Victor Hugo, known to English-speakers for his voluminous works - especially Les Miserables - is revered in his native country as a poet and worshiped by some as a saint.
Be like the bird who, pausing in her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing she hath wings.
Victor-Marie Hugo was born on February 26, 1802, in Besancon, France. His father, Joseph-Leopold-Sigisbert Hugo, was a military officer, a Freethinker, and a Republican who admired Napoleon. His mother, Sophie Trebuche, was a Catholic Royalist - she may have had an affair with a general who was executed in 1812 for plotting against Napoleon. In short, Hugo's parents were not compatible. In 1803, they separated, and his mother raised her children mostly alone in Paris.
In 1804, when Hugo was two years old, Napoleon was crowned as Emperor of France. As he grew, young Hugo aligned his political and religious beliefs with those of his mother, in support of the royal family. He later wrote, "My childhood began, as everybody's childhood begins, with prejudices. Man finds prejudices beside his cradle, puts them from him a little in the course of his career, and often, alas! takes to them again in his old age."
From 1815 to 1818, Hugo studied law, but he never practiced. He was already interested in literature - he spent time translating Virgil. By the age of fifteen, he had written many verses, an epic poem, and an opera. In 1819, he founded a literary journal, the "Conservateur Litteraire," featuring articles about French poets.
Love, Marriage, and Family
Hugo fell in love with a childhood friend, Adele Foucher, while living in Paris, but Hugo's mother did not approve of their relationship. The two were secretly engaged. Hugo wrote many love letters to Foucher in the early 1820s, full of passion and insecurity. Sometimes he signed the letters, "Your Husband," even though they were not yet married. In one letter, he wrote, "Love is jealous, and ingenious in self-torture in proportion as it is pure and intense."
Hugo's mother died in 1821; the young couple married in 1822. Technically, their marriage lasted until the death of Adele in 1868, but they drifted apart within the first decade when their unrealistic youthful infatuation clashed with the realities of life. Adele developed a relationship with the French poet, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve; Hugo took on a mistress, Juliette Drouet. Drouet had been an actress, but after meeting Hugo in 1833, she left the theatre to serve as his secretary and companion for the next half century.
Hugo and his wife had five children. Their eldest, Leopold, died in infancy. Their second child, a daughter, was named Leopoldine. Both were named in honor of their paternal grandfather, Hugo's father. The remaining three were Charles, Francois-Victor, and Adele.
Sadly, Leopoldine drowned in the Seine River as a newlywed, at the age of nineteen, when a boat capsized and her heavy skirts pulled her under the water. Her husband drowned while trying to rescue her. Hugo learned of his daughter's death from a newspaper - he had been traveling with his mistress at the time. To a friend, he wrote, "Death has its revelations, the great sorrows which open the heart open the mind as well; light comes to us with our grief. As for me, I have faith; I believe in a future life. How could I do otherwise ? My daughter was a soul; I saw this soul; I touched it, so to speak." He later wrote verses in memory of his daughter, with the poems divided into "Autrefois" and "Aujourd'hui," before and after her death.
Hugo published his first book of poetry, "Odes et poesies, diverses," with a Royalist slant, in 1822; he published his first novel, "Han d'Islande," in the following year. He emerged as a leading figure in the Romantic period after publication of "Cromwell," a play written in verse. Ironically, the play itself was not particularly successful, but his preface urged writers to abandon classical restrictions and focus on more realistic drama, to combine opposing elements in their works, such as comedy and tragedy or beauty and ugliness. He wrote, "There are no rules, no models; rather, there are no rules other than the general laws of Nature."
By 1829, he was shifting away from the Royalist leanings he had inherited from his mother. As he once wrote, "Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots." In that year he published "The Last Days of a Condemned," an argument against the death penalty, and, in 1831, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," a novel that condemns the oppression of society during the reign of Louis XI. He wrote, "When a man understands the art of seeing, he can trace the spirit of an age and the features of a king even in the knocker on a door."
Hugo was elected to the French Academy in 1841, under King Louis-Philippe, and he fought against oppression of the common man. In what must have been an awkward moment, Hugo was asked to give a reception speech for his wife's lover, the poet Sainte-Boeve, when he was invited to join the French Academy in 1845.
During most of the 1840s, Hugo did not publish. He was devastated by the loss of his daughter, Leopoldine. He worked in private, however, on the manuscript that would eventually be published as "Les Miserables" in 1862. This long novel of nearly two thousand pages described the social injustice present in nineteenth-century France - the main character spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Hugo wrote to a friend about the sentiments he wanted to express: "A society that admits misery, a humanity that admits war, seem to me an inferior society and a debased humanity; it is a higher society, and a more elevated humanity at which I am aiming - a society without kings, a humanity without barriers."
Political Views and Exile
In 1848, Hugo was elected to the French Legislative Assembly and supported the candidacy of Prince Louis-Napoleon for president. During his term, he called for abolition of the death penalty.
Following a coup d'etat in 1851, which resulted in the crowning of Napoleon III, Hugo went into exile in Brussels, Belgium; when Belgian authorities became worried that Hugo's political writing would harm their relationship with France, Hugo moved to the Island of Jersey. He was later expelled from Jersey and moved to the Island of Guernsey. His mistress, Juliette Drouet, accompanied him during these moves.
Hugo once wrote, "Amnesty is as good for those who give it as for those who receive it. It has the admirable quality of bestowing mercy on both sides." Nevertheless, he declined France's offer of amnesty in 1859, because he did not want to lose his freedom to criticize the government.
In 1870, after Napoleon III fell from power, Hugo returned to France. He was hailed as a popular cultural and political figure, and was soon elected to the National Assembly. He failed to win re-election in 1872, however, and in a few short years, two of his sons died, his remaining daughter was committed to an asylum, and he suffered a minor stroke. He was elected to the Senate in 1876, but accomplished little.
A very short correspondence took place in 1862, according to legend, between the usually wordy Hugo and his publisher. Hugo wanted to know how the public was responding to his newly-released novel, "Les Miserables." He sent a telegram with a brief message - "?" - and received an equally brief but positive response - "!"
Hugo is best known as a poet in France, but he is admired more as a novelist in English-speaking countries. In 1840, he wrote, "In the French language there is a great gulf between prose and poetry; in English there is hardly any difference. It is a splendid privilege of the great literary languages Greek, Latin, and French that they possess a prose. English has not this privilege. There is no prose in English."
During the Siege of Paris in 1870, food was scarce. Hugo and his family resorted to eating animals they had received as gifts from a zoo. On December 31, he wrote, "Yesterday we ate some stag; the day before we partook of bear; and the two days previous we fared on antelope. These were presents from the Jardin des Plantes."
Many cities and town in France have a street named after Victor Hugo.
Hugo was a talented sketch artist. He made thousands of pen-and-ink drawings, sometimes embellished with coffee stains or soot for special effects, particularly during the years of his exile from France. He once said, "I would have liked to be, indeed I should have been, a second Rembrandt."
During Hugo's exile from France, he explored Spiritism and participated in seances. In a series of sessions, he believed he made contact with his deceased daughter, Jesus, Muhammad, and Shakespeare, among others.
"Les Miserables" is one of the longest novels ever written, containing 365 chapters and about 1,900 pages in the original French.
Victor Hugo is worshiped as a saint in a newer Vietnamese religion, Cao Dai, for his efforts in leading mankind to love and justice.
In June of 1881, in anticipation of Victor Hugo's eightieth birthday, a huge celebration took place in Paris. He received a Sevres vase, a traditional gift for nobility. A six-hour parade ran from the Avenue d'Eylau, where he lived at the time, to the center of Paris. In the same month, the Avenue d'Eylau was renamed the Avenue Victor-Hugo.
Hugo's mistress died in 1883, and he died of pneumonia on May 22, 1885. Over two million people participated in the funeral procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Pantheon, where he was buried near authors Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola. Per his request, he traveled in a pauper's hearse and was buried in a pauper's pine coffin.
Victor Hugo penned so many words - in his published works and in his private letters - that no single person could possibly peruse them all in one lifetime. Hugo touched hearts with his literature and changed lives with his politics. He lived a full life, measuring up to his own words: "It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live."