Victor Hugo on the Rock of the Exiles c.1853
(© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski)
Hugo did no less than participate in the formation of modern France. His remarkable life spanned two monarchies, two republics, two revolutions and two empires. As a statesman and a writer, he embodied liberal ideas and gave voice to the downtrodden, achieving the rare quality of being both a patriot and a humanist. In stature, he ‘was to France what Queen Victoria was to England’, writes Hugo’s biographer Graham Robb. The French newspaper Le Figaro declared his funeral ‘the death knell of a century that is ending’. His coffin lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and was buried in the Panthéon, surrounded by the heroes of the republic.
Rebel, prophetic visionary and grandfather of French letters, Victor Hugo’s cultural status dwarfs that of any other French writer. He tirelessly reinvented his own
image, championing opposing ideologies, and was both revered and ridiculed by people at every echelon of society. Posthumously he has been viewed as, among other
things, an opportunist, a hero, a sage and a madman. His vast literary output includes seven novels, eighteen volumes of poetry and three million words of history,
philosophy, travel writing and coded diaries.
Hugo was born in Besançon in 1802 to a general in Napoleon’s army and a royalist mother. It is little wonder that his parents separated – and that the adult Hugo was
changeable in his loyalties. His unsettled childhood included witnessing the carnage of the Peninsular War, an experience that influenced his lifelong horror of violence, and in particular his opposition to the death penalty. Between 1815 and 1818, he attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, and began writing verse tragedies and poetry. At 20 he married Adèle Foucher, the daughter of an officer at the ministry of war, and published his first poetry collection, Odes et poésies
diverse. Such were its royalist sentiments that it earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII.
'Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots'
After the publication of his first novel, Han d’Islande, in 1823, Hugo befriended a group of young Romantic writers and began to experiment poetically with
Romantic images and themes. In 1830 came Hernani, a play so controversial in its criticism of classical ideals and Bourgeois hypocrisy that its premiere inspired
fighting among the audience. The ‘Battle of Hernani’ was considered a triumph of the Romantics over the Classicists. Soon after, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
brought Hugo wider fame, with its evocation of gothic Paris and its themes of loyalty, love and fate.
In 1841, Hugo was elected to the Académie française; in 1845 the Citizen King, Louis-Philippe, made him a Peer of France. When Louis Napoleon became the first President of the French Republic, Hugo was at first optimistic, but a dramatic change of heart was to come.
During the late 1840s, Hugo’s political allegiances shifted to the extreme left in response to Louis Napoleon’s oppressive policies. Gone was Hugo the monarchist; in his place came Hugo the champion of socialist ideals. In these years, drawing and painting became his creative focus. He produced around 4,000 works, often experimental in style; his son Charles wrote about his father finishing his landscapes ‘with a light shower of black coffee’. His techniques anticipated Surrealism and Abstract Impressionism, and it is said that he tried to access his unconscious mind by using his left hand or looking away from the page. Though Hugo kept his art largely private, it was admired by great artists such as Van Gogh and Delacroix, the latter of whom wrote that Hugo would have become a celebrated painter had he not pursued a literary career.
'Hugo was always the voice of his nation’s bad conscience'
In 1851, Hugo’s fierce opposition to Louis Napoleon saw him banished from France. He fled initially to Brussels, aided by Juliette Drouet, the most enduring of his
several mistresses, before settling in Guernsey via Jersey. To leave Paris, ‘the native city of my mind’, must have been an enormous wrench, but Hugo’s creativity was far from impaired. During his 15 years on Guernsey he wrote three volumes of poetry and two of his finest novels: Les Misérables and The Toilers of the Sea, all the while denouncing the king in controversial pamphlets.
Jean Baptiste Hugo, an artist like his great great-grandfather, with our edition of The Toilers of the Sea
Though granted amnesty in 1859, Hugo chose to remain on Guernsey until 1870, when the Napoleonic dynasty was overthrown and the Third Republic he had campaigned for was established. Disembarking from his train at the Gare du Nord, he was greeted by a cheering crowd and paraded in an open carriage through streets lined with jubilant supporters. He was appointed to the National Assembly and the Senate. Although he suffered the deaths of his wife, mistress and two sons, and his daughter Adèle’s descent into madness, he remained active in politics and published a final novel, Ninety-Three, in 1874. His 79th birthday prompted the largest parade in
French history. Soon after the street on which he lived was renamed Avenue Victor Hugo.