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Whatever lens you choose to view the life and times of Victor Hugo, one thing is certain – his literary output sets him in a class of his own. Blessed with a witty intellect and intriguing persona, this eccentric novelist and poet left an indelible mark on the French literary landscape in particular and the whole of Europe by extension. He was more than a writer, as he was also an activist, politician, and statesman.
Born Victor Marie Hugo on February 26, 1802, in the eastern region of Franche-Comté. His dad was General Joseph Léopold Hugo, a French Army Chief who fought in Napoleon’s Army while his mother was Sophie Trébuchet, a Catholic whose lifestyle and choices often came at odds with that of Victor’s father. He had two older siblings; Abel Joseph Hugo and Eugène Hugo.
Victor Hugo’s upbringing involved a lot of travel mainly because of his father’s occupation. His childhood involved trips from Paris to Naples, via the snowy hilly peaks of the Alpines, an experience that broadened his imagination an outlook at a young age.
By 1812, Victor’s mother had grown tired of the unpredictability of military life and craved for stability for her son, thus deciding to settle in Paris. Her relationship with General Hugo was further strained because of his lack of Catholic beliefs and at this point, their marriage was heading for the rocks. The senior Hugo objected to his sons living with their mother and insisted on sending them to boarding school, far enough from her influence.
At the age of 15, before he was off to boarding house, Hugo had fallen in love with a neighbour’s daughter, Adéle Foucher, and was bent on returning for her hand in marriage after his studies.
Between 1815 and 1818, Victor Hugo studied Law but always had an eye for writing and deep down sought to seek out a career in the literary field. He never practised his profession.
In 1817, he participated in a poem competition and received acclaim from the Académie Française. Two years later, he came out tops in another national poetry contest. Victor later got married to his teenage sweetheart Adèle Foucher in October 1822.
Victor Hugo published his first novel in 1823 titled Han d’Islande, and two years later it’s English translation was out as Hans of Iceland. He released five volumes of poetry between 1829 and 1840, they included Les Orientales, in 1829; Les Feuilles d’automne, in 1831 and Les Chants du crépuscule, 1835; Les Voix intérieures, 1837. Les Rayons et les Ombres was released three years later in 1840.
With his publications widely accepted, Hugo’s profile was on the rise within the literary community but in 1943 his career took a different trajectory following the death of his eldest daughter, who got drowned during her honeymoon. Hugo joined politics and sought to make his voice heard in a society undergoing rapid political changes and upheavals.
In 1841, he was elected into the Académie française and four years later he was made a Peer of France by King Louis-Philippe. He was then elected into the National Assembly of the Second Republic in 1848.
In December 1851, Victor Hugo fled to Brussels after leading a failed resistance to the emergence of Napoleon III. During an exile that lasted two decades and included stints in England, he produced some of his finest writings. He later returned to France in 1871 to a hero’s welcome.
Seven years later in 1878, he fell ill and was diagnosed with cerebral congestion. He died on 22 May 1885, at the age of 83 from pneumonia. Contrary to his request to be buried like a pauper, Hugo was given a grand French State burial, his remains lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and were buried in the Panthéon.
Interesting Facts About the French Poet Victor Hugo
1. Hugo had an insatiable appetite for sex and claimed he had sex with his wife nine times on their wedding night. Details about this were found in Hugo’s personal diary. Well into his 70’s, he remained sexually active and obviously enjoyed the thrill of multiple partners.
2. Whenever he found inspiration hard to come by, Hugo would resort to writing nude. He would only get back into his clothes after he had finished writing for the day.
3. During the American Civil War, Victor Hugo’s book Les Misérables was published. The novel, which is on record as one of the longest novel ever written with 655,478 words, was said to be a favorite among soldiers at the time.
4. A Vietnamese religion with about 5 million followers sees Hugo as a Saint for reaching out to the group during séances.
5. His 80th birthday was one huge party! 5,000 musicians played the French anthem for him and it had in attendance over half a million people who paraded past his house while he sat with his grandkids watching.