As a novelist, poet, political activist, and painter, Victor Hugo was a central figure in the Romantic movement of 19th-century France. Both his family and his times influenced Hugo’s social views and politics, which included a deep concern with human rights, social injustice, and poverty as the root of evil. Born in Besancon, France, in 1802, Hugo grew up in the years of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire. In 1815 the empire collapsed at the battle of Waterloo, which Hugo describes in detail in Les Miserables, and a constitutional monarchy was established. Hugo’s father was a general in the Napoleonic army with republican sympathies while his middle-class mother had royalist leanings. The young Hugo spent a large part of his childhood in Paris with his mother. He also traveled through Europe in his father’s wake and glimpsed the Napoleonic campaigns. After attending school in Paris, he married his childhood love, Adele Foucher, in 1822.
In that same year, Hugo published his first volume of poetry, the beginning of a long and diverse literary career that also included drama and novels. He was acquainted with many major figures on the intellectual and artistic scene. His political convictions changed over time as various French governments rose and fell, however his belief in human rights was consistent. In a letter to a friend describing why he wrote Les Miserables, Hugo said: If the radical is the ideal, yes, I am a radical…. A society which admits poverty, a religion which admits hell, a humanity which sanctions war, seem to me an inferior society, an inferior religion and humanity, and it is towards the higher society, the higher humanity and religion that I turn: society without a king, humanity without frontiers, religion without a book…. I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Miserables.
The 1840s to the 1860s were an active time for the writer. He was elected to the Academie Francaise in 1841 and to the peerage in 1845 in recognition of his literary achievements. The late 1840s marked a period of serious political involvement for Hugo. He spoke up in the Chamber of Peers, criticizing the legal system and the treatment of the poor, themes to which he returned in Les Miserables. Disillusioned with monarchism, he publicly espoused republicanism and participated in the revolution of 1848. These experiences gave him firsthand knowledge of what barricade fighting was like, which he used in the novel. Louis Napoleon, the elected president of the newly established republic, seized power in a coup d’etat in 1851. Hugo criticized the new ruler and ended up in exile, first in Belgium, then later on the Isle of Guernsey in the English Channel, where he remained until 1870. Here he wrote most of Les Miserables.
Les Miserables was first published in 1862, appearing simultaneously in cities across Europe. In spite of a mixed critical reaction, the novel, with its championing of the poor and disenfranchised, was an immediate popular success in France and abroad. It sealed Hugo’s reputation as a legend.
Upon his return to France in 1870, Hugo received a hero’s welcome. He continued to write for the rest of his life, but abstained from politics. After his death in 1885, Victor Hugo lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and was buried in the Pantheon, in the heart of his beloved city, Paris.