Victor-Marie Hugo was born on February 26, 1802. His characters, like Esmeralda, Quasimodo, Jean Valjean, Javert, and Gavroche, have become part of our cultural heritage. In France, his poetry holds a higher place than his prose. He was also a playwright, human rights advocate, and artist. Hugo was the illegitimate son of an army officer loyal to Napoleon and an ardently Catholic and Royalist mother. They moved around France, Spain, and Italy frequently due to his father’s career. His mother directly supervised his early education and her opinions were inculcated into her devoted son. He did an about face later in life and rejected both God and king.
Hugo married young and had four children. He also maintained a loyal mistress for many, many years. He was traveling with her when he learned of the tragic death by drowning of her oldest, and favorite, daughter. He wrote many poems about his feelings of overwhelming loss. I remember studying Demain, dès l’aube at university in which he talked of visiting her grave. As a mature writer, he began to write fiction, usually with an aim to address social justice issues, but he never stopped writing poetry. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1841. (See Mot juste for more on that august body.)
He openly opposed the political coup of Napoleon III and his outspokenness resulted in nineteen years of voluntary political exile in Belgium and the Channel Islands Jersey and Guernsey. His political activities included petitioning governments to spare the lives of political prisoners and successfully advocating for the removal of the death penalty from several international constitutions. After the fall of Napoleon III, Hugo returned to France where he was elected to the Assemblé National. He lived in Paris during the siege caused by the Franco-Prussian war and ate zoo animals, and then anything at all in order to stay alive. Although his re-election bid just two years after his triumphal return failed, his was subsequently named to the Senate. When he died in 1885, over two million people followed his funeral cortège. His body was placed in the Panthéon, along with other notable citizens. To say that he was prolific is a major understatement. Fifty-six works of poetry and fiction were published during his lifetime and another twenty-two were released posthumously. When you consider that Les Misérables alone runs 1,200 pages, that’s a staggering output.
Today’s expression is part of a larger quotation by Victor Hugo, “Il n’existe qu’une chose plus forte que toutes les armées du monde, c’est une idée dont le moment est venu,” (eel necks-east coon shows ploo forte kuh toot lays armay due mohnd, set oon e-day dohn luh momehn eh venoo). It means, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” With one oppressive regime toppling after another in the Middle East, these words have never been more apt. Victor Hugo is still right on.