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   Chapter 2 EARLY YEARS.

Victor Hugo: His Life and Works By G. Barnett Smith Characters: 18489

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The glory of France touched its zenith at the period when our narrative opens. Europe virtually lay at the feet of Napoleon, who had risen to a height of authority and power which might well have satisfied the most vaulting ambition. Nations whose records extended back into the ages of antiquity trembled before him; and only one people, that of this sea-girt isle of Britain, declined to bend the knee to the all-conquering First Consul. Yet the philosophic mind, reflecting that the stability of a nation or a throne must be measured by its growth, must surely have distrusted the permanence of a grandeur and a greatness thus rapidly achieved. And speedily would such prevision have been justified, for in little more than one brief decade the sun of Napoleon set as suddenly as it arose.

But while as yet the fame and the splendour of the conqueror were in their noonday, there was born at Besan?on another child of genius, whose triumphs were to be won in a different and a nobler sphere. He was destined to touch, as with Ithuriel's spear, the sleeping spirit of French poesy, and to animate it with new life, vigour, and enthusiasm; he was to recall the divine muse from the drear region of classicism, and, by revivifying almost every branch of imaginative literature, he was himself to gain the triple crown of poet, romancist, and dramatist. And not alone for this was the child Victor Hugo to grow into manhood and venerable age. He was to become a great apostle of liberty, and as his life opened with the triumphs of the first Napoleon, so before its close he was destined to behold the last of that name pass away in the whirlwind, and France recover much of her prosperity and her power under the ?gis of the Republic, of which the poet sang and for which he laboured.

The ancestry of Victor Hugo were not undistinguished. Documents concerning them before the fifteenth century were lost in the pillage of Nancy, but since that time a clear genealogy is claimed. There was one Hugo, a soldier, who obtained in 1535 letters patent of nobility for himself and his descendants from Cardinal Jean de Lorraine, Archbishop of Rheims, which letters were subsequently confirmed by the Cardinal's brother, Antoine, Duke of Lorraine. The fifth descendant from this warrior-noble, Charles Hyacinthe Hugo, obtained new letters patent; and his grandson, Joseph Leopold Sigisbert, was the father of the poet. In the seventeenth century, a member of the Hugo family was known both in the Church and in literature, and became Abbé of Estival and Bishop of Ptolemais. Another who lived in the eighteenth century, Louis Antoine Hugo, was a member of the Convention, and was executed for moderatism. Thus in career, as in character, there was much variety in the Hugo family.

Sigisbert Hugo, who entered the army as a cadet in 1788, ultimately attained the rank of General under the First Empire. Although the hereditary title of Count was the appanage of this rank, he never took it up. While brave and fearless in war, he is represented as being devotion and goodness personified, and humane to a fault. 'He set his children a fine example of duty, being ever their instructor in the paths of honour.' During a period of military service at Nantes, he became acquainted with Sophie Trébuchet, the daughter of a wealthy shipowner. An attachment soon sprang up between them, and they were married in Paris, Hugo having been summoned thither as reporter to the first council of war on the Seine.

Though the grandfather of Victor Hugo on the maternal side was engaged in commerce, he belonged to an old family, and one famous in La Vendée for its devotion to the Royalist cause. A cousin of Madame Hugo was the Count de Chasseb?uf, better known as Volney, the author of Les Ruines; and another cousin was Count Cornet, who was very prominent in political matters both before and during the First Empire. Two sons were born to Major Hugo and his wife, and then they looked forward with hope to the birth of a daughter, whom it was decided to name Victorine. Another son, however, came instead, and one so weakly and diminutive that the accoucheur declared strongly against his chances of life. The babe was taken to the mairie at Besan?on, and registered as having been born on the 26th of February, 1802. He received the names of Victor Marie Hugo, and his godfather was Major Hugo's intimate friend, General Lahorie, chief of the staff to General Moreau. It has been pointed out that the word Hugo in old German was the equivalent of the Latin word spiritus, and this fact, combined with the Christian name of Victor, caused Dumas the elder to say that 'the name of Victor Hugo stands forth as the conquering spirit, the triumphant soul, the breath of victory.'

But for some time there could be little presage of triumph or victory in connection with Victor Hugo. Languid and ailing in body, he became unusually sad for a child of such tender years, and 'was sometimes discovered in a corner, weeping silently without any reason.' He afterwards described his untoward childhood in the opening lines of the Feuilles d'Automne. For some time the Hugo family accompanied its head in his military journeyings; but when Major Hugo was ultimately ordered to join the army of Italy, he settled his wife and their three young children in Paris, in the Rue de Clichy. That the youngest scion of the house could not really have been as feeble and frail as he looked, and that he must have had the basis of a good, sound constitution, is proved by his long life; but we must not forget also in this regard the great care and assiduous attention lavished upon him by his mother. His career furnishes another illustration of the truth that while the most glorious promise sometimes sets in gloom and premature death, on the other hand genius also not infrequently advances from the wavering spark to a noble flame, and out of weakness is made strength.

Major (afterwards General) Hugo rendered conspicuous service in Italy by the capture of the notorious bandit chief, Fra Diavolo, and the pacification of Naples. For these acts he was made Colonel of Royal Corsica and Governor of Avellino. When not quite five years old Victor was taken by his mother, with his brothers, Abel and Eugène, to Avellino, and the journey to Italy is associated with his first observations of natural scenery. Though so young, his imagination was fired by all he saw, and the impressions he formed were very distinct-so much so that in after life he would discuss with Alexandre Dumas the aspects of the country through which he had travelled in his childhood.

In 1808 Colonel Hugo was sent to Madrid in the train of Joseph Bonaparte; but, as Spain was disturbed by war, he would not hazard the presence of his wife and children in that country. Madame Hugo accordingly went to Paris, and established herself at the house No. 12, in the Impasse des Feuillantines, where she now devoted herself to the education of her children. Late in life, Victor Hugo described the household in the Feuillantines. Near by there was an aged priest, who acted as tutor to the boys, teaching them a good deal of Latin, a smattering of Greek, and the barest outlines of history. In the gardens, and amid the ruins of an old convent in the grounds, the Hugo boys passed many happy days. 'Together in their work and in their play, rough-hewing their lives regardless of destiny, they passed their time as children of the spring, mindful only of their books, of the trees, and of the clouds, listening to the tumultuous chorus of the birds, but watched over incessantly by one sweet and loving smile.' 'Blessings on thee, O my mother!' was the invocation of the poet in his later years.

Once the family received an accession in the person of General Lahorie, who had been connected with Moreau's conspiracy, and was condemned to death for contumacy. Madame Hugo, in her secluded dwelling, and in a little chapel buried amongst the foliage, gave him a secure shelter for eighteen months. Young Victor did not then know that the stranger in whom he took so deep an interest, and in whom he begat an equal interest, was his godfather. Lahorie took kindly to the boy, and frequently conversed with him, saying to him on one occasion with great impressiveness, 'Child, everything must yield to liberty!' The precautions of Lahorie and his friends were in the end of no avail. In 1811 he was arrested at the Feuillantines, tried and condemned by court-martial, and shot on the plain of Grenelle. Napoleon was implacable in his revenge; his wrath might sleep, but it was never allowed to die.

Another visitor to the Feuillantines was General Louis Hugo, uncle to the youths. With that strong poetic imagery which characterized him, little Victor said that the entrance of his uncle into the salon 'had on us the effect of the Archangel Michael appearing on a beam of light.' The visitor came at the request of his brother to hasten the departure of the family for Spain. The boys Hugo were informed by their mother that they must learn Spanish, and just as they would have performed much more impossible feats under such a command, they acquired the language in the course of a few


In the spring of 1811, Madame Hugo and her children began their journey into Spain. At Bayonne they had to await a convoy for Madrid. Here the travellers paid several visits to the theatre, which made a deep impression upon Victor, yet one which, while more lasting perhaps, was not so deep as that made by the little daughter of a widow, who seems to have quite captivated the boy. He afterwards referred to this attachment as bearing the same relation to love that the light of dawn bears to the full blaze of day. But he never saw again the youthful inamorata who stirred 'the first cry of the awakening heart.'

The dilatory progress of the convoy to Madrid, though irksome to Madame Hugo, was not so to her youngest son. He delighted in observing the features of the scenery and the towns through which they passed. With Ernani he was especially pleased, and subsequently gave to one of his dramas the name of this town. After a number of adventures, some of them of a trying character, the convoy entered Madrid, and Madame Hugo and her family were accommodated at the palace of Prince Masserano. Their rooms and all the appointments were very sumptuous, and there was a great display of Bohemian and Venetian glass and magnificent China vases. Concerning the latter, Victor Hugo said that he had 'never since met with any so remarkable.' Victor's eldest brother, Abel, was made a page to King Joseph, and it was intended that Victor himself should follow his example. Meanwhile Eugène and Victor were placed in the Seminary of Nobles, a proceeding which affected them deeply, and made them inexpressibly miserable after the happiness they had found in the Masserano Palace.

But great and dire events were impending in Napoleonic history. By the beginning of the year 1812 the position of French affairs generally became so threatening that General Hugo decided to send his wife and the two younger children back to Paris. Not many months elapsed before his prescience was justified. Bonaparte's army was decimated by the inclement snows of Russia after the burning of Moscow, and the kings he had set up in the European capitals began to tremble for the stability of their thrones.

Madame Hugo and her two sons safely reached Paris after a tedious journey, and once more established themselves in the Feuillantines. The biographical work written by the poet's wife shows that Madame Hugo had liberal ideas on the subject of education: that where religion was in question she was averse to forcing any particular persuasion on her sons, or to interfere with their natural tendencies; neither did she wish to tax their intelligence any more than their consciences. In the matter of reading she was equally liberal: the boys were allowed the greatest freedom, and read Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and other authors; but the works of such writers paled in comparison with Captain Cook's travels, which had a great fascination for the young students. Madame Hugo judged that any errors her sons were likely to imbibe in their wide and catholic reading would be rendered innocuous by the influence of a good example and the purity of the home life. She restrained them by her authority, and, while attending to their mental and moral development, she did not neglect the physical. She desired them to grow up healthy and complete in mind and body alike.

The troubles in Spain thickened apace, and King Joseph left Madrid, being followed by General Hugo. The victory of the Allies at Vittoria practically settled the fate of Joseph Bonaparte and the Spanish crown. The King dismissed his retinue of officers and retired into private life, and General Hugo returned to Paris with his son Abel. Madame Hugo and the other children had moved into the Rue du Cherche-Midi. Having herself been an invader, it was now the turn of France to be invaded. General Hugo was no favourite with the Emperor (who had not forgotten the Moreau conspiracy), but when his country was in danger he could not remain inactive. So he volunteered, and went into the provinces, where he rendered conspicuous service. He long held Thionville, keeping the Allies at bay, and refused to open the town until he received official despatches from his General-in-Chief announcing the cessation of hostilities. The restoration of the Bourbons followed, and, although this was hailed with great joy by Madame Hugo, it led to General Hugo being deprived of his command and removed from active employment, together with all the officers who had shared in the defence of Thionville.

Eugène and Victor Hugo now lost the liberty they had for some time enjoyed, and were sent to school, being placed in the Collége Cordier et Decotte, in the Rue Ste. Marguerite. At first the removal was especially bitter to Victor, as it separated him from Adèle Foucher, a young girl who had completely won his youthful heart. This love continued to grow from its inception in the Rue du Cherche-Midi till the time when Adèle became his devoted wife, and returned Victor Hugo's affection with an ardour equal to his own.

The Hugo boys were naturally the subject of a cross-fire in regard to politics. Their father was devoted to the Empire, and their mother was equally devoted to the Royalists. But as the influence of a mother always has priority in regard to time, Victor Hugo was for a season enthusiastic about royalty. He could not, with his warm temperament and lively imagination, be half-hearted about anything. Nor need it surprise us that he yielded first to the influence of his mother as regarded the Bourbons, and then to that of his father as regarded the Bonapartes. In youth it is the imagination which is developed; the judgment is formed by slow stages. It would have surprised us more if Victor Hugo had not shown himself amenable to the potent influences of his home training. His father and mother were of no ordinary type; they had both great latent force of nature and character, which deeply impressed itself upon their children. In estimating the career of Victor Hugo, then, with its later changes of opinion, the circumstances which surrounded his early years, and greatly assisted in moulding his character, must not be forgotten.

Early in 1815 Paris was electrified by the news that Napoleon had returned from Elba. For a brief period the magic of his name once more exercised a profound influence; and under this revival of Bonapartist prospects General Hugo was again despatched to take the command of Thionville. He exhibited the same capacity and spirit as before, but all was of no avail. The crowning disaster of Waterloo extinguished the hopes of the Bonapartists, and Napoleon fell, 'like Lucifer, never to rise again.'

It is matter for regret that the differences between General and Madame Hugo on the subject of politics and dynasties led to a separation between them, though one that was mutually desired. Each felt too strongly on these subjects to give way, and thereby stultify his or her convictions. But political disagreements did not affect the deep interest of both parents in their children. The boys made great progress at school, and also attended courses of lectures in physics, philosophy, and mathematics at the Collége Louis-le-Grand. Their proficiency was especially marked in mathematics, and it obtained for both honourable mention in the examinations.

Poetry, however, even thus early, was the real mistress of Victor Hugo. His tentative efforts in this direction were as varied as they were numerous, and he has left an amusing record of his first wooings of the Muse. He alternated fights at the college (he and Eugène were the kings of the school) with flights of the imagination. Nothing came amiss to him, whether ode, satire, epistle, lyric, tragedy, elegy, etc.; and he imitated Ossian and translated from Virgil, Horace, and Lucan at an age when others only just begin to acquire an appreciation and understanding of those authors. Nor were such writers as Martial and Ausonius unknown to him. Then from poetry he would turn to romances, fables, stories, epigrams, madrigals, logographs, acrostics, charades, enigmas, and impromptus; and he even wrote a comic opera.

In one of these youthful pieces he deprecated the exercise of the reader's satirical rage over the effusion; and certainly the chief impression which these initial attempts at composition leave upon the reader is not a critical one founded upon their manifest crudity and inconsequences of thought, but one of surprise at the exuberance of fancy and command of expression so soon and so singularly displayed. There was more than sufficient in them to the observant eye to foreshadow the genius which their author afterwards developed. Each of these poems was an effort of the imagination after strength of wing. But of all those who perused these early poetic efforts, Madame Hugo was probably the only one able to gauge the great promise of the writer. She could not but anticipate much from that genius which was just essaying to unfold itself in the sun. Yet even she could not fully foresee the magnificent, eagle-like flights of which these imaginings were but the first faint flutterings of the eaglet's wing.

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