Today in Literary History- February 26, 1802 – Victor Hugo is born

Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was born on February 26, 1802 in Besançon, France.

Hugo’s parents seem to have been spectacularly mismatched. His father was a general in Napoleon’s army. He was also a skeptic when it came to religious belief. Hugo’s mother, on the other hand, was a royalist and a Catholic.

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Victor Hugo at sixteen

Hugo’s mother had followed his father on his many postings as an army officer. But shortly after Hugo’s birth she settled with her three sons in Paris, where she may have been having an affair with Hugo’s godfather, a French general who was later executed for plotting to assassinate Napoleon.

The family did continue to travel to visit Hugo’s father at his postings in Italy and Spain, but Hugo absorbed his mother’s Catholic royalist views, views he would reject later in life.

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Hugo earned a law degree but spent more time writing poetry and dramas. His mother died in 1821 and his father in 1828, leaving him free to devote himself to literature.

Hugo found fame and success with his fourth novel Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) in 1831. The touching novel set in medieval Paris resonated with French readers and was quickly translated into many other languages.

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Hugo was elected to the French Constituent Assembly (or Parliament) in 1848 as a conservative but soon moved to the left. When Louis Napoleon seized control of France and dissolved the Assembly in 1851 Hugo publicly called him a traitor to the nation.

Hugo was forced into exile for the next 20 years, living mostly  on Guernsey, one of the Channel  Islands.

It was here that Hugo completed his masterpiece, Les Miserables, which was published in 1862. The novel had been keenly anticipated and the first edition of the first volume sold out within an hour.

The novel highlighted Hugo’s own concerns with social issues such as poverty and child labour. He was an outspoken champion of many progressive ideas, such as the abolition of the death penalty.

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Illustration from the first edition of Les Miserables

Hugo returned to France to a life of great adulation and, despite being happily married, a surprisingly robust sexual life with numerous women from all classes of society. He kept a secret diary of his sexual activity throughout his life, written in code.

Victor Hugo died in 1885 at the age of 83.

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