“I am a public thing”: Victor Hugo as Political Symbol | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer who specialises in the study of mid-Victorian radical literary cultures, with an emphasis on the works of George W.M. Reynolds (1814–79), Pierce Egan (1814–80), Eugene Sue (1804–57), and Victor Hugo (1802–85).

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.


Print of the Victor Hugo monument, by Louis Ernest-Barrias, destroyed by the Vichy Regime in 1941 (Personal Collection)

A Trip to the John Rylands Library, Manchester

On Thursday last, I had the pleasure of attending, in person, a special seminar at the John Rylands Library in Manchester which discussed the reputation of an author who has featured many times on this website: Victor Hugo (1802–85). What follows here are a few reflections on the talk I listened to combined with some further thoughts of my own (people will be able to listen to the talk itself once it’s been edited and uploaded on to the John Rylands Youtube channel).

It turns out that I should not have attended in person at all, for the seminar was actually online. You can imagine my disappointment when I got to the main reception and asked for the seminar only to be told that it was being held online. However, as the seminar was being chaired by a colleague I’ve known some time, Dr Janette Martin, I was kindly invited into the studio to listen to the talk—and what a special day it was, for reasons that I’ll note down a little later.

Print of Victor Hugo in later life (Personal Collection)

Victor Hugo’s ‘Cult of Personality’

The talk itself was delivered by Prof. Kevin Morgan (University of Manchester). Morgan has previously researched the life stories and ideologies of twentieth-century communists, socialists, and is interested in how certain intellectuals and thinkers in that era built what might be called a ‘cult of personality’ around themselves.

It was these two related strands which led him to begin studying the works of Victor Hugo in depth. Not only did Hugo have a huge influence upon many French socialists in the early twentieth century, but he was an author who truly did create a cult of personality for himself through his works and media appearances.

My copy of a 19th-century edition of Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame

Morgan opened with a few brief remarks about Hugo’s life and works (you can read Isabel Hapgood’s biography of Hugo on this website). Most famous in English people’s minds today for the novels of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1864), Hugo was also a poet and playwright (you can also read and download the ebook of Hugo’s Songs of Twilight on this website, and read my commentary on his play Hernani). Initially a conservative, in later life Hugo became a (non-Marxist) socialist.

A 19th-century print of the cartouche adorning the walls of the house where Victor Hugo was born (personal collection)

Using a commemorative Livre d’Or (1883)—the commemorative ‘golden book’ published to honour the author and which contained 112 images of the poet—Morgan then set out his key research questions: Why did Hugo warrant such admiration, even veneration, as a French national hero?

‘A madman who believed himself to be Victor Hugo’

Jean Cocteau once said that Hugo was ‘a madman who believed himself to be Victor Hugo’.  Cocteau’s statement implies that there were in fact two Victor Hugos. Much as Morgan argued: there was the private man and the public hero and man of letters. Some of the credit for his elevation to the status of ‘poet as hero’ must go to Hugo himself who worked tirelessly on his self-imposed mission: poetry was so important, Hugo believed, that it should be a part of every aspect of life and had a central role to play in the national regeneration of France:

Can you have forgotten that the book,

Is your great Liberator?[2]

is a question which Hugo later asked in L’Année Terrible (1872), published in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune.

Not long before Hugo came to prominence in the French literary world with Hernani in 1830, France had witnessed a major revolution in 1789, the Reign of Terror, an empire under Napoleon, a world war in the form of the Napoleonic Wars, a restoration of the monarchy, and another revolution in 1830.

The commotion caused by the staging of Hugo’s Hernani in 1830

Ideological Twists and Turns

Indeed, one point that Morgan made in the course of the talk was that the changes in France’s form of government and in Hugo’s political ideology, and the similarities between them, and this might be another reason why Hugo enjoyed such elevated status. As we have seen, he began as a conservative royalist. By the 1840s he had embraced republicanism. When Napoleon III (or ‘Napoleon the Little’ as Hugo not so affectionately called him in one his eponymous novel) came to power in a coup, he was forced into exile in the British Channel Islands for opposing him.

Even though Napoleon III later offered Hugo an amnesty which would have allowed him to return to Paris, Hugo stuck to his principles and refused. A similar fate befell Eugene Sue, who, when like Hugo he was elected to the French legislature, opposed Napoleon III and was forced into exile. Unlike fellow author and exile Eugene Sue, who retired into relative obscurity, Hugo, as Morgan pointed out, made sure everyone in the press knew how he had bravely opposed Napoleon III at great personal cost.

Images of Hugo in exile, looking longingly over to France from the shores of Guernsey, were given to the press and printed on cartes de visites.

Hugo in exile

And what an image he fashioned for himself! Early prints show a somewhat austere looking intellectual, with a high forehead, whereas by the 1860s, as Morgan noted, photographs show a Victor Hugo who had transformed himself into a sage-like figure, complete with beard.

Hugo: Young and Old.

Other measures through which Hugo curated a public persona as father of the French nation included allowing his works to be read in public. In a journal entry in November 1870 he noted that

[The Academy] have given up asking my authorisation to recite my works which are being recited everywhere without my permission. They are right. What I write is not my own. I am a public thing.[3]

Hugo was no doubt pleased that his works, above any other French writer, were being read aloud by the Parisian public.

When Hugo finally returned after Napoleon III was ousted—to a rapturous reception by the Parisian public—he returned as a symbol of national unity and, by this period (the 1870s), he was a radical republican (or socialist, even though its adherents did not always use the term ‘socialist’).

The man who cared: Photographic print of Victor with pauper children (c.1875) (personal collection)

Hugo’s ideological twists and turns are reflected in the literature he produced through the whole of his life. The poetry contained in La Muse Française and Le Conservateur Litteraire during the 1820s are decidedly royalist and anti-revolutionary. Yet The Songs of Twilight, published in 1835 (or Chants du Crepuscule), gives us a glimpse into his thoughts on the ‘Three Glorious Days’ of the July Revolution of 1830:

Oh! friends of your country, immortal in story,

Adorn’d with the laurels ye won in the fight;

When thousands around you fell cover’d with glory,

Ye turned not away from the enemy’s might;

And ye raised up your banners all tatter’d and torn,

Like those that your sires had at Austerlitz borne.[4]

The July Revolution of 1830 (Public Domain)

No explanation is needed in interpreting those lines, which were reprinted also in G.W.M. Reynolds’s Monthly Magazine in 1838. The Last Day of a Condemned (French title: Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné), published in 1829 and translated also by Reynolds, is Hugo’s anti-capital punishment manifesto. His three major novels, Notre Dame, Les Miserables, and Toilers of the Sea, were highly politicised and represented what he saw as humankind’s three great struggles. As he wrote in the preface to the last:

Religion, Society, and Nature! these are the three struggles of man. They constitute at the same time his three needs. He has need of a faith; hence the temple. He must create; hence the city. He must live; hence the plough and the ship. But these three solutions comprise three perpetual conflicts. The mysterious difficulty of life results from all three. Man strives with obstacles under the form of superstition, under the form of prejudice, and under the form of the elements. A triple ἁναγκη [need] weighs upon us. There is the fatality of dogmas, the oppression of human laws, the inexorability of nature. In Notre Dame de Paris the author denounced the first; in the Misérables he exemplified the second; in this book he indicates the third. With these three fatalities mingles that inward fatality—the supreme ἁναγκη, the human heart.[5]

‘The transformation of the great French Republic into the immense human republic’

Victor Hugo’s heart was in some respect, as Tennyson noted, ‘French of the French’. Yet in other aspects he might be considered the first public figure to consider himself a ‘World Citizen’ in later life. Much like the student revolutionary Enjolras declares when he mounts the barricades in Les Misérables, it seems that Hugo

had accepted, as a definitive and magnificent evolution, the transformation of the great French Republic into the immense human republic.[6]

The Barricades and Death of Gavroche. A specially commissioned illustration for the David Mackay edition of Les Miserables (personal collection)

That is to say, Hugo had moved beyond a nationalist hope for the regeneration of France into hoping for an internationalist regeneration of humanity. In Les Misérables we find a precursor to his idea of a ‘United States of Europe’ when Enjolras further declares

Civilization will hold its assizes at the summit of Europe, and, eventually, at the centre of continents, in a great parliament of intellect.[7]

Hugo’s internationalism was therefore mingled with Eurocentrism which is perhaps unsurprising for a man who spent most of his life in Europe and, in fact, in a little corner of Europe on the Channel Islands.

John Rylands Collection

As a matter of fact, one of the largest collections of Victor Hugo’s handwritten letters and unpublished poetry outside of France and Belgium is now housed in the country which offered him refuge during his exile: the United Kingdom. The John Rylands Library came into the possession of Victor Hugo’s manuscripts because they were donated by a French academic named Jean Gaudon, who was a lecturer at Manchester University during the 1960s.

Would Hugo, then, be happy that his papers were in England now? Morgan pointed out, in line with Tennyson’s thoughts, that Hugo had a love-hate relationship with our country. In his earlier years, England was the nation that had defeated Napoleon and, as an admirer of Napoleon, his attitude towards the nation across the Channel was somewhat tepid. Yet, with his exile, his attitude to England and the British Isles warmed. Hugo’s novel, The Toilers of the Sea, was dedicated to the people of Guernsey whom he called ‘the noble little nation of the sea’.[8]

In his novel The Man Who Laughs (1869) (this novel has sometimes been given the title of By Order of the King)—a tale of ‘signeurial rights’ in the seventeenth century and whose central character was the inspiration behind the Joker in Batman—for example, we read the following preface:

EVERYTHING about England is great, even that which is not good, even her oligarchy.[9]

The preface to Hugo’s Shakespeare (1864) likewise opens with some laudatory lines to England:


Perhaps, then, the crotchety old man did indeed grow to embrace the British after all, and no one can doubt the influence of Sir Walter Scott on Hugo himself early on his career when he declared in 1823:

Surely there is something strange and marvellous in the talent of this man, who disposes of his reader as the wind disposes of a leaf; who leads him at his will 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 most obscurest pages of history.[11]

Whatever Hugo thought of le peuple britannique, he certainly made his mark on British culture today as a result of the musical adaptation of Les Misérables.

My copy of a 19th-century English-language edition of Hugo’s Les Miserables

The most special point of talk for me, of course, was being up close and personal with one of the items that Hugo had written. Having loved Les Miserables since I was 15, it being one of the first books I read in full (having been captivated by the musical), it was truly a special experience. I was allowed to take a photo of one of his letters (and I don’t think I’m breaking any licensing rules by posting it here):


[1] Alfred Tennyson [online], ‘Victor Hugo’, Telelib, accessed 19 May 2022, available at: http://www.telelib.com/

[2] John E. Coombes, ‘State, Self and History in Victor Hugo’s “L’Année Terrible” ’, Studies in Romanticism, 32: 3, Romantic Historicism (1993), 367–78 (p. 376).

[3] Victor Hugo, ‘The Siege of Paris’, in The Memoirs of Victor Hugo, Trans. John W. Harding (New York: G.W. Dillingham, 1899), p. 358.

[4] Victor Hugo, Songs of Twilight, Trans. George W.M. Reynolds (Paris: French, English, and American Library, 1836; repr. Leeds: Reynolds News and Miscellany, 2021), p. 17.

[5] Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea, Trans. W. Moy Thomas (London: George Routledge, n.d.), p. i

[6] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Trans. [not credited], 5 vols (Philadelphia: David Mackay, n.d.), V, p. 23.

[7] Huge, Les Miserables, V, p. 24.

[8] Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea , p. i.

[9] Victor Hugo, By Order of the King, Trans. Isabel F. Hapgood (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, n.d.), p. i.

[10] Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, Trans. A. Baillot (New York: Estes and Lauriat, 1864), p. i.

[11] Victor Hugo, ‘Sir Walter Scott. Apropos of Quentin Durward’, in Things Seen (Choses Vues): Essays, Trans. [not credited] (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, n.d.), p. 309.