The French Revolution began in 1789 as a revolt against the power of the Monarchy and the Catholic Church in France. By 1793 the king and the queen were executed and all church property was confiscated. The famous cathedral of Notre-Dame was no longer a church. Priests were expelled, statues were destroyed, and the nave was used as a warehouse for food. Napoleon ended the revolution in 1799 and brought religious services back. He even crowned himself emperor in 1804 in Notre Dame. But the neglect continued. Slums grew up around the tall, neglected building and soon the people of Paris forgot all about the magnificent 600 year-old building standing in the heart of town. Then in 1831 a young writer by the name of Victor Hugo published a novel which when translated into English became known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The book’s original title was Notre-Dame de Paris, signaling that the main protagonist from the author’s viewpoint was the church, not any of the characters in the novel. Parisians were ashamed when thousands of readers from all over the world began to flock to Paris to see the great church for themselves. Soon a petition for restoring the building was circulated, laws were passed, funding was approved and Eugene Viollet-le-duc was commissioned to restore the building to its grandeur. It took 25 years but finally the restoration was complete, the slums were cleared and streets were paved so people could easily view and visit the building that had become a church again. Notre-Dame de Paris is now the most popular tourist attraction in all of France.
So who was this man whose novel caused such a sensation?
Victor-Marie Hugo was born in 1802, the son of Sophie Trébuchet and an army officer named Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo who traveled all over Europe (he was military governor of a province in Italy for awhile and then three provinces in Spain) with his family while his son was growing up. Hugo’s mother was a strict Catholic and Monarchist and that’s how she raised her son. But his views on religion and government were to change drastically as he grew older.
Hugo is known to the English-speaking world as the author of two great novels, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published when he was 29, and Les Misérables, published 31 years later, but to the French he was much more: a poet, a playwright, a philosopher, an art critic, a statesman, a politician, even an artist.
Hugo the poet
Most of his poetry was written in the Romantic style and was well-received all over France. Prior to 1843 Hugo’s poetry was noted for its beauty and he wrote mostlyin the Romantic tradition. But in 1843 his 19-year old daughter Léopoldine drowned in the Seine and her newly-wed husband also drowned trying to save her. Hugo grieved for his daughter for the rest of his life and some say his greatest poems were about his grief. Many of Hugo’s poems were put to music by some of the greatest composers of the day: Franz Liszt, Gabriel Faure, Benjamin Godard, Reynaldo Hahn, Louis Lacombe and Edouard Lalo. Some of his most famous poems were about the events that took place between August 1870 and September 1871, including the French defeat at the Battle of Sedan, Napoleon III’s surrender, the four-month siege of Paris by the Prussian army, and the rise and fall of the Paris Commune. Hugo called this series of poems, written in Luxembourg after he was expelled from Belgium, “The Terrible Year (L’Année terrible).”
Hugo the playwright
Some of his own plays became librettos for famous operas: Verdi’s Rigoletto, for instance, was derived from Le roi s’amuse (The King’s Fool, banned for 50 years because Hugo insulted King Louis-Philippe in the play). More than a hundred operas were derived from Hugo’s fifteen plays, one of which was written when he was 15 years old. None of his plays, however, are recognized today as first-rate literature.
Hugo the philosopher
In his writings Hugo championed the abolition of both slavery and capital punishment. In 1851 he gave a rousing speech against the death penalty when his son Charles was given a six-month jail sentence for speaking out against the execution of a man named Montcharmant. He also tried to get the U.S. government to spare the life of John Brown. He foresaw one day, possibly in the 20th century, the existence of a United States of Europe.
Hugo the drama critic
He was also a critic of Shakespeare’s plays. In 1864 Hugo agreed to write an introduction to an edition of Shakespeare’s plays translated by his son Francois. It was thought that the introduction should be about 30 pages but when the work reached 300 pages and still going it was decided that Hugo’s introduction should be a book by itself and it was so published. One of his critics proclaimed that the book was more about Hugo than Shakespeare and was mistitled: it should have been called “Myself!”
Hugo the statesman / politician
He was elected to the National Assembly and was a popular government figure who approved of the government as run by Louis-Napoleon, its president. But when the president now emperor Napoleon III took over the country in a coup d’etat Hugo joined a group that opposed the coup and then fled to Brussels where he lived for a year. He then moved in exile to the island of Jersey where for three years he continued to publicly vilify the French government. Hugo backed a Jersey newspaper that insulted Queen Victoria and he was then expelled from the island. He then moved on to the island of Guernsey where he lived in exile for 15 more years. Napoleon III’s reign was over on September 3rd, 1870. On September 4th a republic was proclaimed and on September 5th Hugo returned to Paris to a cheering crowd. In 1871 Paris burned during the Prussian seige in the last Franco-Prussian war. After the seige and just prior to the subsequent civil war Hugo was elected to the Assembly which moved to Versailles as the movement known as the Commune began to take over Paris. He then resigned his seat when he was shouted down while trying to give a speech favoring Giuseppe Garibaldi who was at one time the leading candidate for leading the new republic. A few weeks later he returned to Paris to bury his son Charles and then left Paris for Brussels where he pleaded that amnesty be given to the defeated Communards and even invited the leaders to his house. Alarmed Belgian authorities then expelled Hugo from the country. He returned again to Paris in 1872 and ran for an Assembly seat again but lost, most likely because of his sympathy for the Communards. In 1876 he was elected to the Senate for life and continued his campaign to grant amnesty to the Communards.
Hugo the artist
Hugo left a collection of more than 4000 drawings, none of which were shown publicly during his lifetime. They are all on paper and created with ink, ink stains, blots, charcoal rubbings from matchsticks, even coffee grounds. Delacroix once declared that if Hugo decided to be a painter instead of a writer he would have been one of the greatest artists of the century! See here for some samples of his work.
Hugo the novelist
In 1862 he published his second great novel Les Misérables, a book that he had been writing off and on for 20 years. The book was translated into several languages and made Hugo world-famous. It is often recognized as the greatest novel of the 19th century. In the last 30 years more than 41 million people have seen the musical based on Les Misérables.
Hugo wrote many other novels. One of them was L’Homme qui rit (The Man who Laughed), a strange story about the Paris underworld. From one of its many English translations evolved the character known as The Joker in the Batman comic books. He also wrote The Toilers of the Sea about the heroic people of Guernsey. His last novel, Ninety-Three (Quatrevingt-treize), is about the bloody revolution in western France in 1793 that resulted in what some historians describe as genocide.
His Last Years
On his return to Paris after 19 years in exile, Hugo lived in the 16th arrondissement in a house on Avenue d’Eylau which was renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo while he was still alive. In fact, just about every town in France has a street named in his honor!
Hugo outlived his wife Adele (died in 1868), his sons Leopold (1823), Charles (1871) and Francois-Victor (1873) and his mistress Juliet Drouet (1883). His daughter Adele suffered from schizophrenia and in 1875 was placed in a mental institution where she died in 1915 (A movie about her mental illness called The Story of Adele H was made in 1975). Hugo himself died in 1885 and a law was passed to eliminate once and for all the Pantheon’s role as a church and allow it to be a permanent place of rest for the national heroes of France. Hugo’s body was laid in state under the Arc de Triomphe in the 8th arrondissement and a funeral procession was organized to bring him all the way to the Pantheon in the 5th arrondissement. Two and a half million Parisians came out to watch the procession.
The Hugo Museum (Maison de Victor Hugo)
One day during our stay in Paris we took the Metro to the Marais, got off at the Bastile stop and then walked to the Place des Vosges. Hugo once lived (1832 to 1848) in an apartment there in the southeast corner of the Vosges and it has been turned into a museum honoring him. Some of the rooms have been remodeled to look like they did when he lived there. The Oriental Room looks exactly like a room in a house on the island of Guernsey that Hugo decorated for his mistress Juliet Drouet. A couple of the rooms in the museum are reserved for special exhibitions for which there is a charge. One exhibit was on the novel The Man Who Laughed, featuring the covers of various editions and the novel’s transformation into other media including film and graphic art. I was not allowed to take any photographs in this room.
So Victor Hugo was a man of many talents. But to me and millions more he was primarily the man who saved Notre Dame. By the way, there’s a Cafe Le Quasimodo around the corner from the Cathedral and the Hotel Esmeralda is just across the Seine from Notre Dame.