“To love another person is to see the face of God.” — Victor Hugo
Victor Marie Hugo was born on this day in Besançon, France in 1802. Today is the 211th anniversary of his birth.
He was the third son of Joseph and Sophie Hugo. He was born during a time of national turmoil in France. His father supported Napoleon, his mother was a royalist. The family traveled often when he was young because of his father’s military postings. His mother separated from his father in 1803 and took the boys to Paris. There she raised them as Catholic Royalist.
Though a committed conservative royalist when he was young, Hugo grew more liberal as the decades passed; he became a passionate supporter of republicanism, and his work touches upon most of the political and social issues and artistic trends of his time. [Sony ReaderStore]
He began to write as a teenager. He created “tragedies and poetry, and translated Virgil. Hugo’s first collection of poems, Odes Et Poesies Diverses gained him a royal pension from Louis XVIII. [The Literature Network.com]
His first novel, Han D’Islande, came out in 1823 followed by Bug-Jargal in 1826. The later book “describes the friendship between the enslaved African prince Bug-Jargal and Leopold D’Auverney, a French military officer, during the slave revolt in Santo Domingo of August, 1791.” [Amazon.com]
His reputation grew with the play Hernani in 1830 [Click here for the Project Gutenberg link] (The play later inspired Verdi to write his opera Ernani. )
Hugo’s literary breakthrough was with The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831.
The novel, set in 15th century Paris, tells a moving story of a gypsy girl Esmeralda and the deformed, deaf bell-ringer, Quasimodo, who loves her. Esmeralda aroses passion in Claude Frollo, an evil priest, who discovers that she favors Captain Phoebus. Frollo stabs the captain and Esmeralda is accused of the crime. Quasimodo attempts to shelter Esmeralda in the cathedral. Frollo finds her and when Frollo is rejected by Esmeralda, he leaves her to the executioners. In his despair Quasimodo catches the priest, throws him from the cathedral tower, and disappears. Later two skeletons are found in Esmeralda’s tomb – that of a hunchback embracing that of a woman. [books and writers]
For 20 more years Hugo continued to write lyrical poetry — he is considered France’s greatest poet — plays, novels and essays. He was a visual artist and statesman as well as a human rights activist.
When the political landscape shifted in 1851 and Louis Bonaparte began to gain power. Hugo opposed the man, coining the phrase “we have had Napoleon the Great, now we have to have Napoleon the Small” [VictorHugo.gg]. When Napoleon grabbed power by way of a coup d’etat in December of that year Hugo fled the country for Brussels. Eventually he wound up on the island of Guernsey.
There, he wrote at a fast pace. And he wrote standing up, at a pulpit, looking out across the water. He had strict minimums for himself: 100 lines of poetry or 20 pages of prose a day. It was during this time that he wrote his masterpiece, Les Misérables (1865), about a poor Parisian man who steals a loaf of bread, spends 19 years in jail for it, and after his release becomes a successful small businessman and small-town mayor — and then is imprisoned once again for a minor crime in his distant past. [WritersAlmanac]
After Louis Bonaparte’s fall in 1870 Hugo returned home to Paris. He resumed his interest in politics and was elected to the National Assembly.
Hugo died in 1885 at the age of 83. Two million people attended his funeral procession.