Inscribing His Ideal Reader(ship): Victor Hugo and the Shaping of le Lecteur Pensif

By Roche, Isabel K. | French Forum, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Inscribing His Ideal Reader(ship): Victor Hugo and the Shaping of le Lecteur Pensif


Roche, Isabel K., French Forum


In the fifty years that separated the publication of Han d'Islande (1823) from that of Quatrevingt-treize (1874), Victor Hugo's use of the novelistic form in many ways punctuated rather than propelled his writing career, as his fictional undertakings were far less frequent, in terms of total output, than his poetic or dramatic efforts. (1) In reference to Hugo's early novels, and in spite of his enthusiastic endorsement of the genre in an 1823 review of Walter Scott's Quentin Durward that appeared in the first edition of La Muse francaise, (2) this hesitancy can at least in part be explained by the lingering reluctance of an ambitious young writer to practice his craft in a form that had yet to be fully legitimized. Sparked by personal reasons or motivated by the promise of financial gain, Hugo's first fictional endeavors tested the waters of the novel: Han d'Islande (Hugo's nod to Scott and the gothic novel) was published anonymously and played out his own love story with Adele Foucher; Bug-Jargal had its origins in a school bet; and Notre-Dame de Paris, for which Hugo had received a sizable advance, was only completed under the threat of sanction. (3) The period of silence that followed is, however, more difficult to elucidate, as thirty-one years separate the publication of the wildly-successful Notre-Dame de Paris from that of the much-anticipated Les Miserables in 1862. Indeed, as the novel as a genre gained momentum and legitimacy in France in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, as the roman-feuilleton emerged in newspapers like Le Siecle and La Presse and steadily grew in popularity, bringing a more accessible mass-produced kind of literature to a changed and changing nineteenth-century reading public, Hugo made and sustained his sizable fortune writing plays and poetry, keeping ideas for novels tucked away in his carnets personnels, aware of and concerned perhaps as early as the 1830s about the new kinds of constraints being imposed on novelists dependent on their pens and--more and more--on the reading public. (4) Hugo's veering away from the novel just as it became fashionable speaks in fact to a certain wariness on his part, at once of the vogue of the roman historique that took off on the heels of Notre-Dame de Paris (he later claimed to have never written one), (5) of the advent of the realist novel, and of the production and mass consumption of literature through serial novels, which targeted a different, less sophisticated kind of reader. (6)

That Hugo had little interest in pursuing the writing of historical or serial novels, or both, as they in many cases intersected, is not, however, surprising. His commentary in La Muse francaise about the "other novel that had yet to be created" had already set him apart from the direction or directions that would be pursued by his contemporaries. What also needs to be taken into account is that there was something else that set Hugo apart from his contemporaries by the end of the 1830s: the success he had already attained as a writer and the financial independence that this success allowed him. Indeed, after an unstable childhood in which his family's money concerns were real and constant, and the lean years of the 1820s (which themselves were nonetheless subsidized by one of the last pensions royales awarded), Hugo's desire for financial security and the stability that it ensured was realized in the 1830s through the careful management both of his theatrical productions and the publication and re-publication of earlier works. (7) The effects of Hugo's careful serf-management and of his understanding of the new business of literature--and especially strategies for publication that continued to assure his financial independence throughout his long career--have, in fact, in many ways been under-explored in terms of their relevance to his body of work. For unlike the great majority of his contemporaries whose financial status had shifted and who became dependent on commercial concerns, Hugo's rare success story put him in a position not only to write what he wanted when he wanted, but increasingly to cultivate, inscribe, and write for a desired, ideal and idealized reader(ship). …

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