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Third day : Victor Hugo

 


 


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This last day is entirely dedicated to Victor Hugo (1802- 1885) and two of his houses: Villequier (The Hugo Museum) with its memorabilia for the most part relating to his family and Victor Hugo's House in the Place Vosges in Paris where the writer lived from 1833 to 1848.
 
Victor Hugo holds a special place in this itinerary, in that his personal history is closely linked to that of the First and Second Empires. Born in 1802, he very early on had first-hand experience of Napoleon through his father, General Léopold Hugo, a fervent supporter of the Emperor. However, the Hugo household was not unanimously pro-Napoleon. His mother, Sophie Trébuchet, was a Royalist, and it was this political opposition combined with personal disagreement which led to his parents' separation. And so, even though the young Victor Hugo had experienced his father's military life at close quarters, joining him in his different postings firstly in Naples in 1807 and secondly in Spain in 1809, nevertheless the future author - who proclaimed at 14 years, "I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing" - began his literary career under the double banner inherited from his mother, that of catholic and hard-line royalist. With his first collection of poems - published in 1822 - he mixed poetry with politics in order to sing the praises of the Bourbons and to curse the man whom, in one of his odes entitled, Buonaparte, he compared to a "living plague".
 
But after the death of his mother, Victor Hugo became closer to his father - a man about whom he knew very little - and his influence proved a strong catalyst in leading the young Hugo to begin to see Napoleon in a positive light. The Nouvelles Odes of 1824 bear eloquent witness to this sea-change. In the poem A mon Père, written in 1823, Hugo expressed for the first time his admiration for the Napoleonic armies and his pride to be linked to the heros of the epic. His change of mind is further shown by the ode A l'Arc de Triomphe and subsequently by the poem Les Deux Iles published in Odes et Ballades in 1826. Structured on the antithesis "Praise" and "Blame", Les Deux Iles is an attempt by Hugo to give an impartial judgement on the Emperor. But his admiration for Napoleon was not to be finally and unequivocally revealed until 1827 with his Ode à la Colonne de la place Vendôme, a poem intended as a reply to a calculated insult - where Napoleonic titles were deliberately omitted - inflicted upon four marshals of the Empire at a reception in the Austrian Embassy. In a spirit of national reconciliation (but also of reconciliation with his father), Hugo presented Napoleon as the equal of Charlemagne and of the kings who had made France great. From then on, he was happy to sing the praises of the Emperor and his epic history without reserve, notably in his poems: Souvenir d'enfance (in Les Feuilles d'Automne), A la Colonne, Napoléon II (in Les Chants du Crépuscule), and A l'Arc de Triomphe (in Les Voix intérieures), etc.
 
Victor Hugo gradually moved away from the legitimist party to join the camps of liberalism. Elected to the Chamber of peers in 1845, he called for the return from exile of the Bonaparte family before supporting in 1848 the electoral campaign of Louis-Napoleon (Genealogy). He even created with his sons a journal entitled L'Evénement, in which his last pre-election canvassing gesture was to publish a page with nothing on it except the name of the candidate repeated one hundred times. Nevertheless, after the election, he slowly distanced himself from the prince president, not so much because he did not receive the ministerial post promised to him (as some scholars would have it), but rather because the government did not fulfil his democratic expectations. During a debate in the Chamber on 17th July, 1851, he pointed out the dangers threatening France: "What! after Augustus are we to have Augustulus? Because we have had Napoleon the Great, must we have Napoleon the Small!" Thereafter, Victor Hugo became a committed leader of republican opposition and after the coup d'etat of 2nd December was forced to flee France.
 
Thoughout the Second Empire period, the writer lived in exile, first in Brussels, and later, on the Channel Islands Jersey and Guernsey. In 1859, the triumphant Empire granted amnesty to the exiles but Hugo refused it: "Faithful to the engagement that I have made with my conscience, I will live to the end the exile of liberty. When liberty returns, I will return". Considering himself as a sort of guardian of France's moral conscience, he published ferocious pamphlets against the imperial regime, both in prose (Napoléon le Petit (1852)) and in verse (Châtiments (1853)). He also expressed his antibonapartiste hate in texts which he kept in manuscript, only publishing them later in 1877-1878 under the title Histoire d'un Crime.
 
In exile, Victor Hugo published Les Contemplations (1856), La Légende des siècles (1859), Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866), and Homme qui rit (1869). He also completed Les Misérables, published in Brussels in 1862, a sweeping saga taking the reader through a part of the 19th Century, including an epic description of the Battle of Waterloo. By way of conclusion, here are a few famous verses from L'Expiation, one of Hugo's masterpieces in the collection Châtiments:
«Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! Dismal plain!
Pale death swirled together the sombre batallions
In your theatre of woods, hillocks and valleys,
Like a current bubbling up into an overfull urn.
Europe on one side, France on the other.
Carnage! from heros God took away all hope;
Victory, you were a deserter, and Fate was weary.
O Waterloo! I weep; and then I hold back my tears - alas! -
For these, the last soldiers of the final war
Were great; they had conquered the whole earth,
put twenty kings to flight, and had crossed the Alps and the Rhine,
And their soul sang in bugles of bronze!»

 

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