No extended trip to Paris would be complete without delving into the life of French poet, writer, artist, and politician Victor Hugo. His literary achievements and fame go far beyond his two best known works in the English speaking world, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Les Miserables“. Later in life he was also a well known politician and member of the French Assembly and Senate. He is buried among France’s most famous intellectual heroes at the Pantheon, just a few blocks up the hill from our apartment.
Hugo was born in 1803 – Napoleon Bonaparte was at the height of his military success and would soon become Emperor Napoleon I. Hugo’s father was a high ranking officer in Napoleon’s army, and his mother was a Catholic loyal to the King. Thus Hugo’s parents were politically at odds. The family settled in Paris by the time of Victor’s birth, but because of his father’s travels, Victor was able from an early age to see some of the world outside France. His beliefs, however, started out more like his mother’s. He was educated primarily in Paris and married his childhood sweetheart Adèle in 1822. They had 5 children. One died in infancy. The oldest daughter Lèopoldine drowned in the Seine at age 19 along with her husband, who was trying to save her. This was a great loss to Hugo and the frequent subject of his poetry. Later in life he lost his wife and 2 sons in a short period, then committed his daughter Adèle to an insane asylum. He was no stranger to heart rending effects of love and loss, and his writing reveals the impact such loss has in the lives of his characters.
Hugo’s first novel, Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) was published in 1831, the same year he moved into a fine apartment at Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris. Though Hugo later spent a considerable amount of time living elsewhere, a family friend purchased the apartment at Place de Vosges after Hugo’s death and donated it to the City of Paris to become today’s Victor Hugo Museum.
The museum combines elements and artifacts from throughout Hugo’s life. It also displays his artwork. Though not a professional artist, he was talented and loved to sketch and draw.
The novel Notre Dame de Paris was a huge success. It has a host of characters, including the hunchback Quasimodo, the gypsy Esmeralda, an aspiring writer Pierre Gringoire, Archdeacon Claude Frollo (who both raised a younger brother and adopted Quasimodo), the valiant officer Phoebus, a grieving mother locked for life in Tour Roland, King Louis XI, and of course the Church itself. Prior to reading the book, I had always thought of Quasimodo as some kind of monster or comic character who haunted the Cathedral, but he is actually a very real human with severe deformities trying to find a life during the middle ages. I won’t go into further detail about the novel in the hope that some of you might give the English version a try. It remains today a fascinating and gripping story.
Hugo was a romanticist, and in the novel he explored the nature of love and other aspects of psychology through the various characters. He also presented a thorough historical representation of Paris in the 15th Century. It was fascinating to read his descriptions of medieval churches, squares, and streets that still exist near where we live. Unfortunately many of these places were destroyed in the urban renewal of Paris that occurred under Napoleon III from 1850 – 1870. Hugo also spent a portion of the book describing how the printing press had become the death of architecture. In modern times the lament is that the Internet has become the death of the print industry. One effect of the novel was to shame the City of Paris into restoring Notre Dame de Paris, which attracted thousands of visitors after the novel’s publication. It also inspired an interest in preserving other pre-renaissance buildings in Paris. If you look at the photo tour below, you’ll see based on the shops and restaurants nearby the Cathedral, the novel still plays a major role in attracting the interests of tourists.
In 1841 Hugo was elected to the Académie Français (the elite body of distinguished writers who make recommendations regarding the usages, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language) and was appointed by King Louis Philippe as a Peer of France (a position of nobility in the government). Hugo opposed the death penalty and advocated social injustice. More and more he became an advocate of republican government. At the time of the 2nd Republic in 1848, he was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and Legislative Assembly. This all came apart when Napoleon III staged a coup d’état in 1851 and declared himself to be Emperor. Hugo declared Napoleon III a traitor to France and left the country, eventually settling on the Isle of Guernsey, where he lived from 1851 to 1870. He refused to return until the republic was restored.
In 1862 Hugo published a novel about social misery and injustice, “Les Miserables”. Although it was panned by some early critics, it became popular by highlighting important social issues, and its impact was such that these issues were soon to be addressed by the French National Assembly. The work remains popular today not only as a novel, but also in opera and in the movies.
Hugo returned to Paris in 1870, where he remained active as a writer and politician until his death in 1885. His last novel, judged to be among his finest works, was “Ninety Three” (Quatre-vingt-treize), published in 1874. This work dealt with The Reign of Terror, that inglorious period of the Revolution when so many enemies of the government were beheaded.
View the photo gallery of images related to Victor Hugo, including photos from the Museum, photos of artwork depicting scenes from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and photos of businesses around the church showing the continuing interest and influence in the story.
See our short history of Paris for more historical detail.