Who Was Victor Hugo?
Victor Hugo was a French poet and novelist who, after training as a lawyer, embarked on the literary career. He became one of the most important French Romantic poets, novelists and dramatists of his time, having assembled a massive body of work while living in Paris, Brussels and the Channel Islands. Hugo died on May 22, 1885, in Paris.
Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besançon, France, on February 26, 1802, to mother Sophie Trébuche and father Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo. His father was a military officer who later served as a general under Napoleon.
'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'
Hugo studied law between 1815 and 1818, though he never committed himself to legal practice. Encouraged by his mother, Hugo embarked on a career in literature. He founded the Conservateur Litteraire, a journal in which he published his own poetry and the work of his friends. His mother died in 1821. The same year, Hugo married Adèle Foucher and published his first book of poetry, Odes et poésies diverses. His first novel was published in 1823, followed by a number of plays.
Hugo's innovative brand of Romanticism developed over the first decade of his career.
In 1831, he published one of his most enduring works, Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Set in the medieval period, the novel presents a harsh criticism of the society that degrades and shuns the hunchback, Quasimodo. This was Hugo's most celebrated work to date and paved the way for his subsequent political writing.
A prolific writer, Hugo was established as one of the most celebrated literary figures in France by the 1840s. In 1841, he was elected to the French Academy and nominated for the Chamber of Peers. He stepped back from publishing his work following the accidental drowning of his daughter and her husband in 1843. In private, he began work on a piece of writing that would become Les Misérables.
Hugo fled to Brussels following a coup in 1851. He lived in Brussels and in Britain until his return to France in 1870. Much of the work that Hugo published during this period conveys biting sarcasm and fierce social criticism. Among these works is the novel Les Misérables, which was finally published in 1862. The book was an immediate success in Europe and the United States. Later reinterpreted as a theatrical musical and a film, Les Misérables remains one of the best-known works of 19th-century literature.
Death and Legacy
Though Hugo returned to France after 1870 as a symbol of republican triumph, his later years were largely sad. He lost two sons between 1871 and 1873. His later works are somewhat darker than his earlier writing, focusing on themes of God, Satan and death.
In 1878, he was stricken with cerebral congestion. Hugo and his mistress, Juliette, continued to live in Paris for the rest of their lives. The street on which he lived was renamed Avenue Victor Hugo on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1882. Juliette died the following year and Hugo died in Paris on May 22, 1885. He received a hero's funeral. His body lay in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe before burial in the Panthéon.
Hugo remains one of the giants of French literature. Although French audiences celebrate him primarily as a poet, he is better known as a novelist in English-speaking countries.
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