Victor Hugo (France, 1802-85)

Figure 1.--Here we see a portrait of Victor Hugo. He looks to be about 13 years olds whivh would mean about 1815, the same year as Waterloo. We are not sure when it was done or ho the artist was. Note the black coat and colorful plaid jacket.

One might say that Victor Hugo was a child of the French Revolution. His father was an ardent supporter of the Revolution and officer in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies. Victor Hugo is generally recognized as the greatest French author of the 19th century. He wrote in different forms, including novels, plays and poems and was amazingly prolfific. Many important works were written in exile on the Channel Islands. Although his books were banned in Second Empire, they still cirfculated widely, both in France and abroad.


His parents were Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet (1772- ). His father was the son of a wood merchant and governess. He received a good basic education, butinstead of persuong his studies, decided to become a soldier. He became a fervant supporter of the Revolution and a military officer who rose to the rank of general. His mother was from Breton. Her mother had died when young ad her father earned his living in the African Slave trade. He contracted a disease off the coast of Africa and died (1783). Sophie was raised by an aunt. The marriage of his parents failed, although there was no divorce. Hugo would later try to explsin the breakup as resulting from a royalist mother and republican father, but in fact both had republican sympthies. [Robb, p. 7.] Victor was raised by his mother, but a relationship continued between his parents. Léopold participated in the military campaign in Italy against Naples. He was closed to Joseph Napoleon and was appoined military of an province near Naples. Viictor's mother brought the family to Italy to be near Colonel Hugo--without telling him in advance. Subsequently Joseph was made King of Spain and Hugo followed him there. The family after returming to Paris also followed him to Spain. Victor's mother Sophie became involved with General Victor Lahorie, who had once been her husband's commander. Lahorie was executed for plotting against the Emperor (1812). Some believed that Sophie was involved in the plot. Sophie finally sued General Hugo for divorce (1815).


Victor had two older brothers. The oldest was Abel. His brother Eugéne was unstable mentally. As a youth the family would refer to his poor health, attempting to avoid any illusion to mental problems.


Abel was the oldest boy. As a result his education was a little different. He was made a page in the court of King Joseph Napoleon in Madrid. He also was with his father in the army duringte retreat from Madrid and in the campaigns of 1813.


Eugène had been with Victor in the various schools they attended. He like Victor had grown up close to the Foucher family. The family had noticed Eugène's mental instability, but while he was a child could disguise it as being sickly. He had also become quite attached to Adèle and when Vucctor narried her, Eugène went insane. He had to be institutionalized. He lived the remainder of his life in a sanitarium. He was unable to recognize either his friends or family--even Victor who he had been very close.


One might say that Victor Hugo was a child of the French Revolution. Victor-Marie was born in Besançon during the Napoleonuc era in 1802. He was a vey small child, perhaps premature. His parents broke up 6 weeks after he was born. As a boy he lived in Paris, Italy, and Spain which helped to expand his horizons. Sophie hated Naples. Victoir remember her garden. As the French position in Spain deterioirated, Sophie brought the family back to France. There are not a lot of early accounts of his childhood. Biographers often speculate that scenes with children in his books are based on childhood experiences. If any of this is true, little Victor had a very active mind. In Paris as a young boy he played with the Foucher family children--one of which Adèle he was to marry. He liked to play with toy soldiers, torture froggs, and His father described him having an active mind, but being polite. He got on well with his brothers. Although very small at birth, he appears to have played roughly. Sophie kept Victor busy watering her flowers. [Robb, pp. 15-16.]

Childhood Clothing

We have virtually no information as to how Victor was dressed as a boy. As he came from a relatively affluent family we believe that he was stylisly dressed, especially while his farher held important positions in the Napoleonic Army and was made a count by King Joseph Napoleon in Spain. There were differences between Mme. Hugo and her husband over money. The boys at time wrote emploring letters, but we know that their father did at times privide considerable sums. This for the most part, the boys would have been well dressed. The portrait here certainly suggests this (figure 1). Presumably the boys wore dresses when little. I'm not sure when the boys were breached, apparently before 5 or 6 years old. Mme. Hugo did not believe in coddling the boys. Once when she found Victor crying, she outfitted him in a dress and took him out on a walk. [Rivet, p. 551.] Victor and his brothers presumsably wore skeleton suits. One of the few references to clothing is that in Paris on the way to and from school, street children would throw stones at them because they wore trousers that were not tattered. [Robb, p. 28.] While in Spain, Victor and Eugéne were put in a boarding scgool, Abel was made a page in the court of King Jerome Napoleon. He wore a blue uniform trimmed in gold, white silk stockings, a hat with a white blume, and a sword. [Robb, pp. 37-38.]


Victor was educated along with his brothers at home and his schools in Paris and Madrid. He was most commonly with his brother Eugéne as they were cloest in age. He and Eugéne were sent to a nursery when they were younger. The education os his brother Abel was a little different. The education of Victor was at the Pension Cordier in Paris (1815-18). His classes were mostly at the Collège Louis-le Grand. His education was quite varied, in part because of the conflict between his parents, but emphasized the classics. The first real school Vitor attended was the Feuillantines. In Madrid he and Eugéne were put in a boarding school by their father.

Interest in Writing

Victor showed an interest in writing at an early stage. He like to write poetry, especially tragic verses. His early writing was influenced by translating Vergil from the Latin. Victor and his brothers founded a literary review, the Conservateur Littéraire (1819). He was impressed with the work of François René Chateaubriand. He published his first works, a collection of poems, Odes et Poésies Diverses (1822). Unlike many first efforts, Hugo's book was well received. He won prizes for poertry from the Académie Française. The restored King Louis XVIII granted him a royal pension, a signal honor for such a young author. It is his novels for which Hugo is best remnembered. Hugo published his first novel soon after his poetry collection. It was Han d'Islande which he published anonamously (1823). Another novel followed, Bug Jargal (1824), as well as more poetry, Odes et Ballades (1826). His work in the ant-classical style was an important influence even at this early stage.


Hugo married Adèle Foucher (18??-68) (1822). He had known her since childhood when they played together. Her father was also a military officer, posted at the Ministry of War. Hugo's brother Eugéne was also in love with Adèle and as a result of the marriage became certifiably insane and had to be institutionalized. Hugo had five children. Adéle the fifth child refused to have any more children. The end of their intimate relations caused Hugo to turn to Juliette Drouet (Julienne-Joséphine Gauvain) (18??-82) an actres. She inspired some of his poetry. His wife had an affair with Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, once a friend of Hugo, but Hugo was mot at all pleased with the liason. Tragedy struck the family when his daughter Léopoldine, named after his father, died in a tragic accident (September 1843). Léopoldine had married Charles Vacquerie only a few months earlier. Both she and her huband drowned. Hugo grieves in his poem 'Tomorrow, At Daybreak'. Hugo was so affected by the tragedy that for a decade he produced no important works. Hugo had difficulty with his daughter Adèle, who was less sociable than Léopoldine, and like her uncle showed signs of mental instability. After his exile, Adèle left with Lieutenant Albert Pinson to Halifax, Nova Scotia with his regiment and later to Barbados. He also quarled with his sons. He outlived all of his children except Adèle


As a youth Victor was highly influenced by his father's tales of military exploits. His education was primarily conservative and he at first supported the restored monarchy. He even wrote royalist odes. As he matured in the 1820s he increasingly came in touch with liberal writer. This broughtbon an era in which his political alegiences varied back and forth. At times he would curse Napoleon and his legacy. At other times he would stridently defend his father and his campaigns and denounced the injustices of the monarchy. When his father died (1828), hugo identified with the aristocracy, calling himself a baron. While his political beliefs were in turmoil so was his lirerary style. He gradually moved from classical styles to romanticism and in fact became a key influece on French romanticism.

Literary Fame

Hugo achieved literary fame in the 1830s. He published a play, Hernani (1830). It was a tragedy in which two lovers kill each other with poison. It was well received. Written in the romantic style, it had a major impact on French letters which were dominated my Romanticism for several decades. This was followed by arguably his greatest work--or at least he is best known. It was published as Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), but is known to English readers as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The book is set in still medieval 15th century Paris in the time of Louis XI. It is about a gypsy girl Esmeralda and the terribly deformed hunback bell-ringer, Quasimodo. He rings the bells even though he is deaf. He loves the beautiful Esmeralda. Hugo's shifting views are evidentvas he makes the villan of the play an evil priest, Claude Frollo. He also loves Esmeralda and kills her Captain Phoebus who also loves her. Frollo kills Phoebus and Esmeralda is blamed. Quasimodo tries to shelter Esmeralda in the cathedral. Frollo finds her there and when she spurns him, turns her over toi be executed. The distraught Quasimodo throws Frollo from the tower of the cathedral. He then disappears. Years later his remains are found in Esmeralda's tomb. His novel Claude Gueux attacked capital punishment. Hugo published several dramas in the 1930s and early 40s. There was the verse drama Marion Delorme (1830). There were also prose dramas: Marie Tudoe (1833), Ruy Blas (1838), and Les Burgaves (1843). Although voted down three times, Hugo was finally elected to the prestigious Académie Française (1841). Hugo also published poetry in the 1830s. After the tragic death of his daughter (1843), he produced no significant works for a decade. His next work he first conceived of titling Jean Tréjean, but then decided on Les Misères.


Nugo like France itself had widely varying political beliefs over time, including republica, Bonapartist, royalist, and socialist. The underlying consistency here was a belief in democratic values and social justice. Hugo's political ideals first led him to become like his father a committed Bonapartist as a youth but as a young man became a royalist only gradually becoming a republican. At other times he was both a Bonapartist again and a spcialist. Louis Philippe made him a peer of France (1845). He thus served in the Upper Chamber of the National Assembly. He toyed with Bonapartism again. King Louis Philippe was overhrown in the Revolution of 1848. Hugo campaigned in the election for the new National Assembley. He was appalled by the terrible conditions in working-class districts. He became commited at this time to social reform. His politics became a kind of republican socialist. Hugo was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Assembly and to the Legislative Assembly of the Second Republic. Hugo when workers rioted threatening the Republic helped lead soldiers loyal to the Republic that suppressed the revolt. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte ran for President of the Republic and was supported by Hugo. He hoped for democratic reforms such as free schools for poor children. Instead Louis Napoleon championed the forces of law and order. Hugo came to despise Louis Napoleon. The Second Republic was short lived. Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) staged a coup seizing control of the government (1851). An arrest order was issued for Hugo.

Exile (1851-70)

Hugo lived the next two decades in exile. Hugo had opposed Louis Napoleon III, even calling him a traitor. Fear that he might be arrested, he fled to Brussels and then lived on the British Channel Islnds (Jersey and Gernsey)--the cloest he could live to France without being under Napoleon's control. He lived on Gersnsey with his family for 15 years. Hugo was wise to flee in 1851, but his long two decade exile was in part self imposed. While in exile he wrote some of his most powerful works at Hauteville House. From there he became a powerful proponent of democracy and determined antagonist of Napoleon III They were banned in France, but circulated widely. He attacked Napoleon III in some rather shocking verse--Napoéon le Petit (1852). Les Chátiments (1853) proved to be one of his most popular poetry collectioins. Napoleon III issued an amnesty for political exiles (1859). Hugo with his litterary reputation was one he especially hoped to coax home. Hugo refused to return. Hugo by 1860 had achieved considerable literary fame both within and outside of France. It is at this time he finished the epic Les Misérables (1862) a novel that rivals Dickens' works raising issues of social justice. Les Misérables was criticsed by some, but proved to be a substantial popular success--adding gretly to his reputation. The Catholic Church was especially critical and added it to its Index of Proscribed Books.

Return to France (1870)

German Chancellor Bismarck tricked Napoleon III into declaring war. The resulting Franco Prussian-War (1870-71) led to the capture of Napoleon III at Sedan (1870) and the fall of his Second Empire. Hugo returned to France (1870). He was appaled at France's defeat in the War.

The Third Republic

Hugo was with the establishment of the Third Republic elected to the National Assembly from Paris. He criticized the peace settlment imposed by the Germans. France had little option, however, other than to accep the German dictated paeace. Hugo became known for his radical views. In particular he advocated a 'United States of Europe'. The Paris Commune uprising resulted in the daths of thousands and many arrests and executions (1871). Hugo was in Brussels when the Commune uprising took place. The Belgians expelled as a security threat. Hugo rather than returing to Paris, settled in a tiny village in Luxembourg.

Last Works

He continued to write both poems and novels, Two of his important novels during this period are Quatre-vingt-treize (1874) and Torquémada (1882). He was seen as one of the leading figures of Framce and upon his death was burried in the Panthéon.

Final Years

Only later when political passions cooled was he able to return to Paris. When he was able to return to Paris passions had died down and Republican France began to treat him as a great man of France. He was made a senator (1876). Paris celebrated Hugo's 80th birtday with a huge celebration including a series of pageants (1882). The street where he lived was renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo. When Juliette Drouet died, however, Hugo was to weak to attend her funeral (1882). Hugo himself died of pleurisy (1885). There were 3 million people mourners at his funeral. He was interened in the Panthéon.


Rivet, Gustave. Victor Hugo Chez Lui (Dreyfous, 1878).

Robb, Graham. Victor Hugo: A Biography (W.W. Norton: New York, 1997), 682p.


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Created: June 12, 2004
Last edited: 3:10 AM 8/9/2004