- 17, Dec 2018
- Parisian theatre
- Rupert Comer
We all know him as the Frenchman who brought us novels such as Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris. However, outside of France it is often forgotten that he was also an excellent poet, dramatist and even political activist. Coloured by personal tragedy and political exile, his life was almost as dramatic as his work and was a source of inspiration for many of the characters in his novels. Here’s a look at the history of one of France’s most illustrious writers, Victor Hugo.
Early Life of Victor Hugo
Born in 1802 in Besançon near the French border with Switzerland, his father Léopold would later recount to him how he was conceived on the peaks of the Vosges mountains and that “this elevated origin seems to have had effects on you so that your muse is now continually sublime”. Whereas Hugo’s father was a republican general and firm supporter of Napoleon, his mother was a Catholic Royalist, provoking many family disputes and rifts. As a young man Hugo supported his mother’s royalist tendencies, but his political outlook would change greatly throughout the course of his life.
Beginnings as a writer
Hugo studied law in Paris, but from this time was filling notebooks with poems, plays and translations, clearly showing more interest in his writings. Associated with the emerging Romantic literary movement, he caused controversy in 1827 with his play Cromwell. The drama broke with the formal rules of classical tragedy and instead emulated the style of Shakespeare. Although much too long and intricate to be staged, the preface to the play is famously considered to be a manifesto for Romanticism.
Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, the setting of Hugo’s 1831 novel
Success and tragedy
The historical novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) brought Hugo wider fame, and condemned the harshness of medieval Parisian society, under the reign of Louis XI. Hugo continued to write poetry, plays and novels prolifically and was finally elected to the Académie Française in 1841. However, his burgeoning career was darkened by personal tragedy when his daughter Léopoldine and her husband drowned in an accident in 1843. This event would later be used as the centre point to his volume of poetry Les Contemplations (1856), dealing with Hugo’s grief.
Photograph of Hugo in Guernsey
Politics and exile
After the Revolution of 1848, Hugo became a deputy for Paris in the Assembly and initially supported the president Louis-Napoléon (the nephew of Napoleon). Yet when the newly-elected president began to progressively veer towards authoritarianism, Hugo turned more and more to the left. With the 1851 coup d’état establishing Napoléon III as emperor, Hugo fled the country, eventually ending up in Guernsey, a channel island.
The character Cosette from Les Misérables
During this twenty-year period of exile Hugo was at his most productive, producing a number of politically charged works. He also returned to the previously abandoned Les Misérables, which took France by storm when it was published in 1862. The book follows Jean Valjean, a criminal and victim of society who eventually changes his ways, but also provides a broad depiction of French society as a whole, giving Hugo the chance to denounce its injustices and inequalities.
For fans of Les Misérables currently in Paris (or planning a trip), a one-man show is currently playing at Théâtre Essaïon in the Marais. Entirely in English, Valjean, Beyond Les Misérables delves deep into this much-loved and complex character. Performed in an underground-cave-turned-theatre, the play runs until January 11th 2019. Tickets can be found here.
Victor Hugo's funeral procession in Paris
Return to Paris and last years
With Napoleon III defeated in the Franco-Prussian war and the pronouncement of the Third Republic, Hugo returned from exile in 1871. However, having lost his wife and soon to lose two of his sons, he began to retreat from public life. When Hugo died in 1885, he was given a national funeral and his body lay under the Arc de Triomphe before being buried in the Panthéon.