Victor Hugo Biography
Victor Hugo Biography
Man is neither master of his life nor of his fate. He can but offer to his fellowmen his efforts to diminish human suffering; he can but offer to God his indomitable faith in the growth of liberty. –Victor Hugo
Enjoy this account of Victor Hugo’s life, adapted from Elbert Hubbard’s collection of Little Journeys To the Homes of the Great—biographies as stories, combined with descriptions of his travels to visit each author’s home. Written in the late 19th century, this biography has some archaic language and sentiments.
- Birth and dedication
- Childhood education
- General Lahorie’s fate
- Early career and marriage
- Hugo speaks his mind
- A royal encounter
- Success and conflict
Journey to visit Guernsey, Hugo’s home in exile
The Panthéon, Hugo’s final resting place
Finally, the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica biography of Victor Hugo is an interesting example of hagiography, which is a “biography that idealizes its subject” (“Hagiography”).
Links to more Victor Hugo resources available on the EIL website
The father of Victor Hugo was a general in the army of Napoleon, his mother a woman of rare grace and brave good sense. Victor was the third of three sons. Six weeks before the birth of her youngest boy, the mother wrote to a very dear friend of her husband, this letter:
“To General Victor Lahorie,
“Soon to become the mother of a third child, it would be very agreeable to me if you would act as its godfather. Its name shall be yours—one which you have not belied and one which you have so well honored: Victor or Victorine. Your consent will be a testimonial of your friendship for us.
“Please accept, Citizen-General, the assurance of our sincere attachment.
Victorine was expected, Victor came. General Lahorie acted as sponsor for the infant.
A soldier’s family lives here or there, everywhere or anywhere. In Eighteen Hundred Eight, General Hugo was with Joseph Bonaparte in Spain. Victor was then six years old. His mother had taken as a residence a quaint house in the Impasse of the Feullantines, Paris.
It was one of those peculiar old places occasionally seen in France. The environs of London have a few; America none of which I know. This house, roomy, comfortable and antiquated, was surrounded with trees and a tangle of shrubbery, vines and flowers; above it all was a high stone wall, and in front a picket iron gate. It was a mosaic—a sample of the Sixteenth Century inlaid in this; solitary as the woods; quiet as a convent; sacred as a forest; a place for dreams, and reverie, and rest. At the back of the house was a dilapidated little chapel. Here an aged priest counted his beads, said daily mass, and endeavored to keep moth, rust and ruin from the house of prayer. This priest was a scholar, a man of learning: he taught the children of Madame Hugo.
Another man lived in this chapel. He never went outside the gate and used to take exercise at night. He had a cot-bed in the shelter of the altar; beneath his pillow were a pair of pistols and a copy of Tacitus. This man lived there Summer and Winter, although there was no warmth save the scanty sunshine that stole in through the shattered windows. He, too, taught the children and gave them little lectures on history. He loved the youngest boy and would carry him on his shoulder and tell him stories of deeds of valor.
One day a file of soldiers came. They took this man and manacled him. The mother sought to keep her children inside the house so that they should not witness the scene, but she did not succeed. The boys fought their mother and the servants in a mad frenzy trying to rescue the old man. The soldiers formed in columns of four and marched their prisoner away.
Not long after, Madame Hugo was passing the church of Saint Jacques du Haut Pas: her youngest boy’s hand was in hers. She saw a large placard posted in front of the church. She paused and pointing to it said, “Victor, read that!” The boy read. It was a notice that General Lahorie had been shot that day on the plains of Grenville by order of a court martial.
General Lahorie was a gentleman of Brittany. He was a Republican, and five years before had grievously offended the Emperor. A charge of conspiracy being proved against him, a price was placed upon his head, and he found a temporary refuge with the mother of his godson.
That tragic incident of the arrest, and the placard announcing General Lahorie’s death, burned deep into the soul of the manling, and who shall say to what extent it colored his future life?
When Napoleon met his downfall, it was also a Waterloo for General Hugo. His property was confiscated, and penury took the place of plenty.
When Victor was nineteen, his mother having died, the family life was broken up. In “Les Miserables” the early struggles of Marius are described; and this, the author has told us, may be considered autobiography. He has related how the young man lived in a garret; how he would sweep this barren room; how he would buy a pennyworth of cheese, waiting until dusk to get a loaf of bread, and slink home as furtively as if he had stolen it; how carrying his book under his arm he would enter the butcher’s shop, and after being elbowed by jeering servants till he felt the cold sweat standing out on his forehead, he would take off his hat to the astonished butcher and ask for a single mutton-chop. This he would carry to his garret, and cooking it himself it would be made to last for three days.
In this way he managed to live on less than two hundred dollars a year, derived from the proceeds of poems, pamphlets and essays. At this time he was already an “Academy Laureate,” having received honorable mention for a poem submitted in a competition.
In his twentieth year, fortune came to him in triple form: he brought out a book of poems that netted him seven hundred francs; soon after the publication of this book, Louis the Eighteenth, who knew the value of having friends who were ready writers, bestowed on him a pension of one thousand francs a year; then these two pieces of good fortune made possible a third—his marriage.
Early marriages are like late ones: they may be wise and they may not. Victor Hugo’s marriage with Adèle Foucher was a most happy event.
A man with a mind as independent as Victor Hugo’s is sure to make enemies. The “Classics” were positive that he was defiling the well of Classic French, and they sought to write him down. But by writing a man up you can not write him down; the only thing that can smother a literary aspirant is silence.
Victor Hugo coined the word when he could not find it, transposed phrases, inverted sentences, and never called a spade an agricultural implement. Not content with this, he put the spade on exhibition and this often at unnecessary times, and occasionally prefaced the word with an adjective. Had he been let alone he would not have done this.
The censors told him he must not use the name of Deity, nor should he refer so often to kings. At once, he doubled his Topseys and put on his stage three Uncle Toms when one might have answered. Like Shakespeare, he used idioms and slang with profusion—anything to express the idea. Will this convey the thought? If so, it was written down, and, once written, Beelzebub and all his hosts could not make him change it. But in the interest of truth let me note one exception:
“I do not like that word,” said Mademoiselle Mars to Victor Hugo at a rehearsal of “Hernani”; “can I not change it?”
“I wrote it so and it must stand,” was the answer.
Mademoiselle Mars used another expression instead of the author’s, and he promptly asked her to resign her part. She wept, and upon agreeing to adhere to the text was reinstated in favor.
Rehearsal after rehearsal occurred, and the words were repeated as written. The night of the performance came. Superb was the stage-setting, splendid the audience. The play went forward amid loud applause. The scene was reached where came the objectionable word. Did Mademoiselle Mars use it? Of course not; she used the word she chose—she was a woman. Fifty-three times she played the part, and not once did she use the author’s pet phrase; and he was wise enough not to note the fact. The moral of this is that not even a strong man can cope with a small woman who weeps at the right time.
The censorship forbade the placing of “Marion Delorme” on the stage until a certain historical episode in it had been changed. Would the author be so kind as to change it? Not he.
“Then it shall not be played,” said M. de Martignac.
The author hastened to interview the minister in person. He got a North Pole reception. In fact, M. de Martignac said that it was his busy day, and that playwriting was foolish business anyway; but if a man were bound to write, he should write to amuse, not to instruct. And young Hugo was bowed out.
When he found himself well outside the door he was furious. He would see the King himself. And he did see the King. His Majesty was gracious and very patient. He listened to the young author’s plea, talked book-lore, recited poetry, showed that he knew Hugo’s verses, asked after the author’s wife, then the baby, and—said that the play could not go on. Hugo turned to go. Charles the Tenth called him back, and said that he was glad the author had called—in fact, he was about to send for him. His pension thereafter should be six thousand francs a year.
Victor Hugo declined to receive it. Of course, the papers were full of the subject. All cafedom took sides: Paris had a topic for gesticulation, and Paris improved the opportunity.
Conservatism having stopped this play, there was only one thing to do: write another; for a play of Victor Hugo’s must be put upon the stage. All his friends said so; his honor was at stake.
In three weeks another play was ready. The censors read it and gave their report. They said that “Hernani” was whimsical in conception, defective in execution, a tissue of extravagances, generally trivial and often coarse. But they advised that it be put upon the stage, just to show the public to what extent of folly an author could go. In order to preserve the dignity of their office, they drew up a list of six places where the text should be changed.
Both sides were afraid, so each was willing to give in a point. The text was changed, and the important day for the presentation was drawing nigh. The Romanticists were, of course, anxious that the play should be a great success; the Classics were quite willing that it should be otherwise; in fact, they had bought up the claque and were making arrangements to hiss it down. But the author’s friends were numerous; they were young and lusty; they held meetings behind locked doors, and swore terrible oaths that the play should go.
On the day of the initial performance, five hours before the curtain rose, they were on hand, having taken the best seats in the house. They also took the worst, wherever a hisser might hide. These advocates of liberal art wore coats of green or red or blue, costumes like bullfighters, trousers and hats to match or not to match—anything to defy tradition. All during the performance there was an uproar. Theophile Gautier has described the event in most entertaining style, and in “L’Historie de Romanticisme” the record of it is found in detail[….]
If “Hernani” had been hissed down, Victor Hugo would have lived just as long and might have written better. Civilization is not held in place by noisy youths in flaming waistcoats; and even if every cabbage had hit its mark, and every egg bespattered its target, the morning stars would still sing together.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was next turned out—written in five months—and was a great success. Publishers besieged the author for another story, but he preferred poetry. It was thirty years before his next novel, “Les Miserables,” appeared. But all the time he wrote—plays, verses, essays, pamphlets. Everything that he penned was widely read. Amid storms of opposition and cries of bravo, continually making friends, he moved steadily forward.
Men like Victor Hugo can be killed or they may be banished, but they can not be bought; neither can they be intimidated into silence. He resigned his pension and boldly expressed himself in his own way.
He knew history by heart and toyed with it; politics was his delight. But it is a mistake to call him a statesman. He was bold to rashness, impulsive, impatient and vehement. Because a man is great is no reason why he should be proclaimed perfect. Such men as Victor Hugo need no veneer—the truth will answer: he would explode a keg of powder to kill a fly. He was an agitator. But these zealous souls are needed—not to govern or to be blindly followed, but rather to make other men think for themselves. Yet to do this in a monarchy is not safe.
The years passed, and the time came for either Hugo or Royalty to go; France was not large enough for both. It proved to be Hugo; a bounty of twenty-five thousand francs was offered for his body, dead or alive. Through a woman’s devotion he escaped to Brussels. He was driven from there to Jersey, then to Guernsey.
It was nineteen years before he returned to Paris—years of banishment, but years of glory. Exiled by Fate that he might do his work!
***Journey to visit Guernsey, Hugo’s home in exile***
[Elbert Hubbard’s account of his visit, in the late 19th century, to Hugo’s home on the island of Guernsey:]
Each day a steamer starts from Southampton for Guernsey, Alderney and Jersey. These are names known to countless farmers’ boys the wide world over.
You can not mistake the Channel Island boats—they smell like a county fair, and though you be blind and deaf it is impossible to board the wrong craft. Every time one of these staunch little steamers lands in England, crates containing mild-eyed, lusty calves are slid down the gangplank, marked for Maine, Iowa, California, or some uttermost part of the earth. There his vealship (worth his weight in gold) is going to found a kingdom.
I stood on the dock watching the bovine passengers disembark, and furtively listened the while to an animated argument between two rather rough-looking, red-faced men, clothed in corduroys and carrying long, stout staffs. Mixed up in their conversation I caught the names of royalty, then of celebrities great, and artists famous—warriors, orators, philanthropists and musicians. Could it be possible that these rustics were poets? It must be so. And there came to me thoughts of Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Joaquin Miller, and all that sublime company of singers in shirt-sleeves.
Suddenly the wind veered and the veil fell; all the sacred names so freely bandied about were those of “families” with mighty milk-records.
When we went on board and the good ship was slipping down The Solent, I made the acquaintance of these men and was regaled with more cow-talk than I had heard since I left Texas.
We saw the island of Portsea, where Dickens was born, and got a glimpse of the spires of Portsmouth as we passed; then came the Isle of Wight and the quaint town of Cowes. I made a bright joke on the latter place as it was pointed out to me by my Jersey friend, but it went for naught.
A pleasant sail of eight hours and the towering cliffs of Guernsey came in sight. Foam-dashed and spray-covered they rise right out of the sea at the south, to the height of two hundred seventy feet. About them great flocks of sea-fowl hover, swirl and soar. Wild, rugged and romantic is the scene.
The Isle of Guernsey is nine miles long and six wide. Its principal town is Saint Peter Port, a place of about sixteen thousand inhabitants, where a full dozen hotel porters meet the incoming steamer and struggle for your baggage.
Hotels and boarding-houses here are numerous and good. Guernsey is a favorite resort for invalids and those who desire to flee the busy world for a space. In fact, the author of “Les Miserables” has made exile popular.
Emerging from my hotel at Saint Peter Port I was accosted by a small edition of Gavroche, all in tatters, who proposed showing me the way to Hauteville House for a penny. I already knew the route, but accepted the offer on Gavroche’s promise to reveal to me a secret about the place. The secret is this: The house is haunted, and when the wind is east, and the setting moon shows only a narrow rim above the rocks, ghosts come and dance a solemn minuet on the glass roof above the study.
Had Gavroche ever seen them? No, but he knew a boy who had. Years and years—ever so many years ago—long before there were any steamboats, and when only a schooner came to Guernsey once a week, a woman was murdered in Hauteville House. Her ghost came back with other ghosts and drove the folks away. So the big house remained vacant—save for the spooks, who paid no rent.
Then after a great, long time Victor Hugo came and lived in the house. The ghosts did not bother him. Faith! they had been keeping the place just a’ purpose for him. He rented the house first, and liked it so well that he bought it—got it at half-price on account of the ghosts. Here, every Christmas, Victor Hugo gave a big dinner in the great oak hall to all the children in Guernsey: hundreds of them—all the way from babies that could barely creep, to “boys” with whiskers. They were all fed on turkey, tarts, apples, oranges and figs; and when they went away, each was given a bag of candy to take home.
Climbing a narrow, crooked street we came to the great, dark, gloomy edifice situated at the top of a cliff. The house was painted black by some strange whim of a former occupant.
“We will leave it so,” said Victor Hugo; “liberty is dead, and we are in mourning for her.”
But the gloom of Hauteville House is only on the outside. Within all is warm and homelike. The furnishings are almost as the poet left them, and the marks of his individuality are on every side.
In the outer hall stands an elegant column of carved oak, its panels showing scenes from “The Hunchback.” In the dining-room there is fantastic wainscoting with plaques and porcelain tiles inlaid here and there. Many of these ornaments were presents, sent by unknown admirers in all parts of the world.
In “Les Miserables” there is a chance line revealing the author’s love for the beautiful as shown in the grain of woods. The result was an influx of polished panels, slabs, chips, hewings, carvings, and in one instance a log sent “collect.” Samples of redwood, ebony, calamander, hamamelis, suradanni, tamarind, satinwood, mahogany, walnut, maples of many kinds and oaks without limit—all are there. A mammoth ax-helve I noticed on the wall was labeled, “Shagbark-hickory from Missouri.”
These specimens of wood were sometimes made up into hatracks, chairs, canes, or panels for doors, and are seen in odd corners of these rambling rooms. Charles Hugo once facetiously wrote to a friend: “We have bought no kindling for three years.” At another time he writes:
“Father still is sure he can sketch and positive he can carve. He has several jackknives, and whittles names, dates and emblems on sticks and furniture—we tremble for the piano.”
In the dining-room, I noticed a huge oaken chair fastened to the wall with a chain. On the mantel was a statuette of the Virgin; on the pedestal Victor Hugo had engraved lines speaking of her as “Freedom’s Goddess.” This dining-room affords a sunny view out into the garden; on this floor are also a reception-room, library and a smoking-room.
On the next floor are various sleeping-apartments, and two cozy parlors, known respectively as the red room and the blue. Both are rich in curious draperies, a little more pronounced in color than some folks admire.
The next floor contains the “Oak Gallery”: a ballroom we should call it. Five large windows furnish a flood of light. In the center of this fine room is an enormous candelabrum with many branches, at the top a statue of wood, the whole carved by Victor Hugo’s own hands.
The Oak Gallery is a regular museum of curiosities of every sort—books, paintings, carvings, busts, firearms, musical instruments. A long glass case contains a large number of autograph-letters from the world’s celebrities, written to Hugo in exile.
At the top of the house and built on its flat roof is the most interesting apartment of Hauteville House—the study and workroom of Victor Hugo. Three of its sides and the roof are of glass. The floor, too, is one immense slab of sea-green glass. Sliding curtains worked by pulleys cut off the light as desired. “More light, more light,” said the great man again and again. He gloried and reveled in the sunshine.
Here, in the Winter, with no warmth but the sun’s rays, his eyes shaded by his felt hat, he wrote, always standing at a shelf fixed in the wall. On this shelf were written all “The Toilers,” “The Man Who Laughs,” “Shakespeare” and much of “Les Miserables.” The leaves of manuscript were numbered and fell on the floor, to remain perhaps for days before being gathered up.
When Victor Hugo went to Guernsey he went to liberty, not to banishment. He arrived at Hauteville House poor in purse and broken in health. Here the fire of his youth came back, and his pen retrieved the fortune that royalty had confiscated. The forenoons were given to earnest work. The daughter composed music; the sons translated Shakespeare and acted as their father’s faithful helpers; Madame Hugo collected the notes of her husband’s life and cheerfully looked after her household affairs.
Several hours of each afternoon were given to romp and play; the evenings were sacred to music, reading and conversation.
Horace Greeley was once a prisoner in Paris. From his cell he wrote, “The Saint Peter who holds the keys of this place has kindly locked the world out; and for once, thank Heaven, I am free from intrusion.”
Lovers of truth must thank exile for some of our richest and ripest literature. Exile is not all exile. Imagination can not be imprisoned. Amid the winding bastions of the brain, thought roams free and untrammeled.
Liberty is only a comparative term, and Victor Hugo at Guernsey enjoyed a thousand times more freedom than ever ruling monarch knew.
Standing at the shelf-desk where this “Gentleman of France” stood for so many happy hours, I inscribed my name in the “visitors’ book.”
I thanked the good woman who had shown me the place, and told me so much of interest—thanked her in words that seemed but a feeble echo of all that my heart would say.
I went down the stairs—out at the great carved doorway—and descended the well-worn steps.
Perched on a crag waiting for me was little Gavroche, his rags fluttering in the breeze. He offered to show me the great stone chair where Gilliatt sat when the tide came up and carried him away. And did I want to buy a bull calf? Gavroche knew where there was a fine one that could be bought cheap. Gavroche would show me both the calf and the stone chair for threepence.
I accepted the offer, and we went down the stony street toward the sea, hand in hand.
***The Panthéon, Hugo’s final resting place***
[Mr. Elbert Hubbard gives a history of the Panthéon, where Victor Hugo is buried.]
Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, died in Five Hundred Twelve. She was buried on a hilltop, the highest point in Paris, on the left bank of the Seine. Over the grave was erected a chapel which for many years was a shrine for the faithful. This chapel with its additions remained until Seventeen Hundred Fifty, when a church was designed which in beauty of style and solidity of structure has rarely been equaled. The object of the architect was to make the most enduring edifice possible, and still not sacrifice proportion.
Louis the Fifteenth laid the cornerstone of this church in Seventeen Hundred Sixty-four, and in Seventeen Hundred Ninety the edifice was dedicated by the Roman Catholics with great pomp. But the spirit of revolution was at work; and in one year after, a mob sacked this beautiful building, burned its pews, destroyed its altar, and wrought havoc with its ecclesiastical furniture.
The Convention converted the structure into a memorial temple, inscribing on its front the words, “Aux grandes Hommes la patrie reconnaissante,” (“To the great men, the grateful homeland”) and they named the building the Panthéon.
In Eighteen Hundred Six, the Catholics had gotten such influence with the government that the building was restored to them. After the revolution of Eighteen Hundred Thirty, the church of Saint Geneviève was again taken from the priests. It was held until Eighteen Hundred Fifty-one, when the Romanists in the Assembly succeeded in having it again reconsecrated. In the meantime, many of the great men of France had been buried there[….]
The Panthéon is now given over as a memorial to the men of France who have enriched the world with their lives. Over the portals of this beautiful temple are the words, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” Across its floors of rarest mosaic echo only the feet of pilgrims and those of the courteous and kindly old soldiers who have the place in charge. On the walls color revels in beautiful paintings, and in the niches and on the pedestals is marble that speaks of greatness which lives in lives made better.
When the visitor is conducted to the crypt of the Panthéon, he is first taken to the tomb of Victor Hugo. The sarcophagus on each side is draped with the red, white and blue of France and the stars and stripes of America. With uncovered heads, we behold the mass of flowers and wreaths, and our minds go back to Eighteen Hundred Eighty-five, when the body of the chief citizen of Paris lay in state at the Panthéon and five hundred thousand people passed by and laid the tribute of silence or of tears on his bier.
The history of the Panthéon is one of strife. As late as Eighteen Hundred Seventy the Commune made it a stronghold, and the streets on every side were called upon to contribute their paving-stones for a barricade. Yet it seems meet that Victor Hugo’s dust should lie here amid the scenes he loved and knew, and where he struggled, worked, toiled, achieved; from whence he was banished, and to which he returned in triumph, to receive at last the complete approbation so long withheld[….]
[The biography that follows is an interesting example of hagiography, which is a “biography that idealizes its subject” (“Hagiography”). It has been adapted from an article by Algernon Charles Swinburne in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 13, from the Wikisource 1911 encyclopedia project.]
Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885), French poet, dramatist and romance-writer, youngest son of General J. L. S. Hugo (1773-1828), a distinguished soldier in Napoleon’s service, was born at Besançon on the 26th of February 1802. The all but still-born child was only kept alive and reared by the indefatigable devotion of his mother Sophie Trebuchet (d. 1821), a royalist of La Vendée. Educated first in Spain and afterwards in France, the boy whose infancy had followed the fortunes of the imperial camp grew up a royalist and a Catholic. His first work in poetry and in fiction was devoted to the passionate proclamation of his faith in these principles.
The precocious eloquence and ardour of these early works made him famous before his time. The odes which he published at the age of twenty, admirable for their spontaneous fervour and fluency, might have been merely the work of a marvellous boy; the ballads which followed them two years later revealed him as a great poet, a natural master of lyric and creative song.
In 1823, at the age of twenty-one, he married his cousin Adèle Foucher (d. 1868). In the same year his first romance, Han d’Islande, was given to the press; his second, Bug-Jargal, appeared three years later. In 1827 he published the great dramatic poem of Cromwell, a masterpiece at all points except that of fitness for the modern stage. Two years afterwards he published Les Orientales, a volume of poems so various in style, so noble in spirit, so perfect in workmanship, in music and in form, that they might alone suffice for the foundation of an immortal fame. In the course of nine years, from 1831 to 1840, he published Les Feuilles d’automne, Les Chants du crépuscule, Les Voix intérieures and Les Rayons et les ombres.
That their author was one of the greatest elegiac and lyric poets ever born into the world, any one of these volumes would amply suffice to prove. That he was the greatest tragic and dramatic poet born since the age of Shakespeare, the appearance of Hernani in 1830 made evident for ever to all but the meanest and most perverse of dunces and malignants.
The earlier and even greater tragedy of Marion de Lorme (1828) had been proscribed on the ground that it was impossible for royalty to tolerate the appearance of a play in which a king was represented as the puppet of a minister. In all the noble and glorious life of the greatest poet of his time there is nothing on record more chivalrous and characteristic than the fact that Victor Hugo refused to allow the play which had been prohibited by the government of Charles X. to be instantly produced under the government of his supersessor. Le Roi s’amuse (1832), the next play which Hugo gave to the stage, was prohibited by order of Louis Philippe after a tumultuous first night — to reappear fifty years later on the very same day of the same month, under the eyes of its author, with atoning acclamation from a wider audience than the first. Terror and pity had never found on the stage word or expression which so exactly realized the ideal aim of tragic poetry among the countrymen of Aeschylus and Sophocles since the time or since the passing of Shakespeare, of Marlowe and of Webster.
The tragedy of Lucrèce Borgia, coequal in beauty and power with its three precursors, followed next year in the humbler garb of prose; but the prose of Victor Hugo stands higher on the record of poetry than the verse of any lesser dramatist or poet. Marie Tudor (1833), his next play, was hardly more daring in its Shakespearean defiance of historic fact, and hardly more triumphant in its Shakespearean loyalty to the everlasting truth of human character and passion. Angela, Tyran de Padoue (1835), the last of the tragic triad to which their creator denied the transfiguration of tragic verse, is inferior to neither in power of imagination and of style, in skill of invention and construction, and in mastery over all natural and noble sources of pity and of terror.
La Esmeralda, the libretto of an opera founded on his great tragic romance of Notre-Dame de Paris, is a miracle of lyric melody and of skilful adaptation. Ruy Blas (1838) was written in verse, and in such verse as none but he could write. In command and in expression of passion and of pathos, of noble and of evil nature, it equals any other work of this great dramatic poet; in the lifelike fusion of high comedy with deep tragedy it excels them all. Les Burgraves, a tragic poem of transcendent beauty in execution and imaginative audacity in conception, found so little favour on the stage that the author refused to submit his subsequent plays to the verdict of a public audience.
Victor Hugo’s first mature work in prose fiction, Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné, has appeared thirteen years earlier (1829). As a tragic monodrama it is incomparable for sustained power and terrible beauty. The story of Claude Gueux, published five years later (1834), another fervent protest against the infliction of capital punishment, was followed by many other eloquent and passionate appeals to the same effect, written or spoken on various occasions which excited the pity or the indignation of the orator or the poet.
In 1831 appeared the greatest of all tragic or historic or romantic poems in the form of prose narrative, Notre-Dame de Paris. Three years afterwards the author published, under the title of Littérature et philosophie mêlées, a compilation or selection of notes and essays ranging and varying in date and in style from his earliest effusions of religious royalism to the magnificent essay on Mirabeau which represents at once the historical opinion and the critical capacity of Victor Hugo at the age of thirty-two. Next year he published Le Rhin, a series of letters from Germany, brilliant and vivid beyond all comparison, containing one of the most splendid stories for children ever written, and followed by a political supplement rather pathetically unprophetic in its predictions.
At the age of thirty-eight he honoured the French Academy by taking his place among its members; the speech delivered on the occasion was characteristically generous in its tribute to an undeserving memory, and significantly enthusiastic in its glorification of Napoleon. Idolatry of his father’s hero and leader had now superseded the earlier superstition inculcated by his mother. In 1846 his first speech in the chamber of peers — Louis Philippe’s House of Lords — was delivered on behalf of Poland; his second, on the subject of coast defence, is memorable for the evidence it bears of careful research and practical suggestion.
His pleading on behalf of the exiled family of Bonaparte induced Louis Philippe to cancel the sentence which excluded its members from France. After the fall and flight of the house of Orleans, his parliamentary eloquence was never less generous in aim and always as fervent in its constancy to patriotic and progressive principle. When the conspiring forces of clerical venality and political prostitution had placed a putative Bonaparte in power attained by perjury after perjury, and supported by massacre after massacre, Victor Hugo, in common with all honourable men who had ever taken part in political or public life under the government superseded by force of treason and murder, was driven from his country into an exile of well-nigh twenty years.
Next year he published Napoléon le petit; twenty-five years afterwards, Histoire d’un crime. In these two books his experience and his opinion of the tactics which founded the second French empire stand registered for all time. In the deathless volume of Châtiments, which appeared in 1853, his indignation, his genius, and his faith found such utterance and such expression as must recall to the student alternately the lyric inspiration of Coleridge and Shelley, the prophetic inspiration of Dante and Isaiah, the satiric inspiration of Juvenal and Dryden.
Three years after Les Châtiments, a book written in lightning, appeared Les Contemplations, a book written in sunlight and starlight. Of the six parts into which it is divided, the first translates into many-sided music the joys and sorrows, the thoughts and fancies, the studies and ardours and speculations of youth; the second, as full of light and colour, grows gradually deeper in tone of thought and music; the third is yet riper and more various in form of melody and in fervour of meditation; the fourth is the noblest of all tributes ever paid by song to sorrow — a series of poems consecrated to the memory of the poet’s eldest daughter, who was drowned, together with her husband, by the upsetting of a boat off the coast of Normandy, a few months after their wedding-day, in 1843; the fifth and the sixth books, written during his first four years of exile (all but one noble poem which bears date nine years earlier than its epilogue or postscript), contain more than a few poems unsurpassed and unsurpassable for depth and clarity and trenchancy of thought, for sublimity of inspiration, for intensity of faith, for loyalty in translation from nature, and for tenderness in devotion to truth; crowned and glorified and completed by their matchless dedication to the dead.
Three years later again, in 1859, Victor Hugo gave to the world the first installment of the greatest book published in the 19th century, La Légende des siècles. Opening with a vision of Eve in Paradise which eclipses Milton’s in beauty no less than in sublimity — a dream of the mother of mankind at the hour when she knew the first sense of dawning motherhood, it closes with a vision of the trumpet to be sounded on the day of judgment which transcends the imagination of Dante by right of a realized idea which was utterly impossible of conception to a believer in Dante’s creed: the idea of real and final equity; the concept of absolute and abstract righteousness. Between this opening and this close the pageant of history and of legend, marshalled and vivified by the will and the hand of the poet, ranges through an infinite variety of action and passion, of light and darkness, of terror and pity, of lyric rapture and of tragic triumph.
After yet another three years’ space the author of La Légende des siècles reappeared as the author of Les Misérables, the greatest epic and dramatic work of fiction ever created or conceived: the epic of a soul transfigured and redeemed, purified by heroism and glorified through suffering; the tragedy and the comedy of life at its darkest and its brightest, of humanity at its best and at its worst. Two years afterwards the greatest man born since the death of Shakespeare paid homage to the greatest of his predecessors in a volume of magnificent and discursive eloquence which bore the title of William Shakespeare, and might, as its author admitted and suggested, more properly have been entitled À propos de Shakespeare. It was undertaken with the simple design of furnishing a preface to his younger son’s translation of Shakespeare; a monument of perfect scholarship, of indefatigable devotion, and of literary genius, which eclipses even Urquhart’s Rabelais — its only possible competitor; and to which the translator’s father prefixed a brief and admirable note of introduction in the year after the publication of the volume which had grown under his hand into the bulk and the magnificence of an epic poem in prose.
In the same year Les Chansons des rues et des bois gave evidence of new power and fresh variety in the exercise and display of an unequalled skill and a subtle simplicity of metre and of style employed on the everlasting theme of lyric and idyllic fancy, and touched now and then with a fire more sublime than that of youth and love. Next year the exile of Guernsey published his third great romance, Les Travailleurs de la mer, a work unsurpassed even among the works of its author for splendour of imagination and of style, for pathos and sublimity of truth.
Three years afterwards the same theme was rehandled with no less magnificent mastery in L’Homme qui rit; the theme of human heroism confronted with the superhuman tyranny of blind and unimaginable chance, overpowered and unbroken, defeated and invincible. Between the dates of these two great books appeared La Voix de Guernesey, a noble and terrible poem on the massacre of Mentana which branded and commemorated for ever the papal and imperial infamy of the colleagues in that crime.
In 1872 Victor Hugo published in imperishable verse his record of the year which followed the collapse of the empire, L’Année terrible. All the poet and all the man spoke out and stood evident in the perfervid patriotism, the filial devotion, the fatherly tenderness, the indignation and the pity, which here find alternate expression in passionate, familiar, and majestic song. In 1874 he published his last great romance, the tragic and historic poem in prose called Quatrevingt-treize; a work as rich in thought, in tenderness, in wisdom and in humour and in pathos, as ever was cast into the mould of poetry or of fiction.
The introduction to his first volume of Actes et paroles, ranging in date from 1841 to 1851, is dated in June 1875; it is one of his most earnest and most eloquent appeals to the conscience and intelligence of the student. The second volume contains the record of his deeds and words during the years of his exile; like the first and the third, it is headed by a memorable preface, as well worth the reverent study of those who may dissent from some of the writer’s views as of those who may assent to all. The third and fourth volumes preserve the register of his deeds and words from 1870 to 1885; they contain, among other things memorable, the nobly reticent and pathetic tribute to the memory of the two sons, Charles (1826-1871) and François (1828-1873), he had lost since their common return from exile.
In 1877 appeared the second series of La Légende des siècles; and in the same year the author of that colossal work, treating no less of superhuman than of human things, gave us the loveliest and most various book of song on the loveliest and simplest of subjects ever given to man, L’Art d’être grandpère.
Next year he published Le Pape, a vision of the spirit of Christ in appeal against the spirit of Christianity, his ideal follower confronted and contrasted with his nominal vicar; next year again La Pitti suprême, a plea for charity towards tyrants who know not what they do, perverted by omnipotence and degraded by adoration; two years later Religions et religion, a poem which is at once a cry of faith and a protest against the creeds which deform and distort and leave it misshapen and envenomed and defiled; and in the same year L’Ane, a paean of satiric invective against the past follies of learned ignorance, and lyric rapture of confidence in the future wisdom and the final conscience of the world.
These four great poems, one in sublimity of spirit and in supremacy of style, were succeeded next year by a fourfold gift of even greater price, Les Quatre Vents de l’esprit: the first book, that of satire, is as full of fiery truth and radiant reason as any of his previous work in that passionate and awful kind; the second or dramatic book is as full of fresh life and living nature, of tragic humour and of mortal pathos, as any other work of the one great modern dramatist’s; the third or lyric book would suffice to reveal its author as incomparably and immeasurably the greatest poet of his age, and one great among the greatest of all time; the fourth or epic book is the sublimest and most terrible of historic poems — a visionary pageant of French history from the reign and the revelries of Henry IV. to the reign and the execution of Louis XVI.
Next year the great tragic poem of Torquemada came forth to bear witness that the hand which wrote Ruy Blas had lost nothing of its godlike power and its matchless cunning, if the author of Le Roi s’amuse had ceased to care much about coherence of construction from the theatrical point of view as compared with the perfection of a tragedy designed for the devotion of students not unworthy or incapable of the study; that his command of pity and terror, his powers of intuition and invention, had never been more absolute and more sublime; and that his infinite and illimitable charity of imagination could transfigure even the most monstrous historic representative of Christian or Catholic diabolatry into the likeness of a terribly benevolent and a tragically magnificent monomaniac. Two years later Victor Hugo published the third and concluding series of La Légende des siècles.
On the 22nd of May 1885 Victor Hugo died. He was given a magnificent public funeral, and his remains were laid in the Panthéon.
The first volume published of his posthumous works was the exquisite and splendid Théâtre en liberté, a sequence if not a symphony of seven poems in dramatic form, tragic or comic or fanciful eclogues, incomparable with the work of any other man but the author of The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale in combination and alternation of gayer and of graver harmonies. The unfinished poems, Dieu and La Fin de Satan, are full to overflowing of such magnificent work, such wise simplicity of noble thought, such heroic and pathetic imagination, such reverent and daring faith, as no other poet has ever cast into deathless words and set to deathless music. Les Jumeaux, an unfinished tragedy, would possibly have been the very greatest of his works if it had been completed on the same scale and on the same lines as it was begun and carried forward to the point at which it was cut short for ever.
His reminiscences of “Things Seen” in the course of a strangely varied experience, and his notes of travel among the Alps and Pyrenees, in the north of France and in Belgium, in the south of France and in Burgundy, are all recorded by such a pen and registered by such a memory as no other man ever had at the service of his impressions or his thoughts. Toute la lyre, his latest legacy to the world, would be enough, though no other evidence were left, to show that the author was one of the very greatest among poets and among men; unsurpassed in sublimity of spirit, in spontaneity of utterance, in variety of power, and in perfection of workmanship; infinite and profound beyond all reach of praise at once in thought and in sympathy, in perception and in passion; master of all the simplest as of all the subtlest melodies or symphonies of song that ever found expression in a Border ballad or a Pythian ode.
Bibliography. — Victor Hugo’s complete works were published in a definitive edition at Paris in 58 volumes (1885-1902). The critical literature which has grown up round his name is very extensive, from the time of Sainte-Beuve onwards, and only a few of the more important books need here be mentioned for reference on biographical and other details: F. T. Marzials, Life of Hugo, with bibliography (1888); A. C. Swinburne, Study of Hugo (1886); E. Dupuy, Victor Hugo, l’homme et le poète (1886); Paul de Saint Victor, Victor Hugo (1885); F. Brunetière, Victor Hugo (1903); Jules Claretie, Victor Hugo, souvenirs intimes (1902). See also The Bookman for August 1904; Francis Gribble, “The Hugo Legend,” an adverse view, in Fortnightly Review (February 1910); and the article French Literature.
[This biography is an interesting example of hagiography, which is a “biography that idealizes its subject” (“Hagiography”). It has been adapted from an article by Algernon Charles Swinburne in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 13, from the Wikisource 1911 encyclopedia project.]
“Hagiography.” Oxford Dictionaries, American English. Oxford University Press, 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
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EIL 5.6 Focus Text: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
EIL 5.6 Honors Text: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo