Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was born in Besançon, France, near the Swiss border. His father was an officer in Napoleon's army, but his parents’ marriage fell apart early on, after which time he was raised by his mother. Hugo spent his teenage years at school in Paris, translating Virgil and writing poetry. At the age of twenty be married Adèle Foucher, the daughter of an officer at the ministry of war. Unfortunately, Victor’s brother, Eugène, was secretly in love with Adèle and lost his mind on Hugo's wedding day. Eugène spent the rest of his life in a mental institution. In the 1820s Hugo began publishing political commentary, but his political leanings were all over the place, vacillating from one extreme to the other. When his father, then General Hugo, died in 1828, Victor started calling himself a baron.
Hugo gained wide fame with his landmark historical novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (popularly called the Hunchback of Notre-Dame), which became an instant success. Since its publication in 1831 the story has remained part of French popular culture. The novel, set in 15th century Paris, tells the moving story of a gypsy girl, Esmeralda, and the deformed, deaf bell-ringer, Quasimodo, who loves her. The popularity of this novel inspired a badly needed 23-year long restoration of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.
In the 1830s Hugo published several volumes of lyric poetry, which were inspired by Juliette Drouet, an actress with whom Hugo had a liaison until his death. Victor’s wife, Adèle, had a serious affair with Hugo’s good friend Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve. “Let us not bury our friendship because of it,” Hugo wrote to him.
Some of Hugo’s poems were intensely sexual. According to the writer Paul Verlaine, a typical Hugo love poem went like this: “I am attracted to you. You yield to me. I love you. You resist me. Now be off with you.” These poems could be deemed autobiographical.
In his later life Hugo became more heavily involved in politics. After three unsuccessful attempts, Hugo was elected in 1841 to the Académie Française - a post for life. This triumph was shadowed by the death of his daughter, Léopoldine. Up until the time of her death Hugo had been an atheist, but he then began a spiritual life, eventually dabbling in the supernatural, believing that he was able to communicate with her beyond the grave. Léopoldine had married Charles Vacquerie in 1843, and she drowned along with her husband just seven months after her wedding. Victor was so affected by his daughter’s death that it was a decade before he published another book.
After he was made a Pair de France (Peer – a noble title of great prestige) in 1845, he sat in the Upper Chamber among the Lords. Following the 1848 revolution, with the formation of the Second Republic, Hugo was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and the Legislative Assembly. When workers started to riot, he led soldiers in storming barricades in brutal assaults. These experiences inspired his epic story about social injustice, Les Misérables (1862).
When the coup d'etat by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) took place in 1851, Hugo fled to Brussels, and then to England. After he was expelled from the island of Jersey, he moved his family to Guernsey, where he wrote Les Misérables. His self-imposed exile lasted 20 years.
Political upheavals in France and the proclamation of the Third Republic in 1868 led Hugo to return to France, but he was soon driven to exile once more. During the period of the Paris Commune of 1871, Hugo lived in Brussels, from where he was expelled for sheltering defeated revolutionaries.
After a short refuge in Luxemburg, he returned to Paris and was elected as a Senator in 1876, at the age of 74. He was still sexually active, and his maid, Blanche Lavin, was the constant target of his passions. After an exhaustive session with her in June, 1878, Hugo suffered a mild stroke. The infuriated Juliette Drouet, his faithful companion from the 1830s, wrote to her nephew, “You must try to track down that creature, Blanche Lavin, who has destroyed my happiness.”
Hugo died of pleurisy in Paris on May 22, 1885, at the age of 83. His wish was to be buried in a pauper's coffin. Nevertheless, he was voted a full-blown State Funeral by the two government assemblies he had served. His body lay in state below the Arc de Triomphe, which was draped in black for the occasion. People came from all over France and Europe to pay their respects to a man who was both a great writer and humanitarian. His funeral procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon was witnessed by two million people (many of then illiterate), a large portion of whom slept out in the open air the previous night, since every hotel room in Paris was taken. The New York Times of June 1, 1885, reported that when the head of the funeral procession reached the Panthéon, the end of it had not yet left the Arc de Triomphe, several miles away. Ten thousand policemen patrolled the route. The procession lasted over six hours, and 800 tribute wreaths were delivered to the Panthéon. This extraordinary outpouring was largely because Hugo was a genius of popular communication and sided with the cause of the common people in his later political career. His tomb in the crypt of the Panthéon is still today a place of pilgrimage by many writers.
Trivia bonus question: Who wrote the longest French sentence?
Victor Hugo's Les Misérables contains a single sentence of 823 words.
Hugo’s home at the Place des Voges (above) in the Marais district of Paris is open to the public. He lived on the second floor of the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée, no. 6, place des Vosges, from 1832 to 1848. In 1903 the house became a museum of his life, displaying furnishings, portraits and memorabilia.
Victor Hugo Museum
6, place des Vosges; Tues.-Sun. 10:00a-6:00p; free admission.
Métro: St-Paul, Bastille, or Chemin-Vert.