Victor Hugo, one of the greatest writers France has ever known, came to symbolise the struggle of the individual for justice and freedom.
Country of Origin: France
Country of Asylum: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Country of Transit: Channel Islands, United Kingdom
Date of birth: 26 February 1802
Hugo was already revered and honoured as a great poet when the future Napoleon III overthrew the Second French Republic in 1851. However, he had also become active in the political arena and was forced to leave the country. He was left with no choice, although he observed ruefully, “One does not even have the satisfaction of being oppressed by something great.”
He fled to Belgium, only to be turned away. For a while he considered heading for Switzerland, but instead decided on the Channel Islands, just off the French coast. “Jersey smiles, a free land amidst sombre seas,” he wrote. “I am in exile and I am happy to be here,” he admitted. “I love everything that suffers for freedom, for the fatherland and for justice; and I have peace of mind, even though it is always painful to tread on foreign soil.”
The first works of this period, “Napoléon le petit” (1852) and “Châtiments” (1853), reflect bitterness and anger. The French government put pressure on the British not to allow the publication of anything that would jeopardise relations between the two countries. In October 1855, one of Hugo’s friends issued a strongly-worded pamphlet attacking Queen Victoria. Hugo and a number of his associates were transferred to the smaller island of Guernsey, where Hugo was to spend nearly 15 years.
The poet threw himself into the purchase and restoration of a large, supposedly haunted house known as Hauteville House, where he installed himself and his family. The local Gazette, delighted by his fondness for the region, wrote, “The poet is content in our midst, and intends to stay.” From this point on, he considered himself a landowner and, according to British law, was protected from further expulsion.
Having completed “Contemplations” (1856), he turned to the first series of “La Légende des siècles”, and completed and published one of his most famous works, “Les Misérables”. In 1865, he wrote “Chansons des rues et des bois”, and then a year later “Les Travailleurs de la mer”.
On returning from his Italian campaign, Napoleon III offered an amnesty for all individuals condemned for political crimes and offences, to which the poet proudly retorted: “When freedom returns, I shall return.”
Hugo made several trips through Europe, where he was acclaimed as a genius. Rebel Greeks from Crete, republicans from Sicily and condemned Fenians in Ireland all requested him to raise his voice in defence of their causes. He became a pacifist and an internationalist, proposed a United States of Europe, and noted that in England, “the British newspapers are starting to refer to me as ‘the great, good man'”.
With the fall of the Empire, brought about by the Franco-Prussian war, Hugo finally saw Paris again. Upon his arrival at the station he was greeted with shouts of enthusiasm. “I said to the people, ‘In one hour you have repaid 20 years of exile.'” Thronging the streets of the capital the crowds sang the Marseillaise and shouted, “Long live Victor Hugo!”