This Day In Writing History
On February 26th, 1802, the legendary French writer Victor Hugo was born in Bensancon, France. Hugo grew up during an important time in French history; when he was two years old, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor. By the time Hugo turned 18, the Bourbon Monarchy had been restored.
The opposing forces that shaped French history during this time were reflected in Hugo's parents. His father Joseph was an atheist and high-ranking officer in Napoleon's army, while his mother Sophie was an extremely devout Catholic and Royalist.
Although Victor Hugo was close to his controlling mother, against her wishes, he married his childhood sweetheart, Adele Foucher. They had five children. Their first, Leopold, died in infancy. Hugo's eldest daughter, Leopoldine, died suddenly at the age of nineteen - shortly after her wedding.
Leopoldine and her husband were on a boat that capsized; she drowned, and her husband died trying to save her. Victor Hugo, traveling in the south of France with his mistress, was devastated when he read about Leopoldine's death in a newspaper. She had been his favorite daughter. He would write many poems about her life and death.
As a young writer, Victor Hugo's main influence was François-René de Chateaubriand, founder of the Romanticism movement in French literature. He vowed to be "Chateaubriand or nothing." Hugo's first book, a poetry collection titled Odes et Poésies Diverses, was published in 1822, when he was twenty years old.
It was well received and earned Hugo a royal pension from King Louis XVIII, but it was his 1826 poetry collection, Odes et Ballades, that established him as one of the greatest poets of his time.
Victor Hugo first made a name for himself as a novelist with his 1829 novella, Le Dernier jour d'un condamné. (The Last Day of a Condemned Man). The story is narrated by a man condemned to death. He describes his life in prison and bears his soul to the reader.
He never identifies himself by name, nor does he reveal his crime, only hinting vaguely that he killed someone. On the day of his execution, he is reunited with his three-year-old daughter, but she doesn't recognize him. The novella would have a profound influence on writers such as Albert Camus, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Two years after his novella Le Dernier jour d'un condamné was published, Hugo released what would become his first classic full-length novel. Notre-Dame de Paris, best known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), was a huge critical and commercial success.
The tragic love story dealt with social injustice - the recurring theme in Hugo's prose. Set in late 15th century Paris, the novel tells the tale of Quasimodo, a deformed hunchback who lives in the Notre Dame cathedral, where he serves as the bell ringer.
The townspeople despise and shun him because of his deformities, and his adoptive father, a priest named Claude Frollo, mistreats him. Quasimodo soon falls in love with Esmeralda, a beautiful Gypsy dancer, who has captured the hearts of most men in town, including Claude Frollo.
Esmeralda's physical beauty is nothing compared to her inner beauty, as she is very kind and compassionate. When the lust-crazed priest sends Quasimodo to kidnap Esmeralda, he is caught, beaten, and ordered to remain out in the heat. Esmeralda brings him water.
When Esmeralda falls in love with Phoebus de Chateaupers, the captain of the King's Archers, the jealous Claude Frollo nearly murders him in a fit of rage, then frames Esmeralda for the crime. She is sentenced to be hanged, but Quasimodo saves her from the gallows and takes her to the cathedral.
There, she would be safe under the law of sanctuary, but then the King vetoes the law and commands his troops to take Esmeralda from the cathedral. Claude Frollo betrays her and hands her over to them, then watches her hang.
Quasimodo kills the evil priest, then goes to the graveyard, where he climbs into Esmeralda's grave and dies with her. A year later, the skeletons of Esmeralda and Quasimodo are found locked in an embrace.
Victor Hugo's greatest novel was his legendary masterpiece, Les Miserables (1862), a dazzling 1,200+ page epic novel that took the author 17 years to write. Originally published in five volumes, Les Miserables opens in Digne in 1815, as poor peasant Jean Valjean is released from prison.
He served nineteen years - five years for stealing bread to feed his starving sister, plus an additional fourteen years for his frequent escape attempts. Forced to carry a passport that identifies him as a convict, Valjean finds himself scorned by society.
He becomes so angry and bitter that when the kindhearted Bishop Myriel takes him in, he steals the man's silverware, and later, a young boy's silver coin. The Bishop saves Valjean from the police and inspires him to repent and make an honest man of himself.
Valjean decides to return the silver coin he stole, then finds that the theft has been reported. Another conviction would result in a life sentence, so he goes on the lam. Using the alias Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean follows the Bishop's advice and reinvents himself as an honest, productive citizen.
All the while, he is pursued relentlessly by police Inspector Javert. Later, Valjean reveals his true identity when Javert mistakenly believes that an innocent man named Champmathieu is really Jean Valjean and arrests him.
When Valjean has the chance to kill Javert and escape, he refuses to do so, and for the first time, the policeman recognizes the immorality of the law to which he has dedicated his life. It drives him to suicide.
In addition to the story of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, Les Miserables follows many other characters, who also face the specter of social injustice.
The novel, rightfully considered to be one of the greatest ever written, has been adapted numerous times for the stage, screen, and television, the most famous adaptation being a celebrated Broadway musical. The most recent film adaptation, released in 2012, is an adaptation of the Broadway musical starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean.
Victor Hugo would become involved in politics, where he would fight the social injustices he had written about. In 1841, King Louis-Philippe elevated him to the peerage, and he entered the Higher Chamber as a pair de France, (nobleman) where he spoke out against the death penalty and other forms of social injustice. He advocated freedom of speech and a free press.
Hugo soon tired of the monarchy and became a supporter of the Republican form of government. Thus, when the Second Republic was formed in France following the 1848 Revolution, Hugo was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and the Legislative Assembly.
When Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) seized total power in 1851 and established an anti-parliamentary constitution, Hugo openly denounced him as a traitor to France. The writer went into exile, living in Brussels and Jersey before settling in with his family on the channel island of Guernsey, where he would live until 1870.
While in exile, Hugo used his influence to help fight social injustice in other countries. He also wrote and published his famous anti-Napoleon III pamphlets, which, although banned in France, made a huge impact there. When Hugo returned to France in 1870, he was elected to the National Assembly and the Senate and hailed as a national hero.
Victor Hugo's writings were also influenced by his religious views, which changed radically over the years. At first, he was a devout Catholic like his mother, but then he grew disenchanted with the Church, which he perceived as being indifferent to the plight of the poor and the oppression of the monarchy.
The fact that Hugo's novels made the Pope's official banned books list didn't help; he also noted over 700 attacks on Les Miserables by the Catholic press. He developed a seething lifelong hatred of the Catholic Church.
When his sons died, they were buried without a crucifix or priest, and Hugo's will stipulated the same for his own death. Despite his deep hatred of the Church, Hugo was known to be a very spiritual man who believed in the necessity and power of prayer.
His last great novel, Quatre-vignt-Treize (Ninety-Three) was published in 1874. He died in 1885 at the age of 83.
Quote Of The Day
"I'm religiously opposed to religion." - Victor Hugo
Today's video features a reading of Volume 1, Book 1 of Victor Hugo's classic novel Les Miserables. Enjoy!