Victor Hugo, the famous Romantic author, was born on February 26, 1802 in Besançon, France. In 1809, after moving to Italy and then Spain, Hugo's mother was involved with an anti-Napoleonic conspirator. His parents divorced in 1818 in France, right after Hugo's talent was recognized by the French Academy in 1817. In 1822, with growing recognition, Victor Hugo married Adèle Foucher; they had a daughter, Léopoldine, in 1824.
Their first son, Charles, was born in 1826, after Hugo had earned two concurrent pensions from Louis XVIII and an invitation to attend the coronation of Charles X. In 1827, Victor Hugo published Cromwell, which proved very significant to the world of Romanticism and the Gothic revival. Hugo and Adèle had two more children, François-Victor in 1828 and Adéle in 1830, before both found extra-marital partners. In 1830, Hugo had also started to write the famous Notre-Dame de Paris, and it was published in 1831. In 1837, amid a flurry of publishing, Hugo was made a member of the Légion d'Honneur. Amid his scholastic success, his personal life was less than ideal -- his daughter Léopoldine drowned in 1843 and his other daughter, Adéle, suffered from mental illness (not to mention his and his wife's mutual extra-marital affairs).
In 1845, now with two mistresses, Hugo was named Peer of France. After his continued support of the July Monarchy and his opposition to the post-1848 government, the coup d'etat of 1851 saw the expulsion of Hugo from France. He moved to Belgium and then Jersey in 1852. In 1855 he was expelled from Jersey and moved to Guernsey. In 1862, Hugo published Les Misérables from exile (while his wife remained in Paris with their sons and he stayed on Guernsey with mistress #1, Juliette Drouet.
Adèle Hugo died in Brussels in 1868. Hugo returned to France in 1870 the day after the Third Republic was proclaimed, he immediately willed his manuscripts to the Bibliothèque Nationale. He was elected to the National Assembly in 1871 but resigned almost immediately because of the presence of the right wing. In 1876, he was elected to the Senate. In 1878 he had a stroke and was unable to write much else; he died in 1885 and was buried at the Panthéon in Paris.
Cromwell is remembered today as an important piece in Hugo's oeuvre almost exclusively because of the preface. The play itself was considered too long to be performed, and never was -- but the name of the play is known today among historians and cultural historians alike because of the preface, which is said to state Hugo's views on the French Romantic movement. Much of the preface focuses on Hugo's views of Romantic literature, and the development of this genre, but he mentions a similar development in other arts, such as painting and architecture. The feature that most defines the Romantic, which is derived from the Middle Ages, is the 'grotesque.'
"More especially [the grotesque] imposes its characteristic qualities upon that wonderful architecture which, in the Middle Ages, takes the place of all the arts. It affixes its mark on the façades of cathedrals, frames its hells and purgatories in the ogive arches of great doorways, portrays them in brilliant hues on window-glass, exhibits its monsters, its bull-dogs, its imps about capitals, along friezes, on the edges of roofs. It flaunts itself in numberless shapes on the wooden façades of houses, on the stone façades of châteaux, on the marble façades of palaces."
Victor Hugo's preface to Cromwell was seen by many as a manifesto of Romanticism. The image of Victor Hugo straddling the Theatre Francaise, the Academie Francaise, and Notre-Dame evokes the idea of him as a man capable of bridging the arts with his ideas regarding the Gothic past and the Romantic present.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame / Notre-Dame de Paris
Perhaps the most significant work with regard to Gothic Architecture and its status in the nineteenth century, the first edition of Notre-Dame de Paris was published in 1831. Both "A Bird's Eye View of Paris" and "Ceci tuera Cela," or "This Will Kill That," are significant chapters for this topic. In fact, as Neil Levine writes in The Book and the Building, Ceci tuera Cela, while written along with the rest of the original manuscript, was removed from the book until the eighth edition (Hugo wanted to be sure he could stand beside his theories before publishing them). During 1824 to 1832, in the time when Hugo was most interested in the architecture of Paris, many of the most important gothic buildings of the city were falling into disrepair. In 1831, Hugo expressed his belief in Guerre aux demolisseurs that if France did not preserve its medieval architecture, it would never again have architecture worth preserving (Levine).
In Parisian Views, Shelley Rice agrees with this, noting that ""The idea that Paris was to die like the cities of antiquity, that it too had a cycle of creation and destruction, infused Victor Hugo's [work]" (141). She concludes that "It was the publication of Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris in 1831 that gave rise to restoration fever in the first place" (121). Levine adds to this by arguing that Hugo's concern for the fate of French medieval architecture was actually a fundamental reason for writing Notre-Dame de Paris.
Ceci tuera cela (Book 5, Chapter 2) evokes a combination of Hugo's reverence for Gothic architecture and his anxieties about its disrepair. He writes:
"And, throwing open the window of his cell, he pointed with his finger to the immense church of Notre-Dame, which, with the black outline of its towers cut on a starlit sky, its stone sides and monstrous body, seemed a double-headed sphinx seated in the middle of the city.
The Archdeacon for a while considered the gigantic edifice, then, stretching with a sigh his right hand toward the printed book that lay open on the table, while his left hand pointed at Notre-Dame, he said, "Alas! This will kill that!" ... "The book will kill the building!" (160-161)
In Ceci tuera Cela, Hugo elaborates on the archdeacon's outburst. He writes of the fundamental underpinning of such a sentiment -- the belief that printing would kill architecture. He writes:
"The foreshadowing that the human mind in changing its form would change its mode of expression, that the foremost idea of every generation would no longer be written on the same material, with the same manner; that the stone book, so solid and lasting, would give way to the paper book, still more solid and lasting." (162)
Underlying Hugo's philosophy, which he elaborates upon, is a belief that architecture was the way in which humans recorded their thoughts, beliefs, values, etc -- in a way similar to writing. Thus, the building is a book, the turret a word, and so forth. "Architecture has been the great writing of the human species," he writes, "And so true is this that not only every religious symbol but every human thought has its page in the immense book and its monument." (164).
Hugo believed that this architectural book was most wholly developed in the Middle Ages, the era that wrote, as he says, the last page -- right before the invention of the printing press.
"Architecture has been until the fifteenth century the principal register of humanity: ... in the interval there appeared no complicated thought that did not make itself a building; that every popular idea has, like all religion's laws, its monuments; that, in short, human beings thought of nothing of importances that they did not write on stone."
Hugo concludes by saying that architecture is dead because it no longer represents the most efficient means of preserving ideas. Books are cheaper, easier to make, and more numerous -- within a thousand copies of Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo's thoughts are encased (as opposed to one cathedral) and thus are less easily destroyed and more durable and widespread.
Camille, Michael. Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1974.
Hugo, Victor. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Trans. Catherine Liu. New York: The Modern Library, 2002.
Levine, Neil. "The Book and the Building: Hugo's Theory of Architecture and Labrouste's Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève." The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth Century French Architecture. Ed. Robin Middleton. London, 1982.
Rice, Shelley. Parisian Views. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1997.