Who Was Victor Hugo?
Victor Hugo was a French poet and novelist who, after training as a lawyer, embarked on the literary career. He became one of the most important French Romantic poets, novelists and dramatists of his time, having assembled a massive body of work while living in Paris, Brussels and the Channel Islands. Hugo died on May 22, 1885, in Paris.
Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besançon, France, on February 26, 1802, to mother Sophie Trébuche and father Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo. His father was a military officer who later served as a general under Napoleon.
'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'
Hugo studied law between 1815 and 1818, though he never committed himself to legal practice. Encouraged by his mother, Hugo embarked on a career in literature. He founded the Conservateur Litteraire , a journal in which he published his own poetry and the work of his friends. His mother died in 1821. The same year, Hugo married Adèle Foucher and published his first book of poetry, Odes et poésies diverses . His first novel was published in 1823, followed by a number of plays.
Hugo's innovative brand of Romanticism developed over the first decade of his career.
In 1831, he published one of his most enduring works, Notre-Dame de Paris ( The Hunchback of Notre Dame ). Set in the medieval period, the novel presents a harsh criticism of the society that degrades and shuns the hunchback, Quasimodo. This was Hugo's most celebrated work to date and paved the way for his subsequent political writing.
A prolific writer, Hugo was established as one of the most celebrated literary figures in France by the 1840s. In 1841, he was elected to the French Academy and nominated for the Chamber of Peers. He stepped back from publishing his work following the accidental drowning of his daughter and her husband in 1843. In private, he began work on a piece of writing that would become Les Misérables.
Hugo fled to Brussels following a coup in 1851. He lived in Brussels and in Britain until his return to France in 1870. Much of the work that Hugo published during this period conveys biting sarcasm and fierce social criticism. Among these works is the novel Les Misérables , which was finally published in 1862. The book was an immediate success in Europe and the United States. Later reinterpreted as a theatrical musical and a film, Les Misérables remains one of the best-known works of 19th-century literature.
Death and Legacy
Though Hugo returned to France after 1870 as a symbol of republican triumph, his later years were largely sad. He lost two sons between 1871 and 1873. His later works are somewhat darker than his earlier writing, focusing on themes of God, Satan and death.
In 1878, he was stricken with cerebral congestion. Hugo and his mistress, Juliette, continued to live in Paris for the rest of their lives. The street on which he lived was renamed Avenue Victor Hugo on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1882. Juliette died the following year and Hugo died in Paris on May 22, 1885. He received a hero's funeral. His body lay in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe before burial in the Panthéon.
Hugo remains one of the giants of French literature. Although French audiences celebrate him primarily as a poet, he is better known as a novelist in English-speaking countries.
- Name: Victor
- Birth Year: 1802
- Birth date: February 26, 1802
- Birth City: Besançon
- Birth Country: France
- Gender: Male
- Best Known For: Victor Hugo is a celebrated French Romantic author best known for his poetry and his novels, including 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' and 'Les Misérables.'
- Fiction and Poetry
- Theater and Dance
- Astrological Sign: Pisces
- Death Year: 1885
- Death date: May 22, 1885
- Death City: Paris
- Death Country: France
- Article Title: Victor Hugo Biography
- Author: Biography.com Editors
- Website Name: The Biography.com website
- Url: https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/victor-hugo
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- Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
- Last Updated: April 1, 2021
- Original Published Date: April 2, 2014
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Biography of Victor Hugo, French Writer
Poet, novelist, and voice of the French Romantic Movement
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Victor Hugo (February 26, 1802 – May 22, 1885) was a French poet and novelist during the Romantic Movement. Among French readers, Hugo is best known as a poet, but to readers outside of France, he’s best known for his epic novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables .
Fast Facts: Victor Hugo
- Full Name: Victor Marie Hugo
- Known For: French poet and author
- Born: February 26, 1802 in Besançon, Doubs, France
- Parents: Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet
- Died: May 22, 1885 in Paris, France
- Spouse: Adèle Foucher (m. 1822-1868)
- Children: Léopold Hugo (1823), Léopoldine Hugo (1824-1843), Charles Hugo (b. 1826), François-Victor Hugo (1828-1873), Adèle Hugo (1830-1915)
- Selected Works: Odes et Ballades (1826), Cromwell (1827), Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), Les Misérables (1862), Quatre-vingt-treize (1874)
- Notable Quote: “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved—loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.”
Born in Besançon in Franche-Comté, a region in eastern France, Hugo was the third son born to Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet Hugo. He had two older brothers: Abel Joseph Hugo (born 1798) and Eugène Hugo (born 1800). Hugo’s father was a general in the French army and a fervent supporter of Napoleon . As a result of his military career, the family moved frequently, including stints in Naples and Rome. For the most part, though, he spent his early years in Paris with his mother.
Hugo’s childhood was a time of immense political and military turmoil in France. In 1804, when Hugo was 2 years old, Napoleon was proclaimed emperor of France ; a little over a decade later, the monarchy of the House of Bourbon was restored . These tensions were represented in Hugo’s own family: his father was a general with republican beliefs and a supporter of Napoleon, while his mother was Catholic and fervently royalist; her lover (and Hugo’s godfather) General Victor Lahorie was executed for conspiracies against Napoleon. Hugo’s mother was primarily responsible for his upbringing, and as a result, his early education was both intensely religious and strongly biased towards pro-monarchy sentiments.
As a young man, Hugo fell in love with Adèle Foucher, his childhood friend. They were well-matched in personality and in age (Foucher was only one year younger than Hugo), but his mother strongly disapproved of their relationship. Because of this, Hugo would not marry anyone else, but would not marry Foucher while his mother was still alive, either. Sophie Hugo died in 1821, and the couple were able to marry the following year, when Hugo was 21. They had their first child, Leopold, in 1823, but he died in infancy. Eventually, they were the parents of four children: two daughters (Leopoldine and Adele) and two sons (Charles and François-Victor).
Early Poetry and Plays (1822-1830)
- Odes et poésies diverses (1822)
- Odes (1823)
- Han d'Islande (1823)
- Nouvelles Odes (1824)
- Bug-Jargal (1826)
- Odes et Ballades (1826)
- Cromwell (1827)
- Le Dernier jour d'un condamné (1829)
- Hernani (1830)
Hugo began writing as a very young man, with his first publication coming in 1822, the same year as his marriage. His first collection of poetry, titled Odes et poésies diverses was published when he was only 20 years old. The poems were so admired for their elegant language and passion that they came to the attention of the king, Louis XVIII , and earned Hugo a royal pension. He also published his first novel, Han d'Islande , in 1823.
In these early days—and, indeed, through much of his writing career—Hugo was heavily influenced by one of his predecessors, French writer François-René de Chateaubriand, who was one of the preeminent literary figures in the Romantic Movement and one of France's most visible writers during the early 19th century. As a young man, Hugo vowed to be "Chateaubriand or nothing," and in many ways, he got his wish. Like his hero, Hugo became both an icon of Romanticism and an involved party in politics, which eventually led to his exile from his homeland.
Although the youthful, spontaneous nature of his early poems put him on the map, Hugo’s later work soon evolved to show off his remarkable skill and craftsmanship. In 1826, he published his second volume of poetry, this one titled Odes et Ballades . This work, in contrast to his more precocious first work, was more technically skillful and contained several well-received ballads and more.
Hugo’s early writings were not solely confined to poetry, though. He became a leader in the Romantic Movement with several plays during this time as well. His plays Cromwell (1827) and Hernani (1830) were at the epicenter of literary debates about the Romantic Movement’s tenets versus the rules of neoclassical writing. Hernani , in particular, sparked intense debate between traditionalists and Romantics; it came to be considered the vanguard of French Romantic drama. Hugo’s first work of prose fiction was also published during this time. Le Dernier jour d'un condamné ( The Last Day of a Condemned Man ) was published in 1829. Telling the story of a man condemned to death, the short novel was the first appearance of the strong social conscience that Hugo’s later works would be known for.
First Novel and Further Writing (1831-1850)
- Notre-Dame de Paris (1831)
- Le roi s'amuse (1832)
- Lucrezia Borgia (1833)
- Marie Tudor (1833)
- Ruy Blas (1838)
- Les Rayons et les Ombres (1840)
- Le Rhin (1842)
- Les Burgraves (1843)
In 1831, Notre-Dame de Paris , known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame , was published; it was Hugo’s first full-length novel. It became a huge hit and was quickly translated into other languages for readers across Europe. The novel’s biggest legacy, though, was much more than literary. Its popularity led to a surge of interest in the real Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which had fallen into disrepair as a result of ongoing neglect.
Because of the stream of tourists who loved the novel and wanted to visit the real cathedral , the city of Paris began a major renovation project in 1844. The renovations and restorations lasted for 20 years and included the replacement of the famous spire; the spire built during this period stood for nearly 200 years, until it was destroyed in the 2019 Notre Dame fire. On a broader scale, the novel led to a renewed interest in pre-Renaissance buildings, which began to be cared for and restored more than they had in the past.
Hugo’s life during this period was also subject to some immense personal tragedy, which influenced his writing for some time. In 1843, his oldest (and favorite) daughter, Leopoldine, drowned in a boating accident when she was a 19-year-old newlywed. Her husband also died while trying to save her. Hugo wrote "À Villequier,” one of his most famous poems, in mourning for his daughter.
During this period, Hugo also spent some time in political life. After three attempts, he was finally elected to the Académie française (a council on French arts and letters) in 1841 and spoke in defense of the Romantic Movement. In 1845, he was raised to the peerage by King Louis Philippe I and spent his career in the Higher Chamber speaking out for issues of social justice— against the death penalty , for freedom of the press. He continued his political career via election to the National Assembly of the Second Republic in 1848, where he broke ranks with his fellow conservatives to denounce widespread poverty and to advocate for universal suffrage , the abolition of the death penalty , and free education for all children. However, his political career came to an abrupt end in 1851, when Napoleon III took over in a coup . Hugo strongly opposed Napoleon III’s reign, calling him a traitor, and as a result, he lived in exile outside of France.
Writing While in Exile (1851-1874)
- Les Châtiments (1853)
- Les Contemplations (1856
- Les Misérables (1862)
- Les Travailleurs de la Mer (1866)
- L'Homme qui rit (1869)
- Quatre-vingt-treize ( Ninety-Three ) (1874)
Hugo eventually settled in Guernsey, a small island under British jurisdiction in the English Channel off the French coast of Normandy. Although he did continue to write political content, including several anti-Napoleon pamphlets that were banned in France yet still managed to make an impact, Hugo went back to his roots with poetry. He produced three volumes of poetry: Les Châtiments in 1853, Les Contemplations in 1856, and La Légende des siècles in 1859.
For many years, Hugo had planned a novel about social injustices and the misery suffered by the poor. It wasn’t until 1862 that this novel was published: Les Misérables . The novel sprawls over a few decades, interweaving stories of an escaped parolee, a dogged policeman, an abused factory worker, a rebellious young rich man, and more, all leading up to the June Rebellion of 1832, a historical populist uprising that Hugo had witnessed himself. Hugo believed the novel to be the pinnacle of his work, and it became immensely popular among readers almost instantly. However, the critical establishment was much harsher, with almost universally negative reviews. In the end, it was the readers who won out: Les Mis became a genuine phenomenon which remains popular in the modern day, and has been translated into many languages and adapted into several other mediums.
In 1866, Hugo published Les Travailleurs de la Mer ( The Toilers of the Sea ), which pivoted away from the themes of social justice in his previous novel. Instead, it told a quasi-mythic tale about a young man trying to bring home a ship to impress his father, while battling natural forces and a giant sea monster. The book was dedicated to Guernsey, where he lived for 15 years. He also produced two more novels, which returned to more political and social themes. L'Homme Qui Rit ( The Man Who Laughs ) was published in 1869 and took a critical view of the aristocracy, while Quatre-vingt-treize ( Ninety-Three ) was published in 1874 and dealt with the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. By this time, realism and naturalism were coming into vogue, and Hugo’s Romantic style decreased in popularity. Quatre-vingt-treize would be his last novel.
Literary Styles and Themes
Hugo covered a wide variety of literary themes throughout his career, ranging from politically charged content to much more personal writings. In the latter category, he wrote several of his most acclaimed poems about his daughter’s untimely death and his own grief. He expressed his concerns for the welfare of others and of historical institutions, with themes reflecting his own republican beliefs and his anger at injustices and inequality.
Hugo was one of the most notable representatives of romanticism in France, from his prose to his poetry and plays. As such, his works largely embraced Romantic ideals of individualism, intense emotions, and a focus on heroic characters and actions. These ideals can be seen in many of his works, including some of his most notable ones. Sweeping emotion is a hallmark of Hugo’s novels, with language that drops the reader into the intense feelings of passionate, complicated characters. Even his most famous villains—Archdeacon Frollo and Inspector Javert—are permitted inner turmoil and strong feelings. In some cases, in his novels, Hugo’s narrative voice goes into immense detail about specific ideas or places, with intensely descriptive language.
Later in his career, Hugo became notable for his focus on themes of justice and suffering. His anti-monarchical views were on display in The Man Who Laughs , which turned a harsh eye on the aristocratic establishment. Most famously, of course, he focused Les Misérables on the plight of the poor and the horrors of injustice, which are depicted both on an individual scale (the journey of Jean Valjean) and a societal one (the June Rebellion). Hugo himself, in the voice of his narrator, describes the book thusly towards the end of the novel: “The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details ... a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul.”
Hugo returned to France in 1870, but his life was never quite the same. He suffered a series of personal tragedies: the death of his wife and two sons, the loss of his daughter to an asylum, the death of his mistress, and he suffered a stroke himself. In 1881, he was honored for his contributions to French society; a street in Paris was even renamed for him and bears his name to this day.
On May 20, 1885, Hugo died of pneumonia at the age of 83. His death sparked mourning across France due to his immense influence and the affection the French held for him. He had requested a quiet funeral but was instead given a state funeral, with over 2 million mourners joining the funeral procession in Paris. He was buried in the Panthéon, in the same crypt as Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola, and left 50,000 francs to the poor in his will.
Victor Hugo is widely considered an icon of French literature and culture, to the point where many French cities have streets or squares named after him. He is, certainly, among the most recognizable French writers , and his works continue to be widely read, studied, and adapted in the modern day. In particular, his novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables have had a long and popular life, with multiple adaptations and entry into mainstream popular culture.
Even in his own time, Hugo’s work had influence beyond just literary audiences. His work was a strong influence in the music world, especially given his friendship with composers Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz, and many operas and other musical works were inspired by his writing—a trend which continues into the contemporary world, with the musical version of Les Misérables becoming one of the most popular musicals of all time. Hugo lived through a time of intense upheaval and societal change, and he managed to stand out as one of the most notable figures of a notable time.
- Davidson, A.F. Victor Hugo: His Life and Work . University Press of the Pacific, 1912.
- Frey, John Andrew. A Victor Hugo Encyclopedia . Greenwood Press, 1999.
- Robb, Graham. Victor Hugo: A Biography . W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
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The Best 7 Books by Victor Hugo [PDF]
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Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besançon, France, on February 26, 1802, to mother Sophie Trébuchet and father Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo. His father was a military officer who later served as a general under Napoleon.
Hugo studied law between 1815 and 1818, although he never practiced it. Encouraged by his mother, Hugo embarked on a literary career. He founded the Conservateur Litteraire, a magazine in which he published his own poetry and that of his friends.
His mother died in 1821. That same year, Hugo married Adèle Foucher and published his first book of poetry, «Odes et poésies diverses». His first novel was published in 1823, followed by a series of plays.
In 1831 he published one of his most enduring works, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame . Set in medieval times, the novel presents a harsh critique of society that demeans and rejects the hunchback Quasimodo. This was Hugo’s most celebrated work to date and paved the way for his later political writings.
In the 1840s, Hugo became one of France’s most celebrated literary figures. In 1841 he was elected a member of the French Academy and appointed to the Chamber of Peers.
He took a step back from publishing his work after the accidental drowning of his daughter and her husband in 1843. Privately, he began work on a writing that would become Les Misérables.
Hugo fled to Brussels after a coup d’état in 1851. He lived in Brussels and Britain until his return to France in 1870. Much of the work Hugo published during this period conveys biting sarcasm and fierce social criticism.
Among these works is the novel Les Misérables, which was finally published in 1862. The book was an immediate success in Europe and the United States. Later reinterpreted as a theatrical musical and a film, Les Misérables remains one of the best-known works of 19th-century literature.
Although Hugo returned to France after 1870 as a symbol of the republican triumph, his last years were largely sad. He lost two sons between 1871 and 1873. His later works are somewhat darker than his earlier writings, focusing on the themes of God, Satan, and death.
In 1878, he suffered a mild stroke. Hugo and his mistress, Juliette, continued to live in Paris for the rest of their lives. The street where he lived was renamed Avenue Victor Hugo on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1882. Juliette died the following year and Hugo passed away in Paris on May 22, 1885.
He received a hero’s funeral. His body rested under the Arc de Triomphe before being buried in the Panthéon.
1) Notre Dame de Paris
Notre Dame de Paris , Hugo’s second novel, emphasizes the theme of ananke, a Greek word meaning fate or necessity. Ananke appears in the novel primarily as an inevitable transition; stylistically, the transition is from classicism to romanticism and, ultimately, from the human to the divine.
Notre-Dame Cathedral is the embodiment of what must be recognized as the permanence of the transition. Originally a Gallo-Roman temple to the classical deity Jupiter, it became a Christian basilica and later, in the 12th century, a Romanesque cathedral. As its construction continued into the 13th century, the Gothic style overtook and succeeded the Romanesque configuration; and the cathedral, completed in 1345, stood as the architectural script of its own history. The novel treats this cathedral as a statement of ananke rather than of any of its many particular characters.
2) Ninety Three
This work published in 1874 is set during a stage of the French Revolution known as the Terror of 1793. It is the last novel by Victor Hugo, who intended it to be the first part of a cycle of works on the French Revolution.
In fact, it is a reflection of the author on the events that took place during the revolution, as well as on the legitimacy of it. It mixes fiction with reality to tell the story of three men: the aristocrat Lantenac; Gauvain, military chief of the republican army and the priest Cimourdain, who is a revolutionary. Ninety-Three is divided into three parts, each of which tells a different story and offers the reader different visions of this event of great relevance for the history of Europe. Both republicans and royalists are portrayed as individuals willing to perform even the cruelest act in order to defend their ideals, completely devoted to their causes.
3) Claude Gueux
Claude Gueux was first published in 1834 and is one of the works in which Victor Hugo shows his rejection of the death penalty. The story mixes reality with fiction, narrating the fate of a man -Claude Gueux- who is condemned to prison.
The events are set in Paris in the early nineteenth century, where the protagonist of the story is driven to despair by the lack of food and fire to survive the winter, so he decides to commit a robbery to get food for himself, his woman and son.
As a result of this event he is sent to the Clairvaux prison where he experiences horrors at the hands of the director of the prison, but also relates and creates a bond of friendship with another prisoner named Albin. Due to an arbitrary and malicious decision by the director, a series of consequences for the protagonist’s life will be unleashed.
4) Told Under Canvas
Told Under Canvas is a short work by Victor Hugo that will arouse the curiosity of those who immerse themselves in its pages. It tells us the story of Captain Leopold D’Auverney, who is a man who inspires in others a feeling of respect.
In addition to being described as a reserved man, with nothing about him that draws attention at first glance, Leopold D’Auverney is also a person who has been able to travel extensively and see much of the world, but in spite of this the captain considers that there is no incident in his life that deserves to be repeated.
We invite you to give a chance to this work of Victor Hugo, that although perhaps it is not as recognized as other of his writings, it is a story that deserves to be read and enjoyed for the quality of his writing.
5) Under Sentence of Death Or, a Criminal's Last Hours
Under Sentence of Death Or, a Criminal’s Last Hours is a novel that tells the fictional story of a man on trial and subsequently sentenced to death, who wakes up every morning with the idea that this may be his last day alive.
It is a book with a profound and moving narrative that is thought-provoking, in which the condemned man recounts what his life was like before incarceration, narrating his thoughts, feelings and fears. Always with the hope of being released, although as time goes by he knows he can do nothing to change his fate.
In this story, as in others of his authorship, Victor Hugo expresses his opinion on the death penalty, which he considered an act of savagery since he did not conceive the idea of society resorting to it as an act of justice.
6) William Shakespeare
The origin of this book is due to a rather curious fact: François-Victor, Victor Hugo’s son, was translating into French the works of the English playwright, so his father decided to write the prologue to this translation.
This prologue became a book of more than 500 pages in which the French writer wrote an essay on the life and work of William Shakespeare , literary creation and romanticism in literature. This event took place after Victor went into exile with his family on the island of Jersey in 1852.
Those who have not yet read Shakespeare will find in this book a guide to immerse themselves in his magnificent works. On the other hand, those who have read it will surely agree with Victor Hugo’s ideas about Shakespeare’s genius.
7) Les Misérables
Set in the post-Napoleonic era, just after the French Revolution, Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean, a convict, who has just been released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread.
Influenced by the bishop to start a new life, Jean assumes a new name and moves to a new place where he becomes a respected citizen and makes a fortune in manufacturing. The police inspector, Javert, suspects him, but it is not until Jean’s conscience pushes him to reveal his true identity that he is forced to flee.
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Bradley Stephens, Victor Hugo, French Studies , Volume 63, Issue 1, January 2009, Pages 66–74, https://doi.org/10.1093/fs/knn176
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Referring back to Jean Cocteau's famous description of Hugo as ‘un fou qui se croyait Victor Hugo’, 1 the art critic Robert Hughes claimed that ‘so might a Chihuahua fix its tiny fangs in the ankle of a bull elephant’. 2 Hughes's point is that various generations of artists have sunk their teeth into Hugo in the hope of delivering something of a death blow to his legend, but that such aggression has done little to slow down this cultural beast. The mammoth proportions of Hugo's renown may have provoked apprehension, but neither death nor would-be successors have been able to deny him the prominence that he so blatantly desired in his quest to become ‘Chateaubriand ou rien’. 3 In France, Hugo is the superstar of Republicanism, who championed egalitarian rights and the abolition of the death penalty. The anecdote that God Himself was evicted from the Panthéon in 1885 so that Hugo could be interred there still meets with warm affection. Internationally, the twentieth-century globalization of the media age has only solidified Hugo's celebrity. Nearly 80 of the some 140 film and television adaptations of his work have been in a language other than French, while Les Misérables became the world's longest running musical in 2006, as well as achieving the distinction in 2002 of being the first Broadway production to be staged in mainland China.
Navigating the sheer magnitude of a phenomenon whose name adorns a street in every corner of France is a daunting prospect for any scholar. Two key problems are discernible within the enormous shadow that Hugo casts, and which Gustave Flaubert once fittingly described as ‘désespérant’. 4 Firstly, the often passionate cultural responses to Hugo make any impartial analysis an especially difficult enterprise. His undeniable bravado and lack of measure cause as much admiration as exasperation, both of which inform receptions of his work as readily today as they did in Hugo's own time. What Stéphane Mallarmé saw as the ‘infamies immortelles’ of Hugo's socially-minded aesthetics, 5 George Sand described as ‘la couleur des qualités’; 6 what historian Alistair Horne believes to be ‘bombastic silliness’, 7 the novelist Mario Vargas-Llosa hails as ‘lyrical intellectual fiction’. 8 In particular, Hugo's indomitable self-confidence has underpinned his stereotypical image as the white-bearded grand homme , complete with the authority and immovability that so easily come with such a supremely patriarchal icon. The 1985 centenary of his death and 2002 bicentenary of his birth only reinforced this stereotype with their distinctly political agendas. During the latter, Claude Millet articulated widely held concerns that Hugo's name had been repeatedly exploited at both ends of the political spectrum. Neither the anniversary of Émile Zola's death nor the transfer of Alexandre Dumas's remains to the Panthéon could eclipse yet another moment of Hugo commemoration. Millet argued that Hugo's own oscillations back and forth between conservatism and liberalism had woven him into the very fabric of modern France's unstable political evolution: ‘Hugo parle de tout à tous.’ 9 Crucial to this widespread political appeal were the presidential elections in that year. Lionel Jospin's failure to advance, combined with Jean-Marie Le Pen's progression in the race, accelerated a scramble on both Left and Right to try and make sense of how the Republic had arrived at this astonishing point. Hugo's moral resilience quickly became an emblem of a lost political integrity. The Left could cite his near twenty-year defiance in exile of the Second Empire, while the Right found comfort in his condemnation and abandonment of the Commune. Hugo's grandeur was simultaneously seen to mirror the gloire of the whole of France, and demand for celebratory events in his honour soared. The Comédie Française was obliged to extend an already lengthy run of Ruy Blas well into the autumn, often with ninety-five per cent of tickets being sold. On both Left and Right, Hugo could serve as a figure of reassurance, compensating for the perceived erosion of Republican values. At the same time, however, he again fell prey to the expedient kind of stereotyping which overlooked his ‘dimension subversive inaliénable, qu'aucun ordre moral ne peut accepter’. 10 Millet insists that, unlike other literary luminaries such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Voltaire whose place in cultural history is more consensual, Hugo stood as both the state's greatest advocate and her most formidable opponent. Such ambivalence at a time of deep political anxiety greatly sharpened the focus on the myths and fervours surrounding Hugo, diverting attention away from his actual work.
This interpretative minefield is made all the more precarious by a second difficulty, namely the vast range of media in which Hugo tirelessly operated. Hugo was a master of self-reinvention, ‘the Elvis or Madonna of the nineteenth century’. 11 He commanded a chameleon-like quality that was entirely characteristic of his creativity as a Romantic. Something of a ‘Jack of all trades’ throughout his life, Hugo moved effortlessly back and forth between verse and narrative, between oration and visual art, page and stage. The proportions of this corpus are themselves an imposing testimony to his verve. During a near seventy-year writing career, he produced at least eight novels, nine plays, twenty-five collections of poetry and over 3,000 sketches and paintings, not to mention a torrent of critical and aesthetic essays. The contours of such an ever-shifting corpus subsequently diverge as much as they converge, resisting any overarching frameworks. Even Hugo himself gave up trying to draw his work into a single whole, eventually abandoning a preface he was writing in the 1860s that he had initially envisaged as an introduction to his entire œuvre .
From the 1950s onwards, Hugo studies ( faute de mieux ) have been responding to both these challenges with considerable success. Scholars have extensively rethought the stereotypes of the supposedly masterful wordsmith, which misinterpreted or dissociated the ways in which Hugo's Romanticism energized both the actual and the potential. Today, the emphasis is placed on the all-important ‘harmonie des contraires’ that Hugo privileges in the Préface de Cromwell in 1827, through which he continually forces diverse genres and positions to meet and compete within his work. A series of impulses that could be seen largely to gather around the poles of realism and idealism intermingle in an unsettled melting pot of styles which continually eludes classification. Indeed, what Malcolm Bowie called the ‘unhelpful elasticity’ of Romanticism as a term is stretched to sometimes unbearable ends by Hugo. 12 Critics observe that the critical edge of much of Hugo's writing is blunted by a tendency to generalize but elsewhere sharpened by his eye for the particular, with his work oscillating between swelling rhetoric and clinical precision. His taste as a playwright for the overtly theatrical goes hand in hand with the credibility of his psychological and social observations, rendering the misfits of Notre-Dame de Paris at once subject to the conventions of tragedy and yet repeatedly self-determining. Where Les Misérables infuses prosaic description with poetic lyricism, Les Contemplations matches starry-eyed wonder with harrowing anxiety, while his sketches and paintings rely on the visual only to negate the possibilities of clear representation. Studies of Hugo now insist that these wild swings in tone and manner be kept in play, since such endless transformations rely on ‘la distance, jamais le divorce’, to borrow Paul Bénichou's extremely helpful formula; ‘la même loi double d’éloignement et de présence'. 13 What has emerged with Hugo is a complicated sense of self that anticipates modernism's multiplicity. A figure of extreme contrasts as opposed to simple contradictions, Hugo surrenders to process with the minimum of conscious control. His components keep aligning and separating, revealing a ‘fractal imagination’ with no final term. 14 Little wonder that he himself referred to his work as an ocean whose horizons were ever-receding and whose depths were undetermined. 15
Coming in a post-war age, the timing of this critical renaissance was not by chance. As so often had been the case during his lifetime, the alignment of historical forces seemed to play in Hugo's favour. The Nazi invasion of Europe had prompted many Westerners to find in Hugo's writing an expression of their deepest emotions; ‘[they] understood the exile of Guernsey and the besieged Parisian of 1870 as never before’. 16 Moreover, such renewed cultural relevance became apparent at a time when academic tastes were shifting towards the postmodern. A previous critical impatience with Hugo's flair for melodrama and fantastic plots was giving way to a growing willingness to appreciate his plurality of techniques and the more eccentric characteristics of his style. The role played by New Criticism in this post-war shift cannot be overstated. The advocacy of close reading and the rejection of criticism based on extra-textual sources began to encourage fresh readings of Hugo's work. Such readings could wrench themselves away not only from the prejudices and passions that the poet inspired, but also from the ideological practices that had dominated literary criticism for some time. The Realist aesthetic, for example, had long dismissed Hugo's imaginative writing style, with criticisms from Zola among others tainting receptions of Hugo's novels well into the twentieth century.
For the first time in the history of Hugo scholarship, the emphasis consequently moved from the titan behind the works to the works themselves. The cliché of the bourgeois mythmaker, unreflective and naïve in his optimism, itself became a debunked myth thanks to this shift. Far from accessing a supposedly authoritative truth, Hugo's work was pitched at the strongest level of subjectivity, with the dimensions of his thinking always vulnerable to redesign. The opening salvo in this assault on stereotype came at the very end of the 1940s with Jean-Bertrand Barrère's La Fantaisie de Victor Hugo . This three-volume study dispelled past illusions and explored Hugo's use of fantasy as one of dynamism rather than frivolous indulgence or mastery. Barrère insisted on the poet's conception of the imagination as a playful but purposive faculty, ‘ce jeu souriant’ between the diversity and unity that Hugo saw around him in nature. 17 Rather than ignore the anxieties and uncertainties of the material world, Hugo was very much engaged with them in his cultivation of fantasy. A further critical landmark in this reappraisal of Hugo's imaginary came in 1963. Pierre Albouy's La Création mythologique chez Victor Hugo 18 stressed that the poet embraced a tense exchange between the immanent and the transcendent through his emphasis on art as creation and not actuality. Five years later, the message was broadcast to an anglophone audience in Richard B. Grant's The Perilous Quest . Grant proposed that Hugo's genius was visionary rather than mimetic, generating indicative rather than representative images. Hugo's power of suggestion was therefore cut off from the traditional cosmic visions of classic mythology, ‘with the result that he would have to create for himself not only form but also meaning (if any)’. 19 In 1969, Jean Gaudon's Le Temps de la contemplation helped expand this kind of methodological approach further still. 20
But perhaps the most important development in criticism during the 1960s came with the translation of Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World . At various stages in his book, Bakhtin linked the theory of the carnivalesque that he develops from Rabelais with the Romantic irony that he reads in Hugo's narratives. The celebration of the unorthodox and the inconclusive represents for Bakhtin the major pull that Rabelais's writing in fact held for Hugo in the Préface de Cromwell . 21 Bakhtin compared the carnival with the Romantic grotesque and its inversion of aesthetic value. Since the grotesque is not only ‘l'horrible’ but also ‘le comique’, 22 it is suitably matched to the carnival's festivity: ‘gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding’. 23 Bakhtin outlined how the carnivalesque unfolds a hybrid and self-renewing form that can topple oppressive ideologies in order to realize the ‘relative nature of all that exists’: ‘to consecrate inventive freedom, to permit the combination of a variety of different elements and their rapprochement, to liberate from the prevailing point of view of the world’. 24 Bakhtin's reading pointed at Hugo's capacity to negate hierarchical distance between different positions. Complicating any semblance of order in this way, Bakhtin saw Hugo as anything but prescriptive or steadfast.
Within this reading lay a major implication that has significantly steered the course of Hugo studies. Bakhtin privileged Hugo's narrative writing for accessing a range of different generic levels at once. In his view, the lyric voice of poetry could vary from Realist to Symbolist, but could only select one genre at a time in which to speak. The novel, on the other hand, is essentially polyphonic, forcing genres to speak simultaneously within its own voice. Such dynamism placed Hugo's novels squarely on the critical agenda. France's greatest poet was swiftly becoming one of her greatest novelists as well, gradually taking his place in the canon alongside Honoré de Balzac, Flaubert and Zola. Facilitating this rediscovery was the 1969 publication of Jean Massin's chronological Œuvres complètes edition, bringing the works (and crucially the novels) together for the first time. The result was an increasingly thorough and wide-ranging body of narrative research in which two names in particular stand out. In 1984, Victor Brombert's seminal Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel 25 engaged with each of Hugo's eight narratives to highlight the fragmentary tone of his writing. Kathryn Grossman has since brought greater precision still by embarking on a three-volume study of Hugo's novels in succession, across which she observes that Hugo's ‘fundamental playfulness’ persistently enables opposites to ‘mix rather than confuse’. 26 More recently, particular aspects of the narratives have themselves also started to come under scrutiny, such as Hugo's use of laughter as a thematic and textual device, as well as his construction of character. 27
This critical attention on narrative has been welcome, although not entirely unproblematic. By contrasting poetry's supposed ‘centripetal’ linguistic force with the ‘centrifugal’ power of narrative writing, Bakhtin eclipsed the former without really testing his readings on Hugo's verse. Bakhtin's presence on many a bibliography suggests that the lion's share of attention which Hugo's novels have received can in part be attributed to his contribution here, although we must not overlook their popular appeal either (not least in a cinematic age). In turn, Hugo's poetry and indeed his theatre have risked being sidelined, in spite of their arguable capacity to reflect in their own ways the dizzying aesthetics and techniques that are particular to the novels. Fortunately, several major studies have refused to allow either medium to be pushed offstage, even if both are denied the limelight occupied by the novels. Both Ludmila Charles-Wurtz and, especially, Henri Meschonnic have written captivating book-length analyses of Hugo's verse, while Anne Ubersfeld and Florence Naugrette remain authorities on the dramas. 28 Likewise, Hugo's graphic art continues to be visible, as it were, thanks chiefly to the art historian Pierre Georgel. In 1971, in both Paris and London, Georgel organized the first great showing of Hugo's works since a posthumous exhibition in 1888 (which Van Gogh had referred to as ‘astonishing’). 29 Georgel reminded yet another generation that Hugo's art, with its prominence of feature over the subtlety of colour, anticipated much twentieth-century experimentation, including the Rorschach ink-blots and pochoir . Subsequent exhibitions and catalogues ensured that in spite of the often perishable nature of Hugo's materials, his art will not disappear from view.
Notwithstanding these varied contributions, the fact remains that within the current research fields of French studies and of cultural history, it is the novels which dominate. There are several directions that future research might take to redress this inherent imbalance and, in broader terms, to ensure that research on Hugo continues to flourish. First and foremost, translations of Hugo's work into English need to be more readily available. Both Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables come in sound Penguin editions, and were also recently reissued for Barnes and Noble's New Classics series (with signs that they are even considering adding a third Hugo novel to the series), while Harry Guest among others has provided smart translations of Hugo's verse. 30 But there is still no single series of Hugo's complete works in English, with non-French readers having to settle for select titles rather than inclusive anthologies. Promisingly, however, the interest shown in the seemingly constant stream of Hugo biographies indicates that his popularity continues to generate a demand for further points of access into his work. 31 Hugo scholars in this respect should be thankful to historical studies. Many anglophone colleagues have cemented Hugo's substantial place in nineteenth-century history by highlighting the ways in which he was a visionary social commentator who evoked deep idealism and yet refused to endorse the institutions of the day. 32
An English translation project would be an elementary enough enterprise: for the 1985 centenary, the late Jacques Seebacher and Guy Rosa updated the Œuvres complètes to produce a more thorough and cohesive series with Laffont than had ever been available before. Furthermore, there are two dedicated organizations already in place that could greatly aid such a project. The Société des Amis de Victor Hugo brings together enthusiasts from various cultural backgrounds to organize annual festivals, and since 2003 it has compiled lists of every Hugo-linked event that has taken place both in France and abroad. Matching this more popular interest, the Paris-based Groupe Hugo is composed of Hugo scholars from around France who meet once a month to discuss current research. Created in 1969 by Albouy and relaunched in 1975 at Paris VII under Seebacher and then Rosa, the group maintains a superb website with online archives of meetings and papers dating back to 1986. 33
The imperative for translations aside, it is also clear that we need to return more actively to Hugo's own critical thinking if we are to cast the net beyond the novels. Bakhtin's apparent challenge to privilege narrative over verse is by no means beyond question, as it should compel us to think more precisely about Hugo's experimentation with so many different media, and about the possibilities for destabilizing meaning in his work that this experimentation afforded him. A comprehensive response to Bakhtin's argument using Hugo's own thoughts on art and meaning is, in fact, sorely lacking. The potential is nonetheless clearly there, especially as an exciting undercurrent in Hugo studies has concentrated more exclusively on the poet's metaphysics. Hugo's relationship to a philosophical rather than strictly artistic tradition is becoming clearer. Both Mahmoud Aref and Myriam Roman have extensively explored how Hugo's narratives are dramatized by his philosophy of a human existence that is itself vivid in its contrasts. 34 Henri Peyre has set out a similar conception of Hugo's thinking, claiming that ‘if France can boast of any great philosophical poetry, it is probably Hugo's rather than Ronsard's’. 35 For the bicentenary, historians Henri Pena-Ruiz and Jean-Paul Scot located a Romantic materialism within Hugo's political philosophy: ‘un double sentiment de l'homme à l’égard de la nature, de proximité et d'étrangeté, se convertit en vision cosmique où bientôt viendront s'inscrire les luttes pour la liberté et la justice'. 36 However, as I have argued elsewhere, unless the poet's relationship to philosophy is clearly identified as one that resists the rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment rather than perpetuates it, then such approaches may be left unnecessarily vulnerable to criticism and denied the philosophical relevance that they warrant. 37
Clarifying this relationship would also link Hugo and the French Romantic movement with emergent trends in English and German studies, whereby Romanticism is being rescued from the stereotype of a self-indulgent aestheticism so as to engage with contemporary discourse on the history of ideas. 38 Given the heavy tendency in these other traditions towards poetry, intersections with Hugo's own practices could oblige wider readings of his work that are less focused on his narrative writing than has been the case. This question of potential dialogues between Hugo and other artists is itself highly important to assuring that the former exile of Guernsey does not himself become a remote island of sorts within French studies. It is a question that I myself have already raised in this journal. 39 Hugo's place in literary and cultural history would be well served by identifying his relationship to his contemporaries both within and outside France. For example, his implicit reactions to the influence of Darwinism on late-nineteenth-century thinking remain ungauged.
One last aspect of Hugo which would also benefit from fresh initiatives would be his sometimes unhelpful image as a grand homme . The alpha male qualities that Hugo is seen to exert in his literary career tie in neatly with his notorious sexual reputation with women. His combination of talent and boldness both on a page as the poetic voyant and behind closed doors as the sexual viveur has only reinforced the often crude patriarchal likeness that is now so readily associated with him. However, the scope of Hugo studies in emphasizing Hugo's complexities could be reiterated and indeed broadened by probing the overt masculine sexuality that his extraordinary egotism and galanterie are seen to represent. ‘Masculine subjectivities betray internal tensions: there are no homogeneous patterns but rather contradictory desires and shifting boundaries. Masculinities are not fixed but can be renegotiated and unsettled’. 40 Such unsettling would be entirely in keeping with the prevalent trends in Hugo studies, whereby various binaries mix into an unsteady hybrid of meaning, rather than become fused into an integrated whole. Hugo's masculine self-interest as regards his personal and literary treatment of women cannot of course be denied, but it can most certainly be complicated so as to bring another rich dimension of analysis to his work.
In responding to these potential ways forward and indeed to the ongoing challenges surrounding Hugo, two basic principles of academic ‘house-keeping’ still require urgent attention: a less disjointed volume of Hugo's general correspondence and a comprehensive index to his complete works. The latter might prove a difficult enterprise, but the former should be more forthcoming, especially when compared to the excellent editions of correspondence available for some of Hugo's contemporaries, such as Alphonse de Lamartine. As we continue to scale French literature's Mont Blanc and to chart the different facets of this immense writer's work, it is only appropriate that the possibilities for Hugo's future, as with the difficulties his work presents, are as manifold as the characteristics of the man himself. 41
Cocteau, Essai de critique indirecte: le mystère laïc (Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1932), p. 28. It can be argued that Cocteau's edict, much like André Gide's equally notorious ‘hélas!’, has been too readily taken out of context as a sign of absolute contempt, rather than a subtly conciliatory reflection (Gide was responding to a survey asking who was the greatest of France's nineteenth-century poets: L'Ermitage , February 1902, p. 109).
‘Sublime Windbag’, Time Magazine , 27 April 1998 < http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,988238-1,00.html > (accessed 27 February 2008).
Scribbled on one of Hugo's school notebooks dated 10 July 1816, as testified by his wife Adèle in her biography, Victor Hugo raconté par un témoin de sa vie (1863), II, in Œuvres complètes de Victor Hugo XLVIII (Paris, Albin Michel, 1926), p. 6.
Flaubert, Correspondance 1859–68 , ed. by Jean Bruneau (Paris, Gallimard, 1991), pp. 45–6.
Mallarmé, Correspondance: Lettres sur la Poésie , ed. by Bertrand Marchal (Paris, Gallimard, 1995), p. 178.
Sand, Lettres d'une vie , ed. by Thierry Bodin (Paris, Gallimard, 2004), p. 990.
Horne, Seven Ages of Paris: Portrait of a City (London, Macmillan, 2002), p. 321.
Vargas-Llosa, The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and ‘Les Misérables’ , trans. by John King (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 142.
Millet, ‘Actualité de Victor Hugo: réflexions sur le succès du bicentenaire de 2002’, Revista da Universidade de Aveiro: letras , 19/20 (2002–03), 1–13 (p. 8).
Millet, ‘Actualité de Victor Hugo’, p. 11.
Kathryn Grossman, ‘From Classic to Pop Icon: Popularising Hugo’, The French Review , 74 (2001) 482–95 (p. 484).
Sarah Kay, Terence Cave, and Malcolm Bowie, A Short History of French Literature (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 211.
Bénichou, Les Mages romantiques (Paris, Gallimard, 1988), pp. 310–11.
Roger Cardinal, ‘Victor Hugo, Somnambulist of the Sea’, in Artistic Relations: Literature and the Visual Arts in Nineteenth-Century France ed. by Peter Collier and Robert Lethbridge (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 209–21 (219).
‘C'est tout un immense horizon d'idées entrevues […] entassement d’œuvres flottantes où ma pensée s'enfonce sans savoir si elle en reviendra.': Hugo, Choses vues 1849–85 (Paris, Gallimard, 1972), p. 320.
Elliott M. Grant, The Career of Victor Hugo (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1945), p. 337.
Barrère, La Fantaisie de Victor Hugo , 3 vols (Paris, José Corti, 1950), III, p. ix.
Paris, José Corti, 1963.
Grant, The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo (Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1968), p. 27.
Paris, Flammarion, 1969.
Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World , trans. by Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1968), p. 43.
Hugo, ‘Préface de Cromwell’, in Œuvres Complètes: Critique , ed. by Jean-Pierre Reynaud (Paris, Robert Laffont, 1985), p. 10.
Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World , pp. 11–12.
Ibid., p. 34.
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1984.
See Grossman, The Early Novels of Victor Hugo (Geneva, Droz, 1986), p. 197, and Grossman, Figuring Transcendence in ‘Les Misérables’: Hugo's Romantic Sublime (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994). The last instalment of this triptych, looking at the later novels, is forthcoming.
Joë Friedemann, Victor Hugo: un temps pour rire (Saint-Genouph, Nizet, 2001); Isabel Roche, Character and Meaning in the Novels of Victor Hugo (West Lafayette, Purdue University Press, 2007).
For prominent English-language works in these fields, see Meschonnic, Victor Hugo: un poète contre le maintien de l'ordre (Paris, Maisonneuve, 2002); Ubersfeld, Étude sur le théâtre de Hugo de 1830 à 1839 (Paris, José Corti, 1974); for the prominent English-language works in these fields, see J. C. Ireson, Victor Hugo: A Companion to His Poetry (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997) and Albert W. Halsall, Victor Hugo and the Romantic Drama (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1998).
Graham Robb, Victor Hugo (London, Picador, 1997), p. 390.
Guest, The Distance, the Shadows: Victor Hugo, Selected Poems (London, Anvil, 1981).
Robb's award-winning study (see n. 29) is the best English-language biography to consult. In French, see Jean-Marc Hovasse, Victor Hugo avant l'exil: 1802–51 (Paris, Fayard, 2001); this is an exciting volume that promises a follow-up, but at around 1400 pages, this first instalment alone is twice the length of Robb's concise yet detailed overview.
See Angelo Metzidakis, ‘Victor Hugo and the Idea of the United States of Europe’, Nineteenth-Century French Studies , 23 (1994) 72–84, and William Vanderwolk, Victor Hugo in Exile: From Historical Representations to Utopian Vistas (Lewisburg, PA, Bucknell University Press, 2006).
See < http://groupugo.div.jussieu.fr >.
Mahmoud Aref, La Pensée sociale et humaine de Victor Hugo dans son œuvre romanesque (Paris, Champion, 1979); Myriam Roman, Victor Hugo et le roman philosophique (Paris, Champion, 1999).
Peyre, Victor Hugo: Philosophy and Poetry , trans. by Roda P. Roberts (Tuscaloosa, AL, University of Alabama Press, 1990), p. 15.
Pena-Ruiz and Scot, Un Poète en politique: les combats de Victor Hugo (Paris, Flammarion, 2002), p. 60.
See my arguments in both ‘Victor Hugo, Charles Renouvier and the Empowerment of the Poet-Philosopher’, Dix-Neuf , 9 (2007), 1–16, and ‘A Surreptitious Romantic? Reading Sartre alongside Victor Hugo’, in Sartre's Second Century , ed. by Benedict O'Donohoe and Roy Elveton (Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, forthcoming in 2009).
See Philosophical Romanticism , ed. by Nikolas Kompridis (London, Routledge, 2006).
Stephens, ‘Reading Walter Benjamin's Concept of the Ruin in Victor Hugo's, Notre-Dame de Paris’, French Studies , lxi:2 (2007), 155–166.
Bob Pease, Recreating Men: Postmodern Masculinity Politics (London, Sage, 2000), p. 35.
I extend my thanks to those Hugophiles with whom I have been in dialogue with when preparing this article, especially to Andrea Beaghton, Kathryn Grossman, Claude Millet and Guy Rosa.
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About this author.
Victor Hugo was born on 26 February 1802, in Besancon, Franche-Comte, France. He was a French Romantic writer and politician.
He published his first novel the year following his marriage, and his second three years later.
During a literary career that spanned more than sixty years, he wrote in a variety of genres and forms. He is considered to be one of the greatest French writers of all time.
He died on 22 May 1885, aged 83. He was given a state funeral in the Panthéon of Paris,
Victor hugo all books.