19th Century

Victor Hugo’s “Ninety-Three” (1874) | Stephen Basdeo

Thus the guillotine had a right to say to the tower: “I am thy daughter.”[1]

…So wrote Victor Hugo in Ninety-Three (1874). By the time that Hugo had published Ninety-Three—his final novel—he had been witness to some of the defining events of nineteenth-century French history such as the French Revolution of 1848 and the coup d’état of Napoleon III in 1852.

Victor Hugo

Hugo began his career as a poet and novelist, publishing Notre Dame de Paris in 1833, and collections of poems such as Songs of Twilight (1835). He also turned politician and, as a member of the conservative-republican Parti de l’Ordre (referred to in English radical newspapers as the Party of Law and Order),[2] was elected to the French legislative assembly in the late 1840s. His opposition to Napoleon III, however, meant that he was forced into exile (a fate which befell his fellow author and contemporary Eugene Sue; the two men’s careers, in terms of their literary output, activism, and eventual exile were in fact very similar).

Title page to Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three

Hugo’s Exile

It was during his exile in Jersey, and later Guernsey, between 1852 and 1870, that Hugo embraced socialism and produced his finest work: Les Miserables, the story of redeemed criminal Jean Valjean who becomes mixed up in the 1832 student rebellion, was published to huge critical acclaim in 1862.

Title page to Victor Hugo’s other great tale of revolution: Les Miserables

This was followed by another masterpiece, The Toilers of the Sea, in 1866. Between writing these, he published several shorter works, two of which mocked Napoleon III and were subsequently banned in France: Napoleon the Little and History of a Crime.

Rare photo of Victor Hugo in Jersey

The Paris Commune

With the fall of Napoleon III in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Hugo finally returned to Paris. Parisian crowds gathered to mark his return and he was hailed in the press as a national hero. However, just a year later Parisians were revolting again, in an event now known as the Paris Commune, which lasted between March and May, 1871.

Street barricade during the Paris Commune

Fiercely patriotic and smarting under the humiliating reparations that Prussia had imposed on the nation—and which had been accepted by the newly elected leader of the French executive, Adolphe Thiers—working-class members of the French National Guard, along with their allies in the socialist movement, rose up against Thiers’s administration. Barricades were built around the city of Paris and the ‘Communards’ formed their socialist government, founded on the principles set forth by Jean Pierre Proudhon.[3]

Interpretations of the Paris Commune

The commune was crushed after just two months by the French army, but several thinkers such as Karl Marx turned their thoughts towards the question of revolution.

Victor Hugo had conflicted feelings towards this revolution. No stranger to revolution, having participated in the French Revolution of 1848, he felt that the Commune was ‘idiotic’, as he declared in his diary:

In short, this Commune is as idiotic as the National Assembly is ferocious. From both sides, folly.

Yet publicly he defended the revolutionaries. It is his conflicting feelings towards the question of the morality of revolutions and counter-revolutions more generally that shine through in Ninety-Three.

Vendéen rebel by Julien Le Blant

The War in the Vendée

The novel is set in France in 1793. The revolution has entered its bloodiest phase in Paris where the Committee of Public Safety, led by Maximillien Robespierre, has initiated the Reign of Terror and supposed enemies of the revolution are being executed by guillotine.

While Robespierre sees enemies all over Paris, the leaders of the revolution have a much bigger threat with which to contend: The War in the Vendée. The people of Brittany, Normandy, Caen, and Evreux have rejected the revolution and have taken up arms against the new French republic.

In the novel, the scene of all the action is Brittany, and the war is a guerrilla war fought in the ‘nooks and corners’ of the Breton forests.[4]

Theatre of the Vendée Rebellion

To add some historical context: Initially the peasantry in these areas revolted against the military conscription imposed on them by Paris.[5] Soon their revolt acquired an ideological dimension: The peasants became royalists, loyal to the king and his heirs—even though Louis XVI had been executed—and they were staunchly Catholic. The revolutionary government in Paris decided that the rebellion needed to be crushed.

Civil wars are always nasty, bloody affairs. But the war had to be fought, for as Hugo states: reactionary sentiment in French society had to be stamped out for

It [was] the price of the regeneration of the people.[6]

Revolution as Regeneration

The overall argument of Hugo’s novel is that the ‘civil war’ the Vendée was essentially a battle between ‘Civilization’ (the revolution) and backward-looking ‘barbarism’ (royalism).

Hugo was therefore firmly on the side of the revolutionaries. For him, the revolution, with its Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and its destruction of royalty and nobility, represented

The vast regeneration of the human race.[7]

The revolution was, as an extension of this regeneration, a ‘war against the past’, for a nation can only be regenerated if it throws off the dead weight of its traditions and heritage. As Hugo states in his description of Louis XVI’s trial, the revolution represented

Fatal breaths which blew upon the old torch of monarchy, that had burned for eighteen centuries, and blew it out. The decisive trial of all kings in this one king, was like the point of departure in the great war against the Past.[8]

Of course, Hugo remarks that the revolution was not a total destruction of the past. Hugo tells us that it was during the revolution that Duboe set out cataloguing all the treasures held in French archives. Other fruits of the revolution include academies of music and museums. Alongside some older things, new things could co-exist: new law codes, unity of weights and measures, and calculation with the decimal system.[9]

What the revolution does in Hugo’s view, then, is to retain the best of the past but also move forward with new ideas. The revolution is progress.

The Return of a King

The Vendéans want a king to lead, and into this void steps forth Lantenac, a Breton nobleman and one of the novel’s most interesting characters. Lantenac—whose ancestral estates are in Brittany—is funded by the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, to serve as the figurehead of the royalist movement in France which, it is hoped, will help to put an end to the revolution.

Lantenac’s first object is to capture several ports in northern France which will allow British ships to dock. Lantenac’s alliance with the English, however—against whom Revolutionary France was at war—makes him a traitor in Hugo’s eyes, for

No one is a hero who fights against his country.[10]

Indeed, Lantenac’s personal philosophy is very ‘British’: He praises the reactionary Edmund Burke, who wrote the anti-revolutionary Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Lantenac also pours scorn on those philosophers like Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Rousseau whom he blames for having spread the seeds of revolution:

To think that all this would not have happened if they had hanged Voltaire and sent Rousseau to the galleys. Oh! these writer fellows; they are a perfect nuisance … books are at the bottom of all mischief. “Rights of Man!” “Rights of People!” rubbish![11]

All of the main characters in Hugo’s novel are inflexible in their devotion to their own ideology. Lantenac’s mission is to kill all who oppose a royalist restoration, and he has his sights on the Parisian politicians who ordered Louis XVI’s execution:

The regicides have cut off the head of Louis XVI. We will tear off the limbs of the regicides.[12]

And Lantenac will not hesitate to sacrifice the lives of the peasants who declare their allegiance to him, as he remarks to one of his aides that he is quite willing

To draw up in line a hundred peasants to be mowed down by the artillery of Monsieur Carnot’.[13]

Of course, with the War in the Vendée being a battle between the Revolution and Civilization on the one hand, and barbarism on the other, Lantenac’s cruel behaviour towards the peasants is contrasted with the humanity of the revolutionary army.

Michelle the peasant woman and her children in the woods

The Humanity of the Revolution

One of the Revolutionary army’s regiments named the Bonnet Rouge takes under its wing a simple forest-dwelling peasant woman, Michelle, and her three children whom they find in the forest in a state of great distress. The revolutionaries do this in spite of the fact that Michelle’s husband is a royalist. When the small flying column head to a farm and lodge there for an evening, Lantenac’s royalist forces arrive and massacre the entire army. There is no quarter. The royalists also leave Michelle half-dead and kidnap her three children.

The humanity of the revolution: The Parisians adopt the peasant woman and her children

The Simple, Savage Royalists

Seven thousand peasants flock to Lantenac’s standard, despite his reputation as a cruel master. When Hugo explains why the peasants need a king, his contempt for the royalist peasants shines through: the peasants need a prince because they are not intelligent enough to think for themselves.[14] They are barbarians, wedded to the past:

Opposite the French Revolution, which represents an immense inroad of all the benefits—civilization in a fit of rage—an excess of maddened progress—improvements exceeding measure and comprehension—you must place these strange, grave savages, with clear eyes and flowing hair, living on milk and chestnuts, their ideas bounded by their thatched roofs, their hedges and their ditches … speaking a dead language, which was like forcing their thoughts to dwell in a tomb; driving their bullocks, sharpening their scythes, winnowing their black grain, kneading their buckwheat dough, venerating their plough first and then their grandmothers; believing in the Blessed Virgin and the White Lady … loving their king, their lord, their priest, their very lice; pensive without thought.[15]

In other places Hugo declares that the Vendéan revolt is also a ‘revolt of the priests’; it is ‘darkness assisting darkness’—the peasants are in mental darkness and they are fighting with the forces of darkness.[16] Indeed, at one point in the novel the priests beguile the simple-minded peasants into supporting the royalist cause—during a mass, several people appear with red marks around their necks and the priests tell the simple peasants that the men who appear before them are the spirits of the guillotined priests who have returned to urge them to fight against the revolution.[17]

Lantenac rallies the royalist peasants

The peasants may be good at massacring a small regiment of revolutionaries and unarmed farmers who decide to take no part in the Vendéans’ counter revolution, but when they are forced to fight against an organised army of Parisians they are ineffectual despite their large numbers, and in one battle many of them simply run away.[18]

Hugo’s Bewilderment

Hugo seems baffled as to why any peasant would side with the royalists, and he never quite seems to be able to explain it to his readers either. History provides a potential answer, however.

By 1789, most French nobles were absentee landlords and were usually resident far away from their country estates—a result of Louis XIV’s absolutist rule and centralisation of government. Wanting to concentrate power in his own hands, Louis ruled from his newly built Palace of Versailles. The way for any nobleman to gain royal favour was to be close to Louis, which for the French nobility necessitated their residence either in or near Versailles.

The exception to this, however, was the Breton nobles who often eschewed court life and, until 1789, usually lived on their estates alongside their peasants.[19] When the Bretons’ typical ‘Gallic’ resentment of all things Parisian is also considered—for Brittany, as Hugo remarked, had always had an ‘independent’ spirit—then the Parisian revolutionaries’ imposition of conscription and their attack on the Bretons’ traditions provided a fertile ground for rebellion to grow.


As if to exemplify the notion that the French Revolution was a battle between the past and the future, the man whom the Committee of Public Safety sends to hunt down Lantenac is none other than the latter’s nephew and heir: Gauvain.[20] He will lead a flying column of Parisians to put an end to the peasant revolt, and arrest or kill Lantenac.

The War in the Vendée pitted the peasant against the patriot; the local against national; and the townsman vs peasant.[21] When Gauvain enters the fray, the revolution becomes an interfamilial battle.

Gauvain, however, represents the French Revolution at its best. He is a soldier and not a politician, a heroic and virtuous soldier at that. He does not smoke, drink, or swear; he is hardy and tough and will sleep on the ground with his men when the campaign calls for it. He will show mercy to anyone deserving of it, even royalists, because he wishes to give the revolution friends and not enemies. Indeed, he has his own reservations about the revolution; he prophesies that Robespierre and the Reign of Terror will terrify, not only the Europe of his own day, but people of the future as well.[22] His own philosophy, therefore, is a more peaceful one:

Let us strike down the crowns but spare the heads. Amnesty is to me the most beautiful word.[23]

Despite his reservations about the revolution and the Terror, Gauvain is a firm idealist—only progress will come out of the revolution:

Grand events are coming. What the revolution enacts at this moment is mysterious. Behind the visible work stands the invisible. One hides the other. The visible work is ferocious, the invisible is sublime … it is strange and beautiful … Under the scaffolding of barbarism, a temple of civilization is building.[24]

According to Hugo, the Revolution may appear barbaric, but out of it will arise something beautiful.

Gauvain’s view of the revolution, then, accords with Hugo’s own. When Hugo speaks directly to the reader, he argues that, although the revolution, the Vendéan War, and the Reign of Terror are all chaotic and seemingly ‘bad’ events, out of this chaos will arise Justice, Tolerance, Kindness, Reason, Truth and Love.[25]

Gauvain is also a committed socialist, although one more in the mould of Proudhon than Marx, owing to his ideas about making everyone a landowner:

Let each man have a piece of ground, and let each piece of ground have a man. You will increase a hundred fold the social product.[26]

These ideas were common among mid-nineteenth century socialists (before Marx’s ideas took hold on the socialist movement after the 1880s). The British author George W.M. Reynolds, who was a great admirer of Hugo and likewise a Proudhonian socialist, declared himself in favour of similar measures when he created his little fictional Italian republic of Castelcicala in The Mysteries of London (1844–48).


Gauvain may have been scion of the aristocracy but he is really a son of the revolution, and the man who accompanies Gauvain’s flying column is none other than Gauvain’s former tutor, a man named Cimourdain, who is connected with the Committee of Public Safety. Gauvain and Cimourdain’s relationship—the latter treats the former like a son—is symbolic of the fact that the revolution has turned the world upside down: the son of an aristocrat and a former priest go to war against the peasants, or ‘the people’—whom the revolution is supposed to serve—while the peasants, who should be in favour of the revolution, stick by their former feudal masters.

Cimourdain as tutor to the young Gauvain

Cimourdain is mysterious, for no one knows his surname, and because he is inflexible in his devotion to the revolution, to the point of cruelty, Hugo describes him as a ‘dark soul’. A former priest, Cimourdain has replaced his belief in god with a firm, staunch devotion to the revolution. He is like an inquisitor, but a rational, secular, revolutionary inquisitor devoted to logic:

No abstractions! The republic is this: two and two are four … The abstract idea must become concrete. Right must assume the form of Law, and when Right has become Law it is Absolute. That is what I call the possible.[27]

He is a member of the Eveche club—a secret society who meet in the Eveche tavern in Paris. It is a club whose members are poor and violent, a hotbed of insane, would-be criminals turned revolutionaries who would show no mercy to anybody.

The orchestrators of the Reign of Terror—Robespierre, Marat, and Danton—have all shown mercy before to supposed enemies of the revolution and let them live but Cimourdain would never do this for

‘Revolution is humanity’s surgeon, it cuts out the tumour, it cuts off the gangrened limb—What! would you have pity for the virus? For the gangrened limb![28]

The Final Battle

As Lantenac’s forces dwindle he retreats with his peasant army to his medieval ancestral home of La Torgue. He lodges the kidnapped children in the tower; knowing the revolutionaries’ fondness for the children, he plans on either ransoming them or allowing them to die in the fray.

The Revolutionary army besieges La Torgue

The soldiers of the modern republic come to crush this last outpost of the Vendéan War. As Gauvain draws up his cannon and 4,500 men against the royalists in the old tower, where his family’s history is kept, the idea of destroying the past—the tower, the library, the books and manuscripts—to destroy the rebels in the name of modernity and the revolution sits uneasily with him.

Cimourdain, however, wants to destroy both Lantenac (the man) and the old tower as he knows the importance of symbolism:

He made up his mind that he should be beheaded on the spot, as it were in his own house, that the feudal stronghold should see the head of the feudal lord fall.[29]

This is why Cimourdain, in the midst of the siege, sends for a guillotine. Lantenac must be captured and sentenced in a revolutionary tribunal. He must not die as a hero in battle.

A brutal battle ensues and a large portion of La Torgue burns to the ground. Lantenac does manage to escape via a secret passage and is initially content to leave Michelle’s children to die in the conflagration. Suddenly, the old aristocratic spirit of self-sacrifice rises within Lantenac—‘a hero [rose] out of a monster’—and he goes back into the castle to rescue the peasant children.

He then hands the children to Gauvain. Lantenac is then arrested by Cimourdain and told that he will face a revolutionary tribunal. The trial will be a show trial, of course, and the outcome is known from the outset: Lantenac will be guillotined. 

Revolutionary forces enter the Torgue, from the 1920s silent movie adaptation of Ninety-Three

Lantenac in the Dungeon

Gauvain goes to see Lantenac in the castle dungeon and the latter explains why he is against the revolution:

You know a gentleman is rather a curiosity nowadays; he believes in God; he believes in tradition; he believes in his family, in his ancestors, in the examples of his forefather; he believes in loyalty, in his duties towards his prince; in respect for the old laws, in virtue, in justice.[30]

Lantenac’s idea of justice was the reason why, although he initially did not seem to care about the children, he went back and sacrificed his own life to rescue them.

The revolution, with its emphasis on the rights of the individual, was the antithesis of the ‘feudal’ world represented by Lantenac, in whose world everyman owed a duty to someone else and in which everyone respected the traditions of their forefathers. Lantenac warns Gauvain that even though France wants to, it will never be able to erase its past. France will always be a product of its history and traditions:

All this does not prevent religion from being religion; it does not prevent royalty from having filled fifteen hundred years of our history; it does not prevent the French nobility, even decapitated, from towering high above your heads.[31]

Lantenac is right, to some extent; although the atheist revolutionaries in Paris attempted to do away with the Church, for instance, Napoleon soon had to reckon with the fact that Catholicism was the religion of the majority of French people.

The guillotine in front of the tower

The new France is, indeed, a product of its past. But if that is the case, the revolution, then, is also a product of France’s past. Hugo explains this when he describes the guillotine being constructed in front of the feudal castle:

In La Torgue were condensed fifteen hundred years—the middle ages—of vassalage, serfdom, and feudality. In the guillotine, only one year: ’93; and these twelve months counterpoised those fifteen centuries. La Torgue was Monarchy; the guillotine was Revolution. Tragic confrontation! … The fatal tree had grown out of this evil ground, watered by so many human tears, so much blood … thus the guillotine had a right to say to the tower: “I am thy daughter.”[32]

Death of Gauvain

Gauvain resolves to set his uncle free; he cannot allow a man who rescued the children from a blazing fire at the cost of his own life to be executed. He smuggles Lantenac out of the dungeon and switches places with him.

Cimourdain’s logical mind and fervent devotion to revolutionary principles will not allow him to spare Gauvain from the guillotine, for in his mind Gauvain has now betrayed the revolution by setting Lantenac free.

Gauvain understands and, as a makeshift revolutionary tribunal—headed by Cimourdain—held in one of the castle’s remaining apartments sentences Gauvain to death, he maintains a stoic attitude. Gauvain never abandons his faith in the revolution, however; even as Gauvain mounts the scaffold, ready to be executed in front of his ancestral home, he shouts ‘Vive la republique!’ in front of the tricolour flag.

As the blade descends and cuts through Gauvain’s neck, a gunshot is also heard. Lantenac has ended his own life, unable to live with the guilt of sentencing his beloved ‘child’, Gauvain, to death.

Gauvain’s tribunal

Stephen Basdeo is a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK. He currently researches the life and work of G.W.M. Reynolds, Eugene Sue, and Victor Hugo.

[1] Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three [no Trans. listed] (London: Richard Edward King, c.1890), p. 246.

[2] Jonathan Beecher, Writers and Revolution: Intellectuals and the French Revolution of 1848 (Cambridge University Press, 2021), 185.

[3] Mitchell Abidor, Trans. Voices of the Paris Commune, Revolutionary Pocketbooks, 2 (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2015), p. 1.

[4] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 14.

[5] James Maxwell Anderson, Daily Life During the French Revolution (Greenwood Publishing, 2007), 205.

[6] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 137.

[7] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 66.

[8] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 107.

[9] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 105, 107.

[10] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 35.

[11] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 229.

[12] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 17.

[13] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 39.

[14] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 14.

[15] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 121.

[16] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 20.

[17] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 137.

[18] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 128, 144.

[19] Donald M. G. Sutherland, The French Revolution and Empire: The Quest for a Civic Order (Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 155.

[20] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 159.

[21] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 132, 137.

[22] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 160.

[23] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 161.

[24] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 240.

[25] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 109.

[26] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 241.

[27] Hugo, Ninety-three, 241, 243.

[28] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 160.

[29] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 192.

[30] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 241.

[31] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 230.

[32] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 245–46.