An accomplished essayist, poet, novelist, artist, and playwright, Victor Hugo has unquestionably left his mark on literature. The French author was born on this day 220 years ago in Besançon, France.
We all know him for his most notable works like Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (or Notre-Dame de Paris). But, did you also know he dabbled in abstract expressionism art movement? Or that his father was a senior officer in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army?
Neither did I, which is why we’re celebrating Victor Hugo’s birthday by taking a look at five of the most interesting aspects about the French writer’s life!
1. Victor Hugo Was An Artist
Though he tried to keep his work out of the public eye for fear of it overshadowing his writings, Victor Hugo enjoyed drawing. He usually used paper and dark ink or charcoal, creating small pieces that he shared with his family and friends. Some of his drawings even made their way to the eyes of artists Vincent van Gogh and Eugène Delacroix, who both appreciated Hugo’s work! Hugo’s surviving drawings are considered to foreshadow the techniques used in the Surrealism and Abstract expressionism movements.
2. Hugo’s Father Was An Officer In Napoleon’s Army
Victor Hugo’s early life consisted of constant traveling due to his father, Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo’s, involvement in the military. A fervent supporter of Napoleon, Victor’s parents clashed over political beliefs. Joseph held republican beliefs while Victor’s mother, Sophie, was a royalist. Ultimately Victor’s upbringing was centered more around his mother’s beliefs, and his education growing up was extremely religious and biased towards pro-monarchy sentiments.
3. Hugo Witnessed The June Rebellion Of 1832
Also known as the Paris Uprising, the June Rebellion of 1832 took place in Paris, France, when anti-monarchist republicans attempted to overthrow the 1832 July Monarchy. The uprising lasted roughly two days, from June 5th to the 6th, and ultimately inspired Hugo to write Les Misérables.
Hugo was working on a play in the Tuileries Gardens when he heard gunfire. Rather than running home, Hugo sought out the source of the gunfire, unaware the revolutionaries had taken half the city. He saw barricades everywhere while wandering through the empty streets, and while traveling down an alleyway, found himself caught in the middle of gunfire. He hid between some columns in the street for some time while bullets flew back and forth.
4. Architectural Preservation Meant A Lot To Hugo
Victor Hugo was a major supporter of the value of Gothic architecture. The Notre Dame Cathedral was as much of a character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as the characters themselves. As newer architectural styles came into focus, older Gothic and medieval structures were replaced or destroyed. In the 1820’s Hugo published Guerre aux Démolisseurs (War on the Demolishers), a paper which argued the need to save Paris’ architecture.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was originally titled Notre-Dame de Paris, emphasizing the cathedral itself rather than the story’s character. The book became more widely known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame when it was translated to English in 1833. The book notably feature points in the story where Hugo describes the Gothic beauty of the cathedral, no doubt to encourage readers to appreciate Paris’ architecture rather than destroy it.
5. Hugo Thought He Was Going To Be A Dictator
I saved this one for last, because it truly made me chuckle.
Hugo was heavily involved in French politics. He spoke against freedom of the press, the death penalty, and social injustice. In 1848 he was elected to the National Assembly of the Second Republic of France. His advocacy against the death penalty was internationally renowned.
In 1851 the governance of France was seized by Napoleon III. Following the coup d’état, Hugo declared Napoleon III a traitor to France, and left the country via self-imposed exile, living in Brussels for a time before moving to the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey. In 1870 when Napoleon III was overthrown, Hugo came back to Paris with some, uh, big expectations, to say the least.
Hugo truly thought upon returning that France was going to offer the new dictatorship to him, given that he was involved in politics and a renowned writer. He even wrote in one of his journals, “Dictatorship is a crime. This is a crime I am going to commit.” Talk about speaking things into existence.
Unfortunately for him, he was not offered the dictatorship, but was elected to the National Assembly and the Senate. So, it wasn’t all bad for him.