reclaim them when he eventually returned to France. Adèle auctioned them too (Edwards, 176).
Unwilling to offend France, Belgium ordered Hugo to leave the country after the pamphlet’s release. He eventually settled in the Isle of Guernsey where he remained in voluntary exile for nineteen productive years.
Since the mid-1840s, Hugo had worked sporadically on a great sociological novel, and he resumed work on Les Misérables in 1861. The action is set in the years 1807 to 1833 and is based on events Hugo experienced first-hand. The publisher Lacroix in 1862 paid Hugo one million francs for the novel—the largest advance in French letters (Edwards, 208, 210). In a few months Lacroix recovered his costs and eventually made millions of francs from Les Misérables (Matthew Josephson, Victor Hugo [New York, Doubleday, Doran & Co. 1942], 449).
Adèle had long been aware of Juliette. During one extended trip to Guernsey (she mainly lived in Paris), Adèle befriended Juliette and the two stayed under the same roof for her entire visit. The following year (1868) Adèle died during the family’s annual reunion. Though Hugo and Juliette were now free to marry, they never did.
The Franco-Prussian war (1870) brought the deposition of Napoleon III and the establishment of the Third Republic. Hugo returned to Paris and endured the Prussian siege. He was elected to the new National Assembly, representing Paris (Edwards, 272). The Assembly in March 1871 accepted a peace treaty in which France lost territory and had to pay five billion francs in reparation. The Parisians, having suffered bombardment and occupation, violently rejected this and formed the Commune, which for two months governed Paris independently of the rest of France until defeated by the army. More people were slaughtered during the Commune than during the Terror following the Revolution of 1789 (Porter, 82). Hugo had resigned from the Assembly in opposition to the peace treaty but he deplored the atrocities on both sides in his book The Terrible Year (Graham Robb, Victor Hugo [New York, W. W. Norton, 1997], 470). These events also inspired his final novel, Ninety-three (completed in 1873). It begins in 1793, during the Terror. It quickly sold out and was reprinted; the French saw the connection between that period and the recent uprisings (Edwards, 287).
Juliette encouraged Hugo’s return to politics. In 1876 he was elected to the Senate. Once again a French president attempted to become a dictator. Hugo’s The History of a Crime, an analysis of Napoleon III’s coup, warned the French against letting history repeat itself and played a major role in saving the republic (Porter, 84–85).
Hugo suffered a stroke in 1878. He recovered physically but wrote little more, though he continued to publish works written earlier (Maurois, 428). In 1881 the government declared a national holiday in his honor. Six hundred thousand admirers passed before his window, and the street he lived on was renamed Avenue Victor Hugo (Maurois, 432).
Hugo died May 22, 1885. (Juliette preceded him in death two years earlier; they had been together over fifty years.) Following his wishes, he was placed in a pauper’s coffin (Edwards, 328). France rendered him the honors usually reserved for government and military leaders: he lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and he rests in the Pantheon, where many of France’s heroes are buried.