Victor Hugo
Notre-Dame de Paris


"Popularity? It's glory's small change" (Ruy Blas)

Victor Marie Hugo, the poet, novelist and dramatist was at the centre of the French Romantic movement and its most prolific writer. He was born in 1802 in Besançon, and during his childhood left for Italy (1808) and Spain (1811-12). His education took place in Paris where he became acquainted with the works of Virgil, which was to become a lifelong passion. He showed early signs of promise as a writer, writing his first play at fourteen, and being congratulated by the Académie Française only one year later (he was elected to it in 1841). His first novel, Bug-Jargal was published in 1819, and his first Odes (1822) were rewarded by Louis XVIII such that he was able to marry Adèle Foucher.

Hugo's great theme of liberty, especially in the form and theme of art, was apparent from the mid-1820s onwards, after the controversy surrounding his novel Han d'Islande and his Odes et ballades (both 1826). He attempted to free writers from the more restrictive of the classical unities but his own success in the theatre was delayed due to the censorship of his late 1820s plays including Cromwell (1827) whose preface was nonetheless taken to the hearts of members of the Romantic movement. Le Roi s'amuse (1832) and Ruy Blas (1838) were two further verse-dramas of some importance, but after his dramatic epic Les Burgraves (1843) failed to convince, Hugo stopped writing for the stage.

Simultaneously with his dramatic writing, Hugo wrote the novel that would form the crux of his later reputation, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), often known as "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame". The 1830s, though, brought religious doubt and increasing pessimism after the July Monarchy destroyed the possibilities for liberty he had foreseen. This attitude can be seen in his four volumes of lyrical poetry published between 1831 and 1840, as well as the aforementioned novel.

After his election to the Académie Française in 1841, his daughter and her husband died. Hugo, much affected, spent his time becoming more involved in politics, even becoming a candidate for the French presidency in 1848. However, after he had publicly denounced Napoleon III he was exiled in 1851 to Jersey. He moved on to Guernsey in 1855 where he lived until 1870. During this period he wrote Les Contemplations (1852-5) and Les Misérables (1862). His William Shakespeare (1864) redefined the purposes of poetry according to his own vision.

Returning from exile, Hugo was seen as a national hero, although he played a much diminished role in public affairs compared with that which he had had previously. He continued to write his Legends des siècles (1877, 1883, 1885) to further acclaim right up until his death in 1885. His last words were reportedly, "I see a black light".

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