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Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo was a French poet, novelist, and dramatist who is known throughout the world for creating 'Notre Dame de Paris', (the Hunchback of Notre Dame) and 'Les Misérables'.

He was born in Besançon, Franche-Comté in 1802 and even as a teenager, his poems were winning literary awards, including two "mentions" from the Academie Francaise.

Hugo's childhood was a period of national political turmoil. Napoléon was proclaimed Emperor two years after Hugo's birth, and the Bourbon Monarchy was restored before he turned eighteen. The opposing political and religious views of Hugo's parents reflected the forces that battled for supremacy in France throughout his life: Hugo's father was a free thinking republican and a high ranking officer in Napoleon's army. Hugo’s mother was a Catholic Royalist who is believed to have taken as her lover, a General who was eventually executed for plotting against Napoléon.

Though a committed monachist when he was young, Hugo's views changed and he became a passionate supporter of republicanism. The political and social issues of his time are reflected in many of his works.

The passion and eloquence of Hugo's early work brought success and fame at a young age. His first collection of poetry was published in 1822, when Hugo was only twenty years old, and earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII.

Hugo's first full-length novel was the enormously successful Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), which was published in 1831 and quickly translated into other languages across Europe. One of the effects of the novel was to shame the City of Paris into restoring the much-neglected Cathedral of Notre Dame, which was attracting thousands of tourists who had read the popular novel.

After three unsuccessful attempts, Hugo was elected to the Académie française in 1841, solidifying his position in the world of French arts and letters.

Hugo began planning a major novel about social misery and injustice as early as the 1830s, but it took seventeen years to complete Les Misérables in 1862. Hugo was acutely aware of the quality of the novel and its publication went to the highest bidder. The successful Belgian publishing house undertook a marketing campaign unusual for the time, issuing press releases six months before the launch. It initially only published the first part of the novel ("Fantine"), which was launched simultaneously in major cities. Installments of the book sold out within hours and had enormous impact on French society.

Perhaps the shortest correspondence in history is said to have been between Hugo and his publisher. Hugo was on vacation when Les Misérables was released. He queried the reaction to the work by sending a single-character telegram to his publisher, asking "?". The publisher replied with a single "!" to indicate its success.

The critical establishment was generally hostile towards the novel; but the masses loved it and even today, it is popular worldwide and has been adapted for cinema, television and stage shows.

Hugo turned away from political issues in his next novel, Les Travailleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea), published in 1866. Dedicated to the channel island of Guernsey where he spent 15 years of exile, Hugo's depiction of man's battle with the sea and the horrible creatures lurking in its depths spawned an unusual fad in Paris: Squids! From squid dishes and exhibitions, to squid hats and parties, Parisians became fascinated by these unusual sea creatures, which at the time were still considered by many to be mythical.

In 1881, Hugo celebrated his 79th birthday. To honor the fact that he was entering his eightieth year, one of the greatest tributes to a living writer was held culminating with one of the largest parades in French history. Marchers stretched from Avenue d'Eylau, down the Champs-Élysées all the way to the center of Paris. The procession marched for six hours to pass Hugo as he sat in the window at his house.

Victor Hugo's death on 22 May 1885, at the age of 83, generated intense national mourning. Not only was he revered as a towering figure in literature, he was a statesman who shaped the Third Republic and democracy in France. More than two million people joined his funeral procession in Paris from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon, where he was buried.