Victor was the third son of Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo, a major and, later, general in Napoleon’s army. As a child, he was constantly on the move as his father travelled with the imperial army, to Elba, for example, Naples or Madrid. His parents became increasingly estranged, his father loyal to successive governments and his mother a staunch royalist. Victor, often brought back to Paris by his mother, absorbed her royalist views. He was able to study for a while at the Pension Cordier and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, after which he entered the law faculty in Paris.
Hugo’s mother died in 1821, and the following year he published his first book of poems, Odes et poésies diverses, some of which displayed royalist sentiments and won him a pension from Louis XVIII. The new income allowed him to marry his childhood sweetheart, Adèle Foucher, with whom he went on to have five children, although the first died in infancy.
By 1824, Hugo was already associated with a group of Romantics, Cénacle, which was moving against the domination of classical literature. And, as he published further collections of poems, so these seemed to reflect a growing dispassion for his youthful royalist sentiments. He emerged, biographies say, as a true Romantic with his verse dramas Cromwell, in 1927, and Hernani in 1930. Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) brought him much wider fame and influence, and made him rich. Further poems (some glorifying Napoleon) and plays followed. In the early 1830s, he began a liaison with a young actress, Juliette Drouet, who remained his secretary and discreet companion for the rest of his life.
Hugo’s literary achievement was recognised in 1841 by his election to the Académie française, but, after the death of his daughter Léopoldine and her husband by drowning in 1843, his creative energy seemed to fade in favour of political interest (a change that affected other Romantic figures who were becoming more concerned about social issues than beautiful art). He was nominated in 1845 to the upper house of the French parliament (Chamber of Peers) but this was disbanded following the Revolution of 1848 and the creation of the Second Republic.
After Napoleon III’s coup d’état against the Second Republic in 1851, Hugo went into exile, first in Brussels briefly, then in the Channel Islands, Jersey (1852–1855) and Guernsey from 1855. During this period, he finally published, in 1862, Les Misérables, a work which had taken more than a decade to write, but which would go on to become one of the most famous of French novels, and one of the greatest 19th century novels in any language.
Although Napoleon III proclaimed a general amnesty in 1859, and Hugo could have returned to France, he stayed in exile, only returning when Napoleon III was forced from power in 1870. He lived again in Guernsey from 1872 to 1873, before finally returning to France. His last years, with Juliette in Paris, were rather sad, partly because of illness and the loss of two sons. He died on 22 May 1855, and was given a hero’s funeral. Further information is available online at Wikipedia, Famous People, CliffsNotes, Notable Biographies, etc.
Excerpts from Hugo’s diaries were first issued along with other essays and random jottings in two series (1887 and 1900) in the original French under the title Choses vues, and soon translated into English as Things Seen. Further editions followed, including a fresh translation by David Kimber in a 1964 Oxford University Press edition. Some extracts from Things Seen can be found at Victor Hugo Central, but the full text of an English version, by The Colonial Press Co., can also be read at Internet Archive.
Joanna Richardson concludes her introduction to Oxford University Press’s edition as follows: ‘But perhaps Things Seen is best considered as a web into which Hugo has drawn ‘all the gilded and glittering flies’ [a quote from Hugo himself] of contemporary history. It is a far slighter work than the Goncourt Journal [see The Diary Review]; it lacks the Goncourts’ malice and wit, and it cannot for a moment compete with the Journal as a record of the social and intellectual scene. But for all its limitations, and whether or not it opens a window on to infinity, Things Seen remains one of the few examples in French literature of sporadic observations that are literary works in their own right. These random jottings have become a classic.’
The following is most of the text from one chapter in Things Seen, entitled Diary of a Passer-by During the Riot of Twelfth of May.
12 May 1839
‘At three o’clock I return to my study.
My little daughter, in a state of excitement, opens my door and says, “Papa, do you know what is going on? There is fighting at the Pont Saint-Michel.”
I do not believe a word of it. Fresh details. A cook in our house and a neighbouring wine-shop keeper have seen the occurrence. I ask the cook to come up. It is true; while passing along the Quai des Orfèvres he saw a throng of young men firing musket-shots at the Prefecture of Police. A bullet struck the parapet near him. From there the assailants ran to the Place du Châtelet and to the Hôtel de Ville, still firing. They set out from the Morgue, which the good fellow calls the Morne.
Poor young fools! In less than twenty-four hours a large number of those who set out from there will have returned there.
Firing is heard. The houses are in turmoil. Doors and casements open and shut violently. The women-servants chat and laugh at the windows. It is said that the insurrection has spread to the Porte Saint-Martin. I go out and follow the line of the boulevards. The weather is fine; there are crowds of promenaders in their Sunday dress. Drums beat to arms.
At the beginning of the Hue du Pont-aux-Choux are some groups of people looking in the direction of the Rue de l’Oseille. There are a great crowd and a great uproar close to an old fountain which can be seen from the boulevard, and which forms the angle of an open space in the old Rue du Temple. [. . .]
Upon the Boulevard du Temple the cafés are closing. The Cirque Olympique is also closing. The Gaîté holds out, and will give a performance.
The crowd of promenaders becomes greater at each step. Many women and children. Three drummers of the National Guard - old soldiers, with solemn mien - pass by, beating to arms. The fountain of the Château d’Eau suddenly throws up its grand holiday streams. At the back, in the low-lying street, the great railings and doorway of the Town Hall of the 5th Arrondissement are closed one inside the other. I notice in the door little loop-holes for muskets.
Nothing at the Porte Saint-Martin, but a large crowd peacefully moving about across regiments of infantry and cavalry stationed between the two gate-ways. The Porte Saint-Martin Theatre closes its box-office. The bills are being taken down, on which I see the words Marie Tudor. The omnibuses are running.
Throughout this journey I have not heard any firing, but the crowd and vehicles make a great noise.
I return to the Marais. In the old Rue du Temple the women, in a state of excitement, gossip at the doorways. Here are the details. The riot spread throughout the neighbourhood. Towards three o’clock two or three hundred young men, poorly armed, suddenly broke into the Town Hall of the 7th Arrondissement, disarmed the guard, and took the muskets. Thence they ran to the Hôtel de Ville and performed the same freak. As they entered the guard-room they gaily embraced the officer. When they had the Hôtel de Ville, what was to be done with it? They went away and left it. If they had France, would they be less embarrassed with it than they were with the Hôtel de Ville? There are among them many boys, fourteen or fifteen years old. Some do not know how to load their muskets; others cannot carry them. One of those who fired in the Rue de Paradis fell upon his hind-quarters after the shot. Two drummers killed at the head of their columns, are placed in the Royal Printing Establishment, of which the principal doorway is shut. At this moment barricades are being made in the Rue des Quatre Fils, at the corner of all the little Rues de Bretagne, de Poitou, de Touraine, and there are groups of persons listening. A grenadier of the National Guard passes by in uniform, his musket upon his back, looking about him with an uneasy look. It is seven o’clock; from my balcony in the Place Royale platoon-firing is heard.’
12 May 1839, 8 pm
‘I follow the boulevards as far as the Madeleine. They are covered with troops. National Guards march at the head of all the patrols. The Sunday promenaders intermingle with all this infantry, all this cavalry. At intervals a cordon of soldiers quietly empty the crowd from one side of the boulevard to the other. There is a performance at the Vaudeville.’
13 May 1839, 1 am
‘The boulevards are deserted. There remain only the regiments, who bivouac at short distances apart. Coming back, I passed through the little streets of the Marais. All is quiet and gloomy. The old Rue du Temple is as black as a furnace. The lanterns there have been smashed.
The Place Royale is a camp. There are four great fires before the Town Hall, round which the soldiers chat and laugh, seated upon their knapsacks. The flames carve a black silhouette of some, and cast a glow upon the faces of the others. The green, fresh leaves of the spring trees rustle merrily above the braziers.
I had a letter to post. I took some precautions in the matter, for everything looks suspicious in the eyes of these worthy National Guards. I recollect that at the period of the riots of April, 1834, I passed by a guard-house of the National Guard with a volume of the works of the Duke de Saint-Simon. I was pointed out as a Saint-Simonian, and narrowly escaped being murdered.
Just as I was going in-doors again, a squadron of hussars, held in reserve all day in the courtyard of the Town Hall, suddenly issued forth and filed past me at a gallop, going in the direction of the Rue Saint-Antoine. As I went upstairs I heard the horses’ foot-falls retreating in the distance.’
13 May 1839, 8 am
‘Several companies of the National Guard have come and joined the Line regiments encamped in the Place Royale.
A number of men in blouses walk about among the National Guard, observed and observing with an anxious look. An omnibus comes out upon the Rue du Pas-de-la-Mule. It is made to go back. Just now my floor-polisher, leaning upon his broom, said, “Whose side shall I be on?” He added a moment afterwards, “What a filthy government this is! I have thirty francs owing to me, and cannot get anything out of the people!”
The drums beat to arms.
I breakfast as I read the papers. M. Duflot arrives. He was yesterday at the Tuileries. It was at the Sunday reception: the king appeared fatigued, the queen was low-spirited. Then he went for a walk about Paris. He saw in the Rue du Grand-Hurleur a man who had been killed - a workman - stretched upon the ground in his Sunday clothing, his forehead pierced by a bullet. It was evening. By his side was a lighted candle. The dead man had rings on his fingers and his watch in his fob-pocket, from which issued a great bunch of trinkets.
Yesterday, at half-past three o’clock, at the first musket-shots, the king sent for Marshal Soult, and said to him, “Marshal, the waters become troubled. Some ministers must be fished up.”
An hour afterwards the marshal came to the king, and said, as he rubbed his hands, in his Southern accent, “This time, Sire, I think we shall manage the business.”
There is, in fact, a ministry this morning in the “Moniteur.” ’
13 May 1839, 12 midday
‘I go out. Firing can be heard in the Rue Saint-Louis. The men in blouses have been turned out of the Place Royale, and now only those persons who live there are allowed to enter the street The rioting is in the Rue Saint-Louis. It is feared that the insurgents will penetrate one by one to the Place Royale, and fire upon the troops from behind the pillars of the arcades.
Two hundred and twelve years, two months and two days ago to-day, Beuvron, Bussy d’Amboise, and Buquet, on the one hand, and Boutteville, Deschapelles, and Laberthe, on the other, fought to the death with swords and daggers, in broad daylight, at this same time and in this same Place Royale. [. . .]
The approaches to the Place Royale are deserted. The firing continues, very sustained, and very close at hand.
In the Rue Saint-Gilles, before the door of the house occupied in 1784 by the famous Countess Lamothe-Valois, of the Diamond Necklace affair, a Municipal Guard bars my passage.
I reach the Rue Saint-Louis by the Rue des Douze-Portes. The Rue Saint-Louis has a singular appearance. At one of the ends can be seen a company of soldiers, who block up the whole street and advance slowly, pointing their muskets. I am hemmed in by people running away in every direction. A young man has just been killed at the corner of the Rue des Douze-Portes.
It is impossible to go any farther. I return in the direction of the boulevard.
At the corner of the Rue du Harlay there is a cordon of National Guards. One of them, who wears the blue ribbon of July, stops me suddenly. “You cannot pass!” And then his voice suddenly became milder: “Really, I do not advise you to go that way, sir.” I raise my eyes; it is my floor-polisher.
I proceed farther.
I arrive in the Rue Saint-Claude. I have only gone forward a few steps when I see all the foot-passengers hurrying. A company of infantry has just appeared at the end of the street, near the church. Two old women, one of whom carries a mattress, utter exclamations of terror. I continue to make my way towards the soldiers, who bar the end of the street. Some young scamps in blouses are bolting in every direction near me. Suddenly the soldiers bring down their muskets and present them. I have only just time to jump behind a street-post, which protects, at all events, my legs. I am fired upon. No one falls in the streets. I make towards the soldiers, waving my hat, that they may not fire again. As I come close up to them they open their ranks for me, I pass, and not a word is exchanged between us.
The Rue Saint-Louis is deserted. It has the appearance which it presents at four o’clock in the morning in summer: shops shut, windows shut, no one about, broad daylight. In the Rue du Roi-Doré the neighbours chat at their doorways. Two horses, unharnessed from some cart, of which a barricade has been made, pass up the Rue Saint-Jean-Saint-François, followed by a bewildered carter. A large body of National Guards and troops of the Line appear to be in ambush at the end of the Rue Saint-Anastase. I make inquiries. About half an hour ago seven or eight young workmen came there, dragging muskets, which they hardly knew how to load. They were youths of fourteen or fifteen years of age. They silently prepared their arms in the midst of the people of the neighbourhood and the passers-by, who looked on as they did so, then they broke into a house where there were only an old woman and a little child. There they sustained a siege of a few moments. The firing in my direction was aimed at some of them who were running away up the Rue Saint-Claude.
All the shops are closed, except the wine-shop where the insurgents drank, and where the National Guard are drinking.’
13 May 1839, 3 pm
‘I have just explored the boulevards. They are covered with people and soldiers. Platoon-firing is heard in the Rue Saint-Martin. Before the windows of Fieschi I saw a lieutenant-general, in full uniform, pass by, surrounded by officers and followed by a squadron of very fine dragoons, sabre in hand. There is a sort of camp at the Chateau d’Eau; the actresses of the Ambigu are on the balcony of their greenroom, looking on. No theatre on the boulevards will give a performance this evening.
All signs of disorder have disappeared in the Rue Saint-Louis. The rioting is concentrated in the great central markets. A National Guard said to me just now, “There are in the barricades over there more than four thousand of them.” I said nothing in reply to the worthy fellow. In moments like this all eyes are overflowing vessels.
[. . .] A man has just been killed in the Rue de la Perle. In the Rue des Trois-Pavillons I see some little girls playing at battledore and shuttlecock. In the Rue de l’Echarpe there is a laundryman in a fright, who says he has seen cannon go by. He counted eight.’
13 May 1839, 8 pm
‘The Marais remains tolerably quiet. I am informed that there are cannon in the Place de la Bastille. I proceed there, but cannot make out anything; the twilight is too deep. Several regiments stand in silent readiness, infantry and cavalry. A crowd assembles at the sight of the wagons from which supplies are distributed to the men. The soldiers make ready to bivouac. The unloading of the wood for the night-fires is heard.’
13 May 1839, 12 midnight
‘Complete battalions go the rounds upon the boulevards. The bivouacs are lighted up in all directions, and throw reflections as of a conflagration on the fronts of the houses. A man dressed as a woman has just passed rapidly by me, with a white hat and a very thick black veil, which completely hides his face. As the church clocks were striking twelve, I distinctly heard, amid the silence of the city, two very long and sustained reports of platoon-firing.
I listen as a long file of carts, making a heavy iron clatter, pass in the direction of the Rue du Temple. Are these cannon?’
14 May 1839, 9 am
‘I return home. I notice from a distance that the great bivouac fire lighted at the corner of the Rue Saint-Louis and the Rue de l’Echarpe has disappeared. As I approach I see a man stooping before the fountain and holding something under the water of the spout. I look. The man looks uneasy. I see that he is extinguishing at the fountain some half-burned logs of wood; then he loads them upon his shoulders and makes off. They are the last brands which the soldiers have left on the pavement on quitting their bivouacs. In fact, there is nothing left now but a few heaps of red ashes. The soldiers have returned to their barracks. The riot is at an end. It will at least have served to give warmth to a poor wretch in winter-time.’