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Victor Hugo, French writer
author of “Les Misérables”, 1802 -1885

The ‘Victor Hug’ character is the narrator in Montreuil’s annual spectacular “son-et-lumière” outdoor presentation of “Les Misérables”.

Victor Hug and the north
Early publications 1820-30
"Hunchback of Notre-Dame" 1831
Brief visit to Montreuil - the idea for "Les Misérables" 1837
Exile in the Channel Islands 1852-70
"Les Misérables" completed 1862
Franco-Prussian War and later life
Victor Hugo and the north
Montreuil-sur-mer is the setting for Victor Hugo's best-known novel, "Les Misérables" (published 1862), which vividly portrays life in France during the first 30 years of the 19th century. Apart from that, he has no great connections with the north of France. World-wide he is also famous for "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" (1831). Both have been successfully adapted as films and plays.

In France he was better known as popular poet and political thinker - many towns have a street named after him.

He had the disrupted childhood you'd expect as the son of one of Napoleon's generals. After Napoleon's defeat he was a poor and not very successful law student in Paris - echoed perhaps in the 'Marius' character in "Les Misérables".
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Early publications 1820-1830
He turned to writing, and published his first book of poetry in 1821, a novel in 1825, and an epic stage play about Cromwell in 1828. He and his friends were were devotees of "Romanticism". Though Hugo moved to the left politically in later life, this almost fantasy way of looking at personal lives and dramas played out against an historical backdrop remained typical of his work.

His early publications gained royal approval and a pension from the far-right French king Charles X, but he soon fell foul of the regime's strict censorship. As in Shakespeare's England, writers who wanted to explore political issues often wrote about historical situations, expecting the audience to understand when a reference to current affairs was intended. This was enough to have the censor ban a stage play Hugo set in the Middle Ages, which was seen as critical of a royal ancestor, Louis XIII.
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"Hunchback of Notre-Dame" 1831
In 1831, this novel was his first real success. Earlier work had patches of really good bits amid long turgid passages, but the "Hunchback" evoked medieval society in the reign of Louis XI in a way that struck a chord with a society. It condemned the suffering caused to Quasimodo and the gypsy girl Esmeralda by Frollo the archdeacon and Phoebus the soldier.

In the 1830's, cheaper printing, and wider literacy created a wider market for novels with immediate appeal: everyone in middle-class society would want to read and talk about the latest fashionable best-seller.

Hugo turned increasing to social and political issues: he wrote poems in praise of Louis-Philippe, the "citizen-king" brought to power as France's first constitutional monarch in 1830; and to the glory of Napoleon, though he did not then support republicanism; and about the miseries of the workers.
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Brief visit to Montreuil 1837
In 1837 he made a brief visit to the quant medieval fortified town of Montreuil during a holiday at the nearby fishing port of
Etaples. While writing to his wife, Adèle, and dozing under the trees around the peaceful derelict ramparts, Hugo first devised how this setting could be used for an historical romance set in the violent turmoil of his own lifetime - from the end of the Napoleonic Empire to the barricades of the 1830 Revolution which overthrew the reactionary king Charles X - "Les Misérables".

Writing this novel had to slot in with many other play- and poetry writing projects he was working on. Hugo was also spending more time on politics and the social demands of being a well-known popular writer.

Work was interrupted by his grief at the accidental drowning of his daughter in 1843, and by Hugo's election as an MP for Paris after the 1848 Revolution.
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Exile in the Channel Islands 1852-1870
But Hugo had to flee into exile when he opposed the coup d'etat of Louis Napoleon, who was elected President of the Second Republic but took over power as Emperor Napoleon III. He settled in the Channel Islands for 20 years, seeking the freedom of British protection as an asylum seeker.

He devoted himself to writing, and produced some of his best poetry - much of it political. He took up his abandoned novel, "Les Misérables", and published it in 1862. It was immediately a huge popular success, and was translated into many languages, selling all round the world.
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The completion of “Les Misérables” 1862
The novel reflected how Hugo had matured as a social critic over the 24 years since he first had the idea. Each of his characters is set on a path towards a certain fate by historical events. During the Napoleonic Empire, Jean Valjean becomes a convict, and is doomed to be hounded by the policeman, Javert. Marcus's father is saved at Waterloo by the rascal innkeeper, and so incurs obligations. Cosette falls ill in Montreuil, and places her child in the care of that same innkeeper.
See: 'Montreuil & the story of "Les Misérables"' for more detail.

The plot is a mixture of detective story and historical romance, with larger-than-life characters facing a series of moral dilemmas, exploring Hugo's constant theme of man's ceaseless combat with evil. Jean Valjean in particular represents the possibility of an individual somehow remaining good in a hard uncaring world. The story comes across as a harsh comment on how bleak life could be for ordinary people in 19th century France - a very unequal and corrupt society that brutalised many of its poor.
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Franco-Prussian War & later life: 1871-1885
Hugo returned to France in 1871, when Napoleon III was overthrown as a result of an unwise and unnecessary war with Prussia (Germany). Prussian troops had occupied much of the north in 1870, and Hugo wrote an epic poem about the brave but forlorn defence of Paris when the Prussians besieged and starved the city, followed by the bloody episode of the Paris Commune. The "Terrible Year" made him a national hero and the living symbol of republicanism in France. He was briefly an MP in the Third Republic, but his health was no longer up to being active in politics.

He was saddened by the death of his wife Adèle in 1868. In 1878 became too ill to write any more, and in 1883 his long-term mistress Juliette also died. The street where he lived in Paris was named "Avenue Victor Hugo" on his 80th birthday.

Victor Hugo died in 1885, and was given a national funeral. His body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and was buried in the Panthéon. He was and is still regarded as the greatest French writer of his day, one with a very popular appeal.
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Places to visit:
Montreuil-sur-Mer - setting for much of "Les Misérables"
Etaples - where Victor Hugo spent a holiday in 1837.

Related background information
"Les Misérables" - the outdoor spectacle & the story
Emil Zola - another famous French writer, author of “Germinal”, a novel set in the coalmines of the north.
Franco-Prussian War - the Siege of Paris, the Commune and the impact on north France.




A-Z © Copyright 2000 Invicta Media Last updated 9th April 2002, 5th April 2000