Last reviewed: June 2018
French novelist, poet, and dramatist.
February 26, 1802
May 22, 1885
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
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.