Authors: Victor Hugo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French novelist, poet, and dramatist.

February 26, 1802

Besançon, France

May 22, 1885

Paris, France

Biography

In France, the fame of Victor Hugo rests chiefly on his enormous output of romantic poetry; in the United States, he is known best for two novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, 1833) and Les misérables (1862; English translation, 1862). Although he was a successful playwright in his time, only Hernani (1830) is now remembered outside scholarly circles.

Victor Hugo

(Library of Congress)

Victor Marie Hugo was born in Besançon, in the French department of Doubs, to Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet. His father was an officer in Napoleon’s army; his mother was a Catholic Royalist. While her husband was stationed in Germany, Italy, and Spain, Trébuchet formed a close relationship with Victor Lahorie, a general opposed to Napoleon. Hugo and his two older brothers spent some time with their father in Elba; later, when his father was made a governor in Spain, Trébuchet took the children there to see that they shared in his wealth and influence. However, most of Hugo’s childhood was spent in a quiet house with a big garden in the rue des Feuillantines in Paris. The children frequently saw the gentle Lahorie, who was Hugo's godfather.

Hugo began to write poetry early, and when he was fifteen his work was honorably mentioned by the Académie française (French Academy). In 1819 he received first prize from the Acadèmia dels jòcs florals (Academy of Floral Games) in Toulouse. Two years later Louis XVIII gave him a royal prize, and by the time he was twenty-five, Hugo was the acknowledged leader of the “young poets,” a coterie that included Alfred de Musset and the critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve. Hugo’s first published work was Odes et poésies diverses (Odes and other poems), a volume of poetry, in 1822. An early meeting with François-René de Chateaubriand, when he was only seventeen, had been important in forming his artistic bent.

After Hugo fell in love with a neighbor girl, Adèle Foucher, he carried on a long, idealistic courtship. His parents opposed the match because Hugo had no means to support a wife, but his mother’s death and a state pension smoothed out the difficulties, and Adèle and Victor were married on October 14, 1822. The wedding breakfast was disrupted when Eugene, Victor’s older brother, suddenly had a breakdown, supposedly because he was also in love with Adèle. By 1829 Hugo and his wife had five children; of them, two boys and two girls survived.

Hugo’s early verse drama Cromwell (1827) was a stage failure but gained him critical esteem. Marion de Lorme, his second drama in order of composition (originally titled Un duel sous Richelieu, or “A duel under Richelieu”), was censored and barred from presentation by the king, Charles X, upon its completion in 1829; it was eventually staged and then published in 1831, following Charles X's overthrow in the French Revolution of 1830 and the great financial and critical success of the first performances of Hernani in the same year.

Foucher soon became weary of trying to keep up with her restless, creative husband and of frequent childbirth. She took up a mild flirtation with Sainte-Beuve, who was by this time a family friend. Hugo, who had until then been a devoted husband and father and a fiery advocate of fidelity for men, took a mistress, the actor Juliette Drouet, who had had several other lovers, had borne a daughter, and was accustomed to a bohemian life. Hugo kept her in seclusion on a strict budget, but to the end of her life Drouet remained faithful to him.

It is hard to account for this sudden change in Hugo’s character. During the rest of his life he was continuously involved with women. On one occasion he was caught by a jealous husband, whose wife was then imprisoned. At one time Hugo and his son were rivals for the charms of the beautiful Alice Ozy; the father won. At the age of seventy-six he made a conquest of Blanche, a servant girl who desperately wanted to bear his child. However, none of his amorous excursions interfered with his work, his marriage, or his long-standing liaison with Drouet.

With the publication of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831, election to the French Academy, and elevation to the peerage, Hugo became a prominent figure in French life. He had in his youth been a royalist, but he gradually changed sides. Taking an increasingly active part in politics, he became an ardent champion of the left, which was bitterly opposed to Napoleon III, and in 1848 he founded a newspaper, L’événement (The event). Because of his fame he was allowed his liberty, but his son Charles was imprisoned. When Napoleon III came to absolute power in 1851, Hugo was forced into exile. After a short stay in Brussels, he settled in the Channel Islands, first on Jersey and then on Guernsey. At each remove Drouet was installed in suitable quarters discreetly apart from the family dwelling. Foucher spent a good deal of time in Paris, and Drouet was quietly accepted as part of the family.

Hugo’s resentment of the authoritarian regime meant nineteen years of exile. These were productive years; in addition to the vast La légende des siècles (1859–83; The Legend of the Centuries, 1894), as well as other collections of poetry, he published three novels during this period: Les misérables, Les travailleurs de la mer (1866; Toilers of the Sea, 1866), and L’homme qui rit (1869; By Order of the King, 1870; The Laughing Man, 1899). Les misérables, the best known of his fiction, had sold more than seven million copies by the end of the nineteenth century and made him a world figure. Keenly interested in the American Civil War, he wrote several times to Abraham Lincoln. He also defended John Brown and wrote in support of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian patriot.

After his wife died in 1868, many expected Hugo to marry Drouet, but she remained his open and respected mistress. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Empire fell, and Hugo returned to his beloved Paris. His welcome was tumultuous. He was still active in politics and writing, and he even made a balloon ascension in 1878. Drouet died in 1883, and Hugo followed her two years later, on May 22, 1885.

Hugo began writing in the heyday of romanticism and continued well into the naturalistic period. His poetry is a landmark of the romantic movement in France, and his novels, though full of extravagance and pedagogical digressions, continue to be widely read. Interest in Hugo the man continues unabated. His long, rich life, his prolific writing, and his incredible vigor all offer a fascinating subject to scholars and readers alike.

Author Works Long Fiction: Han d’Islande, 1823 (Hans of Iceland, 1845) Bug-Jargal, 1826 (The Noble Rival; or, The Prince of Congo, 1845) Le dernier jour d’un condamné, 1829 (The Last Day of a Condemned, 1840) Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831 (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, 1833) Claude Gueux, 1834 (Capital Punishment . . . Claude Gueux, 1865) Les Misérables, 1862 (English translation, 1862) Les travailleurs de la mer, 1866 (Toilers of the Sea, 1866) L’homme qui rit, 1869 (By Order of the King, 1870; also known as The Laughing Man, 1899) Quatre-vingt-treize, 1874 (Ninety-Three, 1874) Drama: Irtamène, wr. 1816, pb. 1934 (verse drama) Inez de Castro, wr. ca. 1818, pb. 1863 (verse drama) Cromwell, pb. 1827 (verse drama; English translation, 1896) Amy Robsart, pr. 1828, pb. 1889 (English translation, 1895) Hernani, pr., pb. 1830 (verse drama; English translation, 1830) Marion de Lorme, pr., pb. 1831 (verse drama; English translation, 1895) Le roi s’amuse, pr., pb. 1832 (verse drama; The King’s Fool, 1842; also known as The King Amuses Himself, 1964) Lucrèce Borgia, pr., pb. 1833 (Lucretia Borgia, 1842) Marie Tudor, pr., pb. 1833 (English translation, 1895) Angelo, tyran de Padoue, pr., pb. 1835 (Angelo and the Actress of Padua, 1855; also known as Angelo, the Tyrant of Padua, 1866) Ruy Blas, pr., pb. 1838 (verse drama; English translation, 1890) Les Burgraves, pr., pb. 1843 (The Burgraves, 1896) La grand-mère, pb. 1865 Torquemada, wr. 1869, pb. 1882 (English translation, 1896) Les deux trouvailles de Gallus, pb. 1881 Le théâtre en liberté, pb. 1886 (includes Mangeront-ils?) The Dramatic Works, pb. 1887 The Dramatic Works of Victor Hugo, pb. 1895–96 (4 volumes) Mille francs de récompense, pb. 1934 (wr. 1866) L’intervention, pb. 1951 (wr. 1866) Poetry: Odes et poésies diverses, 1822 Odes, 1823 Nouvelles odes, 1824 Odes et ballades, 1826, 1828 Les orientales, 1829 (Les Orientales; or, Eastern Lyrics, 1879) Les feuilles d’automne, 1831 Les chants du crépuscule, 1835 (Songs of Twilight, 1836) Les voix intérieures, 1837 Les rayons et les ombres, 1840 Les châtiments, 1853 Les contemplations, 1856 La légende des siècles, 1859–83 (5 volumes; The Legend of the Centuries, 1894) Les chansons des rues et des bois, 1865 L’année terrible, 1872 L’art d’être grand-père, 1877 Le Pape, 1878 La pitié supréme, 1879 L’âne, 1880 Les quatre vents de l’esprit, 1881 The Literary Life and Poetical Works of Victor Hugo, 1883 La fin de Satan, 1886 Toute la lyre, 1888–93 Dieu, 1891 (unfinished) Les années funestes, 1896 Poems from Victor Hugo, 1901 (George Young, translator) Dernière gerbe, 1902, 1941 The Poems of Victor Hugo, 1906 (Arthur Graves Canfield, editor) Océan; Tas de pierres, 1942 Œuvres poétiques, 1964–74 (3 volumes; Pierre Albouy, editor) Nonfiction: La préface de Cromwell, 1827 (English translation, 1896) Littérature et philosophie mêlées, 1834 Le Rhin, 1842 (The Rhine, 1843) Napoléon le petit, 1852 (Napoleon the Little, 1852) William Shakespeare, 1864 (English translation, 1864) Actes et paroles, 1875-1876 Histoire d’un crime, 1877 (The History of a Crime, 1877–78) Religions et religion, 1880 Choses vues, 1887 (Things Seen, 1887) En voyage: Alpes et Pyrénées, 1890 (The Alps and Pyrenees, 1898) France et Belgique, 1892 Correspondance, 1896–98 Miscellaneous: Œuvres complètes, 1880–92 (57 volumes) Victor Hugo’s Works, 1892 (30 volumes) Works, 1907 (10 volumes) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, editor. Victor Hugo. Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. Essays on all aspects of Hugo’s career—two devoted to Les Misérables. Includes introduction, chronology, and bibliography. Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Harvard UP, 1984. A study by one of the most distinguished scholars of modern French literature. See especially the chapter on Les Misérables. Provides detailed notes and bibliography. Frey, John Andrew. A Victor Hugo Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press, 1999. A comprehensive guide in English to the works of Victor Hugo. Includes a foreword, a biography, and a bibliography. Frey addresses Hugo as a leading poet, novelist, artist, and religious and revolutionary thinker of France. The balance of the volume contains alphabetically arranged entries discussing his works, characters, and themes as well as historical persons and places. Includes a general bibliography. Grossman, Kathryn M. Les Misérables: Conversion, Revolution, Redemption. Twayne Publishers, 1996. This volume is essential for students of the novel. Includes bibliographical references and index. Halsall, A. W. Victor Hugo and the Romantic Drama. U of Toronto P, 1998. A scholarly study of the dramatic works of Hugo. Bibliography and index. Ionesco, Eugène. Hugoliad; or, The Grotesque and Tragic Life of Victor Hugo. Translated by Yara Milos, Grove Press, 1987. This uncompleted work of Ionesco’s youth—written in the 1930s in Romanian—is a sort of polemical antibiography, intended to dethrone its subject. The reader must take responsibility for separating fact from fiction, to say nothing of judging the aptness of the playwright’s cheerless embellishments of anecdotal material. Postscript by Gelu Ionescu. Ireson, J. C. Victor Hugo: A Companion Guide to His Poetry. Clarendon Press, 1997. A detailed critical study dealing with Victor Hugo’s verse in its totality, showing how each work was composed, how the themes evolved, and the considerations that dictated the sequence of his publications. Includes bibliographic references. Maurois, André. Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo. Translated by Gerard Hopkins, Harper & Row, 1956. Originally published in French in 1954. This is probably as close an approach as possible to an ideal one-volume biography dealing with both the life and the work of a monumental figure such as Hugo. Of the sparse illustrations, several are superb; the bibliography, principally of sources in French, provides a sense of Hugo’s celebrity and influence, which persisted well into the twentieth century. Maurois, André. Victor Hugo and His World. Thames and Hudson, 1966. The 1956 English translation of Maurois’ text noted above was edited to conform to the format of a series of illustrated books. The result is interesting and intelligible, but rather schematic. In compensation for the vast cuts in text, a chronology and dozens of well-annotated illustrations have been added. O’Grady, Deidre. Piave, Boito, Pirandello: From Romantic Realism to Modernism. Edwin Mellen Press, 2000. A look at the dramatic works of Hugo, Franceso Maria Piave, Arrigo Boito, and Luigi Pirandello. Bibliography and index. Peyre, Henri. Victor Hugo: Philosophy and Poetry. Translated by Roda P. Roberts, U of Alabama P, 1980. A study of Hugo’s philosophy as evidenced by his poetry. Contains translations of selected poems with an index and bibliography. Porter, Laurence M. Victor Hugo. Twayne Publishers, 1999. A basic biography of Hugo that covers his life and works. Bibliography and index. Richardson, Joanna. Victor Hugo. St. Martin’s Press, 1976. A well-written, scholarly biography divided into three sections, “The Man,” “The Prophet,” “The Legend.” With detailed notes and extensive bibliography. Robb, Graham. Victor Hugo. W. W. Norton, 1998. Thorough biography of Victor Hugo reveals many previously unknown aspects of his long life and literary career. See Robb’s introduction for a discussion of earlier biographies. Includes detailed notes and bibliography. Vargas Llosa, Mario, and John King, translators. The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables. Princeton UP, 2007. A fascinating look at Hugo’s writing of Les Misérables, including an examination of the work’s structure and narration. Includes comparisons to modern novels and critics’ reactions to the novel in Hugo’s day. Ward, Patricia. The Medievalism of Victor Hugo. Pennsylvania State UP, 1975. A study of Hugo’s knowledge and use of medieval history and themes. Includes bibliographic references.

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