A glimpse at the life of Victor Hugo

  • December 17, 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.


victor hugo headshot
photo 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.

paris notre dame cathedral hugo

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.

victor hugo guernsey

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.

hugo les miserables cosette

The character Cosette from Les Misérables

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.


victor hugo funeral paris

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.

Discover the traces left by Victor Hugo in Paris in our guide to Victor Hugo’s Paris, and find out about more French playwrights in our Famous French Playwrights article.

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