xxxxxAs we have seen, the French poet, novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo produced one of his best-known novels, The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831 (W4). This, together with his many other works made him the undisputed leader of the French romantic movement. His most productive years were from 1830, but in 1843 the death of one of his daughters in a boating accident brought a temporary stop to his writing. He served in the government of Louis Philippe, but by the time Napoleon III seized power in 1851 he was a confirmed republican. He took refuge on the island of Guernsey, and from there launched  a scathing attack upon the “little Napoleon” in both verse and prose. In 1862 he published his other famous novel, Les Misérables, a story full of drama and pathos, set in the Paris underworld of contemporary France. This moving tale about social injustice gave full scope to his remarkable powers of description and his deep, sympathetic understanding of human nature. And also produced during this period was some of his finest poetry - notably his Les Contemplations -, and his novels, Toilers of the Sea and The Man Who Laughs, set in 17th century England. On his return to France in 1870, following his country’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, he was hailed as a national hero, and, for a time, served in the Senate of the Third Republic. A notable work in these later years was his Quatrevingt-treize, a powerful novel describing the momentous events of the year 1793. When he died in 1885 his state funeral was attended by some two million people, such was the esteem in which this great man of letters, republican hero, and man of the people, was held.

VICTOR HUGO  1802 - 1885  (G3c, G4, W4, Va, Vb, Vc)


Hugo: bronze bust by the French sculptor August Rodin (1840-1917). 1883 – Musée Rodin, Paris. Hauteville: date and artist unknown. Misérables: based on an original portrait of “Cosette” by the French illustrator Emile Bayard (1837-1891). Barricades: illustration for Les Misérables by the French artist Gustave Brion (1824-1877). Grandchildren: by the French photographer Achille Mélandri (1845-1905) – Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris. Funeral: 1885, photographer unknown. Goncourts: drawing by the French illustrator Paul Gavarni (1804-1866) and printed in 1853 by Lemercier et Cie, Paris publishers 1803-1909 – National Library of France, Paris. Verlaine: by the French artist Eugène Carrière (1849-1906), 1890 – Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Rimbaud: by the French photographer Étienne Carjat (1828-1906), c1872.

xxxxxAs we have seen, Victor Hugo, the French poet, novelist and dramatist, produced one of his best-known novels, The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831 (W4). This melodrama, together with works such as his verse play Hanant and his drama The King’s Fool, made him the undisputed leader of the French romantic movement. Indeed, the preface to his first play Cromwell, produced in 1838, is regarded as the manifesto of Romanticism, or, as he put it, “the liberation of literature”. Not for him the literary restraints imposed by Classicism, a fact clearly shown in the 1820s by his extravagant prose romances (such as Bug Jagal) and his exotic poems, like his Orientales. (The sculpture is by the famous French artist Auguste Rodin).

xxxxxHis most productive period began in 1830 with his poetic drama Hernani, a play which, as from its opening night, provided a long and bitter controversy between the Romanticists and the Classicists. The next thirteen years saw a stream of successful productions, beginning with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and including the prose dramas Lucrece Borgia and Marie Tudor, the melodrama Ruy Blas, and several volumes of contemplative verse, such as Songs of Twilight. These works in particular showed his descriptive skill, his deep, sympathetic understanding of human nature, and his masterly command of language.

xxxxxBut the year 1843 was marred by disappointment and sadness, brought about by the failure of his verse drama Les Burgraves, and then the tragic death of one of his daughters in a boating accident. Hugo was devastated, felt unable to write, and turned to politics. A royalist at this juncture, he accepted a post in the government of Louis Philippe in 1848, but by the time Napoleon III had seized power in 1851 he was a confirmed republican. As a result he was forced to flee the country. In 1855, after taking refuge in Belgium and then the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands, he eventually settled down at St. Peter Port on the neighbouring island of Guernsey. Hauteville House (illustrated) was to be his home until he returned to France in 1870 following the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the French Empire.

xxxxxOnce safe in exile, Hugo wasted no time in denouncing  the regime from which he had fled. His pamphlets Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d’un crime, together with his collection of 97 poems  entitled Les Châtiments (The Punishments) launched a scathing, intemperate attack upon the Second Empire in general and Napoleon III in particular. The self-styled Emperor was described as a man with blood on his hands, who lived in splendour and cared nothing for the poverty and degradation endured by the mass of his people.

xxxxxIn contrast, another collection of poems, Les Contemplations of 1856, won acclaim for the simplicity and purity of their tone, the beauty of their expression, and the depth of their thought. Likewise his Legend of the Centuries of 1859, a series of pictorial poems illustrating man’s struggle between good and evil through the ages, was well received. And later, as if to show the width of his poetic powers, came Chansons des rues et des bois (Songs of the streets and woods), a collection of light, witty verse centred around his fleeting, uncomplicated affairs with young maids and country girls. And also belonging to this period was Les Travailleurs de la Mer of 1866 (The Toilers of the Sea), a passionate tale of man’s battle against the waves, set appropriately in a Guernsey fishing community. Later came an essay on William Shakespeare and The Man Who Laughs, a novel set in 17th century England.

xxxxxBut his major work while in exile was undoubtedly Les Misérables (The Wretched), an historical prose romance which he had been working on for many years and was eventually published in 1862. A story about social injustice in contemporary, strife-ridden France, it takes place for the most part in the Parisian underworld - including, at one point, a dramatic flight through the city’s sewers. It contains numerous plots, some only broadly developed, and these are centred around the trials and tribulations of Jean Valjean, a man who, having spent nineteen years in prison - initially for stealing a loaf of bread - gains a respectable position in society, but finds that he cannot escape his past. Despite his good intentions, he is hounded by the law in the person of police inspector Javert, and both meet their deaths in the closing pages of the drama. The most endearing character is Cosette, who, maltreated as a young girl, is cared for by Valjean, and finally finds happiness with Marius Pontmercy, a rebel who, like Hugo himself, becomes a republican in the cause of freedom.

xxxxxThis panoramic view of French life, full of dramatic incident and pathos, proved the perfect vehicle for Hugo’s remarkable powers of description and his abiding sympathy for the poor and oppressed. It contained, too, his own thoughts on religion, politics and everyday affairs, together with some lengthy digressions, notably his own account of the Battle of Waterloo. Received with enthusiasm, the book earned him fame both at home and abroad.  

xxxxxIn 1870, with France having been defeated at the hands of the Prussians, Hugo returned home a national hero, hailed as the man who had waged a war of words against the Second Empire and helped to bring about its downfall. He became a senator under the Third Republic, but distress within his family took its toll. Having lost his wife Adèle in 1868, the deaths of two of his sons and the mental sickness of his daughter Adèle in the early 1870s sapped his creative energy. In these final years, he wrote a number of novels, several volumes of poetry, and a play, but in general they lacked the master touch.

xxxxxHowever, this said, his last novel, Quatrevingt-treize, produced in 1874 and graphically depicting the momentous events of 1793, is regarded by many today as one of his finest works, and by some as his masterpiece. And worthy of note is his charming The Art of Being a Grandfather, published in 1877, and his four act drama Torquemada of 1882, a play condemning religious fanaticism via the Spanish Inquisition. During a life-time of writing Hugo produced seven novels, 21 plays, and 18 volumes of poetry. (Hugo pictured here with his grandchildren).

xxxxxIn 1878 Hugo suffered a rather severe stroke, but this did not stop Paris from celebrating his eightieth year in unforgettable style. In one of the largest parades ever held in the city, thousands upon thousands of people walked down the Champs Élysées to the centre of Paris, passing by his house in the Avenue d’Eylau (renamed Victor Hugo that year), where he sat at one of the windows. It was a rare and moving show of affection for a man of the people. He died in 1885, two years after the death of his long-time mistress Juliette Drouet. His body was laid in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe, and then carried on a hearse down the Champs Élysées (illustrated) for burial in the Panthéon. It is estimated that some two million people lined the route to pay homage to the man who was not only one of France’s greatest men of letters - a novelist and a poet of enormous talent - but also a symbol for so many years of his country’s struggle towards republicanism. He cared for the people and, at his end, the people showed that they cared for him.

xxxxxIncidentally, having arrived in Paris in 1870, Hugo found himself caught up in the siege of Paris. Later, in his poem L’Année terrible, he described the suffering caused by that event during what he called “the terrible year”. There was a severe shortage of food but, as a celebrity, he was provided with meat from the Paris zoo until supplies ran out. ……


xxxxx……xA number of operas were based on his works, including Donizetti’s opera Lucrezia Borgia and Verdi’s Rigoletto, and many of his poems were set to music by Berlioz, Bizet, Saint-Saens, Massenet and Wagner. He himself enjoyed music. He greatly admired the works of Beethoven, and he liked the music of Gluck and Weber. As noted earlier, he numbered among his literary friends Lamartine, Vigny, Musset, Mérimée and Gautier. ……

Xxxxx……xHis novel Toilers of the Sea, written while in Guernsey, had an unexpected impact on social behaviour. Its lurid account of strange creatures lurking in deep waters made fashionable an interest in squids. Squid parties and the wearing of squid hats became popular for a time! ……

xxxxx……xHugo has the distinction of providing the briefest correspondence in history. After Les Misérables was produced in 1862, he sent a letter to his publisher to enquire as to its reception. The letter simply contained a question mark. The publisher replied by a letter which simply contained an exclamation mark! As indicated, the novel’s success was immense, and became even more so towards the end of the 20th century when it was adapted as a musical. It was first staged in Paris in 1980 and opened in London five years later. It was still running over twenty years later, and a film was made of it in 2012. ……

xxxxx……xHugo was also a proficient artist and during his lifetime produced more than 4,000 small-scale drawings in brown or black pen and ink, many abstract in form. These were praised by no less than Delacroix and Van Gogh. Illustrated here is Town with a tumbledown bridge. ……

……xIn St. Peter Port, Guernsey, Hauteville House, his home for many years, is now a museum to his memory, and there is an imposing statue of him in the Candie Gardens, overlooking the harbour, the work of the Breton sculptor Jean Boucher in 1914. In Paris his house on the Avenue Victor Hugo is also a museum, and a square and metro station are also named after him. Needless to say, there is hardly a town in France that does not have a street named in his honour.


The Goncourt Brothers,

 Paul Verlaine and

 Arthur Rimbaud

xxxxxThe French Goncourt Brothers, Edmond (1822-1896) and Jules (1830-1870), wrote a number of works together, including a study of French society and art during  the 18th century, and six novels. Notable among their fiction were Germinie Lacerteux and Madame Gervaisais, works which marked them out as pioneers in naturalism - exposing in blunt terms the harsh, sordid side of life. They also collaborated in the writing of a personal Journal. This brutally frank account of the social and literary life of Paris from 1851 to 1896 was full of gossip, anecdotes and criticism of the leading celebrities of the day. At his death Edmond bequeathed his estate to the founding of the Académie Goncourt and from 1903 this has awarded the Prix Goncourt to the best French fiction writer of the year.

xxxxxThe French Goncourt Brothers, Edmond (1822-1896) and Jules (1830-1870), began working together as watercolour artists in the 1850s, but they then turned their attention to social history and art criticism. Their detailed study of French society and French art during the 18th century was remarkable for the thoroughness of their research, and was generally well received. However, success was less marked when they collaborated in the writing of six novels. In this field they were working in the shadow of the great Émile Zola. Nonetheless, as realistic novelists like him, they were pioneers in naturalism, exposing in blunt terms the harsh, sordid side of life. Two of their works are especially worthy of mention. Germinie Lacerteux, published in 1865, depicted the miserable life led by the lower classes - very much in the Hugo mould in that respect - and Madame Gervaisais, produced four years later, was another story of degradation, woven around religious mania.

xxxxxMore enduring in time and value, however, were the nine volumes of their personal Journal, begun in 1851 and kept up to within twelve days of Edmond’s death in July 1896. Providing a detailed peepshow of social and literary life in Paris during the “belle époque”, it was full of gossip, anecdotes and cruel criticism of friend and foe alike. Among the many who suffered from their barbs were the writers Hugo, Flaubert, Baudelaire and Zola, the artist Degas, and the sculptor Rodin. Few if any daily chronicles of society have been so colourful, so vengeful and so brutally frank. Both brothers considered that their work was not appreciated enough, and this doubtless accounts for the strength and scope of their invective.

xxxxxEdmond, who outlived his brother by over twenty-five years, went on to produce his own novels - notably La Fille Élisa and Chérie -, and he did eventually ensure that the name of Goncourt lived on. Whenxhe died he bequeathed his entire estate for the founding of the Goncourt Academy. Since 1903 this has awarded the Prix Goncourt - the most prestigious award in French literature - to the author of “the best imaginary prose work of the year”.

xxxxxAnother important French poet of this period was Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). At the age of 14 he sent his first poem, La Mort, to Victor Hugo. He gained fame with his Poèmes Saturniens of 1866, and during his career produced Fêtes galantes, La Bonne Chanson, Romances sans paroles and Sagesse. His poetry, inspired by unconscious forces such as dreams, imagination and delirium, marked him out as the leader of the early Symbolists. His ideas were summarized in his L’Art poétique of 1884. In his private life, his torrid love affair with the young poet Arthur Rimbaud ended in violence in 1873 and two years in prison. In his later years he took to drink and drugs, and lived in poverty, but his contribution to poetry was recognised. In the mid-1880s he drew attention to the work of Rimbaud, and published some of the young poet’s verse. These were well received and put Rimbaud at the head of a new literary movement.

xxxxxAnd another outstanding French poet of this period was Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). At the age of 14 he sent his first poem, La Mort, to the great Victor Hugo. His Poèmes saturniens of 1866, noted for their musical quality and delicate harmonies, marked him out as a poet of promise, but his degenerate private life impeded his progress. In 1872 he abandoned his wife and young child to live with the young poet Arthur Rimbaud. Their love affair, however, was a very stormy and debauched one, and ended the following year when, during a violent quarrel, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the hand. He was sentenced to two years in prison for attempted murder ,and it was after this, while teaching in England in 1880, that he produced Sagesse, a selection of successful poems inspired by his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

xxxxxHe returned to France in 1877, and it was while working as a teacher at Rethel in north-eastern France that he became infatuated with one of his pupils, Lucien Letinois. This liaison inspired Verlaine to write more poetry, but his young lover’s sudden death through typhus in 1883 was a blow from which he never really recovered. In his final years he took to drink and drugs, and ended up poverty stricken, but his peers recognised the originality of his work and elected him France’s “Prince of Poets” two years before his death.  


xxxxxVerlaine was a leader of the early Symbolists, his inspiration moulded by unconscious forces such as dreams, imagination and delirium, and captured through the magic of words and the cadence of verse. The nature of his poetry - which is difficult if not impossible to translate - was summed up in his L’art Poétique in 1884. Other major works included Fêtes galantes (inspired by the paintings of Watteau), La Bonne Chanson and Romances sans paroles, verses composed whilst in prison. His autobiographical prose, - My Hospitals, My Prisons and Confessions - was all written in the 1890s. In the mid-1880s he drew attention to the work of Rimbaud in his Accursed Poets, and published some of the young poet’s verse, including his prose poems Illuminations. These were well received and established Rimbaud at the head of a new literary movement.

xxxxxThe French composer Gabriel Fauré set many of Verlaine’s poems to music, and Claude Debussy put music to five of his poems from Fêtes galantes as part of his collection entitled Récueil Vasnier.

xxxxxThe violent quarrel with Paul Verlaine in 1873 virtually put an end to the poetic career of the young French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). A precursor of surrealism, he saw the poet as a seer who, by a long “derailment of all the senses” would come to know the unknown and would let his visions be seen through his verse. His major poems, all written before the age of twenty, included Letters of the Voyant (in which he sets out his poetic doctrine), The Drunken Ship, A Season in Hell - an account of his torrid love affair with Verlaine -, and his cycle of prose poems entitled Illuminations. After the break with Verlaine he travelled extensively in Europe and the Middle East, but was taken ill with cancer in 1891, and died at the age of thirty-seven. In the meantime, however, the publication of a number his poems by Verlaine in the mid-1880s brought him fame at home, where he was seen as the leader of a new literary movement.

xxxxxThe violent quarrel with Paul Verlaine in 1873 virtually put an end to the poetic career of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). Troubled and restless, he chose to live the life of a nomad. He travelled extensively in Europe, mostly on foot, and then, as a member of the Dutch colonial army, spent some time in Java. After this, he took up various jobs in Cyprus and Aden before working as a merchant in Harar in eastern Ethiopia. It was there that he was taken ill. He returned to France in 1891 and died of cancer in the November, just a month after his 37th birthday. In the meantime, however, Verlaine published a number of his poems in the mid-1880s - including his prose poems Illuminations - and these brought him fame at home, where he was seen as the leader of a new literary genre.

xxxxxRimbaud was born in Charleville in the Ardennes, north-eastern France, and was brought up under the guidance of a tyrannical mother. He was a precocious child - Victor Hugo called him “un enfant Shakespeare” - but the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 put an end to his formal education. It was then that he rebelled against his strict upbringing. He joined the National Guard for a short period of time, and then took to the road, living rough, despising conventional society, and enjoying his new-found freedom. His behaviour became outlandish and some of his verse was provocatively obscene.

xxxxxHis serious compositions during this period, such as his Sensation and Ophelia, were fairly conventional in form and much in the style of Baudelaire, but by May 1871, fired by the revolution taking place in Paris - the Commune - he had dismissed traditional poetic form and was drawing up his own manifesto for a revolution based on a poetic mould that was freed from all influences. In his Lettres du voyant of 1871, he declared that the poet must become a seer by means of “a long, immense and calculated derailment of all the senses”. Then, as the supreme “Savant”, he would come to know the unknown - that which lay beneath the surface of so-called reality - and he could then let his visions be seen through his verse. Poetry would not merely set actions to rhythms, but would itself take action and assume the lead. His Le Bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat), composed soon afterwards, was a visionary piece, full of imagery and metaphors, which demonstrated his avant-garde doctrine. It came to be seen as a precursor of surrealism.

xxxxxIn August 1871 Rimbaud sent examples of his new poetry to Verlaine, and this led to their meeting and their torrid love affair. This came to a tragic finale in 1873 and, by the following year, it had also brought an end to his career as a poet. In was then that he took to a wandering life. His other major works, all composed before the age of twenty, were Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) - an account of his troubled life with Verlaine - and his Illuminations, a cycle of prose poems, some of which were written during visits he and Verlaine made to London in late 1872 and early 1873.