One of the pre-eminent figures of world literature in the19th century was the French poet, dramatist and novelist Victor Hugo. Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besançon, France on February 26, 1802. He died on May 22, 1885 in Paris and his ashes ere buried on June 1st of the same year in the Panthéon in Paris. His literary career spanned more than sixty years.
Hugo’s father was an officer in Napoleon’s army who was later appointed a governor in Spain. Most of Victor Hugo’s childhood was spent in Paris, but he did visit his father in Spain, and later used Spain as the setting of his two most important plays. He studied law between 1815 and 1818, but began to write poetry early and never committed himself to legal practice.
When he was 15, his work was honourably mentioned by the French Academy. At 17, he received first prize from the Academy of Floral Games at Toulouse. At 19, he was awarded a royal prize by Louis XVIII, and by the time he was 25, he was the acknowledged leader of the “Young Poets”.
The year 1827 is generally regarded as marking Hugo’s maturity and his conversion to Romanticism. He wrote his first play, Cromwell. The play was not financially successful, but in the preface, Hugo challenged the rigid conventions of Classicist drama. This preface is considered the manifesto of Romanticism in France. Hugo became the Romantic leader in every literary field, but it was on the stage that, in 1839, he won the victory of the Romantic cause with the production of Hernaniin. Both rival camps, the Classicists and the Romanticists, were in the audience on opening night. The Classicists protested against every realistic or extravagant touch in the play, but the Romanticists answered with vehement applause, cheering the fresh sweep of action and passion which was lacking in Classicist drama. For several nights the outcome of the battle was in doubt, but the opposition slowly gave way and the verdict rendered Romantic drama an accomplished fact.
A prominent feature of Hugo’s writings is his democratic sentiment, his sympathy for the poor and oppressed. In 1831, he published his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, introducing an epic range and significance into the novel, reviving the swarming life of Paris in the 15th century in a style that was colourful, evocative, very large in vocabulary and in imaginative appeal. His 1832 drama The King Amuses Himself was removed from the stage because of the unfavourable way it depicted the monarchy. The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi later took the plot of this play for his opera Rigoletto.
In 1841, he was elected to the French Academy and nominated for the Chamber of Peers. After election to the French Academy, he began taking an increasingly active part in politics. He championed democracy and was bitterly opposed to Napoleon III. 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 carried out his coup d’etat in 1851, taking absolute control of France by abolishing its democratic system of government, Hugo labelled him a traitor to his country and he was forced into exile. After a short stay in Brussels, he settled in Guernsey, one the Channel Islands, where he stayed for 19 years. While in exile, he wrote savage attacks on Napoleon III and other French leaders through his novels The Toilers of the Sea and Les Miserables. He also published the poetry collection The Legend of Centuries in three series, a book on Shakespeare and other collections of poetry. His fame made him a world figure. He was keenly interested in the American Civil War and wrote several letters to Lincoln. He also defended the American abolitionist John Brown and wrote in support of the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi.
When the empire of Napoleon III collapsed in the course of the Second Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Hugo returned to Paris. He was in Paris during the Paris Commune, the first revolutionary government established by the working class. It took place in the city of Paris after France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Despite lasting only two months, the Paris Commune introduced many news ways of doing things based on modern democratic principles, including women’s rights, worker’s rights and the separation of church and state. The uprising came to an end when troops from the Third Republic reclaimed power following a vicious week of fighting that left at least 10,000 Parisians dead and much of the city destroyed. Hugo was in Paris during the Commune and witnessed the fighting and the massacres.
In 1872 he published a collection of poems about it called The Terrible Year.
In 1874, he wrote his last novel Ninety-Three, which presents excellent pictures of the French Revolution in the year 1793. Victor Hugo’s last years were filled with a great and growing popularity. French public opinion considered him a hero and a prophet who had experienced the vicissitudes of France and who now shed glory on the Republic. In 1875, he was elected senator from Paris. He died on May 22, 1885, leaving a legacy to world literature of nearly 50 volumes, many of which are masterpieces. His body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe amid much pomp and almost universal tribute. His ashes were laid to rest in the Pantheon in Paris.