Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France / Public domain
Born: February 26, 1802
Born Place: Besançon, France
Died: May 22, 1885
Death Place: Paris, France
Occupation: Poet, Novelist, Dramatist, Statesman, Peer of France, Senator, Drawer, Painter
Spouse: Adèle Foucher (m. 1822; died 1868)
Victor Marie Hugo (26 February 1802 – 22 May 1885) was a French poet, novelist, and dramatist of the Romantic movement. During a literary career that spanned more than sixty years, he wrote abundantly in an exceptional variety of genres: lyrics, satires, epics, philosophical poems, epigrams, novels, history, critical essays, political speeches, funeral orations, diaries, letters public and private, and dramas in verse and prose.
Hugo is considered to be one of the greatest and best-known French writers. Outside France, his most famous works are the novels Les Misérables, 1862, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (French: Notre-Dame de Paris), 1831. In France, Hugo is renowned for his poetry collections, such as Les Contemplations (The Contemplations) and La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Ages). Hugo was at the forefront of the Romantic literary movement with his play Cromwell and drama Hernani. Many of his works have inspired music, both during his lifetime and after his death, including the musicals Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris. He produced more than 4,000 drawings in his lifetime, and campaigned for social causes such as the abolition of capital punishment.
Though a committed royalist when he was young, Hugo’s views changed as the decades passed, and he became a passionate supporter of republicanism; his work touched upon most of the political and social issues and the artistic trends of his time. His opposition to absolutism and his colossal literary achievement established him as a national hero. He was honoured by interment in the Panthéon.
Victor-Marie Hugo was born on 26 February 1802 in Besançon in Eastern France. The youngest son of Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1774–1828) a general in the Napoleonic army, and Sophie Trébuchet (1772–1821); the couple had two more sons: Abel Joseph (1798–1855) and Eugène (1800–1837). The Hugo family came from Nancy in Lorraine where Victor Hugo’s grandfather was a wood merchant. Léopold enlisted in the army of Revolutionary France at fourteen, he was an atheist and an ardent supporter of the republic created following the abolition of the monarchy in 1792. Victor’s mother Sophie was a devout Catholic who remained loyal to the deposed dynasty. They met in Châteaubriant, a few miles from Nantes in 1796 and married the following year.
Since Hugo’s father was an officer in Napoleon’s army, the family moved frequently from posting to posting, Sophie had three children in four years. Léopold Hugo wrote to his son that he had been conceived on one of the highest peaks in the Vosges Mountains, on a journey from Lunéville to Besançon. “This elevated origin”, he went on, “seems to have had effects on you so that your muse is now continually sublime.” Hugo believed himself to have been conceived on 24 June 1801, which is the origin of Jean Valjean’s prisoner number 24601.
Weary of the constant moving required by military life, Sophie separated temporarily from Léopold and settled in Paris in 1803 with her sons; she started seeing General Victor Fanneau de La Horie, Hugo’s godfather who had been a comrade of General Hugo’s during the campaign in Vendee. In October 1807 the family rejoined Leopold, now Colonel Hugo, Governor of the province of Avellino. Sophie finds out that Leopold had been living in secret with an Englishwoman called Catherine Thomas.
Soon Hugo’s father is called to Spain to fight the Peninsular War. Madame Hugo and her children are sent back to Paris in 1808, they moved to an old convent, 12 Impasse des Feuillantines, an isolated mansion in a deserted quarter of the left bank of the Seine, hiding in a chapel at the back of the garden, was Victor Fanneau de La Horie who had conspired to restore the Bourbons and had been condemned to death a few years earlier. He became a mentor to Victor and his brothers.
In 1811 the family joined their father in Spain, Victor and his brothers are sent to school in Madrid at the Real Colegio de San Antonio de Abad while Sophie returned to Paris on her own, the parents now officially separated. In 1812 Victor Fanneau de La Horie is arrested and executed. In February 1815 Victor and Eugene are taken away from their mother and placed by their father in the Pension Cordier, a private boarding school in Paris, where Victor and Eugène will remain three years while also attending lectures at Lycée Louis le Grand.
On 10 July 1816, Hugo wrote in his diary: “I shall be Chateaubriand or nothing”. In 1817 he wrote a poem for a competition organised by l’Academie Française, for which he received an honorable mention, the Academicians refused to believe that he is only fifteen. Victor moved in with his mother 18 rue des Petits-Augustins the following year and starts going to law school. Victor fell in love and secretly became engaged, against his mother’s wishes, to his childhood friend Adèle Foucher. In June 1821 his mother died, Léopold married his long time mistress Catherine Thomas a month later. Victor married Adèle the following year, together with his brothers, they started publishing in 1819 a periodical called Le Conservateur littéraire.
Hugo published his first novel the year following his marriage (Han d’Islande, 1823), and his second three years later (Bug-Jargal, 1826). Between 1829 and 1840, he published five more volumes of poetry (Les Orientales, 1829; Les Feuilles d’automne, 1831; Les Chants du crépuscule, 1835; Les Voix intérieures, 1837; and Les Rayons et les Ombres, 1840), cementing his reputation as one of the greatest elegiac and lyric poets of his time.
Like many young writers of his generation, Hugo was profoundly influenced by François-René de Chateaubriand, the famous figure in the literary movement of Romanticism and France’s pre-eminent literary figure during the early 19th century. In his youth, Hugo resolved to be “Chateaubriand or nothing”, and his life would come to parallel that of his predecessor in many ways. Like Chateaubriand, Hugo furthered the cause of Romanticism, became involved in politics (though mostly as a champion of Republicanism), and was forced into exile due to his political stances.
The precocious passion and eloquence of Hugo’s early work brought success and fame at an early age. His first collection of poetry (Odes et poésies diverses) was published in 1822 when he was only 20 years old and earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII. Though the poems were admired for their spontaneous fervour and fluency, the collection that followed four years later in 1826 (Odes et Ballades) revealed Hugo to be a great poet, a natural master of lyric and creative song.
Victor Hugo’s first mature work of fiction was first published in February 1829 by Charles Gosselin without the author’s name and reflected the acute social conscience that would infuse his later work. Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned Man) would have a profound influence on later writers such as Albert Camus, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Claude Gueux, a documentary short story about a real-life murderer who had been executed in France, appeared in 1834 and was later considered by Hugo himself to be a precursor to his great work on social injustice, Les Misérables.
Hugo became the figurehead of the Romantic literary movement with the plays Cromwell (1827) and Hernani (1830). Hernani announced the arrival of French romanticism: performed at the Comédie-Française, it was greeted with several nights of rioting as romantics and traditionalists clashed over the play’s deliberate disregard for neo-classical rules. Hugo’s popularity as a playwright grew with subsequent plays, such as Marion Delorme (1831), The King Amuses Himself (1832), and Ruy Blas (1838).
Hugo married Adèle Foucher in October 1822. Despite their respective affairs, they lived together for nearly 46 years until she died in August 1868. Hugo, who was still banished from France, was unable to attend her funeral in Villequier where their daughter Léopoldine was buried. From 1830 to 1837 Adèle had an affair with Charles-Augustin Sainte Beuve, a reviewer and writer.
Adèle and Victor Hugo had their first child, Léopold, in 1823, but the boy died in infancy. On 28 August 1824, the couple’s second child, Léopoldine was born, followed by Charles on 4 November 1826, François-Victor on 28 October 1828, and Adèle on 28 July 1830.
Hugo’s eldest and favourite daughter, Léopoldïne, died aged 19 in 1843, shortly after her marriage to Charles Vacquerie. On 4 September, she drowned in the Seine at Villequier when a boat overturned. Her young husband died trying to save her. The death left her father devastated; Hugo was travelling at the time, in the south of France, when he first learned about Léopoldine’s death from a newspaper that he read in a café.
Published during Hugo’s lifetime
- Cromwell preface only (1819)
- Odes et poésies diverses (1822)
- Odes (1823)
- Han d’Islande (1823), (Hans of Iceland)
- Nouvelles Odes (1824)
- Bug-Jargal (1826)
- Odes et Ballades (1826), (Odes and Ballads)
- Cromwell (1827)
- Les Orientales (1829), (Orientalia)
- Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (1829), (The Last Day of a Condemned Man)
- Hernani (1830)
- Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame)
- Marion de Lorme (1831)
- Les Feuilles d’automne (1831), (Autumn Leaves)
- Le roi s’amuse (1832)
- Lucrezia Borgia (1833)
- Marie Tudor (1833)
- Littérature et philosophie mêlées (1834), (A Blend of Literature and Philosophy)
- Claude Gueux (1834)
- Angelo, Tyrant of Padua (1835)
- Les Chants du crépuscule (1835), (Songs of the Half Light)
- La Esmeralda (only libretto of an opera written by Victor Hugo himself) (1836)
- Les Voix intérieures (1837)
- Ruy Blas (1838)
- Les Rayons et les Ombres (1840)
- Le Rhin (1842)
- Les Burgraves (1843)
- Napoléon le Petit (1852), (Napoleon the Little)
- Les Châtiments (1853)
- Les Contemplations (1856), (The Contemplations)
- Les TRYNE (1856)
- La Légende des siècles (1859), (The Legend of the Ages)
- Les Misérables (1862)
- William Shakespeare (1864)
- Les Chansons des rues et des bois (1865), (Songs of Street and Wood)
- Les Travailleurs de la Mer (1866), (Toilers of the Sea)
- La voix de Guernsey (1867)
- L’Homme qui rit (1869), (The Man Who Laughs)
- L’Année terrible (1872)
- Quatrevingt-treize (Ninety-Three) (1874)
- Mes Fils (1874)
- Actes et paroles – Avant l’exil (1875)
- Actes et paroles – Pendant l’exil (1875), (Deeds and Words)
- Actes et paroles – Depuis l’exil (1876)
- La Légende des Siècles 2e série (1877)
- L’Art d’être grand-père (1877), (The Art of Being a Grandfather)
- Histoire d’un crime 1re partie (1877), (History of a Crime)
- Histoire d’un crime 2e partie (1878)
- Le Pape (1878)
- La Pitié suprême (1879)
- Religions et religion (1880), (Religions and Religion)
- L’Âne (1880)
- Les Quatres vents de l’esprit (1881), (The Four Winds of the Spirit)
- Torquemada (1882)
- La Légende des siècles Tome III (1883)
- L’Archipel de la Manche (1883)
Poems of Victor Hugo
- Théâtre en liberté (1886)
- La Fin de Satan (1886)
- Choses vues (1887)
- Toute la lyre (1888), (The Whole Lyre)
- Amy Robsart (1889)
- Les Jumeaux (1889)
- Actes et Paroles – Depuis l’exil, 1876–1885 (1889)
- Alpes et Pyrénées (1890), (Alps and Pyrenees)
- Dieu (1891)
- France et Belgique (1892)
- Toute la lyre – dernière série (1893)
- Les fromages (1895)
- Correspondences – Tome I (1896)
- Correspondences – Tome II (1898)
- Les années funestes (1898)
- Choses vues – nouvelle série (1900)
- Post-scriptum de ma vie (1901)
- Dernière Gerbe (1902)
- Mille francs de récompense (1934)
- Océan. Tas de pierres (1942)
- L’Intervention (1951)
- Conversations with Eternity (1998)