Romantic French author, Victor Hugo is widely known for his novels, Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. He was born in France in 1802 and traveled around Europe at a young age because of his father’s job as a major in Napoleon’s army. His mother, a strong royalist, opposed much of his father’s political opinions and their disagreements created a rocky childhood for Hugo. From 1815 to 1818 he studied law in Paris and was later inspired by his experience as a poor student to write the character of Marius. During his time at university, Hugo discovered that he enjoyed writing, particularly poetry and translation. His mother encouraged him to pursue writing and in 1819, he founded a literary review, Conservateur Littéraire.
In 1822, he married his childhood friend and began publishing his poems in his review and later publishing a book of poetry, Odes et poésies diverses. The following year he published his first novel, entitled, Hans of Iceland in its English translation. He also published several more poetry collections, experimenting with meter and verse. He solidified his reputation as a romantic poet with publication of his first drama in verse, Cromwell, which follows the life of a national leader who seeks to be crowned king.
Hugo started writing more plays and developed a stronger stance in favor of liberalism, prompted by King Charles X’s censorship laws. With the plays that he published and produced, Hugo gained a following that increased with the publication in 1831 of his historical novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which paints a picture of life in medieval Paris during the reign of Luis XI. Following the success of the novel, more people began to visit the Cathedral and renewed an appreciation for pre-Renaissance architecture. Preservation efforts also began in the city, which had been neglected until that time.
Hugo continued writing poetry and plays that reflected his Romantic ideals and expressed his political beliefs and views on human nature. In 1841, he was elected to the French Academy and recognized for his achievements as a writer. Two years later, when his newly married daughter and her husband drowned in a boating accident he was devastated, but he found comfort in poetry and ultimately relief in writing his infamous classic, Les Miserables, which he began work on around 1845.
Hugo’s influence extended beyond the world of literature, and he used his writings and status to push for social justice and change. In 1848 Hugo was elected as deputy for Paris in the Constituent Assembly and later to the Legislative Assembly, but broke with conservatives in his calling for universal suffrage, free education for all children, poverty alleviation, and his campaign to abolish the death penalty.
Within three years, a coup took place within the government and after an attempt of rebellion, Victor Hugo was forced to flee to Brussels. He lasted there a year before moving to the British Isles where he remained until 1870 when his exile was lifted. During this time he wrote extensively, expressing his frustration at the government in poetry and exploring topics of spirituality. He began working on Les Miserables once again and completed in in 1862.
This work, which is considered one of the greatest works of the nineteenth century, is also one of the longest novels, at 1900 pages in the original French and published in ten volumes. The first edition shown below is the true rare first published in Brussels a few days before the Paris edition. This edition also contains phrases that would have been censored by the French edition.
Victor Hugo’s “great novel has been hailed as a masterpiece of popular literature, an epic poem in prose about God, humanity, and Hugo… Hugo hoped that Les Misérables would be one of if not the ‘principal summits’ of his body of works. Despite its length, complexity, and occasionally unbelievable plot and characterization, it remains a masterpiece of popular literature. It anticipates Balzac in its realism, but in its flights of imagination and lyricism, its theme of redemption, and its melding of myth and history, it is uniquely Hugo” (Dolbow, 149, 214).
In our inventory, we also have a first American edition of Les Miserables, which was the first edition published in English. This edition was translated by Charles E. Wilbur, who was hired by the Carleton Publishing Company and was published just months after the French edition.
“Ever since its publication in 1862, Les Miserables has remained one of the most widely read novels in the world… Indeed, its appearance was a unique phenomenon in the history of publishing, by the scope of its success among the elite as well as the people, national as well as international, with general readers as well as critics. In addition, dozens of film version- from France, the United States, Italy, Egypt, India, Japan, and the Soviet Union- have perpetuated the legendary quality of the book… Perhaps more than any other work of literature, Victor Hugo’s novel has flourished as part of our international consciousness” (Kathryn M. Grossman, Figuring Transcendence in Les Miserables: Hugo’s Romantic Sublime)
Hugo’s legacy remains a colorful and insightful life built on literary accomplishments. He pursued writing vivaciously and wrote every morning. The sets shown below display some of the breadth of his work. He is not only considered one of the greatest and best-known French writers, he also produced more than 4,000 drawings and inspired many other artists and musicians. He is also remembered as a campaigner for social causes, such as the abolition of capital punishment.
Within these works, Hugo passed on to the world an incredible amount of wisdom. Here are just a few quotes that he graced the world with:
- Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
- Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.
- He who opens a school door, closes a prison.
- Be like the bird that, passing on her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing that she hath wings.
- Adversity makes men, and prosperity makes monsters.
- To love another person is to see the face of God.
- Life is the flower for which love is the honey.
- Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace.
- The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.
- Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.
- People do not lack strength; they lack will.
- Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
During his lifetime, Hugo was honored with one of the greatest tributes to any living writer. In celebration of his 80th birthday he was presented with a Sèvres vase, the traditional gift for royalty, the city of Paris changed the name of the Avenue d’Eylau to Avenue Victor-Hugo, and one of the largest parades in French history was held, as people marched for six hours past his home, where he sat in the window.
Two days before his death in 1885, he left a note with these last words: “To love is to act”. In his will he wrote the following: “I leave 50,000 francs to the poor. I want to be buried in their hearse. I refuse [funeral] orations of all churches. I beg a prayer to all souls. I believe in God.”
Despite his will, he was given a state funeral and over two million people joined the procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon, where he was buried. While he was loved and honored during his lifetime, his legacy has only continued to grow after his death, with over 70 million people having seen a professional Broadway production of Les Miserables.
Hugo once wrote, “Short as life is, we make it still shorter by the careless waste of time.” He certainly did use his time on this earth very carefully and did not waste it.