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Celebrating Victor Hugo, one of France's most prolific authors


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Born on this day in 1802, Victor Hugo is one of France’s most prolific authors. The mind that produced well-known titles the likes of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo’s writing seethes with its author’s robust social conscience.

Image credit: Edmond Bacot via Wikipedia Commons

Initially a supporter of the royalist cause, Hugo’s writing had its genesis in the midst of a France in turmoil. The country was in a permanent state of flux following the toppling of the Bourbon dynasty and the rise of the Jacobin party and Republican cause. France was gripped by widespread poverty and austerity which found its home in the streets of Paris.

It was here that Hugo set his most famous work, Les Misérables. The book takes the reader directly into the world of an early 19th century France, still reeling from the upheaval which characterised this point in history. Hugo’s mammoth work leaves no detail to the imagination, reflecting the realities faced by the masses on a daily basis. The novel itself took Hugo twenty years to write and this is reflected in its meticulous detail and complex plotline. Les Misérables is a heart-breaking elegy to life, love, and loss in the French capital and is a testament to its author’s painstaking fight for the rights of the common people.

The popularity of Hugo’s work becomes evident in the effect it had upon the fabric of Parisian society itself. In Hugo’s 1831 work, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a significant part of the narrative focuses upon Notre Dame, a cathedral in the centre of Paris and its gothic architecture. Following the book’s publication and subsequent reception, much attention was paid to the cathedral itself, particularly from the nascent historical preservation movement which advocated and executed the renovations of the grand gothic cathedral. Notre Dame now forms a central part of the Parisian landscape, particularly with regards to tourists, and the cathedral’s current appearance is thanks to the work of this movement during the 19th century.

Victor Hugo’s emphasis on the social realities of life in l’hexagone was not only realised in his prose. Poems such as Poor little children and The Beggar’s quatrain demonstrate Hugo’s enduring preoccupation with the plight of those living in poverty and squalor in his homeland. Although predominantly remembered for his prose, Hugo’s contemporaries regarded him as one of the most prominent poets of the Romantic period in France.

An avid political campaigner, Hugo’s life was characterised by the structural turbulence which was unfolding around him. In 1851, after Napoleon III seized power from the French National Assembly, Hugo went into self-imposed exile, eventually settling on the island of Guernsey, where he would remain until 1870. It was here that Hugo penned some of his best works, including the formidable Les Misérables and numerous pamphlets against the newly imposed French president.

Victor Hugo’s works are some of the most influential pieces of literature during the 19th century. The concern for social justice, humanity and authentic representation of the whole of French society which characterise his novels had a deep effect upon the writings of later authors such as the existentialist thinker Albert Camus and the British giant, Charles Dickens. Following his death Hugo’s funeral procession was made up of more than two million people, only a small illustration of the impact which his writing has had upon so many lives.

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