Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo was many things. Today he is most remembered for being one of the main representatives of the French Romantic movement, author of world aclaimed Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame among many other works. But he was much more than a novelist in his liftime: he was a playwright, a poet, an essayist, a statesman and a human rights activist.

Private Life

Victor Marie Hugo, aka Victor Hugo was born in 1802. He was an illegitimate son, meaning he was born outside the sanctity of marriage, to Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet. He had two older brothers. Even though he was not born in Paris but in Besançon, he lived for many years and died in the French capital.

Victor Hugo's childhood happened at a time of many important events in France. Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, then an attempt of restoration of the French monarchy failed (the Bourbon dynasty) and all this happened before he was 15. His parents had opposing views, and this gave Hugo an insight of the two different ideals that would be involved in a seemingly endless battle for power in France.

Hugo's mother was a fundamentalist royalist and Catholic, while his father was an esteemed officer in Napoleon's army and he was an atheist. But she followed him when he had to travel anyway, and during two years they lived in different countries, including Italy and Spain.

But Victor Hugo's mother did get tired of traveling so she decided to separate and moved to Paris with her children. She then took charge of Victor's education. He was taught to revere royalty so when he started writing he wrote about that.

In Victor Hugo got engaged in secret, as it went against her mother's wishes to a childhood friend, Adèle, but only got married in 1822, a year after his mother died. They had two babies that didn't make it past infancy and but during the next six years they had four children that did survive, Leopoldine, Charles, François-Victor and Adéle.

But during those years he produced more than children. In 1823 he published his first novel "Han d'Islande" (Han from Iceland) and Bur-Jargal, his second novel in 1826. During the following years Victor Hugo would publish five poetry volumes, including "Les Feuilles d'automne" (Autumn Leaves) and "Les Voix intérieures" (Inner Voices), consecrating himself as one of the best poets of his time.

Sadly his daughter Leopoldine and her husband died when she was only 19 years old. She drowned in the Seine when her boat overturned and her husband died as he tried to rescue her. Victor Hugo found out about tragic news from a newspaper. It is said he never fully recovered. He also wrote his most well known poem about her death "Demain, dès l'aube" (Tomorrow, at dawn).

Literature and Politic Activism

Victor Hugo's writing would turn more political with time, his work reflected his views on social injustice, death penalties and other issues that were hot topics during his era. "Le Dernier jour d'un condamné" (The Last Day of a Condemned Man) would later influence other important writers, including Camus, Dickens and Dostoevsky.

However his greatest success as a novelist came with "Notre-Dame de Paris" (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), published in 1831. It had a great influence on Parisians and in fact the cathedral itself, which was in a great state of decay was restored thanks to the Victor Hugo's book.

As Hugo got older, his political views changed. He was no longer a royalist, but a fervent republican, which meant his exile in 1851, when Napoleon III came to power and Victor Hugo declared him a traitor of France. He first lived in Brussels, the in Jersey and finally in Saint Peter Port, Guernsey, where he lived for the remainder of his exile years. He moved back to France in 1870

During his exile, the misery and injustice that would become his paramount topic was still what most concerned him. The writer started to plan a huge novel on these issues, and he took his time to write it. Les Misérables was published 17 years later, in 1862.

Les Misérables became hugely popular among the masses, but the critics were not kind to him and other writers criticized the novel and slanted it as "insincere", "vulgar" and even Flaubert and Baudelaire found it at fault, the first said he had found saying it was The critical establishment was generally hostile to the novel; Taine found "neither truth nor greatness" in it and the later said it was tasteless and inept", though he spoke in its favor in newspapers.

Despite the bad reviews in its time Les Misérables remains to this day his most popular novel, so much in fact that there were several adaptations for films, TV and musicals.

He also wrote political pamphlets that were banned in France, "Napoléon le Petit" (Napoleon the Small) and "Histoire d'un crime (History of a Crime)" as spoke against Napoleon III.

During his life in Saint Peter Port Victor Hugo wrote some of his most acclaimed poetry: Les Châtiments (the Reaping) in 1853, Les Contemplations (The Contemplations) in 1856; and La Légende des siècles (Legends of the Centuries) in 1859.

Decline and Death

Afterwards he published "Les Travailleurs de la Mer" (Toilers of the Sea) in 1866 which had nothing to do with his political views and the "L'Homme Qui Rit" (The Man Who Laughs) in 1869 writing a very critical depiction of the aristocracy. He published a last novel in 1874, "Quatre-vingt-treize" (Ninety-Three), writing for the fist time about a topic he had avoided for many years, the Reign of Terror. Victor Hugo was not at the peak of his popularity, but many people consider the novel to be on the same level as his most famous and best quality writings.

When he returned home in 1870 he was elected to the National Assembly and the Senate and he was proclaimed a national hero. He was very concerned for artists' rights and copyright, among his achievement was the Association Littéraire et Artistique Internationale of which he was a founding member.

Victor Hugo died in 1885, aged 83. He survived his wife in 1868 and his mistress Juliet Drouet in 1883. He also survived the death of his two sons. When he passed away the whole country mourned. He had been not only the social conscience of French literature, but a statesman who had fought for democracy in France and helped to shape to the Third Republic.

His cortège funèbre was followed by more than 2 million people to his final resting place in Panthéon, Paris, where he shares a crypt with other French writers, Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola.