Victor Hugo: A Biographyby Graham Robb, Victor Hugo
Robb tells us to put down his book and read Les Miserables. Read both. Hugo lifts spirits. Robb will open your mind and heart. His is the best biography of Hugo in English and probably the best single volume one in any language.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.52(w) x 9.58(h) x 2.07(d)
Read an Excerpt
A Sabre in the Night (1802-1803)
VICTOR-MARIE HUGO, according to his father, was conceived 'almost in mid-air', by which he meant 'one of the highest peaks of the Vosges mountains'.'
There is some doubt as to what else Major Hugo and his wife were doing in May 1801, 3000 feet above sea-level, overlooking the Rhineland which had just been incorporated into Bonaparte's France. The mountains were infested with bandits and smugglers or rather, they had been until Major Hugo arrived a few weeks before with his special battalion. He may have returned so that his wife could enjoy the view and his account of the campaign. Or, when he made this claim in a letter written shortly after the mother's death in 1821, he may simply have been trying to take some credit for Victor's 'sublime muse' a poor substitute, as he pointed out, for the army or the civil service.
Anyone who climbs the 3000-foot Donon mountain today will find the exact spot of Hugo's conception marked by a block of sandstone in section 99 of the Donon forest, just below the summit, near the ruins of a Celtic temple:
ON 5 FLOREAL, YEAR 9
This remarkable piece of detective work was the idea of a former Head of Strasbourg Museums, Hans Haug, who erected this memorial-to-end-all-memorials in the mid-1960s as a practical joke. Hugo himself preferred a different site. When he retold his father's story, he usuallyreplaced the Celtic temple with a Roman 'Temple of Love', the Vosges with the Alps and the Donon with Mont Blanc, which has the advantage of being 3000 feet higher, internationally famous and at the intersection of France, Switzerland and Italy. More importantly, it meant that the embryo of Victor Hugo came into existence at a major crossroads of world history: even before he had legs to walk on, he was following in the footsteps of Hannibal and Napoleon. With such unhumble origins, it would take an enormous quantity of successful ambition to ensure that the rest of his life was not an anti-climax.
VICTOR HUGO'S father had met his wife in similarly dramatic circumstances four years before.
Sophie Trebuchet was a Breton, born in Nantes in 1772, the third of seven children. Her mother died when Sophie was eight, and her father had spent most of his life sailing from Nantes to the West Indies, filling up with slaves at West African ports on the way out, and returning with sugar and molasses. In 1783, during a fruitless voyage to Mauritius, he caught a disease and died 5000 miles from home. The remains of Hugo's maternal grandfather now lie somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. For Hugo's mother, the past was something to be locked away or remodelled to suit present needs. All that Victor Hugo thought he knew on the subject was that his grandfather 'was one of those respectable bourgeois who never change their home or their views'.
Having lost both parents, Sophie was taken in by her Aunt Francoise and was still living in Nantes when the Revolution broke out in 1789.
According to Hugo, whose writings have supplied the spectacles through which the following events have traditionally been viewed, his mother was a half-wild royalist Amazon, chased through the Breton undergrowth by republican soldiers, risking her life to rescue persecuted priests. Brittany itself, in Hugo's Parisian view of the country, was an antediluvian land inhabited by hairy, tattooed peasants, squatting in their cottages or holes in the ground, surviving on milk and chestnuts, fanatically loyal to King and Church, their worldview bounded by the horizons of the ancient forests in which they hid, bristling with Druidic superstition and mindless animosity a contrast, in Hugo's personal mythology, to the mountain-born genius. Only the 'wash-basin' of the Atlantic Ocean was equal to the filth of Brittany, he wrote on a visit in 1836.
When Sophie Trebuchet was a young woman and the republican soldiers came to stamp out the counter-revolutionary fires of the monarchist Bretons, the forests in which Hugo imagined his mother running wild were 'enormous, dark sponges from which, under the pressure of that gigantic foot, the Revolution, civil war spurted out'. The metaphor was clearly inspired by wet socks and shoes, but also by the murkiness of his own past.
One of the heaviest boots belonged to Hugo's father, Joseph-Leopold-Sigisbert Hugo (usually known as Leopold). He was the third son of a wood merchant and a governess from Nancy in the east of France. For a soldier, Leopold Hugo was unusually well educated, but had thrown away the chance to pursue his studies in order to join the Army. Camaraderie and adventure were preferable to life behind a desk. When he met Sophie Trebuchet, he was twenty-two years old, a short, broad-chested man with a ruddy face and a fat nose, swerving constantly from deep dejection to violent elation, full of flattering stories about himself, delighted to have been shot through the neck and to have had two horses blown to pieces while he was riding them in battle. He was unashamed of his plebeian roots but keen to provide himself with aristocratic forebears. He worshipped his commanding officer, Muscar, and, like him, wrote bawdy songs and dragged a mistress around with him on all his campaigns. 'I often press her to my breast,' he told Muscar in a letter, 'and, through two pretty spheres, I feel the forces which move the world ... Draw the curtains!'
The Revolution stimulated his ambition: he renamed himself 'Brutus' and proved to be an enthusiastic republican. Brutus Hugo played his part in the 'cleansing' of Brittany with no obvious relish but without shirking his duty. He presided over the massacre of entire villages, executed congregations, and, like many soldiers in similar circumstances, adopted an abandoned child. When his own children began to arrive, the orphan would be given away.
In 1793, shortly after the execution of Louis XVI, Hugo's regiment (the Eighth Lower Rhine) was ordered from the most distant part of France. The idea was to minimize those conflicts of loyalty which are the principal military inconvenience of civil war. It was this efficient management of resources which provided Victor Hugo with the convincing antithesis of a republican, atheist father and a royalist, Catholic mother: blasted into existence by the collision of modern history's most powerful opposites.
In Hugo's version of his own prehistory parts of which appear to have found their way back into local legend his parents met in the winter of 1795 while this paragon of republican virtue was scouring the lanes and thickets in the vicinity of the small town of Chateaubriant, a few miles from Nantes. Chateaubriant was the country home of Sophie's Aunt Francoise and was supposed to be safer than the city. Charging along between the hedgerows, Brutus suddenly came upon a frail, dark-eyed girl. When she heard that he was hot on the trail of some renegade priests, she cleverly invited him home to tea.
Brutus, still smouldering from battle, showed off his shattered foot, his uniform with its seventeen bullet-holes and recited his verse. Sophie seems to have impressed him more than he impressed her: she was reserved, even secretive, proud of her self-control. 'A mother who made provision for the moment in life when one finds oneself alone,' Hugo wrote in 1822, 'and who accustomed me from childhood to keep everything to myself and let nothing out'. She was also seventeen months older and better educated than Brutus, a different creature altogether from his battle-scarred mistress and far more intimidating than a band of Breton peasants brandishing their pitchforks and axes.
Six months later, when Brutus was summoned back to Paris, he promised to write. Sophie promised nothing but reflected on the fact that she would soon be twenty-five and too old to marry. Perhaps in order to impress her with his potential for stability, Brutus took a desk job at the Conseil de Guerre in Paris and tried to be patient. Finally, in November 1797, Sophie arrived from Brittany with her brother, only to discover that Brutus had been unfaithful as he himself admitted in a jovial letter to his commanding officer. Rather than face a humiliating return to her home-town, she married him, without a priest, on 15 November 1797. There had been talk of a dowry, but, to the disappointment of Brutus, it turned out to consist mainly of bed-linen.
Victor Hugo knew his parents well enough to flesh out the details of their early relationship a domestic image of the devastation he witnessed as a child in various parts of Napoleon's Empire. But the reality differs from his reconstruction of it in one crucial respect. Far from being royalists, Sophie's family, like many of their fellow-Nantais, had actively contributed to the establishment of the Republic. They prided themselves on their modern views and were more likely to be found reading Voltaire than the Bible. Her grandfather had worked with the notorious Carrier, who distinguished himself under the Terror by loading excess prisoners on to boats and then sinking them in the Loire. Sophie's young Aunt Louise one of her best friends was Carrier's mistress, and when Sophie and her Aunt Francoise left Nantes for Chateaubriant in 1794, they were not fleeing from republican troops but from their fellow Bretons those who were appalled by Carrier's brutality, or those whose festering bodies were spreading disease, piled up in the open graves to which Sophie's grandfather had contributed in his capacity as public prosecutor in Nantes.
Throughout Hugo's childhood, recent history was subjected to that blithe simplification which retrospectively divides entire populations very neatly into patriots and collaborators. In Hugo's case, the misrepresentation of his own family history owes something to his mother's silence and his father's love of stories in which he was the hero. More than that, it reflects the battle-lines drawn up by his parents as their marriage fell apart. From the very beginning, the idea of a royalist mother and a republican father was highly acceptable because it suggested that historical forces, and not Hugo himself, were responsible for his parents' incompatibility.
AT THE TURN OF the century, under the Directoire, the city which Victor Hugo was to call 'the native city of my mind' was a wrecked museum of recent French history, its palaces infested with beggars and rubbish, more like post-revolution Zanzibar than modern Paris. The Tuileries Gardens had suffered the indignity of spades and potatoes; statues had been toppled, inscriptions erased. Employees of the Conseil de Guerre occupied the Hotel de Ville (renamed 'Maison Commune'), where the only intact decorations were the busts of revolutionary leaders.
In Part Five of Les Miserables, Hugo paints his most memorable picture of the period, dating it, significantly, to the year of his birth, 1802. It was then that 'the conscience of the city' its enormous network of sewers flooded it with its own filth. A characteristically Hugolian view of history compromising, inscrutable and blatant: The mind seems to perceive, straying through the darkness amid the rot of what was once magnificence, that huge blind mole, the Past.' In Hugo's case, the past would be unusually difficult to contain and analyse, but it carried with it the strong smell of a suspicion that the individuals who embroiled his childhood in momentous historical events were subject to even greater forces.
The popular promenade of Directoire Paris was the Jardin d'Idalie near the Champs-Elysees. In the months leading up to Bonaparte's coup d'etat, free enterprise was sprouting among the ruins. The Jardin d'Idalie was an excuse for open-air pornography: tableaux vivants and women dressed as sylphs, disporting themselves in mid-air, attached to balloons. Major Hugo took his wife there and ran into an old , acquaintance, Colonel Victor de Lahorie, Chief of Staff of General Moreau, who was at that time Bonaparte's main rival.
Apart from his later involvement in Moreau's conspiracy against bonaparte and his role in Victor Hugo's childhood, very little is known about Lahorie. Even his name changes from one page of his biography to the next. He was six years older than Sophie and came from the same part of France. A fervent republican. but with the manners of a royalist, he was a pleasant contrast to Brutus': he wore a blue suit and breeches, white gloves and a black cocked hat with a tiny cockade the first sprouting of a more elegant age. A 'Wanted' notice posted by the Minister of Police in 1804 asked citizens to be on the look-out for a man of 5 feet 2 inches, with black hair, dark, deep-set eyes, a pock-marked face and a sardonic smile. He was also said to be slightly bow-legged, like a man who spent a lot of time on horseback.
With the support of Lahorie, Hugo resumed active service. In 1799, he and his wife moved to the more rural setting of the Ecole Militaire in the west of Paris. In a room overlooking the Champ-de-Mars (now dominated from the other end by the Eiffel Tower), a first son, Abel, was born exactly one year after the marriage. He was nursed by Mme Hugo to the sound of drums and marching soldiers.
In June, they left for Hugo's home-town of Nancy. As Stendhal describes it in Lucien Leuwen, Nancy had been turned into a barracks, its streets continually muddied by regiments leaving for the Eastern front. The Major stormed off to conquer Bavaria, earning the patronage of Bonaparte's older brother Joseph with his 'courage, activity and intelligence' the first sign of that stream of coincidences which intermittently connects the history of the Hugos to that of the Bonaparte family. Sophie was stuck in Nancy with a finicky mother-in-law and a jealous sister. The only relief was the gentlemanly Lahorie. It has been suggested that they became lovers, but the circumstances were hardly propitious. In Nancy, a second son, Eugene, was born on 16 September 1800.
Almost immediately, Hugo was put in charge of the nearby garrison at Luneville, where a treaty was signed in February 1801 consolidating Bonaparte's France. Great days were dawning. In the words of a song which Major Hugo hummed at home often enough for his youngest son to remember it perfectly half a century later, the future Emperor issued a stern ultimatum to all the sovereigns of Europe 'Kiss my ass, and you'll have peace ... And peace there was!' Mme Hugo did not consider her husband a suitable companion for the children.
One other important event coincided with the stay in Luneville: the excursion into the Vosges during which Major Hugo exercised his conjugal rights on the mountain-top.
In August 1801, he descended with the Twentieth half-brigade to the town of Besancon. The Hugos took a first-floor apartment in an old house on the Place Saint-Quentin. There, one evening towards the end of winter, a third son was born at what turned out to be precisely the worst moment It was a Septidi in the month of Ventose, Year X of the Republic (in the old calendar, 26 February 1802). A significantly insignificant event:
This century was two years old. Rome was replacing Sparta;
Already Napoleon was emerging from under Bonaparte.
And already the First Consul's tight mask
Had been split in several places by the Emperor's brow.
It was then that in Besancon, that old Spanish town,
Cast like a seed into the flying wind,
A child was born of mixed blood Breton and Lorraine
Pallid, blind and mute,...
That child, whom Life was scratching from its book,
And who had not another day to live,
Major Hugo had been hoping for a girl. The plan was to name her Victorine-Marie 'Marie' after a family friend and 'Victorine' after Victor Lahorie, who agreed to be the child's godfather. Since 'Marie' was also a boy's name, the baby was named 'Victor-Marie Hugo'. There was no baptism another sign that Hugo's mother was not the fervent Catholic he thought she was.
It had been a difficult birth and the child was clearly a runt. To judge by his mother's description 'no longer than a knife' he may have been premature. The midwife predicted imminent death and a week passed before the Major reported the birth to Lahorie.
According to the opening poem of Les Feuilles d'Automne one of the great verse autobiographies of the Romantic period a double order was placed with the carpenter for a cradle and a coffin. Victor's sturdy seventeen-month-old brother Eugene, already enjoying his father's rude health, saw the puny creature and offered the first subjective judgement of the future poet: 'bebete ('silly').
Six weeks later, the family was to break up.
FROM A ROMANTIC point of view, it was a disappointing, untidy origin. In Hugo's lifetime, a critic tried to prove that he must have sucked in at birth the stubborn spirit of the Franche-Comte and was a recognizable product of the region; a typical Easterner. His place of birth, however, is significant only in its almost total irrelevance. Hugo was an Army child, swept along in the storm created by Bonaparte. He never saw Besancon again, and his next direct contact with his native city was in 1880 when the local council unveiled a plaque commemorating his birth. On that occasion, Hugo sent a letter of thanks describing himself as 'a pebble of the road on which humanity marches onward'. For all his grasping after symbolic coincidences, Hugo, unlike some of his even more neurotic biographers, accepted the arbitrariness of his birth and saw his eccentric personal geography as a sign of innate internationalism. He had a mother from Brittany, a father from Lorraine (which was alternately German and French), and a native city which had once belonged to Spain. A natural candidate for the presidency of that embodiment of cultural unity he was one of the first to call 'The United States of Europe'.
Hugo saved his biggest distortions for the family. Here, the quest for autobiographical appropriateness veers off into pure fantasy, gradually consolidated and confirmed over the years by layers of imagined memories. But to accept Hugo's version for the sake of narrative convenience and then denounce it as comical arrogance is to ignore the unpleasant reality he spent much of his life trying to comprehend or conjure away.
He later considered himself to have been baptized symbolically by the substitute father, Lahorie, 'who witnessed my birth'. Lahorie may indeed, as Hugo claims, have suggested that the Germanic 'Hugo' be softened by the Latin 'Victor. But when the baby was born, Lahorie was in Paris.
The puniness of the infant Hugo also belongs to both legend and reality. When Hugo dictated the details of his early life to Alexandre Dumas in 1852, he revealed that, even at the age of fifteen months, he still had difficulty holding his head erect: it kept lolling on to his shoulders. The peculiar precision of the detail betrays the mythologizing instinct. He may have been a runt but he had an enormous, compensatory head his proudest physical possession, not entirely unconnected with his boasts of unusually powerful sexual desires and accomplishments. He even boasted of having been diagnosed by an alienist as a cured hydrocephalic. The insistence on his puniness, in texts which in other respects are far from modest, casts an ambiguous light on his inferiority to his two older brothers. In one sense, he was practically a Quasimodo. On the other hand, the feeble corporation struggling to support the vast brow of genius meant that Hugo was born with the perfect Romantic body.
Seen in relation to his intense rivalry with his two brothers, Hugo's weakness has another unexpected advantage. The opening poem of Les Feuilles d'Autmne explains, apparently in contradiction of itself, that mother's milk, by divine dispensation, is shared equally, but that each son receives it all: the ideal, miraculous solution to sibling rivalry. Yet at the same time, the extra care lavished on the sickly baby 'Made me twice the child of my obstinate mother'
In the autobiographical texts, the cruel calamity of Hugo's early days is plastered over: 'Abandoned by all, except by his mother', the child was loved back to life. Then the whole family left for Corsica together and 'the infant quickly reached the age of one'.
The interest of this imaginative re-creation of his origins lies in its exact untruth. For all the concern about Victor's poor chances of survival, the family set off for Marseilles when he was only six weeks old. Major Hugo was in deep trouble: he had reported his commanding officer for embezzlement and slanderous accusations were being made about him. Only one thing could save his career an appeal to his protectors in Paris, Lahorie and Joseph Bonaparte.
So, on 28 November 1802, while the Major remained on active duty, trusting in his wife's persuasive powers, Sophie Hugo left her baby in the arms of a certain Claudine, the wife of Hugo's orderly. and travelled back to Paris, where she stayed In the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, close to the Place Vendome, and even closer to the Rue Gaillon, home of the recently retired Lahorie.
THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT fact of Victor Hugo's formative years is that his advent coincided with the collapse of his parents' marriage.
Because of Hugo's silence about his broken home, emphasis tends to have been placed on the eventual, apparent reconciliation with his father, after his mother's death. This cheerful view may have something to do with the personal lives of his biographers, or it may simply be an effect of traditional biography, crossing off events as they occur. Hugo, on the other hand, with his huge capacity for never recovering from grief, lived in circles rather than on a straight line, and the disasters of his life should be imagined as continually recurring events, differing only in the degree of intensity.
When the dreaming soul descends into the body
And numbers in the heart, which cold at last has touched,
As if counting dead bodies on a field of battle,
Each departed grief and extinguished dream, ...
There, in that night where no light shines,
The soul, in a dark fold where all things seem to end,
Feels something still fluttering under a veil ...
You who lie steeping in the shadows sacred memory!
Since the sight of a bickering couple always induces someone to offer a helpful diagnosis, Sophie has been accused of being too dry, frigid and even mulish: a quality her husband attributed to the fact that she came from Brittany. It should be remembered that her coldness and apparent lack of sense of humour had the contrasting background of the Major's perpetually active volcano: 'I wish I could break down the narrow bounds of language,' he wrote in 1800, 'and give full expression to my feelings, to deify the woman I adore, to hold her in my arms and press against my breast the mother of my little children.
Whether or not this rampaging style is the sound of sincerity, as is often supposed, the Majors letters also demonstrate his familiarity with the popular literature of the time: exaggerated, simple emotion. It served him well when he came to write his first adventure novel.
The little children, who were suffering the same 'deprivation' as their father, were stuffed with sweets. Victor kept asking for 'mamaman' and had to be fobbed off with macaroon which is conceivably what he was asking for anyway ('macaron').
In January 1803 the Major struck camp and sailed with his three sons to Corsica, where the French Army was preparing to defend itself against plague and the British. Sophie seemed to be in no hurry to resolve the Major's dispute or even to answer his letters. For the first time in her life she was free and enjoying the company of Lahorie.
Meanwhile, living conditions for the rest of the family deteriorated rapidly. From Corsica, they sailed to Portoferraio on the tiny island of Elba in June 1803, eleven years before the deposed Napoleon tried to drag it into the nineteenth century by building proper roads. They lived in a house in the present Via Guerrazi. A nurse took the boys to play by the sea. There would be no postal service in the winter. The Major felt abandoned. He freely admitted that he did not make a good mother. Victor was teething, suffering from the heat, and appeared to have worms. He hardly ever cried but looked around him as though he had lost something. In Corsica, a local woman had been found to take him out in a pram but the child seemed uncomfortable with a non-French-speaker. Hugo later claimed that one of the first words he learnt was the Italian 'cattiva' the feminine form of 'wicked', which might reflect a later suspicion that all was not well in his father's house.
For all the Major's semi-religious outpourings, the bottom line of all his letters is that he was desperate for sex. In his view, Sophie had been given fair warning. Now he was hanging on to fidelity by his fingertips: 'Do you think that at my age and with my character it's a good idea to leave me to my own devices?' He pretended to set her mind at rest by pointing out that women in that part of the world were in the habit of stabbing their lovers to death, not to mention the additional 'guarantee' of possible 'maladies'.
It was clear that the marriage was over. By insisting on his impressive desires, the expert in self-justification was writing out his absolution in advance. But he was also genuinely bemused. His wife had managed the unusual feat of not appreciating his merits: 'Born with a character which has made me no enemies and brought me many friends,' he wrote the following year, 'I have seen you grow unhappy with me, contriving to live apart from me for specious reasons, abandoning me to the ardent passions of my age.'
At last, having secured the Major's future in the Army with the help of Lahorie, Sophie made the long journey from Paris and reached Elba in July 1803. Four months later, she left with the children for Paris.
The only window into the Hugo household in those disastrous four months is the petition drawn up by Sophie in 1815 when she was suing for divorce. According to Mme Hugo, her husband had taken a 'concubine' called Catherine Thomas, the daughter of a hospital employee at Portoferraio. This is the woman who called herself Comtesse de Salcano, Major Hugo's future second wife. She was probably the model for the transvestite soldier in his conventionally melodramatic novel written in retirement, L'Aventuriere Tyrolienne intrepid, childless, and eleven years younger than Sophie. Suspecting nothing, Sophie was persuaded to sail for France with the three boys before the British came and took them all prisoner. Hugo was left to indulge what his wife described in her petition as his 'unbridled desires'.
Subsequent letters from the Major suggest that he had tried, one last time, to stir up some passion in his wife. He missed his sons and it was probably only later that he attached himself to Catherine Thomas. Sophie's petition dates from a time when she was busy constructing the legend of a royalist Amazon manacled to a republican vandal which her sons inevitably accepted as the truth.
The only certainty is that when Victor Hugo arrived in Paris at the age of one and three-quarters, his parents had begun the long and painful separation which continued throughout his childhood and dragged him on a tour of Napoleon's Empire.
HUGO NEVER PRETENDED to remember anything from this period. In the splendid vision attributed to the mothers of children born at the turn of the century, and then, much later, to his alter ego, Marius in Les Miserables, 'the Revolution was a guillotine in the twilight, the Empire a sabre in the night'. Like most writers of his generation, Hugo had the impression of having entered the world in a mythical age the child of a giant, wrapped in a banner, laid on a drum and baptized with water from a helmet.
If, as he claims, his early years were lived through a fog of cultural prejudice and twenty years of political and domestic unrest, his parents' mistake made it an unusually thick and representative fog. Little by little, a curiously similar situation materializes in Hugo's future, as if the adults around his cradle or his coffin had created roles that other actors would fill.
The 'sacred memory' which survives and predates all other memories is also the unconscious recollection of childhood, and a suspicion of the truth. The rediscovery of that truth is one of the stories of Hugo's life. It was a far more dramatic tale than the ingenuous narrative according to which Victor Hugo became the dominant figure of French Romanticism because he was a megalomaniac with an unshakeable belief in the reality of his own image. That would have been comparatively simple. Extracting a means of expression for unacceptable truths from a literature bound by convention was something far more worthwhile, something almost worthy of a giant's son conceived on a mountain-top.
Meet the Author
Graham Robb is the author of three prize-winning biographies, each one selected as New York Times Best Books. His most recent works, The Discovery of France and Parisians, have earned several awards and much acclaim between them. He lives on the Anglo-Scottish border.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
A breathtaking account of Hugo's passions and torments, idealism and opportunism--written with unparalleled wit and cynicism worthy of Hugo himself. If only all biographies could be this compelling, but perhaps few lives are.