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.

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Year 5 Teacher

    £80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

    Software Developer

    £35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

    Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

    £35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

    Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past