19th Century

“Something strange and marvellous”: Victor Hugo’s Essay on Walter Scott | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and writer based in Leeds, UK. He specialises in the study of the history of crime, as well as Georgian and Victorian medievalism.

Young Victor Hugo in 1829


In June 1823, the then young and relatively unknown French writer, Victor Hugo (1802–85), decided to write an essay on the most famous British writer then living: Walter Scott (1771–1832). Until then, Hugo had published very little. He had written, but not published, a few poems which would eventually make their way into his later Odes et Ballades (1828). He had also published a short story titled Bug-Jurgal in the Le Conservateur littéraire in 1820.

Scott the Great

By 1823, Scott’s fame had reached dizzying heights across Europe. Scott’s livelihood was earned in the legal sector but, in his spare time, he was a collector of medieval and early modern Scottish ‘border ballads’—a collection he eventually published as Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border—and this project which brought him into contact with a like-minded attorney and antiquary Joseph Ritson, with whom he remained friends until the latter’s death.

Walter Scott

Having published a collection of old epic Scots poetry, Scott decided to turn poet himself and, in emulation of the old border ballads, published epic narrative poems such as Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), The Lady of the Lake (1810), The Vision of Don Roderick (1811), Rokeby (1813), The Bridal of Triermain (1813), The Lord of the Isles (1815), and Harold the Dauntless (1817).

‘Romantic, Picturesque, and Graceful’

It was the first three poems that were considered by the reading public to be Scott’s finest, as his son-in-law J.G. Lockhart remarked:

The Lay, if I may venture to state the creed now established, is, I should say, generally considered as the most natural and original, Marmion as the most powerful and splendid, The Lady of the Lake as the most interesting, romantic, picturesque, and graceful of his great poems.[1]

All of these poems were popular with the British public who had in the mid-eighteenth century ‘rediscovered’ Shakespeare and who also, as a result of the French Revolution, eschewed neoclassical art in favour of art and literature that were inspired by Britain’s medieval and early modern past.[2] The poems were also responsible for a boom in Scottish tourism. In the wake of the publication of The Lady of the Lake, tourism around Loch Katrine boomed, and tolls collected from carriages carrying tourists increased 200 per cent.

The Waverley Novels

Having established his reputation as a poet, Scott turned his hand to writing novels. His first novel, Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), was initially published anonymously but it was a great success. It was this well-researched (complete with footnotes) story of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 which has earned Scott credit for having invented the historical novel. Prior to Scott, most stories set in the past were ridiculous gothic romps like Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764). Scott had thrown down the gauntlet with Waverley and any aspiring historical fiction author had to decide if they were to write a ‘Walpolesque’ gothic novel or a serious historical novel.

A giant helmet falls from the sky and crushes a young boy to death in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Such was the silly state of ‘historical’ novels before Walter Scott invented the historical novel.

Under the pen-name of ‘The Author of Waverley’ Scott wrote more historical novels: Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), Tales of My Landlord (1816–19), Rob Roy (1817), Ivanhoe (1819)—featuring as its hero the great Robin HoodThe Monastery (1820), The Abbot (1820), Kenilworth (1821), The Pirate (1822), The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), Peveril of the Peak (1822), and Quentin Durward (1823).

As their titles suggest, all of these novels were set in the medieval and early modern period. Translations and pirated copies of Scott’s novels sold particularly well in Spain and in France, as Richard Maxwell has shown.[3] Many more novels flowed from Scott’s pen, but it was the publication of Quentin Durward that caught the young Hugo’s attention.

Notre Dame in 1838, from a daguerrotype

Victor Hugo’s Essay on Scott

Hugo was, at the beginning of his literary career, a staunch Catholic and Royalist who seemed more interested in France’s medieval past than with its post-revolutionary republican and ‘neoclassical’ heritage favoured by a majority of its writers. Indeed, French society as a whole seemed disdainful of its medieval heritage. This was especially evident in Parisians’ treatment of Notre Dame Cathedral. As Hugo remarked on the edifice in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831):

The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last … But who has thrown down the two rows of statues? who has left the niches empty? who has cut, in the very middle of the central portal, that new and bastard arch? who has dared to frame therein that commonplace and heavy door of carved wood, à la Louis XV., beside the arabesques of Biscornette? The men, the architects, the artists of our day.[4]

No wonder, then, that Scott’s medievalist novels,[5] with their castles, monks, outlaws, kings, and queens appealed to young royalist, Catholic, and medievalist Victor Hugo.

My copy of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame

‘Something Strange and Marvellous’

Having finished reading Quentin Durward, Hugo remarked that

Surely there is something strange and marvellous in the talent of this man who disposes of his reader as the wind disperses of a leaf; who leads him at his will into all places and into all times; unveils for him with ease the most secret recesses of the heart, as well as the most mysterious phenomena of nature, as well as the obscurest pages of history.[6]

For this reason, so Hugo further argued, Scott’s medievalist novels were the bridge between the verse epics of the past and the serious novels of his own day. Scott’s unique talent, surmised Hugo, lay in the fact that—unlike the gothic novelists who had flourished in the last few decades before he was writing[7]—Scott could fictionalize Middle Ages without making them ridiculous:

He unites the exactness of the [medieval] chronicles, the majestic grandeur of history, and the all-compelling interest of romance.[8]

(The question of whether medieval chronicles were ever ‘exact’ is one I shall leave to historians of the medieval period).

The Author as National Hero

Hugo was also inspired by Scott’s status as a ‘national’ British author, whose fiction was able to unite the nation (see my own post on Scott’s Ivanhoe in this regard). The message that Hugo took from reading Scott’s novels is that fiction and those who write it should always have one eye on entertaining the audience but also have another eye firmly on national concerns and try, if possible, to solve the country’s problems. Just as Scott’s Ivanhoe was a call for national unity in the post-Napoleonic War period, so Hugo wished that French authors would do the same.

The king in disguise in Hugo’s Hernani — a very medievalist trope

When Hugo wrote his essay on Scott in 1823, of course, he could not have dreamed that he would become France’s ‘national poet’. As a leading figure of French Romanticism—which Hugo brought to the French stage with his outlaw play Hernani (1830)—Hugo transformed the French literary world.

The Anti-Medievalism of Hugo’s Later Writings

Yet as Hugo turned away from monarchism towards republicanism and later to a kind of bourgeois socialism, he seems to have moved away from medievalism. As a member of the conservative Party of Order, he was elected to the French National Assembly in 1848. He then fled into exile in 1851 when Napoleon III staged his successful coup d’etat (a fate which befell his fellow author and radical political Eugene Sue).[9] By the time he returned to Paris in 1870, after which he wrote his final novel Ninety-Three in 1874, Hugo’s disdain for medievalism was clear for all to see.

In Ninety-Three, the French Revolution is depicted as a ‘regeneration of humanity’[10] and a complete break with France’s medieval past. When the Revolutionaries lay siege to a medieval castle named La Torgue where the (positively medievalish and serf-like) Vendéan rebels are hiding, Hugo says that

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.”[11]

The evil ground is the medieval castle, watered by human tears. The guillotine was progress, brutal though it may have been in cutting down the ‘feudal’ aristocracy and the monarchy.

Hugo — Feted by the French Nation

Despite his later disregard for France’s medieval heritage, Hugo achieved Scott-like status in France. He is now regarded as one of the French nation’s greatest authors whose talents were lauded the world over, much as the poet Alfred Tennyson remarked:

Victor in Drama, Victor in Romance,

Cloud-weaver of phantasmal hopes and fears,

French of the French, and Lord of human tears;

Child-lover; Bard whose fame-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!

Who dost not love our England—so they say;

I know not—England, France, all man to be

Will make one people ere man’s race be run:

And I, desiring that diviner day,

Yield thee full thanks for thy full courtesy

To younger England in the boy my son.


[1] J.G. Lockhart cited in Stuart Kelly [online], ‘Sir Walter Scott’, Scottish Poetry Library, accessed 21 November 2021, https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poet/sir-walter-scott/

[2] See John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2013).

[3] See Richard Maxwell, ‘Scott in France’, in The Reception of Sir Walter Scott in Europe, ed. by Murray Pittock (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 11–30 and Paul Barnaby, ‘Another Tale of Old Mortality: The Translations of Auguste-Jean-Baptiste Defauconpret in the French Reception of Scott’, pp. 31–44 in idem.

[4] Victor Hugo [online], The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Trans. Isabel F. Hapgood, accessed 21 November 2021, http://www.gutenberg.org

[5] Maxwell, 20.

[6] Victor Hugo, ‘Walter Scott’, in Things Seen (Choses Vue): Essays (Boston, MA: Estes and Lauriat, n.d.), 309.

[7] See Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (London: Routledge, 2005).

[8] Hugo, ‘Walter Scott’, 310.

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

[10] Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three (London: Richard Edward King, c.1890), 66.

[11] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 245.

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