On February 26, 1802, French Romantic novelist, poet, and dramatist Victor Hugo was born in Besançon, France. Outside of France, Hugo is best known for his novels such as Notre-Dame de Paris ( or The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English) and Les Misérables. In fact, the latter was made into a highly successful musical and then adapted into a 2012 film. However, in France, Hugo is better known for his poetic works.
Influenced by the French Revolution of 1789, Hugo’s works are dominated by social and political themes (you know, like Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité). In addition, Hugo’s father was a general in Napoleon’s army. Thus, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Hugo never supported the French monarchy. Instead, he became an advocate for republicanism.
In 1830, the July Revolution broke out in France and a constitutional monarchy was consequently put in place. Hugo would have preferred a republic, but was nonetheless inspired by the themes of equality and freedom that powered the two revolutions. Thus, in 1831, he published The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one of his first works that included the social and political themes for which Hugo became known.
Hugo had now made a name for himself in the literary world, and in 1841 was elected to the Académie française or French Academy, a prestigious group that serves as the authority on the French language. Additionally, he began working on Les Misérables, a novel which took about 17 years to write and publish. It makes sense that it took so long considering it consists of five volumes and is one of the longest novels ever written. Ever.
Les Mis was finally published in 1862. The shortest correspondence in history supposedly occurred between Hugo and his publisher. Hugo sent a telegram with only a “?” to ask how well Les Mis was doing, as he was on vacation when it was published. His publisher sent back a “!” to signify that it was a sensation.
In 1851, Hugo fled to Brussels after a coup in France, because he strongly opposed the new monarch, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. He also lived in Britain for awhile in his exile. However, he triumphantly returned in 1870, when a republic was established.
Hugo died in Paris on May 22, 1885, and was buried in the Panthéon as a national hero who exposed the flaws of society and helped create a republic in France.
“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables