Victor Hugo: The Dangerous Master

By Winegarten, Renee | New Criterion, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Victor Hugo: The Dangerous Master


Winegarten, Renee, New Criterion


Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was--and is--altogether too much. A prolific lyric and epic poet of stunning technical mastery, he was also a controversial dramatist (some of his plays have survived as subjects for operas of Donizetti, Verdi, and Ponchielli). He wrote two of the most enduringly popular novels, Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Miserables. Quasimodo the pathetic monster and Jean Valjean the ex-convict tormented by conscience are known--even if approximately and secondhand through numerous stage and film adaptations--to many who have not read the books and probably have no intention of reading them. Moreover, Hugo was a visionary artist not only in word but also with pen, wash, and mixed media. He appears as the bard of every regime except one--and France in his day saw a goodly number. At various times he also served as depute and senator. Hugo towers with those nineteenth-century French contemporaries like Balzac, Dumas pere, and George Sand, writers whose vast outpouring of words never ceases to astonish and overwhelm. Yet Hugo, or Olympio, as he was to call himself, self-consecrated genius and monumental egoist, gives the impression of being and displaying more of everything. While his literary influence is immense, he has also exerted a pervasive, lasting, less obvious, and not always salutary influence in spheres that are not purely literary.

Victor Hugo was not born "an aristocrat and royalist" for he was the son of a self-made man who rose from humble origins to be one of Napoleon's generals. General Hugo was zealous in his relentless pursuit of counterrevolutionaries in the Vendee, and brutal in his suppression of guerrilleros during the French invasion of Spain. Hugo's mother who, according to the poet, was an aristocrat, devoutly Catholic and monarchist, active in the antirevolutionary uprising in the Vend&, was in fact a Voltairean sceptic (whose family had connections with the infamous Carrier, notorious perpetrator of revolutionary atrocities). She did not have Victor baptized, and he himself never repaired the omission. Of Hugo's two talented brothers, one faded rapidly from the scene while the other died obscurely in an insane asylum. As for Hugo's parents, they quarrelled and separated. His father had a longstanding mistress (whom he would later marry). His mother became deeply involved in the conspiracy of General Malet against Napoleon through her lover General Lahorie, who was executed for his part in the plot.

Out of this extraordinary family saga of personal and political conflict, Hugo was to fashion his own private myths, with himself as the singular embodiment of all the contradictory elements of the age. Hence his cultivation of antithesis, in and out of season. Deeply attached to his mother, he was reconciled with General Hugo (and ever more responsive to the Napoleonic legend) after her death.

Hugo, studious and "pure," who at long last married his childhood sweetheart, suffered a severe blow when he discovered that his best friend, the poet and critic Sainte-Beuve, had become his wife's lover. After that, the scene changed radically. Caught flagrante delicto with Mme. Leonie Biard, Hugo escaped punishment while Mme. Biard went to prison for adultery. His love affair with the beautiful, long-suffering actress Juliette Drouet, who positively worshiped him, lasted for many years, until her death not long before his own. He kept her mostly as a sort of back street mistress and deceived her with countless actresses, courtesans, maidservants, and indeed almost any woman who came within his purview. Each token of his sexual prowess as a satyr was carefully recorded in his remarkable diaries, up to his final illness in his eighties.

After Voltaire, Hugo readily assumed the mantle of the fighter against injustice. There was scarcely a cause he did not take up, especially anything to do with capital punishment. He had long opposed it, ever since as a boy he had witnessed atrocities committed by Napoleon's invading armies in Spain--those summary executions imprinted on the mind's eye by Goya.

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