MoboReader > Literature > Victor Hugo: His Life and Works

   Chapter 6 'NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS.'

Victor Hugo: His Life and Works By G. Barnett Smith Characters: 13730

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


There is a natural desire to know something of the personal aspect of men who have become great. What would the world give, for example, for a faithful account of the character, the appearance, the sayings, the habits of Shakespeare, written by a friend and a contemporary? In the case of Victor Hugo we fortunately have such a description from the pen of one of his most enthusiastic admirers, Théophile Gautier. The sketch represents the poet as he appeared at the time which we have now reached in his history, that is when he was about twenty-eight years of age.

Gautier was exceedingly nervous over his contemplated interview with Victor Hugo, and twice failed to summon up the necessary courage for the meeting. On the third occasion he found himself in the poet's study. All his prepared eloquence, we are told, at once vanished away; the long apostrophe of praise which he had spent whole evenings in composing came to nothing. He felt like Heine, who, when he was going to have an interview with Goethe, prepared an elaborate speech beforehand, but at the crucial moment could find nothing better to say to the author of Faust than that the plum-trees on the road between Jena and Weimar bore plums that were very nice when one was thirsty. But the Jupiter of German poetry was probably more flattered by his visitor's bewilderment than he would have been by the most glowing eulogium. Passing over Gautier's panegyrics, here is what he wrote concerning the person of Hugo: 'He was then twenty-eight years of age, and nothing about him was more striking than his forehead, that like a marble monument rose above his calm and earnest countenance: the beauty of that forehead was well-nigh superhuman; the deepest of thoughts might be written within, but it was capable of bearing the coronet of gold or the chaplet of laurel with all the dignity of a divinity or a C?sar. This splendid brow was set in a frame of rich chestnut hair that was allowed to grow to considerable length behind. His face was closely shaven, its peculiar paleness being relieved by the lustre of a pair of hazel eyes, keen as an eagle's. The curved lips betokened a firm determination, and when half opened in a smile, displayed a set of teeth of charming whiteness. His attire was neat and faultless, consisting of black frock-coat, grey trousers, and a small lay-down collar. Nothing in his appearance could ever have led anyone to suspect that this perfect gentleman was the leader of the rough-bearded, dishevelled set that was the terror of the smooth-faced bourgeoisie. Such was Victor Hugo. His image, as we saw it in that first interview, has never faded from our memory. It is a portrait that we cherish tenderly; its smiles, beaming with talent, continue with us, ever diffusing a clear and phosphorescent glory!'

In the year 1831 Victor Hugo published a work which, if he had written nothing else, would have given him a place amongst the immortal writers of France. This was his Notre-Dame de Paris, undertaken and produced under extraordinary circumstances. It was received with mixed favour by the critics, but at once made its way to the heart of the people. Any number of hostile reviews would have been insufficient to check the progress of so singular and powerful a work. The author had made an engagement to write this book for a publisher named Gosselin, and the latter now claimed the execution of the contract. The work was originally to have been ready by the close of 1829, but in July, 1830, it was not yet begun, and a new contract was prepared, under which it was to be completed by the ensuing December. Political events greatly disturbed the progress of the romance, and a further difficulty was created by the loss of manuscript notes which had taken two months to collect. In the removal of Hugo's books and manuscripts from the house in the Rue Jean Goujon to the Rue du Cherche-Midi, these valuable notes went astray. They were not recovered till some years afterwards, when they were incorporated in a later edition of the novel. A still further delay was granted by the publisher, in accordance with which the author was to complete the story by February, 1831, having just five months in which to accomplish the task.

Hugo set to work with marvellous energy, and some amusing details are given of the way in which he laboured with his romance. 'He bought a bottle of ink, and a thick piece of grey worsted knitting which enveloped him from the neck to the heels; he locked up his clothes, in order not to be tempted to go out, and worked at his novel as if in a prison. He was very melancholy.' It appears that he never left the writing-table except to eat and to sleep, and occasionally to read over some chapters to his friends. The book was finished on the 14th of January, and as the writer concluded his last line and his last drop of ink at the same moment, he thought of changing the title of the novel, and calling it 'The Contents of a Bottle of Ink.' This title, which was not thus used, however, was subsequently adopted by Alphonse Karr.

On being asked by his publisher for some descriptive notes upon the work, which might be useful in advertising it, Victor Hugo wrote: 'It is a representation of Paris in the fifteenth century, and of the fifteenth century in its relations to Paris. Louis XI. appears in one chapter, and the King is associated with, or practically decides, the dénouement. The book has no historical pretensions, unless they be those of painting with some care and accuracy-but entirely by sketches, and incidentally-the state of morals, creeds, laws, arts, and even civilization, in the fifteenth century. This is, however, not the most important part of the work. If it has a merit, it is in its being purely a work of imagination, caprice, and fancy.' Nevertheless, the author has underrated in certain respects the value of his own work. Powerful as it is from the imaginative point of view, it is no less remarkable for the way in which the writer has brought together a mass of historical and antiquarian lore. Its thoroughness and careful construction in regard to such details may be recommended to less accurate writers in the field of historical romance. Paris, with its myriad interests, is vividly represented by one to whom it had given up its past as well as its present. Whether we see life beneath the shadow of Notre-Dame, in the Cour des Miracles, the Place de Grève, the Palais de Justice, the Bastille or the Louvre, it is all the same-the master-hand has given life and vitality to all it has touched.

The gipsy girl Esmeralda, a fascinating creation, has been compared with the Fenella of Scott, the La Gitanilla of Cervantes, and the Mignon of Goethe. But she has a character of her own distinct from all of these. In her history the power of love is once more exemplified,

and if round her centres the finest pathos of the work, so also is she its noblest gleam of light and grace and beauty. It has been said that love makes the learned archdeacon forget his studies, his clerical character, his reputation for sanctity, to court the favours of a volatile Bohemian. 'Love for this same Parisian Fenella softens the human savage Quasimodo, the dumb one-eyed bell-ringer of Notre-Dame, and transforms him into a delicate monster, a devoted humble worshipper of the Bohemian. While she, who is the cynosure of neighbouring eyes, the object of adoration to these singular lovers, is herself hopelessly attached in turn to a giddy-pated captain of the guard, who can afford to love no one but himself.' In his grand and startling effects, the writer has been compared with the painter Martin. There is an almost unparalleled breadth, which gives the work a Rembrandtish effect in all the chief scenes. The siege of the cathedral by the banded beggars and vagabonds of Paris in the night is one not readily effaced from the memory; and this is equally true of the terrible interview between the infatuated monk and his victim in the filthy dungeons of the Palais de Justice; of the weird scene of the Fête de Fous in the Hall of the Palace; of the Alsatian picture of the examination and projected hanging of Gringoire among the thieves in the Cour des Miracles; of the execution of Esmeralda; and of the fearful fate of the impassioned monk.

The strange fatality attending upon mere passion is insisted on all through; it binds together in one miserable chain the priest who is prepared to sacrifice all that is sacred in duty for love, the heartless soldier, and the trusting maiden. As to the dramatis person?, the Athen?um, observed, 'No character can be more intimately identified with the genius of Victor Hugo than the interesting, generous, and high-minded gipsy girl Esmeralda. The character of Ph?bus de Chateaupers, the bold, reckless, gay, gallant, good-tempered, light-hearted, and faithless captain of gendarmerie, is also original, and wrought out with great skill. The Archdeacon Claude Frollo is a striking specimen of those churchmen of the fifteenth century who united the grossest superstition to the most consummate hypocrisy, and applied the influences of religion to acts of the blackest perfidy. There are many historical characters in this work, and, among others, our old acquaintances in Quentin Durward, Louis XI., Olivier-le-Daim, and the squinting Provost, Tristan l'Hermite.' In eloquence, in vigour, in animation, and in all the masterly pageantry of a bygone age, this work will continue to hold a unique position amongst symbolical and historical romances.

Notre-Dame was assailed by the majority of the Parisian journals, but in the minority warmly in its favour were to be found some of the first writers of the age. Touching the style of the work, Sainte-Beuve said, 'There is a magical facility and freedom in saying all that should be said; there is a striking keenness of observation, especially is there a profound knowledge of the populace, and a deep insight into man in his vanity, his emptiness, and his glory, whether he be mendicant, vagabond, savant, or sensualist. Moreover, there is an unexampled comprehension of form; an unrivalled expression of grace, material beauty, and greatness; and altogether a worthy presentment of an abiding and gigantic monument. Alike in the pretty prattlings of the nymph-like child, in the cravings of the she-wolf mother, and in the surging passion, almost reaching to delirium, that rages in a man's brain, there is the moulding and wielding of everything just at the author's will.' Alfred de Musset, while unable to take in the scope of the work, acknowledged that it was colossal. Jules Janin remarked that 'of all the works of the author it is pre-eminently that in which his fire of genius, his inflexible calmness, and his indomitable will are most conspicuous. What accumulation of misfortunes is piled up in these mournful pages! What a gathering together there is of ruinous passion and bewildering incident! All the foulness as well as all the faith of the Middle Ages are kneaded together with a trowel of gold and of iron. At the sound of the poet's voice all that was in ruins has risen to its fullest height, reanimated by his breath.... Victor Hugo has followed his vocation as poet and architect, as writer of history and romance; his pen has been guided alike by ancient chronicle and by his own personal genius; he has made all the bells of the great city to clang out their notes; and he has made every heart of the population, except that of Louis XI., to beat with life! Such is the book; it is a brilliant page of our history, which cannot fail to be a crowning glory in the career of its author.' Finally, Eugène Sue wrote: 'If the useless admiration of a barbarian like myself had the power to express and interpret itself in a manner worthy of the book which has inspired it, I should tell you, sir, that you are a great spendthrift; that your critics resemble those poor people on the fifth story, who, whilst gazing on the prodigalities of the great nobleman, would say to each other, with anger in their hearts, "I could live during my whole life on the money spent in a single day."'

The publisher had some doubts of the pecuniary success of the novel, but these speedily disappeared, as edition after edition was called for. In the course of a year only, eight large editions had been disposed of, and the number of editions which have been issued since that time may be described as legion. From thinking, as he did originally, that he had made a bad bargain, M. Gosselin soon had reason to arrive at the conclusion that he had made a remarkably good one. Together with other publishers, he now pestered the author continually for more novels. Hugo protested that he had none to give them; but wearied at length by their importunities he furnished the titles of two stories he proposed to write, which were to be called the Fils de la Bossue and La Quinquengrogne. The latter name was the popular designation of one of the towers of Bourbon l'Aschembault, and in the novel the author intended to complete the account of his views concerning the art of the Middle Ages. Notre-Dame was the cathedral, La Quinquengrogne was to be the dungeon.

Victor Hugo wrote at this time his admirable descriptive work Le Rhin-a work full of learning, vivacity, and humour-but he never proceeded with the two projected novels. Notre-Dame remained for many years the only romance in which the author revealed his marvellous power of moulding human sympathies, of throwing into imaginative conceptions the very form and substance of being, and of realizing a dead-past age as though it were that of the actual and the living.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares