This edited article about Victor Hugo originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 726 published on 13 December 1975.
It was 1851 and Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, had overthrown the Government of France and set himself up as ruler. The Place de la Bastille, scene of so much bloodshed in Paris, was thronged with soldiers and excited people.
All at once a figure detached itself from the rest, leaped on to a cart and launched into a bitter attack on Louis. He appealed to the troops to rise up against ‘Napoleon le Petit’, the usurper.
This rebel of the Place de la Bastille was one of the greatest of the French writers – Victor Marie Hugo, peer of France, humanitarian and visionary.
His republican sentiments would have landed him in prison if he had not been hurried away by his friends. A pretty actress, Juliet Drouet, helped him to flee to Brussels, disguised as a workman. From there he went to the Channel Islands, where he lived for seventeen years as an exile.
Victor Hugo, author of two of the greatest French novels, ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and ‘Les Miserables’, was born at Besancon on February 26, 1802.
His early life was full of excitement and contrast. His grandfather was a carpenter, and yet Hugo’s father rose in the Army of Napoleon Bonaparte to become a general, Governor of Madrid and confidential adviser to the King of Naples. When Bonaparte’s empire fell, the Hugo family fortune vanished also and the Hugo’s had to live very frugally in Paris.
By the time he was fourteen, Victor Hugo had decided upon a literary career – poems, satires, epics, songs, plus a comic opera flowed from his pen. In just over a year he received an honourable mention from the Acadamie Francaise for one of his poems.
In 1822 he published his first volume of verse, astutely and successfully aimed at pleasing the king – he was awarded a pension of £40 a year and on such riches was able to marry.
In the years which followed Hugo’s work marked him out as the leader of the French Romantic movement. He produced novels, plays and some of the finest lyric poetry ever written.
‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ was published in 1831. The brooding story, in which the central ‘character’ is in fact the cathedral itself, graphically recreates life in fifteenth-century Paris.
In 1846, Hugo, the carpenter’s grandson, was created a peer of France. He brought to politics the same impulsiveness that dominated his writing career.
He wished to put his liberal ideas into practice and his book, ‘The Last Days of a Condemned Man’, was an impassioned plea for the abolition of the death penalty.
After the 1848 Revolution in France he became a prominent member of the assembly but he was too outspoken in expressing his opinions and his reckless attacks on Louis Napoleon eventually drove him from France.
In his home in the Channel Islands, he carried on writing in a sparsely-furnished glass shelter looking over the sea towards his homeland.
In 1862 he published ‘Les Miserables’, a story which portrayed the injustices society inflicts on the poor and the defenceless, and shows how one act of kindness can change and redeem a human life. Hugo put his theories into practice. Each week he gave a banquet of good food for poor children.
War broke out between France and Prussia in 1870 and on September 1st, the three-day battle of Sedan ended with the defeat of the French forces under Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon). The Emperor himself was captured and subsequently exiled.
A Republic was declared in France and Hugo was able to return. His entry into Paris was a triumph. He told the crowds gathered to welcome him back: ‘In one hour you repay me for twenty years of exile.’
But the war with Prussia was not yet over and Hugo, like the rest of the citizens, had to endure the privations of the Siege of Paris. During the siege the hungry people were glad to dine on rats.
Money derived from royalties and readings of Hugo’s work ‘Les Chatiments’ went to buy cannons to defend Paris.
Victor Hugo lived for another fifteen years. When he died in 1885 two million people went to pay tribute to him as he lay in state. True to his ideals, his last request was that he should be buried in a pauper’s coffin.
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