Hugo, the giant innuendo, priapism and all

The new-year hangovers have barely subsided, but the first prize of the literary season, the Whitbread, has already arrived. Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor, recalls his happy experience as a judge

of the biography section.

No tantrums to report, I'm afraid: this week's Sunday Times gossip about feuding in quiche-filled rooms was entirely false. With a winner as powerful as Graham Robb's magnificently readable reclamation of the great 19th-century monument behind Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, sulks and spats proved pointless. What is true is that, in any other year, Jenny Uglow's immensely gripping and colourful life of William Hogarth - as thick with witty observation as any of the artist's prints - would have been very hard to beat.

The other three shortlisted titles read by me, Selina Hastings, the biographer of Evelyn Waugh, and Alison Blair-Underwood from Heffer's booksellers also deserve armies of delighted readers. They were Kate Summerscale's The Queen of Whale Cay, a luminous, dream-like tale of the speedboat-racing lesbian heiress "Joe" Carstairs and her benignly piratical reign on the Caribbean island she owned; Violet, Jessica Douglas-Home's rich and poignant account of the early-music pioneer Violet Gordon Woodpouse and her bizarre (mostly platonic) menage of four live-in chaps; and finally, Citizen Lord, by Stella Tillyard, the engrossing and ultimately tragic story of the romantic revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his part in the abortive Irish uprising of 1798.

The arbiters of prizes often whinge about the years of drought they have to adjudicate. To me, the life-writing business still looks in generally good shape, save for a dull spell at the moment on the purely political front. Biography remains a British speciality, along with guitar bands, glitzy frock designs and high-street wine merchants (though Robb in fact wrote his first books in French). Indeed, to cultures more enamoured by ideas than by data, the intricate narrative craft required to trace any complex life can seem dreary or plain irrelevant. As Oscar Wilde wrote, "The English are always degrading truths into facts."

But what facts! Another crucial ingredient that helps to explain the current British lead in lives is a punctilious frankness about sex. This new-found candour was first entrenched in the genre by Michael Holroyd and his like in their Bloomsbury blockbusters a generation ago. In Victor Hugo, Graham Robb even goes to the trouble of working out that, in the period between 1847 and 1851, the famously priapic Hugo actually had sex with more women than he wrote poems. Perhaps a French critic might claim that this salacious pedantry is just what you'd expect from a country that now binges on prurience after an ice age of prudery.

In Hugo's case, the approach does suit the subject. The bearded polymath took everything he did to fussy extremes - poetry, novels, political campaigns, even interior decorating and spritualism. Fornication was no exception. It seems entirely fitting that, when the whole of Paris went on a spree of boozy mourning after Hugo died, aged 83, in 1885, police noted that the city's whores had draped their private parts in black crape "as a mark of respect". Now where have we heard that phrase before?

I can't quite imagine the filles de joie of Paddington doing the same for Martin Amis. The point is that Hugo stood for decades at the heart of French history; and he transformed French literature in each of its major branches.

His rule-busting tragedy Hernani caused (rather, manufactured) riots at the Comedie Francaise; the Hunchback and later Les Mis rewrote the script for novelists in Europe as a whole; his lyric poetry sent deep roots into the French popular imagination and stayed there. But he also, as Robb says, "entered the fabric of French life with the force of a multinational corporation".

Bard, guru, rabble-rouser, yarn spinner, conspirator and national mascot, Hugo was - in Graham Robb's words - "not just a real person with several masks but a limited liability company of egos".

He might have become president of the republic on two or three occasions; or ended up on the wrong side of a guillotine blade. Exiled in the Channel Islands under the pettifogging dictatorship of Napoleon III, he mounted an 18-year campaign of propaganda and subversion that materially weakened the regime. From Hauteville House in Guernsey (which you can still visit), he "sat on the horizon like a giant innuendo".

Less happily, his botched street-level bid to prevent the Revolution of 1848 from spiralling out of middle-class control made Hugo, in Robb's words, "directly responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of workers". What he wrote and did mattered, desperately, to the politics and culture of his time. It all makes for a wonderfully refreshing change from those squabbles over advances in the bar of the Groucho Club.

conspirator and national mascot, Hugo was, in Graham Robb's words, "not just a real person with several masks but a limited liability company of egos".

He might have become president of the republic on two or three occasions; or ended up on the wrong side of a guillotine blade. Exiled in the Channel Islands under the pettifogging dictatorship of Napoleon III, he mounted an 18-year campaign of propaganda and subversion that materially weakened the regime. From Hauteville House in Guernsey (which you can still visit), he "sat on the horizon like a giant innuendo". Less happily, his botched street-level bid to prevent the Revolution of 1848 from spiralling out of middle-class control made Hugo, in Robb's words, "responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of workers".

What he wrote and did mattered to the politics and culture of his time. It all makes for a wonderfully refreshing change from those squabbles over advances in the bar of the Groucho Club.

`Victor Hugo' is published by Picador, pounds 20.

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