The Victor Hugo Papers

Josselin Blieck, who is completing an MA in Archives and Records Management at the University of Burgundy (Dijon), undertook an internship at the John Rylands Library this summer. Josselin has catalogued our collection of papers relating to Victor Hugo. Several attempts have been made to document this important archive over the last thirty years, so we are immensely grateful to Josselin for completing the work. We hope to publish his catalogue online shortly. He writes:

The John Rylands Library holds a major collection of papers related to Victor Hugo (1802-1885), one of the most famous French writers in history.

Victor Hugo, c.1884. Wikimedia Commons image.
Victor Hugo, c.1884. Wikimedia Commons image.

Hugo is now celebrated for his epic novels the Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and the Misérables (1862), but in his time he was mostly known as a prolific poet and a romantic playwright who broke the classical rules of theatre.

Hugo also had a considerable political role. Initially a Royalist, he became a Republican after having been elected deputy during the Second Republic (1848-51). He logically refused to condone the military coup of President Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in December 1851 and went into a long exile in Jersey and Guernsey with other Republicans. The collapse of the Second Empire in 1870 allowed his triumphal return to France, and he became known as the ‘father’ of the young Third Republic; he was elected senator for life in 1875. His funeral cortege in 1885 was attended by an immense crowd of two million people, equalling that of Napoleon in 1840.

With more than 1,200 letters and manuscripts of Hugo and his correspondents, the Rylands collection is perhaps the richest on Victor Hugo outside France and Belgium. It surpasses the collections in the Morgan Library in New York, and in the libraries of Yale, Harvard, and Syracuse universities, and the collection of letters from Juliette Drouet at the University of Leeds. The Rylands materials were mostly collected by Jean Gaudon, a French academic who worked at the University of Manchester in the 1960s. Gaudon then moved to Yale in the 1970s, and was partly responsible for building their smaller Hugo collection.

The collection does not have any thematic unity and instead reflects the outstanding range of activities embraced by Hugo. There are large numbers of letters from actors asking for a recommendation or a role in his plays, journalists and art critics congratulating him on his works, publishers dealing with his publications, amateur poets sending their verses to Hugo for his appraisal, or simply anonymous people requesting theatre tickets or his protection. Besides these lesser-known people, the collection boasts letters to Hugo from famous personalities of the nineteenth century, such as Alexandre Dumas, Sainte-Beuve, the poets Alfred de Vigny and Théodore de Banville, scholars like Villemain, Victor Cousin, Guizot and Boucher de Perthes (the “inventor” of prehistoric archaeology), the Romantic sculptor David d’Angers and the Realist painter Jules Breton, early feminists such as Eugènie Niboyet, Flora Tristan, or Amable Tastu, and many others.

Letter from Alexandre Dumas to Victor Hugo Hugo, written after their reconciliation in 1836 when they were hoping to open a new theatre in Paris, since the Romantics didn't have many venues in Paris in which to stage their plays.
Letter from Alexandre Dumas to Victor Hugo, written after their reconciliation in 1836 when they were hoping to open a new theatre in Paris, as the Romantics did not have many venues for staging their plays.

The letters produced during Hugo’s exile in the Channel Islands probably form the best part of the collection. Indeed, as he was the most famous French exile in the UK, his house in Guernsey tended to be the headquarters of the French opponents to Napoléon III.

The most valuable item in the collection is without doubt a bound book of 37 letters of Hugo to Noël Parfait, a Republican MP who fled to Belgium after Napoleon’s coup and was the secretary of Alexandre Dumas in Brussels. The last letter of the book was written at Waterloo, where Hugo travelled in 1861 to write a chapter telling the famous battle in the Misérables, published the following year.

There is an interesting exchange of 14 letters with Louis Blanc (a socialist thinker who lived in exile in London), mostly about the Shakespeare tercentenary in 1864. Hugo was noteworthy puzzled to see that the British Government did not want to pay for a monument to Shakespeare and only relied on a private subscription (to which Hugo contributed).

Letter from Victor Hugo to Louis Blanc, offering a subscription of 250 francs towards the Shakespeare monument.
Letter from Victor Hugo to Louis Blanc, offering a subscription of 250 francs towards a Shakespeare monument at Stratford-upon-Avon.


Hugo was also in touch with French exiles who had crossed the oceans after the coup, and gave him accounts of their foreign adventures. We therefore have letters from New York (Aimé Malespine), Rio de Janeiro (Antoine Adolphe Hubert), and Constantinople (Ange Pechméja).

In addition, we can mention a letter written in 1865 from Victor Schœlcher – author of the decree abolishing slavery in the French colonies in 1848 – asking Hugo to contribute to a fund for the recently freed American slaves, or an unpublished poem by Hugo’s father, called ‘La Révolte des Enfers’, humorously describing a battle of daemons in Hell.

Finally, the Library holds a watercolour drawing by Hugo, who was also a skilled draughtsman and produced about 4,000 works. His drawings usually display ruins of churches or castles in a dark, Gothic atmosphere. Some of them were sent as greeting cards, on which he added his name in red capital letters (this one is dated 1 January 1856, at Guernsey).

Watercolour drawing by Victor Hugo, Guernsey, 1 January 1856.

The recent cataloguing of the collection should shed a new light on these fabulous and mostly unpublished materials, as it seems they have been forgotten for several decades.

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