Victor Hugo: Five things you didn't know about the author of Les Miserables

The writer could just as easily be remembered as a politician or a saint

Chris Baynes
Friday 30 June 2017 19:57
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Victor Hugo: Five things you didn’t know about the French author of Les Miserables

Considered one of the greatest French authors of all time, Victor Hugo cemented his place in the literary canon with The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and his epic historical novel Les Miserables.

Born in 1802, three-years after Napoleon seized power, he was already famous as a poet, artist and novelist by the time he was 30 and he had had time to study law.

As well as being a literary genius however, he could just as easily be remembered as a politician or a saint.

Commemorated in a Google Doodle on the 155th anniversary of the publication of the final chapter of Les Mis, here are some lesser known facts about the writer’s life, which was easily as colourful as his fiction:

He was a human rights activist

Hugo's influence extended beyond the world of literature. Many of his writings, including peasant Jean Valjean's quest for redemption after being jailed for stealing bread in Les Miserables, explored politics, poverty, justice and moral philosophy.

But he also used his status for push for social change.

After being elected to France's National Assembly in 1848, he broke with conservatives to call for universal suffrage, free education for all children, and an end to poverty.

His campaign to abolish the death penalty was also internationally renowned.

France's most famous novel was written in Britain

A fierce critic of Napoleon, Hugo fled France after the 1851 coup d'etat that brought Bonaparte to power.

After spells in Belgium and Jersey he settled in the smaller Channel Island of Guernsey, where the writer would live for the next 15 years.

It proved to be one of the most productive periods of his life, as Hugo penned his two most celebrated volumes of poetry and most of Les Miserables - which he began in the 1845 but did not complete until 1862.

It means arguably the most famous work of French literature was actually written in Britain.

His cure for writer's block

As he laboured over Les Miserables, Hugo employed a unique strategy to force himself to write.

The author removed his clothes and locked himself in an empty room with nothing but a pen and paper to distract him.

He is said to have ordered his servants not to give him his clothes back until he had made progress on the novel, which eventually spanned more than 1,500 pages.

Saint Victor

Hugo is venerated as a saint in the Vietnamese religion of Cao Dai, which blends Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity.

The religious movement was founded in 1926, four decades after his death, with the French writer one of the first among its pantheon of saints.

A statue of Hugo sits in the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh.

A complicated love life

Hugo married wife Adele Foucher in October 1822 and the couple lived together for nearly 46 years until her death.

But he also had multiple mistresses and enjoyed many casual affairs that biographers have abandoned attempts to compile a comprehensive account of his love life.

The womaniser's most devoted mistress, Juliette Drouet, joined him in exile in Guernsey and lived near his family home.

She wrote some 20,000 letters detailing her passion and venting her jealousy.

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