Biography of Victor Hugo

Perhaps one of the most significant French writers, Victor Hugo was born on February 26th, 1802, the youngest of three sons. His father was a general in Napoleon's army, and his mother was a strong-minded, religious woman. Dissatisfied with the constant moves required by army life, Madame Hugo settled with her children in Paris.

Hugo began writing at a young age, and at seventeen years old he won a national poetry prize. He published his first book of poetry in 1822, which provided him the funds to marry his childhood sweetheart, Adéle Foucher, and fathered four children with her. Hugo was an incredibly prolific writer, penning poetry, plays, and prose. He exploded onto the national scene with the publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the success of the play Hernani.

Hugo's personal life was complex. His wife Adéle had an affair with Saint-Beuve, one of Hugo's best friends, and shortly after Hugo fell in love with the actress Juliette Drouet. He coerced her to abandon her acting career, and he furnished her with a small flat of her own and a monthly stipend. Juliette became Hugo's lifelong muse, secretary, and traveling companion.

Tragedy struck in 1843, with the drowning death of Hugo's beloved eldest daughter Léopoldine; Hugo was on vacation at the time of her death, and learned of it from reading the newspaper. Léopoldine is believed to have been a model for the character of Cosette.

This traumatic event led Hugo to attempt to live his values more deeply by moving into politics. As a peer of France, Hugo made a number of speeches on social issues in 1845, and 1948, he was elected deputy to the Constitutional Assembly. However, his political career took a sharp turn 1851; Louis Napoleon abolished the republic and Hugo was forced to flee after unsuccessfully trying to inspire an uprising. Hugo, along with his wife, mistress, and children, spent the next nineteen years in exile. It was during this time that he wrote Les Misérables. He was able to return to Paris in 1871, greeted by shouts of "Vive Victor Hugo!"

His death at the age of 83 was an occasion of intense national mourning. He is still regarded as a national treasure, and has been honored in many ways: a street in Paris was renamed for him, and a number of stamps have been released in his likeness.

Study Guides on Works by Victor Hugo