The Victor Hugo Collection

Scope and Content

The collection gathers 165 letters from Hugo, and 790 letters to Hugo. 584 correspondents have been identified, but there are 61 letters, including 29 from Hugo, whose other correspondent is still unidentified (with missing or illegible signatures). Additionally, there are 77 letters from and to his family and relatives, so the collection holds 1032 letters.

There are 8 manuscripts from Hugo and other artists, and 10 photographs, lithographs and a watercolour.

Administrative / Biographical History

Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885) was one of the most famous writers in French history. A polymath, he produced novels, poems, theatre plays, and drawings, and had a prominent political role between 1848 and his death.

His father Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1873-1828), was a general under Napoleon. He notably fought in Spain, where he was defeated by Wellington. Victor Hugo was however raised by his mother Sophie Trébuchet, who became royalist under Napoléon, so did Hugo. Like the other young Romantics, such as Lamartine (1780-1860), Hugo was also a devoted follower of Chateaubriand (1768-1848), at that time a Catholic champion and ardent proponent of the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830). Hugo walked in the path of his idol and wrote his first Romantic verses in 1822, and his first published novel, Hans of Iceland in 1823. His Ode to the Sacre of Charles X (1825) brought him easy honours and a pension. At this time, Hugo also started to get interested in human rights, and wrote The Last day of a condemned man (1829), calling for the end of death penalty.

However, Hugo's fame really started as a playwright. A true Romantic, he wanted to shake the tight classical rules of theatre, which stipulated for example that all the action had to take place the same day in the same place. Cromwell (1827), his first play, was impossible to stage because of its length, but its preface can be considered as the Romantic manifesto in theatre. Hugo then prepared another play, Hernani, which some parts leaked in the press, so everybody knew it would break the classical rules. As a result, the premiere (on 25 February 1830) was booed by the supporters of Classicism, whilst the Romantics tried to cover them with cheers. This "battle" in the stairs happened at each representation until the Théâtre-Français finally stopped staging Hernani because of the trouble it caused and pressures from the Government.

Under the July Monarchy (1830-1848), Hugo mostly continued the "Romantic battle" started with Hernani. Despite the immense success of the novel the Hunchback of Notre-dame (1831), he was still rejected by the literary establishment, notably the Académie Française, which hindered the representations of the numerous other plays he produced at this time, such as Marion de Lorme (written in 1829, but staged in 1831), Le roi s'amuse (1832), Lucrèce Borgia (1833), Marie Tudor (1833), Angelo (1835), and Ruy Blas (1838). At the end of 1830s, Hugo nevertheless won the King's favour, which, combined with the death of several of his aged enemies in the Académie Française, finally allowed him to enter - after several attempts - this prestigious institution on 7 January 1841. This date can be considered as the victory of the Romantics and it was celebrated among the literary circles and even commoners; besides, the Rylands collection has many letters showing the strong interest aroused by this election among all the supporters of Romanticism, from prestigious writers to simple craftsmen. The King also made Hugo peer of France in 1845, who started there his long and tumultuous parliamentarian career.

Victor Hugo had already put his literary career into brackets after the death of his daughter Léopoldine in 1843, but he also extended this hiatus after his election as a deputy at the beginning of the Second Republic (1848-1851). At first, Hugo sat among the Conservatives who supported Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte for the presidential election in December 1848, but he switched parties in 1849, after the crushing of the Roman Republic by the French army, which had been sent to Rome to support the Papacy. He then strongly opposed President Bonaparte and advocated the end of the death penalty in his newspaper L'Evénement, resulting in the incarceration of his two sons (who were its editors).

Hugo naturally rejected the coup of President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte on 2 December 1851, which terminated the already dying Second Republic and founded the Second Empire instead (1851-1870). He first went into exile in Brussels, then the Channel Islands, Jersey until 1855, then Guernsey where he settled at Hauteville House (now a museum). The exile was the most prolific time of his career. Indeed, forced to abandon his political activities, he returned to poetry and composed the Châtiments (1853) against Napoleon III, Les Contemplations (1856), and La Légende des siècles (1859). His most famous work, the epic novel Les Misérables was written in 1862 and rapidly became an immense success in France and abroad as the book was rapidly translated in other languages. Hugo used a large part of his income to help his fellow exiles, as many of them were in a dire situation; several letters of the Rylands collection give a good hindsight of the help provided by Hugo, through direct gifts or subscriptions.

After having rejected Napoleon III's amnesties of 1859 and 1869, claiming that he would be the last one to remain into exile, Victor Hugo immediately came back to France at the news that the 3rd Republic had been proclaimed after the defeat of the Emperor against Prussia at Sedan on 2 September 1870. Thanks to his huge popularity, he was logically elected deputy of Paris at the elections of February 1871, but almost immediately resigned in support of Garibaldi, the famous Italian revolutionary, whose election had been cancelled by the Conservative majority (Garibaldi was born in Nice, transferred to France in 1860). Whilst in Belgium to deal with the succession of his deceased son Charles Hugo, he heard about the repression of the Commune of Paris and offered shelter to the defeated Communards in his Belgian house. The Belgian government had to expel him under the pressure of the French authorities. Hugo therefore went to Luxembourg, and returned to his literature; he notably composed L'Année terrible (1872) and wrote 93 (1874), his last novel.

In 1875, the vote of the constitutional laws of the 3rd Republic created an upper chamber, the Sénat, where Hugo entered. This position, as well as his undisputed commitment to the Republic and his literary genius, gave him the appearance of the father of the young 3rd Republic. At the Senate, Hugo noteworthy made a speech calling for the amnesty of the Communards, the revolutionaries who had been deported after the crushing of the Paris uprising in 1871. The Rylands collection holds several materials related to this period, such as the letters from Zélie Robert and Dr Rastoul who unsuccessfully tried to get Hugo's support.

After having survived his wife, died in 1868, his two sons (1871 and 1873), and his life-long mistress Juliette Drouet (1883), Hugo died on 22 May 1885. A national mourning was decided by the Government and he was immediately buried in the Panthéon. His funeral cortege was attended by an immense crowd of two million people, equalling that of Napoleon in 1840.


The letters have been regrouped by main "producers", eg. Victor Hugo, his family and relatives. Two small series gather manuscripts and visual materials.

  • /1 Correspondence of Victor Hugo
  • /2 Correspondence of Adèle Hugo
  • /3 Correspondence of Hugo's family
  • /4 Correspondence of Juliette Drouet
  • /5 Correspondence of relatives
  • /6 Manuscripts and page-proofs
  • /7 Visual materials

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader. Every correspondent in the collection died more than 70 years ago (the last one, Jeanne Hugo, died in 1941).

However, the watercolour may be subject to reproduction rights.

Acquisition Information

The collection was bought by the French Department of the University of Manchester between 1962 and 1966, with a few occasional purchases until 1990. The bulk of the collection was directly bought to Jean Gaudon, a French academic who had published the correspondence between Hugo and Juliette Drouet in 1955. He worked at Manchester between 1962 and 1966, and then moved to Royal Holloway, University of London, until 1970, when he was appointed at Yale University; he finished his career at the University of Paris XII until his retirement in 1990.

Gaudon only had letters addressed to Hugo. The letters from Hugo were bought by the Department on the autograph market, mainly in France, but also from dealers located in the UK, the USA, and Italy. After the departure of Jean Gaudon, a few occasional purchases occurred until 1990, thanks to Dr Anthony James who continued the project.

The collection was transferred to the John Rylands Library after the merger with the University of Manchester.

Archivist's Note

Most of the descriptions of the letters in the first series were written by Francis James Norris (b.1910), who worked as a lecturer in education in 1961-1964 at Manchester, then became French Master at Stockport Grammar School. The descriptions of the items in the other series were mostly written by Marie Caillot, who now works at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

Separated Material

The John Rylands Library holds the complete works of Victor Hugo, often in first editions.

Most of Hugo's correspondence is found in the French National Library, and in the Maison Victor Hugo, Paris.

Outside France, the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits in Brussels has a fonds on Hugo, as well as the Musée Wellington at Waterloo.

In England, the University of Leeds owns 475 letters of Juliette Drouet to Hugo, bequeathed by Lord Brotherton of Wakefield to the library.

In the USA, an interesting collection can be found at Yale, where Jean Gaudon worked in the 1970s and sold another part of his collection to the University, following the same process as in Manchester. The Houghton Library at Harvard University and the Morgan Pierpont Library (New York) also have a wide range of materials from, or related to, Hugo (letters, manuscripts, drawings, etc.). The University of Syracuse and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas (Austin) hold smaller collections of some dozens letters of Hugo's correspondence.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Appraisal Information

No appraisal has been made, but the collection is extremely valuable. The auction record for a letter written by Hugo is currently at €51,400 (Christie's, 4 April 2012, lot 8) and there are 165 letters from him in this collection. No destruction should be undertaken.

Custodial History

The overwhelming part of the collection consists of letters to and from Victor Hugo, and a small part of the correspondence of his family (notably his wife and his mistress Juliette Drouet) and relatives. There are also a few manuscripts, page proofs, photographs, engravings and one watercolour from Hugo.

Related Material

There is another letter from Hugo in the Gaskell collection (Ms.730/46). There is also a link with the smaller collection of Alexandre Dumas, another famous French writer and friend of Victor Hugo.


The biographies of Hugo's correspondents were written by using some biographical guides, such as the databases: Léonore on the Legion of Honour, Sycomore on the French members of Parliament,> on Hugo's mistress, and medias19 on journalists. Many biographies of actors can be found in Henri Lyonnet, Dictionnaire des comédiens français Genève, Bibliothèque de la Revue universelle internationale illustrée, (n.d.) .