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.