Life of Victor Hugo | Isabel Hapgood

A short biography of the famous French writer Victor Hugo, first published in 1888, transcribed by Stephen Basdeo in 2021.

Victor in Poesy, Victor in Romance,

Cloud-weaver of phantasmal hopes and fears,

French of the French, and Lord of Human tears;

Child-lover; Bard whose flame-lit laurels glance,

Darkening the wreaths of all that would advance,

Beyond our strait, their claim to be thy peers;

Weird Titan by thy winter weight of years

As yet unbroken, Stormy voice of France!


Towards the close of the First French Revolution, Joseph Leopold Sigisbert Hugo, son of a joiner at Nancy, and an officer risen from the ranks in the Republican army, married Sophie Trébuchet, daughter of a Nantes fitter-out of privateers, a Vendean royalist and devotee.[1]

Victor Marie Hugo, their second son, was born on the 26th February, 1802, at Besançon, France. Though a weakling, he was carried, with his boy-brothers, in the train of their father through the south of France, in pursuit of Fra Diavolo, the Italian brigand, and finally into Spain.

General Joseph-Leopold Hugo, father of Victor Hugo (Paris Musées Collection, Wikimedia Commons)

Colonel Hugo had become General, and there, besides being governor over three provinces, was Lord High Steward at King Joseph’s court, where his eldest son Abel was installed as page. The other two were educated for similar posts among hostile young Spaniards under stern priestly tutors in the Nobles’ College at Madrid, a palace become a monastery. Upon the English advance to free Spain of the invaders, the General and Abel remained at bay, whilst the mother and children hastened to Paris.

Sophie Trébuchet, mother of Victor Hugo (Paris Musées Collection, Wikimedia Commons)

Again, in a house once a convent, Victor and his brother Eugene were taught by priests until, by the accident of their roof sheltering a comrade of their father’s, a change of tutor was afforded them. This was General Lahorie, a man of superior education, main supporter of Malet in his daring plot to take the government into the Republicans’ hands during the absence of Napoleon I in Russia. Lahorie read old French and Latin with Victor till the police scented him out and led him to execution, October 1812.

British infantry attempt to scale the walls of Badajoz, during the Peninsular War of 1812

School claimed the young Hugos after this tragical episode, where they were oddities among the humdrum tradesmen’s sons. Victor, thoughtful and taciturn, rhymed profusely in tragedies, “printing” in his books “Chateubriand or nothing!” and engaging his more animated brother to flourish the Cid’s sword and roar the tyrant’s speeches.

In 1814, both suffered a sympathetic anxiety as their father held out at Thionville against the Allies, finally repulsing them by a sortie. This was pure loyalty to the fallen Bonaparte, for Hugo had lost his all in Spain, his very savings having been sunk in real estate, through King Joseph’s insistence on his adherents investing to prove that they had “come to stay.”

François-René de Chateaubriand (Wikimedia Commons)

The Bourbons enthroned anew, General Hugo received, less for his neutrality than thanks to his wife’s piety and loyalty, confirmation of his title and rank, and, moreover, a field-marshalship. Abel was accepted as a page, too, but there was no money awarded to the ex-Bonapartist—money being what the Eaglet at Reichstadt most required for an attempt at his father’s throne—and the poor officer was left in seclusion to write consolingly about his campaigns and Defences of Fortified Towns.

Decidedly the pen had superseded the sword, for Victor and Eugene were scribbling away in ephemeral political sheets as apprenticeship to founding a periodical of their own.

Victor’s poetry became remarkable in La Muse Française and Le Conservateur Litteraire, the odes being permeated with Legitimist and anti-revolutionary sentiments delightful to the taste of Madam Hugo, member as she was of the courtly Order of the Royal Lily.

In 1817, the French Academy honourably mentioned Victor’s Odes on the Advantages of Study with a misgiving that some elder hand was asked under the line ascribing “scant fifteen years” to the author. At the Toulouse Floral Games he won prizes two years successively. His critical judgment was sound as well, for he had divined the powers of Lamartine.

His “Odes,” collected in a volume, gave his ever-active mother her opportunity at Court. Louis XVIII granted the boy-poet a pension of 1,500 francs.

It was the windfall for which the youth had been waiting to gratify his first love. In his childhood, his father and one M. Foucher, head of the War Office Department, had jokingly betrothed a son of the one to a daughter of the other. Abel had loftier views than alliance with a civil servant’s child; Eugene was in love elsewhere; but Victor had fallen enamoured with Adele Foucher. It is true, when poverty beclouded the Hugos, the Fouchers had shrunk into their mantle of dignity, and the girl had been strictly forbidden to correspond with her childhood sweetheart.

He, finding letters barred out, wrote a love story (Hans of Iceland) in two weeks, where were recited his hopes, fears, and constancy, and this book she could read.

It pleased the public no less, and its sale, together with that of the Odes and a West-Indian romance, Buck Jargal, together with a royal pension, emboldened the poet to renew his love-suit. To refuse the recipient of court funds was not possible to a public functionary. M. Foucher consented to the betrothal in the summer of 1821.

So encloistered had Mdlle. Adele been, her reading Hans the exceptional intrusion, that she only learnt on meeting her affianced that he was mourning his mother. In October, 1822, they were wed, the bride nineteen, the bridegroom but one year elder. The dinner was marred by the sinister disaster of Eugene Hugo going mad (He died in an asylum five years later). The author terminated his wedding year with the Ode to Louis XVIII, read to a society after the President of the Academy had introduced him as “the most promising of our young lyricists.”

In spite of new poems revealing a Napoleonic bias, Victor was invited to see Charles X consecrated at Rheims, on 29th of May 1825, and was entered on the roll of the Legion of Honour, repaying the favours with the verses expected. But though a son was born to him he was not restored to Conservatism; with his mother’s death all that had vanished. His tragedy of Cromwell broke lances upon Royalists and upholders of the still reigning style of tragedy. The second collection of Odes precluding it, showed the spirit of the son of Napoleon’s general, rather than of the Bourbon field-marshal. On the occasion, too, of the Duke of Tarento being announced at the Austrian Ambassador’s ball, February 1827, as plain “Marshal Macdonald,” Victor became the mouthpiece of indignant Bonapartists in his Ode to the Napoleon Column in the Place Vendome.

Victor Hugo in 1829 (Wikimedia Commons)

His Orientales though written in a Parisian suburb by one who had not travelled, appealed for Grecian liberty, and depicted sultans and pashas as tyrants, many a line being deemed applicable to personages nearer the Seine than Stamboul [Istanbul].

Cromwell was not actable, and Amy Robsart, in collaboration with his brother-in-law, Foucher, miserably failed, notwithstanding a finale “superior to Scott’s Kenilworth.” In one twelvemonth, there was failure to record, the death of his father from apoplexy at his eldest son’s marriage, and the birth of a second son to Victor towards the close.

Still imprudent, the young father again irritated the court with satire in Marion Delorne and Hernani, two plays immediately suppressed by the Censure, all the more active as the Revolution of July, 1830, was surely seething up to the edge of the crater. (At this juncture, the poet Chateaubriand, fading star to our rising sun, yielded up to him formally “his place at the poets’ table”).

In the summer of 1831, a civil ceremony was performed over the insurgents killed in the previous year, and Hugo was constituted Poet Laureate of the Revolution by having his hymn sung in the Pantheon over the biers.

Under Louis-Phillippe, Marion Delorne could be played but livelier attention was paid was turned to Notre Dame de Paris, the historical romance in which Hugo vied with Sir Walter. It was to have been followed by others, but the publisher unfortunately secured a contract to monopolize all the new novelist’s prose fictions for a term of years, and the author revenged himself by publishing plays and poems alone. Hence Notre Dame long stood unique: it was translated into all languages, and plays and operas were founded on it. Heine professed to see in the prominence of the hunchback a personal appeal of the author, who was slightly deformed by one shoulder being slightly higher than the other; this malicious suggestion reposed also on the fact that the quasi-hero of Le Roi s’Amuse (1832, a tragedy suppressed after one representation, for its reflections on royalty), was also a contorted piece of humanity. This play was followed by Lucrezia Borgia, Marie Tudor, and Angelo, written in singular poetic prose. [In] spite of bald translations, their action was sufficiently dramatic to make them successes, and even still enduring on our stage. They have all been arranged as operas, whilst Hugo himself, to oblige the father of Louise Bertin, a magazine publisher of note, wrote Esmerelda for her music in 1835.

Thus, at 1837, when he was promoted to an officership in the Legion of Honour, it was acknowledged his due as a laborious worker in all fields of literature, however contestable the merits and tendencies of his essays.

In 1839, the Academy, having rejected him several times, elected him among the Forty Immortals. In the previous year had been successfully acted Ruy Blas, for which play he had gone to Spanish sources; with and after the then imperative Rhine tour, came an unendurable trilogy, the Burgraves, played one long, long night in 1843. A real tragedy was to mark that year: his daughter Leopoldine being drowned in the Seine with her husband,[2] who would not save himself when he found that her death grasp on the sinking boat was not to be loosed.

For distraction, Hugo plunged into politics. A peer in 1845, he sat between Marshall Soult and Pontecoulant, the regicide-judge of Louis XVI. His maiden speech bore upon artistic copyright; but he rapidly became a power in much graver matters.

As fate would have it, his speech on the Bonapartes induced King Louis-Phillippe to allow Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to return, and, there being no gratitude in politics, the emancipated outlaw rose as a rival candidate for the Presidency, for which Hugo had nominated himself in his newspaper the Evenement. The story of the coup d’état is well known; for the Republicans’ side, read Hugo’s own History of a Crime. Hugo, proscribed, betook himself to Brussells, London, and the Channel Islands, waiting to “return with right when the usurper should be expelled.”

Meanwhile, he satirised the Third Napoleon and his congeners with ceaseless shafts, the principal being the famous Napoleon the Little based on the analogical reasoning that as the earth has moons, the lion the jackal, man himself his simian double, a minor Napoleon was inevitable as a standard of estimation, the grain by which a pyramid is measured. These flings were collected in Les Chatiments, a volume preceded by Les Contemplations (mostly written in the [18]40s) and followed by Les Chansons des Rues et des Bois.

The baffled publisher’s close-time having expired, or, at least, his heirs being satisfied, three novels appeared, long heralded: in 1862, Les Miserables (Ye Wretched), wherein the author figures as Marius and his father as the Bonapartist officer: in 1866, Les Travailleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea), its scene among the Channel Islands; and, in 1868, L’Homme Qui Rit (Man Who Grins), unfortunately laid in a fanciful England evolved from recondite reading through foreign spectacles. Whilst writing the final chapters Hugo’s wife died; and, as he had refused the amnesty, he could only escort her remains to the Belgian frontier, August 1868. All this while, in his Paris daily newspaper, Le Rappei (adorned with cuts of a revolutionary drummer beating “to arms!”), he and his sons and son-in-law’s family were reiterating blows at the throne. When it came down in 1870, and the Republic was proclaimed, Hugo hastened to Paris.

Title page to the English edition of Hugo’s most famous novel: Les Miserables.

His poems, written during the [Franco-Prussian] war and siege [of Paris], collected under the title of L’Année Terrible (The Terrible Year, 1870–71), betray the long-tried exile, “almost alone in his gloom,” after the death of his son Charles and his child. Fleeing to Brussels after the Commune, he nevertheless was so aggressive in sheltering and aiding its fugitives, that he was banished from the kingdom, lest there should be a renewal of an assault on his house by the mob, supposed by his adherents to be not the “honest Belgians” but the refugee Bonapartists and Royalists, who had not cared to fight for France in [a time of] France endangered. Resting in Luxembourg, he prepared L’Année Terrible for the press, and thence returned to Paris, vainly to plead with President Thiers for the captured Communists’ lives, and vainly, too, proposing himself for election to the new House.

The first Communist Revolution: street barricades during the Paris Commune of 1871 (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1872, his novel of ’93 pleased the general public [in the United States], mainly by the adventures of three charming children during the prevalence of an internecine war. These phases of a bounteously paternal mood reappeared in L’Art d’etre Grandpere, published in 1877, when he had become a life-senator.

Hernani was the regular stock of the Theatre Français, Rigoletto (Le Roi s’Amuse) always at the Italian opera-house, while the same subject, under the title of The Fool’s Revenge, held, as it still holds [in 1888 when this biography was written], a high position on the Anglo-American stage. Finally, the poetic romance of Torquemada, for over thirty years promised, came forth in 1882, to prove that the wizard-wand had not lost its cunning.

After dolor, fetes were come: on one birthday they crown his bust in the chief theatre; on another, all notable Paris parades under his window, where he sits with his grandchildren at his knee, in the shadow of the Triumphal Arch of Napoleon’s Star. It is given to few men thus to see their apotheosis.

Whilst he was dying in May 1885, Paris was but the first mourner for all France; and the magnificent funeral pageant which conducted the pauper’s coffin, antithetically enshrining the remains considered worthy of the highest possible reverence and honours from the Champs Elysées to the Panthéon, was the more memorable from all that was foremost in French art and letters having marched in the train, and laid a leaf or flower in the tomb of the protégé Chateaubriand, the brother-in-arms of Dumas, the inspirer of Mars, Dorval, Lemaitre, Rachel, and Bernhardt, and, above all, the Nemesis of the Third Empire.

Death of Victor Hugo

[1] Original citation: Anon. ‘Memoir of Victor Marie Hugo’, in The Works of Victor Hugo: The History of a Crime and Poems, ed. by Isabel Hapgood, Huntington Smith, and Helen B. Dale, 10 vols (New York: The Kelmscott Press, 1888), II, pp. 11–18.

[2] See Javert’s death in Les Miserables.

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