" His novels have a purpose: historical, moral, social or all at
once. &9;Their insistent vibrating style, and the frequent
intrusion of the author's inflections may awaken a sense of
strain; but they have kept their hold on others than school boys;
and the grotesque, swarming, medieval crowds surging the huge
cathedral (Notre Dame de Paris), the symbolic fight between man
and the sea (Les Travialleurs de Mer). The epic allegories of
vice, suffering and regeneration in the background of modern
society of it's cruelty and indifference it has secured themselves
a place among the French books that live" (Cazamian, 1964).
Sophie Trébuchet, later Sophie Hugo, ardently supported the monarchy of France. She was not a practicing catholic, and rather disliked religion. She had been raised from the earliest childhood by an aunt who loved Voltaire. Obviously, as a royalist she was in great danger during the French Revolution, but several times she risked her life to save others from the guillotine. There are even stories that the future Mademoiselle Hugo met Léopold under such sorted circumstances. Supposedly young Sophie distracted Léopold, a soldier of the republic, so that a group of rebels and priests could escape the guillotine, though there is no evidence to support the anecdote. Victor, the third son, was born on the twenty-sixth of February, 1802. He was apparently born premature and it was thought that he would not survive his first night, his health was so precarious that his father did not report him as a live birth until he had already lived three days. His birth momentarily quieted the frequent disputes between his parents; their diametrically opposing political beliefs, Sophie a royalist and Léopold a solider of Napoleons republic, often put them at odds. Early in Victors life his father made exaggerated claims against his commanding officer which could not be substantiated by the ensuing investigation. A court-martial was nearly underway when Sophie went to General Victor La Horie, after whom Victor was named, and pleaded on her husbands behalf. She succeeded in her aim, but was so struck by the General that she stayed with him after her goal was accomplished. The general was also a royalist who would later take part in a conspiracy against the republic, Sophie began a long-standing affair with him. Léopold was sent to Corsica, to perform guard duty as punishment, where he met a young Catherine Thomas who would be his mistress, and eventually his wife. Léopold impressed Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleons brother) who made him a colonel at which time, after three years apart, Sophie returned to him. After two rocky years, most of which was spent in separate residences, Sophie took her sons and returned to Paris. As a young man Victors financial standing would largely be tied to the success of the Bonaparte family. As Joseph Bonaparte became more powerful Léopold advanced with him, and became wealthier and more powerful, ultimately becoming a general. Though they rarely lived together, and would eventually divorce in 1818 (seven years after the general originally asked for it) Léopold always supported Sophie and their sons. When Sophie and Léopold were together they often fought, this is the tumultuous environment in which young Victor Hugo spent his childhood. By the age of fourteen Victor completed his first translations of Virgil, an early influence impacted his writing and thought across his career, and by fifteen he had composed a poem that received honorable mention from the French Academy in a contest intended for college students and professionals. The academy was so thoroughly impressed by the prodigousness of the youth that they demanded proof of his age lest they revoke the prize. Hugo promptly furnished his birth certificate and became the talk of Paris.
The youthful poet
&9;At age sixteen Hugo finished his schooling at the Pension Cordier and upon leaving had all but completed his formal education. Hugo, like all youth of his day, found himself confronted with the decision of a vocation. Young Victor tried his hand at law school but found he was particularly unsuited for it, encouraged by his success with the National Academy he decided upon poetry. Léopold, now General Hugo, did not approve of his sons choice, but did not attempt to interfere with it either. In 1819, when only seventeen years old, Victor Hugo won two prizes from the prestigious Academy of Toulouse for his poems "Les Vierges de Verdun" and "Le Rétablissement de la statue de Henri IV." Later that year Hugo was again recognized by the National Academy with fifth place in another poetry contest, although the topic was one he did not particularly wish to address. Soon he established a review along with his brother called Le Conservateur littétaire named for his idol Chateaubriandes Le Conservateur. This review was chiefly composed of Victors work and served as an important medium for many of his early poems. In January of 1821 Chateaubraind and a number of others the Société des bonnes lettres, an extreme royalist group that Charles and Victor were soon attracted to. Victors participation began to wane as other interests occupied his time, but Charles remained active. In June Sophie died suddenly, in addition to immense personal loss Victor also lost his source of support.
The next two years were an experience with bitter poverty that would be recounted many years later as those of Marius Pontmercy in Les Misérables. Victor soon approached his love interest, Adéle Foucher whom his mother forbade him to court, and asked for her hand in marriage. Her parents consented, but only if Hugo were capable of supporting her, and at the time he most certainly was not. Victor and Adéle had a truly romantic courtship, much of which was recorded in Lettres á la fiancée after Hugos death. He idealized her and refused to find any fault in her. When she confessed that she disliked poetry Victor did not believe her, for in his mind innocence, which she represented, was intimately intertwined with appreciation of poetry. In 1822 Hugo published his first volume of poems Odes et poésies diverses, the modest volume immediately captured Louis XVIIIs attention, he promptly awarded Hugo an annual stipend. This support meant that he could finally marry Adéle, which he did soon thereafter.
On June, 16 1823 Adéle gave birth to their first son, Léopold, but Adéle was unable to nurse him and an incompetent wet nurse caused him to die. Scarcely a year later Leopoldine, their first daughter, was born on August twenty-eighth, 1824, just as Victor was rising to the head of the new romantic school. He was beginning to dislike the establishment and its restrictions on literature, Hugo asserted that poets must lead and could not be bound by outdated rules. On the sixteenth of September Louis the XVIII died and was succeeded by Charles X, to whose coronation Hugo was invited. It was during this time that Charles Nodier first became an important friend of Hugos, Nodier would lead him to Shakespeare who was almost unknown in France at the time. Though Hugos thoughts were beginning to put him at odds with the establishment he still lived in his mothers shadow, so he was a royalist in name, if not in thought.
In 1827 a critic named Charles-Augustine Sainte-Beuve heralded Hugo as a supreme talent, his reviews were so flattering that Hugo sought him out. The two soon became great friends, Sainte-Beuve surpassed Nodier as Hugos chief literary confidant. For a brief time the two were the closest of friends, but sadly their relationship would come to a tragic end.
&9;Hugos indecision on political matters would soon be pulled into focus. He composed a poem titled "Ode á la Colonne de la place Vendôme" based on the experiences of three Napoleonic marshals who were granted ducal rank by Napoleon during his reign. They were announced without title at a ball in Alsacé-Lorraine, the Germans present denied their rank because of the humiliation Napoleon inflicted on the German army, the three insulted dukes left immediately. These three men would later be represented in Les Misérables by Maurius father, who was likewise insulted. This poem gained the favor of the liberal press and pleased his father who began to warm to him. Soon thereafter the play Cromwell was published, this work, particularly its preface, hurdled Hugo to the forefront of the romantic movement and crowned him as the master of the movement. His success, however, would be bittersweet. This joy would be counterbalanced with disaster as well. In 1828, as Hugo was drawing truly close to his father, the General died suddenly.
Hugo the master, Hugo the political activist
In 1829 Victor Hugo published Les Orientales, a collection of poems that far exceeded his previous offerings. The poems received great acclaim, but also represented a significant shift in his political views. Contained in the collection was a poem called "Lui" which extolled the greatness of Napoleon. Other significant political ideas began to solidify this year as well. Hugo chanced upon an executioner preparing his gallows for the next days "festivities", the crass indifference of the man astounded Hugo. Though always a humanitarian, Hugo now explicitly opposed capitol punishment in his writing of Dernier jour dun condemn (The last day of a condemned man). The novel was one of the first reviewed by the Great Cénacle, a group of Paris literary elite, who began meeting regularly in Hugos home. The group included Sainte-Beuve, Nodier, Vigny, Lamartaine and others whom would be among Hugos closest friends for the rest of his life.
Victor Hugo came directly in confrontation with the monarchy for the first time in 1830 when, after its first performance, Marion de Lorme was censored by Charles X. Hugo pleaded to have the ban removed, but Charles would not relent. Hugo replied by writing his play Hernani, considered by many his best play. In less than a month Hugo composed the play, he had scarcely presented it to the Cénacle before he read it to the Thêatre-Francias. The troupe instantly began production of the play. Charles X, meanwhile, had dissolved the Parliament and abridged civil liberties guaranteed by the Charter. The June revolution resulted in his exile. In this amiable atmosphere Hugo began work an novel, which four months later became Notre Dame de Paris. The romantic composer Hector Berlioz was present when Hugo presented the work to the Cénacle and was bedazzled by its mastery. In 1831 it was published, at the extraordinary age of twenty-nine Hugo was established as the romantic master of the novel, as well as drama and poetry.
Even the joy of becoming the fulcrum of romantic literature could not be long relished by Hugo. In early December Sainte-Beuve confessed to Hugo that he had fallen in love with Adéle, but had not revealed his feelings to her. Hugo was compassionate and understanding, he asked his friend to try and dominate his feelings for Mme. Hugo, but two weeks later Sainte-Beuve decided he could not master his emotions. He did what he felt was the only honorable course of action, he offered to withdraw from the lives of the Hugos. There was a brief period of intermittent contact, but then Sainte-Beuve contacted Adéle and there was an affair. Hugo took the loss of his friend especially hard, though he continued to wish him the best. Sainte-Beuve, however, became quite spiteful to Hugo, though not always to his work. Later, in 1833, Hugo met an actress, Juliette Drouet, who played a small part in his Lucréce Borgia, after a brief time of clumsy modesty (Hugos romantic ideal) the began an affair. The two would be together for more than fifty years, until Juliette died. She found herself in a considerable financial disaster which, though he could scarcely afford to, Victor rectified by assuming all of her debts and furnishing her with a modest apartment. Juliette would realize the romantic ideal of rehabilitation through love. She had contact only with Victor, and she devoted her life to him. In that respect her devotion may have been the model for Jean Valjeans devotion to Cossette in Les Misérables. In his mind Hugo was equally devoted to Adéle and Juliette, the former his hostess and the mother of his children, the later a lover who could appreciate his poetry.
In 1831 Joseph Bonaparte, General Hugos benefactor, contacted Hugo to see if he would support Napoleons son if he were to try for the leadership of France. Hugo, who had become quite liberal by this point, enthusiastically agreed. The young Bonaparte, however, died before any action could be taken. Hugo vehemently supported humanitarian causes and the old republic (Napoleons France). Hugo would later write, in Dieu (God), that Satan had sent three evils into this world; war, capitol punishment and imprisonment. Supporting these sorts of policies Hugo tried for a place in the National Academy, an academic body that had some political influence. After three attempts he was finally elected in 1840. On April 13, 1845 Hugo was made a Peer de France and on June 4th he was elected to the National Assembly. Hugo fought for the working class, but ultimately failed them by voting for the wrong causes with good intentions. In November of that year Hugo began work on his greatest masterpiece, Les Misérables. On August 1, 1848 he founded a newspaper called LEvenement. The paper was largely a political tool, one that he would use to elect a man with a magic name. Hugo used the paper to support Louis-Napoleons (Napoleon III) bid for the French presidency. It was widely believed that without Hugos support, through his paper, that Napoleon III may not have won the election, with the support he won by a landslide.
Napoleon III eventually became as tyrannical as any monarch, he opposed Garabaldi and his attempts for a liberated Italy. This outraged Hugo and other liberals in France. Hugo openly attacked Napoleon IIIs policies using LEvenement. Napoleon III ordered his army to force key opposition to resign and smashed the printing presses of papers that were hostile towards him, Hugos was, of course, among these. The working class, led by ousted liberals, rose against these outrages, but the army massacred the workers. Hugo carefully noted the details which he would soon use to expose Napoleon IIIs tyranny.
Fearing arrest Hugo went into hiding with Juliette who concealed him, then helped him escape to Belgium. There Hugo published Histoire dun Crime (the story of a crime) and Napoleon le petit (the small Napoleon). Both were vicious attacks on Napoleon III. Belgium asked Hugo to leave because they were forced to maintain friendly relations with France. Hugo then went to the small island of Jersey not far from the French coast, but he would never make a real home for himself there. There he published Les Châtements a book of poems further defaming Napoleon III. When England allied itself with Napoleon III (1855) Hugo attacked the Queen as well, with this he overstepped his welcome in Jersey and was told to leave the island (Jersey was a British holding).
Hugo fled to nearby Guernsey, a place that would be second in his heart only to Paris. There Hugo established his famous home the Hauteville House. Shortly after arriving in Guernsey Victor Hugo published Les Contemplations which were largely poems of grief over his daughter Leopoldines drowning (1843) and some poems on nature. His grief over her passing was renewed by a series of seances held on Jersey, there, Hugo believed, he had contacted her spirit as well that of Jesus and those of a number of other important people. Interestingly enough most of the details he learned from the seances, about historical events, could be verified (Harris, 1969). Victor Hugo continued to criticize Napoleon III and the tyranny in France both in his work and during the speeches he often gave, but his attention turned again to Les Misérables.
Comentaries and change, .sort of
On January 1, 1861 Hugo seriously resumed work Les Misérables, it would be completed and published in 1862. Hugo said that "Dante created a hell out of poetry, I have tried to create one out of reality."; with his depiction of the working poor in Paris certainly did create that hellish reality. The abused masses and the explicit subject of poverty-made crime provide the antithesis behind for the romantic ideal of redemption through love. Jean Valjean, like his Juliette Drouet, devotes his life to Fantines daughter Cossette, raising her as his own daughter, holding her more cherished than even himself. His humanitarian approach treated the wretched hordes of the city (Les Misérables) as real people with real concerns and real suffering. The social commentary was astoundingly well received in France, even his old friend (enemy?) Sainte-Beuve heralded it as a masterpiece.
In 1865 Napoleon III declared an amnesty for exiled republicans. Hugos family returned to Paris, but he declared that he would not return to France until liberty did. Victor remained on Guernsey with Juliette. The next year he publish Les Travailleurs de la mer (the toilers of the sea), a symbolic struggle against, then resignation after victory, to the sea. Two years later, in 1868, Adéle died in Brussels, where Victor and his sons attended her during a brief illness. Victor went with her body as far as the French border, but would not cross over. After another two years Hugo was finally vindicated for change had come to Paris, and perhaps to France.
Return to France
On September 5, 1870, after nineteen long years of exile (the same length of Jean Valjeans imprisonment), Hugo returned to France. Napoleon III was overthrown and the Third Republic was declared. Napoleon III had blundered the Franco-Prussian war and a revolution rebuked him for it. During his long exile Hugos name became synonymous with the Republic, so upon his return he received a welcome like none in memory. Hugo was elected to the National Assembly which had to immediately deal with the oncoming Prussian assault. Hugo appealed to the Prussian leaders, but to no avail. The French decided to resist the onslaught of Prussian soldiers. Hugo declared "There will be henceforth in Europe two nations to be feared: one because it will be victorious, the other because it will be vanquished." He prophetically, though succinctly, described the state of Europe between the Franco-Prussian war and the End of World War I. Paris was shortly thereafter besieged, during the four-month affair Hugo suffered as any other Parisian, he often ate horse meat and even worse.
Frustrated by conservative domination of the National Assembly,
the rest of France did not share Paris visionary, revolutionary
zeal, Hugo resigned after the Assembly twice needlessly humiliated
the revolutionary Garabaldi (who aided in the overthrow of
Napoleon III). On March 11, 1873 his son François-Victor died
suddenly of tuberculosis. Hundreds of Parisians spontaneously
joined Hugo in his grief at the funeral. That same day barricades
went up against the new government, Paris demanded the new
republic to which Hugo strove. The army was sent against the
barricades and the young men were slaughtered.
The Grandfather returns to politics
At the age of seventy-five Victor began to concentrate on being a grandfather to his now fatherless grandchildren. He moved and moved François-Victors family so they could be close. He cherished his time with the children and jotted down observations about them every few days. These would become the poetry in Lart dêtre grand-pére (The are of being a grandfather).
In 1875 the rest of France caught up with Paris, the republicans swept the elections and Georges Clemanceau led the campaign to again elect Hugo. Unfortunately three years while arguing with his close friend Louis-Blanc about Rousseau and Voltaire he had a mild apoplexy. He was ordered to bed, so he returned to Hauteville House on Guernsey for four months. When returned to Paris he seen the small island for the last time. After the stroke Hugo discontinued writing, though he published some work he had already written. He moved into a small house with Juliette upon his return to Paris. In his old age he kept an open house just as he always had. Every person of importance and thousands of common people flocked to meet him while he still lived. " Paris enveloped him in a vast monumental glory" (Harris 307). The city continued to revere its favorite son. On his seventy-ninth birthday the city turned out to salute Hugo and the Republic.
In December of the same year Juliette was diagnosed with cancer of the stomach, the following May she died. Her death shattered Victor and his health visibly declined. He published only one more time, and that of course, had been written many years before. France again saluted Hugo on his eighty-third birthday, but it was apparent that his health was failing. On May 13, 1885 he hosted a small dinner party for his intimate friends, two days later he had contracted pneumonia. On the 22nd Victor Hugo died.
Hugos funeral procession began at the Arc dTriumphe, the monument of his beloved Napoleon. Over one million saw the procession and it took ten thousand police to hold the crowds back. (Grant, 1945) On the first of June, Hugos remains were laid to rest alongside those of Rousseau and Voltaire in the Panthenon.
Hugo and Gardeners model
Like many of the creators that Gardner studied in Creating Minds, Freud especially, young Hugo was largely dominated by his mother. He would live in her shadow and maintain her beliefs long after her direct influence had faded. Also like many of the creators the Hugos were comfortable financially, at least during his childhood, but not wealthy by any means. Like others Gardner studied Victor Hugo showed great promise early in life. He was truly prodigious, a rare exception in the literary domain, and his genius was first recognized at the tender age of fifteen, though he had translated Virgil as early as fourteen. Like many other creators, again Freud in particular, young Hugo was fascinated by the classics in general, and by Virgil in particular.
In his youth Hugo idealized the monarchy, compliments of his mothers beliefs, and greatly admired Chateubriand who was the court master of letters. Given his political beliefs the monarchs, Louis XVIII and Charles X, were also important influences, though not so much in personality as in name. The young romantic idealized the King, regardless of who sat upon the throne. Voltaire was an important influence on the youthful Hugo, his mother especially adored Voltaire so Victor was familiar with his writings at an early age. These early readings, which undoubtedly included Candide, may have been the beginnings of his humanitarianism. The relationship between Hugo the child and Hugo the master is inconsistent. Some views, like his humanitarianism, started early on and were maintained throughout his lifetime, but others, most notably his politics, diametrically changed over his lifetime. He began firmly rooted in royalism, but then realized his ideals and drifted republicanism which he stayed with throughout his adulthood. Many features of his romantic literature can be traced to his childhood. The romantic fascination with nature and the natural stems from his time in the family garden, more aptly called a countryside, and his great love for the landscape. He adored the natural, from his garden to the ocean, to the Alps and the Rhine. Also the supernatural, fantastic and grotesque (comedy, beauty and repugnance) are common themes in the thoughts of children, and as Hugo put they were part of a natural order. As striking as the qualities are, without questions the most remarkable facet of the young Hugo was his prodigious genius, a genius that did not wave, but was enhanced with age. In this regard Victor Hugo is most like Pablo Picasso, excelled at an early age in a domain that is not accustomed to prodigy. Also, like Picasso, he assumed the mantle of mastery at an early age and maintained it well into old age.
Many of the individuals studied by Gardner in Creating Minds had interests other than their chosen domains, in this Hugo was most like Einstein. Although they were both masters of their trade, they pursued politics as a means of improving the human condition. Where Einstein was an activist, Hugo became a leader. Like other great creators they exhibited a generative concern for humanity. Here I should note that Hugo lived in, in some ways defined, the era directly preceding the modern era. Hugo established the rules that Elliot would rebel against, Hugo promoted the nationalism that led to disaster in the First World War, though he vigorously opposed the use of violence. In this Hugo resembled Ghandi, like Ghandi Hugo underwent self-imposed hardship as a political tool. Long after he was permitted to return to France Hugo remained in exile. This self-imposed exiled leant greater authority to his words both during his exile, and after his return.
&9;A number of the creators studied in Creating Minds had troubled personal lives, Hugo fits here as well. Like Einstein, Freud, Picasso and Elliot Hugo had difficult relationships with women in his life. The individual relationships were strong, particularly with his mistress Juliette. His relationship with Adéle was always cordial and loving, if not intimate. There was a peculiar relationship between Adéle and Juliette, they knew and were fond of one another. Hugo found in Juliette all that Adéle lacked, and Adéle was the cordial hostess and mother that Juliette would never be. Hugo would likely have never taken a mistress had it not been for the affair between Adéle and Sainte-Beuve, but eventually became far more attached to Juliette than to Adéle.
Like all of the creators discussed by Gardner Hugo a close association of friends with whom he shared his work. Hugo had Cènacle, which Adéle graciously hosted, to share his work with and they were privileged to experience Hugos work before anyone else. Vigny, Blanc, Nodier, Sainte-Beuve, Lamartaine and a host of others regularly met at Hugos home, the group was composed of Paris literary elite. There were many guests to the group, notably Hector Berlioz, the romantic composer, was present when Hugo first shard Notre Dame de Paris (the Hunchback of Notre Dame). Berlioz was awed by the novel. Charles, one of Hugos sons, would be an important literary confidant, but the most crucial influence was likely his brief friendship with Sainte-Beuve. Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve had a profound influence the content of Hugos poems, the two mutually adored one another until the affair ripped them apart. Hugo confessed that he was in the impossible position of being forced between the two on this earth that he loved most, but he chose Adéle. Adéle however would eventually choose Sainte-Beuve. Sainte-Beuve however was insanely jealous of Hugo and enraged that he took Adéle for granted. The two had a bitter falling out caused by Sainte-Beuve, Hugo always regretted their parting of ways.
Victor Hugo, in line with his romantic ideal, always poured his soul into his work. He utilized his brilliant poetry and oration as tools to accomplish his political aims. Hugo, through his work, championed the poor, the condemned and the imprisoned, he renounced war and advocated charity and piety. His works depicted the wretched reality of France and offered viable alternatives. Hugo engaged life and politics on his terms, though he did not always succeed he is all the greater for having tried. Instead of merely expounding the way the world should be, he actively tried to make it so. In doing so, Hugo did not make a Faustian bargain. His family was actively involved in his aims and his work. His sons and some extended family worked on his newspapers, his friends and companions shared his work with him, both during exile and at home.
Even after considering the incongruancies Victor Hugo fits Howard Gardners model of creativity remarkably well. His life echoes many facets of the creators Gardner examined. Hugo mastered the accepted form of poetry and prose, then rebelled against its restrictive nature rising to the forefront the romantic movement. Hugo eventually defined the period with his expansive commentaries and unmatched poetry. Like others, he mastered the domain then gathered a group of exceptional men and women around him that together defined their time.
For over half a century Victor Hugo defined romantic poetry, drama and literature. For forty years he was the liberal conscious of France, his ideals and his work live today as vividly as the did when he created them. Victor Hugo and his time are the context that Gardners individuals take place in, the romantic era, his era, was the backdrop for their lives and creations. It cannot be declared that Hugo produced a single masterpiece which represents his best work, an indispensable piece that exemplifies him, without which he would loose significance. Hugo produced a multitude of such works, none of which it can be claimed are indispensable. Many years of Hugos death T.S. Elliot appreciated that quality. John Porter Houston wrote "I am reminded of the remarks T.S. Elliot made about Swineburnes poetic language, which are all the more suggestive in the light of Swineburnes utter worship of Hugo. Elliot emphasized the vastness of Swineburnes work and the peculiar fact that no particular poem represents him at his absolute best and is indispensable. His diffuseness is one of his glories." (Houston, 1988) Hugos work dwarfs that of Swineburne. Victor Hugos importance to the romantic movement cannot be overstated, he was its greatest master. Likewise Hugos importance to the French consciousness of his era cannot be exaggerated, the man, the work and the creativity defined an era. Unlike his idle critics Hugo took his destiny as well as his countrys in his sturdy hands and made the best of both. His mistakes were made with good intention, and his successes have stood the test of time.
Cazamian, L. (1964). A History of French Literature. Clarendon, England: Oxford &9;University Press.
Gardner, H. (1993). Creating Minds. New York City: Basic Books.
Grant, E. M. (1945). The Career of Victor Hugo. London, England: Oxford University Press.
Harris, R. W. (1969). Romanticism and the Social Order. Great Britain: Barnes and Noble.
Houston, J. P. (1988). Victor Hugo Revised Ed. Boston Mass.: Twayne Publishers.