Victor Hugo was born in Besançon for the same reason that the poet Paul Verlaine was born in Metz. Their fathers were military officers who happened to be stationed in these out-of-the-way places in the eastern frontier provinces of France. Verlaine’s father was only a captain, whereas Hugo’s was (later) a general.
Verlaine lived the first seven years of his life in Metz, but Hugo spent only about six weeks in Besançon, from February to April 1802, before his family moved on. Hugo spent his childhood mainly in Paris and never returned to Besançon.
Nonetheless, Besançon has always been proud of being the birthplace of Victor Hugo. There is a school named after him, and a square, a cinema, a symphony orchestra and a college, and now one of the new trams also has his name and picture on it.
The apartment where Hugo was born was acquired by the city in 1932, but eighty years went by before the house was restored and renovated (in 2012) and turned into an exhibition on Hugo’s life and work, which was opened to the public in September 2013.
On the ground floor there is now an exhibit called “Hugo and Besançon”, from which I learned that Hugo always identified with the city of his birth, even though he only lived there for the first six weeks of his life. His first published poems, while he was still in his teens, were signed “Victor Hugo from Besançon”. Later he had some close friends who had also come from Besançon, particularly the author Charles Nodier (1780–1844), who was twenty-two years older but by coincidence had also been born on the same square, which was then called Place Rondot Saint-Quentin but is now called Place Victor Hugo. Charles Nodier was the librarian of the Arsenal Library in Paris from 1824 until his death twenty years later. During these years he established an influential literary salon which included such writers as Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset and Alexander Dumas.
The staircase in Hugo’s birth house now gives an overview of the major turning points in his life. In February 1830 his play Hernani premiered in Paris at the Théâtre-Français, now better known as the Comédie-Française. The play was a huge success and immediately established Hugo as one of the leading French writers of his generation. It also established Romanticism as the dominant literary movement for decades to come — much to the distress of the conservative Classicists, who detested the play and attacked it vehemently. Hernani was performed thirty-six times during its first season, and later inspired the opera Ernani by Giuseppe Verdi.
1830 was also the year of the July Revolution which removed the king Charles X from power and replaced him with Louis-Philippe. For a long time Victor Hugo supported Louis-Philippe, whom he got to know quite well, but later he became disillusioned, writing that Louis-Philippe was a good man who ultimately failed because he had to “bear in his own person the contradiction of the Restoration and the Revolution”.
Hugo spent most of 1830 writing a novel, Notre-Dame de Paris 1482, which was an immediate popular success when it was published in 1831 and was soon translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
1848 was the year of another revolution, which ended the reign of Louis-Philippe and resulted in the founding of the Second Republic. Hugo was elected to the Assembly where he made numerous speeches in support of political prisoners and universal suffrage, and against censorship and the death penalty.
1851 was the year of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état establishing the Second Empire with himself as Emperor Napoléon III. Victor Hugo was very much opposed to this coup and went into exile for the next nineteen years.
1855 was the year Victor Hugo moved to the island of Guernsey, where he lived until his return to France fifteen years later after the fall of Napoléon III.
The upper floor is now devoted to a permanent exposition about the struggles of Victor Hugo on issues that were important to him, illustrated by images, film extracts and excerpts from his speeches on the audio guide. There are four rooms dealing with four different topics:
- Freedom of Speech
- Poverty, Equality and Justice
- Childhood and Education
- The Liberty of the Peoples
The only really authentic large item in the whole house is this chandelier from Hugo’s last apartment in Paris, which has been installed at the bottom of the stairs leading to multi-purpose meeting rooms in the basement.
Location, aerial view and photos of Hugo’s birth house on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.