19th Century

The Emperor and the Author: Victor Hugo’s Meeting with Dom Pedro II | Stephen Basdeo [Trans.]

The following post is a translation of a short snippet found in Paulo Rezzutti’s magnificent but as yet untranslated biography of Dom Pedro II titled D. Pedro II: A história não contada (2019) (D. Pedro II: The Untold History), which formed the basis of a long-running telenovela in Brazil titled Nos Tempos do Imperador.[1]

Dom Pedro II (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)


In March 1876, Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, commenced an overseas tour that would take him to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, Austria, Germany, France, Greece, and Turkey. He was no stranger to some of these countries, for earlier in the 1871 he had already embarked upon one overseas tour.

A thoroughly enlightened man, in Europe’s major cities Dom Pedro (touring as a private individual) met with many of the continent’s leading intellectuals and writers. When he arrived in Paris in 1877, he was anxious to meet with the man who perhaps was Europe’s greatest writer: the novelist, playwright, poet, and politician, Victor Hugo (1802–85).

Dom Pedro II meets Victor Hugo| Paulo Rezzutti

Since Dom Pedro’s first voyage to France he had desired a meeting with Victor Hugo, but the great writer’s exile in Guernsey, and Dom Pedro’s itinerary, would not permit it. Now, with the famous writer established in Paris, Dom Pedro would try and see him. Yet this was not to be easy.

The first attempt to invite Victor Hugo to a meeting with the emperor was made through the Brazilian Embassy. But the response received was curt: ‘Victor Hugo does not visit anybody’. It was not only that the republican writer was aloof; the emperor’s aristocratic circle tried to dissuade Dom Pedro from meeting with Hugo. Hugo was a social democrat, though not a socialist, and was a spiritualist. The risk of a scandal arising from such a meeting could not be greater. The Orleanists would not look kindly upon the commentary that such a meeting would provoke in the French newspapers; the Brazilians in the imperial entourage also feared the consequences of such a meeting on public opinion in Brazil.

However, Dom Pedro insisted and made various attempts to meet with the writer throughout the month of May. Hugo first suggested that they meet in the French parliament where he, as a senator, was going to debate. Yet Dom Pedro declined this proposal because he did not want to give such a political character to the meeting. In the end, knowing that the writer would receive visitors on Tuesdays and that, like himself, Hugo was an early riser, on the morning of 22 May Dom Pedro went unaccompanied to Victor Hugo’s residence and knocked on his door.

Victor Hugo’s painting of Vianden Castle (Wikimedia Commons)

Hugo’s Record of the Meeting

Victor Hugo recorded the emperor’s visit in his diary:

22 May—9 a.m.—Visit from the Emperor of Brazil. Long conversation.

Most noble spirit. He saw on the table L’Art d’être grand-père. I offered him a feather, which he took. He asked me: ‘What are you going to write?’ I responded: ‘Two names. Yours and mine.’ He then told me: ‘nothing more. It was this which I was going to ask you.’ So I wrote: ‘Dom Pedro de Alcântara. Victor Hugo.’

He then said: ‘and the date?’ And to this I added ‘22nd of May 1877’. He told me ‘I would like to have one of your drawings’. I had a landscape of Vianden Castle. I gave the drawing to him.

He then asked: ‘at what hour do you usually dine?’ I responded: ‘at 8 o’clock’. He said: ‘I will come one of these days to dine with you’. I responded by saying ‘Whenever you desire. You will always be welcome.’

He doted upon George and Jeanne (Hugo’s grandchildren). When he entered he said: ‘Give me a little confidence. I’m a bit shy.’ Speaking of kings and emperors, he said ‘my colleagues’. In another moment he said ‘my rights’….Then he resumed: ‘I do not have rights actually. I have power by virtue of chance. I must be employed in doing good. Progress and Liberty!’

When Jeanne returned he said: ‘I have one wish. I would like to be introduced to Senhorita Jeanne.’ I said to Jeanne: ‘Jeanne, I present to you the Emperor of Brazil’.

Victor Hugo’s granddaughter looked at this strange man, dressed in a commoners’ clothes, and said with some hesitation in a lowered voice: ‘He does not wear an emperor’s robes.’ Dom Pedro responded by saying ‘give me a little kiss, Senhorita’.

She advanced her cheek but he said ‘But Jeanne, give a hug around my neck’. She embraced him with her little arms and then he asked me for a photograph of me and the children and promised me one of him and his family. He left at 11 a.m. He spoke to me in a manner so grave and intelligent that when he was going I said to him: Sire, you are a great Citizen.’ But one more detail: On presenting him to George I said: ‘Sire, I present my grandson to your majesty’. ‘My son’ he then said to George, ‘there is only one majesty here, it is Victor Hugo.’

The author later visited the hotel where the emperor was staying and left the promised photo. In the envelope he wrote: For one whose ancestor is Marcus Aurelius, thereby comparing Dom Pedro II with the Roman Emperor who is also considered a wise philosopher. Hugo was not the first nor the only person to make a comparison between the two emperors. When he was still a boy, a book of Marcus Aurelius’s philosophical writings were published in Brazil and the book, adorned with a frontispiece of the young Emperor of Brazil, was dedicated to him.

Luís Pedreira do Couto Ferraz the Baron of Bom Retiro (Wikimedia Commons)

Dom Pedro visited one more time on 29 May, this time accompanied by the Baron of Bom Retiro. Beyond Paris, Dom Pedro also visited some of the various cities and regions of France such as Brittany. In Orleans, he took part in the Festival of Joan of Arc. In Champagne, he visited the Industrial and Agrarian Exhibition and in Meaux he visited a cholate factory that used Brazilian cocoa.

(Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)


Dom Pedro was soon forced to return to Paris after a coup d’etat, carried out by the Brazilian army, deposed him and established a republic on 15 November 1889. Hugo had by that point died and Dom Pedro himself passed away, in Paris, on 5 December 1891.—SB.

Cover art for Paulo Rezzutti’s D. Pedro II: A história não contada (2019)

[1] Paulo Rezzutti, D. Pedro II: A história não contada (São Paulo: Leia, 2019), pp. 345–51.