About the Author
Novelist, poet, and dramatist, the most important of French Romantic writers. In his preface to his historical play Cromwell (1827) Hugo wrote that romanticism is the liberalism of literature. Hugo developed his own version of the historical novel, combining concrete, historical details with vivid, melodramatic, even feverish imagination. Among his best-known works are The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables.
Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besançon as the son of Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet. Hugo's father was an officer in Napoleon's army, an enthusiastic republican and ruthless professional soldier, who loved dangers and adventures. After the marriage of his parents had collapsed, he was raised by his mother. In 1807 Sophie took her family for two years from Paris to Italy, where Léopold served as a governor of a province near Naples. When General Hugo took charge of three Spanish provinces, Sophie again joined her husband. Sophie's lover, General Victor Lahorie, her husband's former Commandin Officer, was shot in 1812 by a firing-squad for plotting against Napoleon.
From 1815 to 1818 Hugo spend in the Pension Cordier in Paris, but most of the classes of the school were held at the Collège Louis-le Grand. He began in early adolescence to write verse tragedies and poetry, and translated Virgil. At the age of sixteen he noted: "Many a great poet is often / Nothing but a literary giraffe: / How great he seems in front, / How small he is behind!" With his brothers he founded in 1819 a review, the Conservateur Littéraire. Inspired by the example of the statesman and author François René Chateaubriand, Hugo published his first collection of poems, Odes et Poésies Diverses (1822). It gained him a royal pension from Louis XVIII. As a novelist Hugo made his debut with Han d'Islande (1823), which appeared first anonymously in four pocket-sized volumes. It was translated two years later in English and a Norwegian translation was published in 1831. The style of Sir Walter Scott labelled several of his works, among them Bug-Jargal (1826).
In 1822 Hugo married Adèle Foucher (d. 1868), who was the daughter of an officer at the ministry of war. His brother Eugéne, who had mental problems, was secretly in love with her and lost his mind on Hugo's wedding day. Engéne spent the rest of his life in an institution. In the 1820s Hugo come in touch with liberal writers, but his political stand wavered from side to side. He wrote royalist odes, cursed the memory of Napoleon, but then started to defend his father's role in Napoleon's victories, and attack the injustices of the monarchist regime. General Hugo died in 1828; at that time Hugo started to call himself a baron.
Hugo's foreword for his play Cromwell (1827), a manifesto for a new drama, started a debate between French Classicism and Romanticism. However, Hugo was not a rebel, and not directly involved in the campaign against the bourgeois, but he influenced deeply the Romantic movement and the formulation of its values in France. "The Victor I loved is no more," said Alfred de Vigny, "... now he likes to make saucy remarks and is turning into a liberal, which does not suit him..." Hugo gained a wider fame with his play Hernani (1830), in which two lovers poison each other, and with his famous historical work Notre-Dame de Paris, which became an instant success. Since its appearance in 1831 the story has became part of the popular culture. The novel, set in 15th century Paris, tells a moving story of a gypsy girl Esmeralda and the deformed, deaf bell-ringer, Quasimodo, who loves her. Esmeralda aroses passion in Claude Frollo, an evil priest, who discovers that she favors Captain Phoebus. Frollo stabs the captain and Esmeralda is accused of the crime. Quasimodo attempts to shelter Esmeralda in the cathedral. Frollo finds her and when Frollo is rejected by Esmeralda, he leaves her to the executioners. In his despair Quasimodo catches the priest, throws him from the cathedral tower, and disappears. Later two skeletons are found in Esmeralda's tomb - that of a hunchback embracing that of a woman.
In the 1830s Hugo published several volumes of lyric poetry, which were inspired by Juliette Drouet (Julienne-Joséphine Gauvain), an actress with whom Hugo had a liaison until her death in 1882. Adéle had an affair with Hugo's friend Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve. "Let us not bury our friendship," Hugo wrote to him, but later described him as a man, who 'lifts his loathsome skirt and says, "Admire me!"' Hugo himself was seen by his fans a Gargantuan, larger-than-life character, and rumors spread that he could eat half an ox at a single sitting, fast for three days, and work non-stop for a week.
Hugo's lyrical style was rich, intense and full of powerful sounds and rhythms, and although it followed the bourgeois popular taste of the period it also had bitter personal tones. Hugo's 'Mme Biard poems' - he had an affair with Léonie d'Aunet (Mme Biard's maiden name) in the 1840s - are intensely sexual. According to Verlaine a typical Hugo love poem was "I like you. You yield to me. I love you. - You resist me. Clear off..."
In his later life Hugo became involved in politics as a supporter of the republican form of government. After three unsuccessful attempts, Hugo was elected in 1841 to the Académie Francaise. This triumph was shadowed by the death of Hugo's daughter Léopoldine. She had married Charles Vacquerie in February 1843, and in September she drowned with her husband. In a poem, 'Tomorrow, At Daybreak', written on the fourth anniversary of her death, Hugo depicted his walk to the place where she was buried: "I shall not look on the gold of evening falling / Nor on the sails descending distant towards Harfleur, / And when I come, shall lay upon your grave / A bouquet of green holly and of flowering briar." It took a decade before Hugo published again books. After he was made a pair de France in 1845, he sat in the Upper Chamber among the lords. He also began to work with a new novel, first titled Jean Tréjean, then Les Misères. Following the 1848 revolution, with the formation of the Second Republic, Hugo was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and to the Legislative Assembly. When workers started to riot, he led soldiers who stormed barricades in brutal assaults.
When the coup d'état by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) took place in 1851, Hugo believed his life to be in danger. "Louis-Napoléon is a traitor," he had declared. "He had violated the Constitution!" Hugo fled to Brussels and then to Jersey. When he was expelled from the island, he moved with his family to Guernsey in the English Channel. In a poem, 'Memory of the Night of the Fourth,' focusing on the overthrown of the Second Republic and the death of a young child, killed by bullets, Hugo wrote about the new emperor: "Ah mother, you don't understand politics. / Monsieur Napoleon, that's his real name, / Is poor and a prince; loves palaces; / Likes to have horses, valets, money / For his gaming, his table, his bedroom, / His hunts, and he maintains / Family, church and society, / He wants Saint-Clod, rose-carpeted in summer, So prefects and mayors can respect him. That's why it has to be this way: old grandmothers / With their poor gray fingers shaking with age / Must sew in winding-sheets children of seven." Hugo's partly voluntary exile lasted 20 years. During this time he wrote at Hauteville House some his best works, including Les Châtiments (1853) and Les Misérables (1862), an epic story about social injustice. Les Châtiments became one of the most popular forbidden poetry books.
Like other Romantic writers, Hugo was interested in Spiritism, and he experimented with table-tapping. After a number of fruitless efforts, his table gave him the final title of Les Misérables. Among Hugo's most ambitious works was an epic poem, La Fin de Satan, a study of Satan's fall and the history of the universe. Satan is presented more complex character than merely the embodiment of the Evil, but when Milton saw in Paradise Lost in Satan's revolt tragic, cosmic grandeur, Hugo brings forth the horror elements. The poem was never completed.
Although Napoleon III granted in 1859 an amnesty to all political exiles, Hugo did not take the bite. Les Misérables appeared with an international advertising campaign. The book divided critics but masses were enthusiastic. Pope Pius IX added it with Madame Bovary and all the novels of Stendhal and Balzac to the Index of Proscribed Books. Hugo's fleeting affairs with maids and country girls inspired his Les Chansons des Rues et des Bois (1865). "The creaking of a trestle bed / Is one of the sounds of paradise," he wrote. Hugo's daughter Adèle, whose apathy and unsociability caused him much worries, went after Lieutenant Albert Pinson to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his regiment was stationed, and followed also him to Barbados. Les Travailleurs de la Mer (1866), a story of hypocrisy, love, and suicide, became a bestseller and later two films were made of it.
Adèle Hugo's biography of her husband appeared in 1863; she died in 1868. Political upheavals in France and the proclamation of the Third Republic made Hugo return to France. The unpopular Napoleon III fell from power the Republic was proclaimed. In 1870 Hugo witnessed the siege of Paris. "There is only enough sugar in Paris for ten days," he wrote in his diary on 8 October. "Meat rationing began today." During the period of the Paris Commune of 1871, Hugo lived in Brussels, from where he was expelled for sheltering defeated revolutionaries. Hugo's attitude to the Commune was ambivalent: "An admirable thing, stupidly compromised by five or six deplorable ringleaders." After a short time refuge in Luxemburg, he returned to Paris and was elected as a senator of Paris in 1876. Sexually he was still active and his maid, Blanche Lavin, was the constant target of his passions, but not the only one. After an exhaustive period with her, Hugo suffered a mild stroke in June 1878. The infuriated Juliette Drouet, his faithful companion form the 1830s, wrote to her nephew: "You must try to track down the creature [Blanche] who has destroyed my happiness.." Hugo died in Paris on May 22, 1885. He was given a national funeral, attended by two million people, and buried in the Panthéon.
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