Victor Hugo was born in Besancon in Franche-Comté, in the east of France, on February 26, 1802. Hugo’s father was an officer of Napoleon’s republic army; his mother on the other hand was a staunch supporter of the monarchy. His parents could never reconcile their differences and separated and it was his mother’s influence which prevailed in his early years. This year in Besancon the house where Hugo was born will be opened to the public as a tribute, and although the work is still in progress for an early summer opening there will be works of art and it will be “a place of reflection”.
A superstar of his time, a novelist, dramatist and poet who achieved immense fame with his book “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the age of just 29, he is regarded as one of France’s greatest ever writers.
After the success of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” Hugo lived in Paris and moved into the rather grand Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée with his wife Adèle and their four children in 1832. The building is now a museum – the Maison de Victor Hugo and contains books, manuscripts, furniture and objects relating to the great man.
Hugo took a mistress the year after in 1833, a young actress named Juliette Drouet who stayed with him for 50 years until her death. Life for Hugo was fairly settled for the next decade, he wrote and published poetry and plays and had an active social and political life.
Everything was to change when Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine drowned in an accident in 1843. He was distraught and he took relief in beginning a new novel – Les Misérables.
Although as a younger man Hugo had had royalist tendencies and was elected to the French Academy and nominated to the Chamber of Peers, in later life his sympathies lay more with the republicans and when the revolution of 1848 took place Hugo was elected to the new national assembly. However, three years later in 1848 with Napoloeon III’s coup d’etat Hugo as exiled from his beloved France and spent 20 years away, mostly in the Channel Islands.
During this time, in 1862 Les Misérables was finished and published to immense public acclaim though critics were a little negative at first.
His return to France in 1870 coming after the success of Les Misérables made him a hero of the French people. He was seen as a larger than life character, the immensity of his book fuelled rumours that he could eat half an ox in one sitting, fast for three days, and then work without stopping for a week. Les Misérables is one of the longest novels ever written and contains the longest sentence ever written in literature – depending on the translation the sentence is 800 words long.
When Hugo died on 22 May 1885. At his own request he was buried in a pauper’s coffin. His body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and it is said that two million people joined his funeral procession. He was buried in the Panthéon, Paris.
Click here to learn about the town and people that inspired Les Misérables.