Graham Robb specializes in French literature of the nineteenth century. He has published extensively on such important French poets as Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, and his biography of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac was published in 1994.
Near the end of this excellent biography, Robb quotes from an 1885 obituary notice on Victor Hugo that assured English readers that “to understand Victor Hugo’s life is to understand the nineteenth century.” Although this remark is somewhat hyperbolic, it is, nevertheless, insightful because Hugo lived through profound political and social changes that transformed France from an authoritarian regime under the dictatorship of Napoleon I into a democratic state.
In his introduction, Robb indicates that he had spent four years reading both primary and secondary works on Hugo. The solidity of Robb’s research is impressive; his bibliography alone fills thirty pages. He examined not only Hugo’s complete works and scholarly studies on his writings but also numerous works on his life by his contemporaries. It is difficult to imagine a more thorough and better researched biography of Hugo. Robb’s book examines Hugo’s life in a strictly chronological order but does not attempt to analyze his literary significance and originality. Robb’s image of Hugo is not entirely positive. He readily admits that Hugo was a brilliant poet, playwright, and novelist and an important social commentator, but he suggests that Hugo was often psychologically unstable and terrified by his family history of madness. Both his brother Eugène and his second daughter Adèle became schizophrenic and were committed to psychiatric asylums, and Hugo himself sometimes behaved very strangely.
In 1843, his first daughter Léopoldine drowned in a boating accident with her husband Charles Vacquerie. A decade later, Hugo’s grief was still so severe that he resorted to nightly séances, which his remaining family attended. He became convinced that the movement of tables enabled him to communicate not only with his dead daughter but also with many famous dead writers. During the daytime, he dealt with his grief by composing the exquisite poems of mourning that he published in 1856 under the title of Les Contemplations (Contemplations). Long after Hugo’s death in 1885, these eloquent and very personal poems continue to help readers to deal with their grief following the deaths of family members. His delusional belief in “talking tables” enabled Hugo to cope with his daughter’s death. His second daughter Adèle had moments of lucidity in her insane asylum. While she was a patient there, she wrote in a coded language a powerful diary that was not decoded until the 1960’s. For her as for her father, there were real links between madness and creativity.
Robb also describes the amazing evolution of Hugo from a conservative monarchist in the 1820’s into a social critic who criticized political and economic exploitation of workers by members of the ruling class. Robb is careful not to question the sincerity of the many changes in Hugo’s political and social beliefs. As France changed, so did Hugo. Throughout the 1820’s, Hugo composed poems in praise of the restored French kings. Readers of these poems may find it hard to imagine that Hugo and so many of his contemporaries placed such great hope in the ability of French kings to improve the lives of ordinary people in France, but it should be remembered that the French Revolution and the many years of the Napoleonic Wars had reduced French people to poverty and made them cynical about recent political changes. Many French writers, including the novelist Honoré de Balzac and the political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, shared Hugo’s belief that the political and social order restored to France by kings in the 1820’s, 1830’s, and 1840’s represented a real improvement over the chaos of the French Revolution and the needless suffering caused by the...
(The entire section is 2,098 words.)