Day 295 of Colourisation Project – February 26
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
One of the pillars of French Literature, Victor Marie Hugo, was born this day, 26 February 1802. Highly celebrated in France as one of that country’s greatest poets of the nineteenth century, he is better known as a novelist in English-speaking countries, famous for the acclaimed classics, Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862).
When the first two volumes of Les Misérables were released in Paris in 1862, all 6000 copies sold in a day. Countless editions were also sold on the black market. Soon it was translated into nine languages to reach a wider audience. An unprecedented literary bestseller, 100,000 copies had been sold worldwide within the first three months. It captured the imaginations of everyone from the literary intelligentsia down to the common people.
Les Misérables, a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit, endures to this day. There have been at least 48 films, 14 animated films or TV series, radio plays, 12 television miniseries, numerous comic books, and at least 286 editions of published, sung and spoken. Now in its 30th year, the stage musical in London’s West End ranks as its longest running musical.
Elected to the French Parliament as a conservative in 1848, he campaigned and advocated for universal suffrage and free education for all children. He was renowned internationally for his advocacy to abolish the death penalty.
When Napoleon III seized complete power in 1851, Hugo was forced into exile, where he remained for nineteen years. It was during this period that he completed Les Misérables. Returning to his homeland in 1870 after the fall of Napoleon III and the abolition of the Monarchy, Hugo was welcomed as the symbol of the republican resistance and was promptly elected to the National Assembly and the Senate in the newly proclaimed Third Republic. In a rousing speech delivered to International Peace Congress in 1871, Hugo exhorted;
“We shall see France arise again, we shall see her retrieve Lorraine, take back Alsace. But will that be all? No… Seize Trier, Mainz, Cologne, Koblenz, the whole of the left bank of the Rhine. And we shall hear France cry out: It’s my turn, Germany, here I am! Am I your enemy? No! I am your sister. I have taken back everything and I give you everything, on one condition, that we shall act as one people, as one family, as one Republic. I shall demolish my fortresses, you will demolish yours.
My revenge is fraternity! No more frontiers! The Rhine for everyone! Let us be the same Republic, let us be the United States of Europe, let us be the continental federation, let us be European liberty, let us be universal peace! And now let us shake hands, for we have done one another a service: you have delivered me from my emperor and I have delivered you from yours.”
In a letter to publisher of the Italian translation of Les Misérables in Milan, Hugo expounded on the universality of the themes and ideas expressed in Les Misérables:
You are right, sir, when you say that the book Les Misérables is written for all people. I don’t know if it will be read by all, but, I wrote it for all. It speaks to England as much as Spain, to Germany as much as Ireland, to republics that have slaves as well as to empires that have serfs. Social problems know no borders. The wounds of the human race, those great wounds which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map. Wherever man is ignorant and despairs, wherever woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of a book to instruct him and a hearth at which to warm him, the book Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: “Open to me, I come for you.”
So revered as a literary great and as a statesman instrumental in shaping the Third Republic and democracy in France, the street on which he lived was renamed Avenue Victor Hugo while he was still alive on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1882. Most large French towns and cities also have streets named after him.
Victor Hugo died of pneumonia in Paris on May 22, 1885 at the age of 83. There was a national outpouring of grief while his body lay in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe before burial in the Panthéon.
He received a hero’s funeral, in which more than two million people and 2000 delegations paid their last respects by joining his funeral procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon, where he shares a crypt with two other French literary giants, Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola.
Victor Hugo’s legacy lives on in Les Misérables, in all its incarnations. Do you hear the people sing?