Victor Hugo was born in Besançon in 1802 and by the age of 13 had realised that he had a literary calling, his early poems winning a number of awards, including two “mentions” from the Academie Francaise. During the 1820s he became one of the leading figures of the French Romantic movement. In 1830 his position was enhanced by the success of the play ‘Hernani’ which was subject to fierce controversy, symbolising as it did the conflict between new Romantic ideas and classical French theatre. Indeed, the “battle” surrounding the play is now considered to be a major turning point in French literary history.
1830 saw the publication of ‘Notre Dame de Paris’, with its evocation of life in the Middle Ages centred on the famous Paris cathedral. This novel has of course been on more than one occasion successfully adapted for the cinema, most recently as a Disney cartoon.
During the 1830s Hugo concentrated principally on the theatre, with mixed success. Following difficulties in his relationship with his wife, Adèle, he began a liaison with Juliette Drouet, whom he met as an actress in one of his plays. This relationship was to last more than fifty years.
In 1841 he was elected (at the fifth attempt) to the Academie Francaise, but following the failure of his play ‘Les Burgraves’ in 1843, Hugo turned his attention more to public and political issues, becoming a Peer of France in 1845. Tragedy also struck during this period when, in September 1843, his daughter Léopoldine and her husband were drowned in the Seine at Villequier in Normandy.
In his earlier years Hugo had been a monarchist, and during the political upheaval from 1848 onwards Hugo was at first concerned that order should be maintained, initially welcoming and supporting the candidature of Louis Bonaparte. He began to realise, however, that his moral and political ambitions were not shared by his political allies, and his relationship with them soon deteriorated.
By July 1851, his opposition to Louis Bonaparte had hardened with his coining of the phrase “we have had Napoleon the Great, now we have to have Napoleon the Small”, and after the coup d’état of the 2nd December, which he tried in vain to oppose, with Juliette’s assistance he fled the country to avoid arrest, initially to Brussels. It was clear however that, as a close neighbour of France, the Belgian authorities were concerned that Hugo’s political statements would strain relationships between the two countries, and in 1852 Hugo moved to Jersey where there were already a number of “proscribed” opponents to the new French regime.
In 1855, Queen Victoria’s visit to Paris caused a highly satirical article to be published by French exiles in a London newspaper, and the contents of the article were repeated by some of Hugo’s fellow “proscribed” in the newspaper they had founded in Jersey. This led to three of them being expelled. Declaring his own solidarity with them led subsequently to the expulsion of Hugo himself, with his arrival in Guernsey at the end of October. In 1856, he published ‘Les Contemplations’, a book of poetry which was an immediate success, and with the proceeds he bought 38 Hauteville, now often known simply as Hauteville House, which he decorated in his own highly imaginative manner.
Although legally able to return to France in 1859, Hugo remained resident on the island until 1870, and also in his later years, notably for almost a year during 1872/1873. During his period in Guernsey he wrote, completed or published the majority of the works for which he is best known, in particular ‘Les Contemplations’ (1856), ‘Les Misérables’ (1862), ‘La Legende des siecles’ (1877), ‘William Shakespeare’ (1864), ‘Les Chansons des rues et des bois’ (1865), ‘Les Travailleurs de la mer’ (1866), ‘L’Homme qui rit’ (1869), and ‘Quatre-Vingt-Treize’ (1874). To varying degrees these works were substantial popular successes, particularly of course ‘Les Misérables’ which remains a hugely popular literary work even today. It illustrates some of Hugo’s ideas on the social and moral issues of the time, which he felt to be important.
However, of all his works, those which are of particular interest to Guernsey are ‘Les Travailleurs de la mer’ (Toilers of the Sea), the story of which takes place in Guernsey, and its preliminary book ‘L’Archipel de la Manche’, which constitutes even today an excellent guide to the Islands, and particularly Guernsey. Hugo intended it to be published as the first section of ‘Les Travailleurs de la mer’, but it was not published until many years later. In addition there are references to the Island in other works as well as in Hugo’s own notebooks and letters.
Following the fall of Louis Bonaparte in 1870, Hugo returned to France as a hero and once more took an interest in political life during another period of upheaval further complicated by the Franco-Prussian war. He was elected to the National Assembly in 1871 and was by now a famous public and literary figure. Publication of his works continued, including, in 1877, ‘L’Art d’être grand-père’, one of the first books in French literature to deal specifically with childhood, and much of which was written in Guernsey.
Hugo was also a believer in European integration, and as an illustration of this, on the 14th of July 1870, he planted in the garden of Hauteville House an oak (which still flourishes today), predicting that when the tree was mature “The United States of Europe”, uniting all European nations, would have become a reality.
Hugo’s wish was to be buried in a pauper’s coffin. While this wish was granted, he was nevertheless, on his death in 1885, voted a National Funeral by the two government assemblies. The coffin lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and, on the 1st of June 1885, he was buried as a national hero in the Panthéon. It is estimated that at least two million people followed the funeral procession.