Hugo: the Hero and the Genius

Kevin Morgan (Professor of Politics and History, The University of Manchester)

Bust of Victor Hugo
Le livre d'or de Victor Hugo / par l'élite des artistes et des écrivains contemporains, ed. Émile Blémont, Paris, 1883.

When Victor Hugo died in 1885, the funeral was the biggest that Paris had ever seen. To English-speaking readers, Hugo is probably best known for the magnificent sweep of his novel Les Misérables (1862) and for the numerous adaptations based upon it. But Hugo was far more than just a novelist. He was regarded by millions as France’s national poet, as one of the century’s leading playwrights and as the unyielding symbol of republican ideals who remained in exile throughout the Second Empire. When in 1885 Hugo’s remains were taken to the Panthéon, newly deconsecrated for the purpose, he was everywhere regarded as the republic’s apotheosis. 

The Rylands is fortunate to have the finest collection of Hugo materials in the UK and one of the finest anywhere outside of Paris. With the support of the JRRI this project aims to explore these materials for traces of Hugo’s political commitments. Some of the correspondence is of an explicitly political character, like that with the well-known socialist Louis Blanc. However, Hugo’s published writings are full of incidental references to political concepts, personalities and events, and the same is true of his correspondence. They are of particular interest to anyone concerned with the nineteenth century's politics of personality. The papers in the Rylands document the fierce commitment that Hugo for many years showed to the memory of Napoleon. They also demonstrate how Hugo himself came to be revered as only Napoleon had been, and, as some saw it, as his counterpart in the world of letters. For Hugo, this was a mark of the advance of civilisation, as the swordsmen, as he put it in Les Misérables, made way for the thinkers.  

Sadly, there was more to it than that. Research on these invaluable materials will contribute to a larger project which looks at Hugo, at his Scottish contemporary Thomas Carlyle and at their ideas of the genius and the hero. It will also explore how these ideas fed into later cults of leadership and leaders that would not have justified Hugo's optimism regarding the coming century.