Okay, I’ve given you a couple of days break from Les Miserables.
Last time we saw that Victor Hugo lived through one of the most tumultous periods in all of French history, and Les Miserables was his attempt to speak into this. The issues which he sought to address included:
–A political scene so volatile that it would make ours seem like a day in the park.
–A penal system in dire need of reform because it came down harshest upon the poorest of the poor, whose crimes amounted to little more than just being poor, while at the same time it was woefully ineffective in punishing the worst criminal offenders.
–A society in which working class women were kicked to the curb and then held fully accountable for everything that society did to them, and in which their children suffered profusely in the aftermath.
–Family structures that were essentially nonexistent among the lower classes, and, when they did exist, were so weak that just the slightest disruption (political, social, economic, or otherwise) was enough to wipe entire families completely off the map.
–Rigid class structures in which people were unfairly judged on the basis of their class standing, and not the content of their character.
But how did Victor Hugo acquire a platform big enough to allow him to speak into the life of an entire country? And what was going on in his life that brought this book out of him? That is what we will now consider.
Victor Hugo was born in 1802. He had two older brothers, named Abel and Eugene. His father was a high-ranking officer under Napoleon, who would ultimately rise to the rank of general. His mother was a devout Royalist and Catholic. As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of tension in that marriage.
For the first several years of his life, Victor Hugo was an army brat. With the rest of his family, he followed his father around to all his posts, which included assignments in Italy, Spain, and all over France. Eventually, the itinerant life of an army officer got to be too much for the rest of the family to bear. Add that to the high level of tension that already existed between Victor Hugo’s parents, and it was inevitable that they would split up. When they did, Victor and his older brothers followed their mother to Paris.
Victor Hugo’s mother was an ardent Royalist, as we have said earlier. She is believed to have had an affair with an officer whom Napoleon had executed for treason against him. She was actively involved in several Royalist salons in Paris. Victor tagged along with her, absorbing Royalist convictions by osmosis. When he grew up, he reconciled with his father and became a very devout Bonapartist. When we meet Marius, we will see distinct parallels between his upbringing and political development and Victor Hugo’s.
In 1822 Victor Hugo married childhood friend Adele Foucher, whom both he and his brother Eugene had loved. On the day of the wedding, Eugene went insane, never to recover. (If that were me–that is, if I had a brother who loved the same woman as me and went insane on our wedding day–I would have serious issues.)
But the family thing did not work out so well for Victor Hugo. He and Adele Foucher lost their firstborn child as an infant. Their next child, Leopoldine, would die in a boating accident in 1843 at the age of nineteen. Their youngest child, Adele, would be institutionalized for life. In 1831 Adele Foucher had an affair with his best friend, writer Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and he took it very hard. At one point he described Sainte-Beuve as a man “who lifts his loathsome skirt and says ‘Admire me!'”. He then went on to have an affair with actress Juliette Drouet, a liaison which lasted well over forty years until her death in 1882.
As a writer, Victor Hugo broke out in 1817 when, at the spry young age of fifteen, he took honorable mention in a nationwide poetry contest sponsored by the prestigious Academie Francaise. Five years later, he published his first volume of poetry. He went on to become well-known as a poet and a fiction writer, but it was his plays that put him on the map as one of the most influential writers of his day. His first play, Cromwell, came out in 1827; its preface contained a lengthy manifesto that trashed Classical restrictions upon the art of drama. He followed this up in 1830 with Hernani, which featured a carefully staged riot in the audience on its opening night. (Don’t you just love this guy?) The success of this play established Romantic drama as a force to be reckoned with. He continued successfully as a playwright for over a decade after this, but when Les Burgraves failed in 1843, he gave it up.
But drama wasn’t the only thing that Victor Hugo was doing during this time. In 1831 he came out with Notre-Dame de Paris (you would probably recognize this as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). This was a wildly popular book, which generated a great deal of interest in Notre Dame Cathedral as a tourist attraction, which led the city of Paris to undertake a restoration campaign for it. He also had the poetry thing going; he wrote several volumes of lyric poetry during this period.
In 1841 he was elected to L’Academie Francaise. Shortly after this, he was appointed to the General Assembly by then-monarch Louis-Philippe, and used his position to be a voice for those less fortunate than himself who had no voice in French society or in the French political process. He spoke out against capital punishment and harsh prison conditions, he spoke out in favor of laws to improve the lot of working class women, and he pushed for universal suffrage and universal free education, which he believed would lead to the elimination of poverty.
In 1845 he began working on Les Miserables. In 1848 he broke it off in order to devote more attention to politics. At that point he was about three fourths of the way through, at a chapter entitled “The Blotter Talks”, in which Jean Valjean, having moved once more to elude the authorities and the Thenardiers, discovers a letter from Cosette to Marius that rocks his world.
When the Revolution of 1848 broke out, there was a lot for him to do. He took a very prominent part in this revolution, plunging fearlessly into angry crowds and giving lengthy speeches to push for conciliation. When the Second Republic was established, he was appointed to the Senate. He advocated for the presidency of Louis-Napoleon, but as his despotic ways became known, he quickly changed his tune. When Louis-Napoleon seized power in 1851, he denounced him as a traitor to France and went into exile in the Channel Islands, first to Jersey by way of Belgium, then on to Guernsey. From there he published diatribes which referred to Louis-Napoleon derisively as the “little Napoleon”.
In 1860, after a twelve-year hiatus, he went back to Les Miserables. He finished it up, and then went back and made several changes to it, to bring it in line with the new political perspective which he had acquired since he first started it. He finished it with the Waterloo section, which gives a full-on, blow-by-blow account of the battle of Waterloo. For this purpose he made a special field trip to Belgium to visit the actual site of the battlefield at Mont-Saint-Jean. In 1862 Les Miserables was published. It was wildly successful, though a small but vocal minority of critics were not impressed.
Victor Hugo refused several offers of amnesty from Louis Napoleon, and did not return from exile until 1870 when he had been deposed. His exile was seen by the public at large as symbolic of the French resistance to tyranny, and when he returned he was received as a national hero. (This seems strange to us nowadays, which only goes to show how our perception of the French people has changed over the last couple of centuries. Nowadays, primarily because of our differences with them on Middle East policy, we see them as being overly willing to surrender to tyranny–or at least to wink at it. But at this time the French people were known for their resistance to tyranny, and Victor Hugo’s exile was seen as being symbolic of this.)
When Victor Hugo returned, he walked right into a terrible situation. The French army had just been routed and the city of Paris was under siege by the Germans. During this siege, he survived by eating several exotic animals from the zoo and other things that he did not know what they were. (And you thought you had it bad when you had to eat the mystery meat at your school’s cafeteria.)
When the siege ended and France got back to some semblance of normalcy, Victor Hugo served as a senator under the Third Republic. He picked up right where he left off, continuing his appeals on behalf of those who had no voice in French society. He remained active in politics until his death in 1885. His death was mourned nationally, and he was buried in the Pantheon with every conceivable honor that France could bestow.