Victor Hugo, one of France’s most revered and richly rewarded writers, insisted on being buried in a pauper’s plain coffin, which was first placed to lie in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe, then, as two million people watched, transported by mule cart to the Panthéon for burial next to Voltaire. Although he practiced Catholicism in his youth, Hugo specified in his will that he was to be buried without a crucifix or a priest, refusing “the orations of all churches.” He added, however, “I do believe in God.”
Born into a military family in Besançon on February 26, 1802, Hugo was the son of a major general in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. When Napoleon was ousted, the family had to scratch for a living, and Hugo’s father sneered at his son’s desire to be a writer. “I shall prove to him,” Victor told his brother Abel, “that a poet can earn sums far greater than the wages of an imperial general.”
And so he did. Assiduously applying himself to his writing, he soon achieved fame and considerable income from his plays, political tracts, and novels—most notably Notre-Dame de Paris (a.k.a. The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Les Misérables (although, regrettably, he did not live long enough to enjoy the enormous royalties from the theatrical musical version of the latter). Although his works were sharply criticized by the Church (he counted 750 separate attacks on Les Misérables in the Catholic press), they became extremely popular with the public.
Hugo’s work schedule was rigorous. He began writing about 8:00 a.m. and continued until lunch about 2:00. He worked again from 4:00 until 8:00 p.m., when he would take a couple of hours to do some work-related reading, followed by a late dinner. “My colleagues spend their days sitting in cafes and talking about writing,” he remarked. “But I am not like them. I write. That is my secret. What I achieve is done by hard work, not through miracles.”
His commitment to hard work did not preclude some pleasures of the flesh. His “light” luncheon typically consisted of paté, omelet or fish, roast beef or lamb with potatoes and several other vegetables, salad, English pudding, cheese, and a different wine with each course. Dinner might include a dozen oysters, soup, fish, roast chicken, Beef Wellington, salad, and chocolate mousse, followed by a half-dozen oranges. He stayed in shape by finding time to walk a couple of hours every day.
Hugo was a political activist all his life. He served in the National Assembly and in the Senate, first as a conservative, but more liberal as he grew older. His opposition to Napoleon III, the first Napoleon’s nephew, who reigned from 1852 to 1870, sent Hugo into exile in the Channel Islands for fifteen years. His liberal instincts resulted in extraordinary generosity to those in need. It was estimated that as much as one-third of his income was devoted to private charity. Every other Sunday for years he served dinner to about fifty impoverished children in his neighborhood, and his diary is filled with notations of food, household items, and money given to the needy.
Hugo married Adèle Foucher when he was twenty, and they had five children. The eldest surviving child (and Hugo’s favorite), a daughter named Léopoldine drowned when she was nineteen along with her husband in a boating accident shortly after their marriage. Hugo was traveling with his mistress, Juliette Drouet, in the south of France at the time, and he learned of his daughter’s death in a newspaper he was reading in a café.
Other tragedies befell him: in 1868 his wife died, and four years later Hugo had a stroke, and his daughter Adèle was confined to an insane asylum, followed shortly by the death of both his sons. His beloved Juliette died of cancer in 1883, and Hugo remained depressed for the next two years until his own death.
On May 15, 1884, Hugo caught a bad cold. It lingered for several days, with a hacking cough, high fever, and shortness of breath. It turned to pneumonia, and at 1:30 p.m. on May 22, Hugo died at the age of eighty-three.