Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885)
French poet, novelist and dramatist, born in Besançon. Son of an officer in Napoléon’s army, his childhood was a series of moves from one military station to another in Italy, Spain and France. He won prizes for poetry from the age of 17, married Adèle Foucher at 20, published his first novel Han d’Islande (1823) and heralded the rise of Romantic drama with his play Cromwell (1827).
The long run of the tragedy Hernani (1830), which withstood the boos, hisses and even rioting of the classicists among its audiences, assured the victory of the Romantic movement and Hugo’s own position. Among later plays were Le Roi s’amuse (1832), the basis of *Verdi’s Rigoletto, Lucrèce Borgia (1833) in which a part was played by Juliette Drouet, his mistress for nearly 50 years, although he remained a devoted husband, and Ruy Blas (1838).
More than 100 operas were based on his works including Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Verdi’s Ernani (1844) and Rigoletto (based on Le Roi s’amuse: 1851), and Ponchielli’s La Giaconda (1876). Meanwhile his Les Orientales (1829), mainly on Grecian and Moorish themes, and Les Feuilles d’Automne (1831) confirmed his reputation as a great lyric poet.
His great novel Nôtre Dame de Paris (1831), set in medieval times, told the story of the hopeless passion of the hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo for Esmeralda. Hugo was elected to the Académie Française in 1841. Politics, in which he was a somewhat unpredictable liberal, began to play an increasing part in his life. King Louis-Philippe made him a peer, but during the dictatorship and empire of Napoléon III, whom Hugo attacked in verse and prose, he lived in exile in Brussels, Jersey, and from 1855 at Hauteville House, Guernsey, still preserved much as he left it. Much of his writing during exile was philosophic and historical (the first part of La Légende des Siècles was published in 1859), but it includes his greatest novel Les Misérables (1862), the story of the criminal Jean Valjean, and Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866), a wonderful evocation of a Guernsey fisherman’s life.
Hugo returned to France after the fall of Napoléon and was present at the siege of Paris. He sat in the Constituent Assembly (1870– 71) and became a senator in 1874. Now a national institution, he continued to write novels, e.g. Quatrevingt-treize (1874), concerned with the Revolutionary year of 1793 – and a verse drama, Torquemada (1882).
Vast crowds attended his funeral at the Panthéon. Hugo wrote too much for too long and his work is, therefore, uneven. Moreover Romanticism lost its vogue and he shared loss of favour with, for example, Scott. But few writers have produced so much that is first-rate, in so many different fields, and he does not deserve André Gide’s taunt that ‘France’s greatest poet was Victor Hugo, alas’. Also a gifted artist, his powerful ink drawings ranged from architectural subjects to nightmares.