Ain’t I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth, 1870

Ain’t I a Woman? was the title of a speech given by the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Not only did Truth fight on behalf of women, but she also fought for the rights of African Americans. In her biography, Nell Irvin Painter wrote, “At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.” Truth was born into slavery but managed to escape, after which she set about improving lives for black people. Her determination won her a place in the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” listed by the Smithsonian magazine in 2014.

Born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797 on a slave trader’s estate at Swartekill, New York, Sojourner Truth was one of a dozen children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her parents belonged to Charles Hardenbergh, thus Truth and her siblings automatically became slaves at birth. When Hardenbergh died in 1806, Truth, known then as Belle, was sold to another slave owner, John Neely from Kingston, New York.

As a young child, Truth only spoke Dutch, but John Neely required his slaves to speak English. Neely was a cruel master and beat Truth and the other slaves daily. It was a welcome release when Neely sold her in 1808 to Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner in Port Ewen. Eighteen months later, Schryver sold Truth to the abusive John Dumont, who repeatedly raped her and made her life very difficult. As a result, Truth gave birth to two children, James, who died in infancy, and Diana (1815).

While working in the fields belonging to Dumont, Truth met a slave called Robert, who belonged to the owner of the neighbouring land. Robert’s master, the landscape artist Charles Catton the younger (1756-1819), forbade his slaves from having relationships with people belonging to other traders. Nonetheless, determined to be together, Robert sneaked over to visit Truth. Unfortunately, Catton discovered this and beat Robert to within an inch of his life. Truth never saw Robert again. Later, she met a man named Thomas, a slave belonging to her master. They married and had three children, Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826).

As well as picking cotton in the fields, Truth spent hours spinning wool and damaged her hand as a result. Dumont had promised to release Truth from slavery in 1826 “so long as she would do well and be faithful”, but he claimed her injury prevented her from being productive. Angry about this treatment, Truth plotted her escape and, taking her newborn daughter Sophia with her, walked away from the estate and never looked back. Truth knew that the emancipation of slaves would begin the following year and, so long as she was not caught, she would soon be a free woman. Unfortunately, her older children needed to work until they reached their twenties before being emancipated. She feared if they were caught escaping, the children would be beaten or killed, so she left them behind.

Issac and Maria Van Wagenen

Truth walked ten miles while carrying her daughter before she found someone willing to help her. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a white couple from New Paltz, offered Truth and the baby a place to stay. Learning of her predicament, Isaac insisted on employing her until the state’s emancipation took effect. Whilst this made Truth the Van Wagenens slave, she and Sophia were safe. Grateful for the protection, Truth became a devout Christian.

After living with the Van Wagenens for some time, Truth learned that Dumont had illegally sold her eldest son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama. With the Van Wagenen’s help, Truth took the traders to court where, after a lengthy battle, seven-year-old Peter was returned to his mother. Never before had a black woman gone to court against a white man and won.

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City with Peter and Sophia, where she found work as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist, Elijah Pierson (1786-1834). Her boss often preached about God’s powers and, after his wife died in 1830, attempted to raise her from the dead. Despite failing to resurrect his wife, Pierson began referring to himself as “Elijah the Tishbite”, believing he was the biblical prophet and a miracle worker reborn. Through Pierson, Truth met and worked as the housekeeper for Robert Matthews (1788-1841), known as the “Prophet Matthias”. Matthews believed he was the resurrected Matthias from the New Testament who replaced the apostle Judas in the Acts of the Apostles. While working for Matthews, Pierson died from poisoning. Both Matthews and Truth were arrested but later acquitted of the murder.

Truth’s life took a turning point in the 1840s, beginning with the possible death of her son. Peter worked on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board. She never heard from him again. In 1843, Truth joined the Methodist church and officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She claimed on Pentecost Sunday that God spoke to her, asking her to speak the truth. She told her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go”, and packed a pillowcase of her meagre belongings and headed north.

While travelling through New York, Truth joined Millerite Adventist groups who followed the teachings of Baptist minister William Miller (1782-1849). Miller strongly believed Jesus would reappear before the end of 1843. He studied the Bible carefully and based his calculations on verse fourteen of the eighth chapter of Daniel, which said, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller assumed this cleansing referred to the events written about in the Book of Revelation. Sojourner Truth and many other millerites latched onto this belief, yet when Jesus failed to return as Miller had predicted, Truth and thousands of other members left feeling disillusioned.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry

In 1844, Truth travelled to Massachusetts, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. The organisation supported women’s rights and religious freedom, which appealed to Truth. Most importantly, it was set up by a group of abolitionists. The organisation set up a commune looking after livestock and ran a sawmill and a silk factory. While living there, Truth helped in the laundry department and met several people who had also grown up in slavery, most notably the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-95). She also befriended the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79). With their encouragement, Truth gave her first anti-slavery speech.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry disbanded in 1846, and Truth found work as a housekeeper for George Benson (1808-79), the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. Around this time, she began writing her memoirs, which Garrison published in 1850 with the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. The book offers a glimpse into the world of slavery in northern states of America, which, unlike the southern states, remains largely undocumented. Truth recounted her separation from her family and the years spent travelling as a preacher. She also described her aims to counsel former slaves and end the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Following the publication of her book, Sojourner Truth purchased her first home for $300 in Florence, Massachusetts. Growing in fame for her preaching talents, Truth was invited to speak at the first National Women’s Right’s Convention later that year. The meeting aimed “to secure for [woman] political, legal, and social equality with man until her proper sphere is determined by what alone should determine it, her powers and capacities, strengthened and refined by an education in accordance with her nature”. The convention was attended by over 900 women and men, both white and black. Truth’s friends, Douglass and Garrison, spoke on behalf of women, as did several other abolitionists and suffragists.

News of the National Women’s Rights Convention reached the United Kingdom and inspired British women to petition for woman suffrage and present it to the House of Lords. In 1851, female philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-58), the wife of John Stuart Mill (1806-73), wrote The Enfranchisement of Women. Later that year, Harriet Martineau, the first female sociologist, wrote to the organisers of the convention, saying, “I hope you are aware of the interest excited in this country by that Convention, the strongest proof of which is the appearance of an article on the subject in the Westminster Review … I am not without hope that this article will materially strengthen your hands, and I am sure it can not but cheer your hearts.”

In May 1851, Sojourner Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, organised by Hannah Tracy (1815-96) and Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808-84). While there, Truth realised that many feminists and suffragists fought for the rights of white women and did not take into account the difficulties black people faced. This prompted Truth to stand up and give her most famous speech, now known as Ain’t I a Woman? Since the oration was unplanned, Truth did not have any written notes about the matter, and historians rely on accounts and transcripts by those in attendance, which contain many differences. Yet, they all agree that Truth demanded equal human rights for all women, both white and black. She spoke about her life as a former enslaved woman and combined her call for women’s rights with abolitionism.

The term Ain’t I a Woman stems from the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”, which British abolitionists coined during the 18th century. In the early 19th century, feminist abolitionists rewrote the phrase to read, “Am I not a woman and a sister?” It is likely Truth came across this saying in the American abolitionist newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, where it was printed alongside an image of a female slave. Alternatively, Truth may have heard speeches given by the African-American campaigner Maria W. Stewart (1803-79), who frequently used the term.

Truth’s speech inspired many people, and both the New York Tribune and The Liberator provided the general gist of Truth’s words a few days later. One attendee, Reverend Marius Robinson, printed a transcript of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, but it did not feature the phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” Twelves years after the event, Frances Dana Barker Gage printed another version of the transcript, which she likely embellished with ideas of her own. Gage frequently repeated the phrase, which in turn became the name of the speech. Gage also made Truth sound like a southern slave, but Truth was born in New York and spoke Dutch for much of her childhood, so she never picked up southern nuances.

Robinson quoted Truth as saying, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Gage, on the other hand, wrote, “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t, I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?” Not only did Gage indicate a dialect that Truth did not use, but she also claimed Truth had 13 children, whereas official records suggest she only had five. Nonetheless, the speech is celebrated and often quoted as an example of black feminism.

Over the following ten years, Truth continued to speak at meetings of feminists and abolitionists. She frequently referred to Biblical characters, particularly Esther, to emphasise why women deserve the same rights as men. Truth used her experiences to demonstrate the unfair treatment of both women and slaves. “When Black women like Truth spoke of rights, they mixed their ideas with challenges to slavery and racism. Truth told her own stories, ones that suggested that a women’s movement might take another direction, one that championed the broad interests of all humanity.” (Martha Jones, 2020)

Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln photographed together for their one and only meeting

In 1864, Truth started working for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She worked tirelessly to improve conditions for African-Americans and, later that year, she was honoured to meet President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), who shared her aims to end slavery. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves the previous year. He also passed the 13th Amendment in the Constitution that prohibited slavery or any involuntary servitude in the United States. Yet, many slave owners refused to obey these new laws and those who were freed found it difficult to integrate into society.

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. She is credited with writing a song for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment called The Valiant Soldiers. Written to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the song begins:
We are the valiant soldiers who’ve ‘listed for the war;
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law;
We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah, as we go marching on.

In 1867, Truth gave a speech at an American Equal Rights Association meeting, where she received a warm reception. She spoke about the rights of black women, saying that the push for equal rights had led to black men winning new rights, and it was only fair that women received them too. She insisted, “We should keep things going while things are stirring,” fearing that it would take people longer to consider women’s rights if left. Truth focused on the lack of voting rights, pointing out that she owned a house and paid taxes just like men. She ended the speech by saying, “Man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.”

On New Year’s Day in 1871, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom. She talked about her own life, particularly her early years when she often questioned God why he had not given her good masters. She admitted to hating white people, but after escaping from slavery, Truth said she met her final “master”, Jesus Christ, who taught her to love everyone. She regularly prayed for the emancipation of slaves and felt it her duty to help out as much as she could. Truth felt her prayers were answered with the abolition of slavery but acknowledged the southern states had far to go before they became safe areas for people of colour. Later that year, Truth spoke at the Second Annual Convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association, arguing that women deserved the right to vote “for the benefit of the whole creation, not only the women, but all the men on the face of the earth, for they were the mother of them”.

In her later years, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia. She had at least two grandchildren, James and Sammy, who lived with her in Michigan during the 1860s. In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1883, a reporter interviewed Truth for the Grand Rapids Eagle, noting that “Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk.” Sojourner Truth passed away a few days later, in the early hours of 26th November 1883, at age 86. Her funeral took place three days after her death at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church, which almost 1000 people attended. Frederick Douglass provided a eulogy, noting all her hard work and achievements. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

Since her death, many memorials and statues have been erected in memory of Sojourner Truth across the United States. Near her home in Battle Creek, a stone memorial was placed in Memorial Park in 1935. To mark the centenary of her birth, a 12-foot tall bronze statue of Sojourner Truth was also added to the park. In Ohio, a stone marks the spot where Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. There are also sculptures in California and Massachusetts that celebrate the former slave.

Meredith Bergmann sculpture of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park

New York State contains the most memorials to Sojourner Truth. A life-sized terracotta statue at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor’s Centre celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, and a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth as an 11-year-old girl stands in Port Ewen, where she worked as a slave. The most recent statue of Truth was erected in Central Park in 2020 to mark Women’s Equality Day. Known as the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, the sculpture depicts Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who were pioneers in the battle for women’s rights.

Sculpture by Artis Lane Bronze 2009 Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center

Since 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth sits in the Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Centre. Truth was the first African-American woman to be put on display in the Capitol. Designed by Black Canadian sculptor Artis Lane (b. 1927), the statue depicts Truth wearing her signature cap and shawl.

Several schools and libraries are named after Sojourner Truth, such as the Sojourner Truth Library at the New Paltz State University of New York. In 1969, a political group called the Sojourner Truth Organization was established to represent the left-wing black people of America. The 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder was named Sojourner in her honour, as was the asteroid 249521 Truth in 2014.

On 4th February 1986, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative, 22-cent postage stamp featuring Sojourner Truth as part of their Black Heritage. She has also been honoured with a Google Doodle and features on the lists of the top 100 Americans in history.

Sojourner Truth did not have an easy childhood. She grew up hating white people, but through her strong Christian faith, she learned to love everyone equally. Truth witnessed the injustices of the world first hand, both by being an African American and by being a woman. She believed that just as Jesus loves every one of us, all humans, no matter their colour or gender, should receive the same rights. While campaigning for the end of slavery and equal rights for black people, Truth also wanted women, including white women, to live on the same terms as men. Some civil rights activists caused trouble by implying black lives mattered more than white, but Sojourner Truth made it clear that all lives mattered. Despite everything she went through, Truth wanted everyone to live in harmony. If only there were more people like Sojourner Truth in the world today.


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Victor Hugo

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

Victor Hugo
Hugo by Étienne Carjat, 1876

When Victor Hugo sat down to write one of his novels, little did he know it would inspire the greatest musical of our time, Les Misérables. He did not intend his novel for the stage, but as the above quote suggests, Hugo understood the importance of music. During his literary career of over six decades, Hugo wrote lyrics, poems, satires, essays, speeches, funeral orations, letters, diaries, plays and novels. As well as Les Misérables, Hugo is famous for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which Walt Disney Pictures transformed into an animated musical in 1996. Through musical adaptations, millions of people know Victor Hugo’s work; it is time to learn about the author.

General Joseph-Leopold Hugo, father of Victor Hugo

Victor-Marie Hugo, born on 26th February 1802 in Besançon in Eastern France, spent his first year travelling from place to place due to his father’s career in the Napoleonic Army. Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1774-1828) enlisted in La Grande Armée at the age of 14 and had worked his way up the ranks to General by the birth of his youngest son.

Sophie Trébuchet (1772-1821), a French painter, gave birth to two sons before Victor: Abel Joseph (1798-1855) and Eugène (1800-1837). His father claimed Victor’s mother conceived him on a peak in the Vosges Mountains in Eastern France on 24th June 1801. Victor Hugo later used this date as the prisoner number of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables: “24601”. After Victor’s first birthday, Sophie grew tired of the frequent upheaval of army life and settled in Paris with her sons. While there, Sophie regularly met with her youngest son’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie (1766-1812), with whom she may have had an affair. She soon learnt her husband, now a Colonel, also had a secret liaison, although he returned to the family in 1807. 

Joseph Léopold spent less than a year with his sons before being called to Spain to fight in the Peninsular War. Sophie and her sons moved into an old convent at the edge of Paris. Victor’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie, lived in hiding in a chapel on the estate from the Revolutionary Army who wished him dead due to his political beliefs. Sophie, who secretly shared these ideas, allowed Fanneau de La Horie to mentor her sons until they moved to Spain in 1811. The Spanish king Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) had honoured her husband with the title Count Hugo de Cogolludo y Sigüenza.

Abel Joseph, Eugène and Victor were sent to the Real Colegio de San Antonio de Abad in Madrid for a proper education, but Sophie wished to return to France. Joseph Léopold overruled his wife’s wish to take the boys with her, so she returned to Paris alone, officially separated from her husband. Whether she returned to her lover, Fanneau de La Horie is uncertain, but records state the Revolutionary Army arrested and executed him in 1812. To prevent his sons returning to their mother after their schooling, he enrolled them at a private boarding school in Paris where they remained for three years.

Adèle Hugo as a young woman, by Louis Boulanger

During his time at the school in Paris, where he also attended lectures at Lycée Louis le Grand, Victor Hugo developed a passion for writing. In 1817, he received an honourable mention for a poem he had written, and many Academicians refused to believe he was only 15 years old. After leaving school, Hugo moved in with his mother and started attending law school. Going against his mother’s wishes, Hugo began dating his childhood friend, Adèle Foucher (1803-68). A year after his mother died in June 1821, Hugo and Adèle married.

Hugo started his writing career with his brothers who established the periodical Le Conservateur littéraire (“The Literary Curator”). The magazine allowed writers to express their royalist views but had little success in liberal France. In 1822, the year of his marriage, Hugo wrote a book of poems, which earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII (1755-1824), and the following year, he published his first novel, Han d’Islande.

Victor Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine on the day of her first communion.

Hugo and Adèle celebrated the arrival of their first child Léopold in 1823, but sadly he died before his first birthday. The following year on 28th August, they welcomed their second child Léopoldine (1824-43), followed by Charles (1826-71), François-Victor (1828-73) and Adèle (1830-1915). His children did not hinder Hugo’s career, and he published five volumes of poetry between 1829 and 1840. The year before his youngest daughter’s birth, Hugo wrote his first mature novel, Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (“The Last Day of a Condemned Man”). The story expressed Hugo’s negative feelings toward the death penalty in France. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81) praised the book as “absolutely the most real and truthful of everything that Hugo wrote.” The story also influenced British writers, such as Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

Victor Hugo in 1829, lithograph by Achille Devéria

By the late 1820s, Hugo had a reputation as the figurehead of the Romantic literary movement. Several plays boosted his popularity and, in 1831, he published the hugely successful Notre-Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”). Set in 1482 during the reign of Louis XI (1423-83), the story focuses on the deformed character Quasimodo, who rings the bells at the Catholic cathedral. The novel prompted the City of Paris to repair the neglected Cathedral of Notre-Dame and appreciate the other pre-Renaissance buildings in the city.

Whilst Hugo experienced success in his career, his family life suffered. Both he and his wife conducted affairs, although they continued to live with each other and never divorced. Between 1830 and 1837, Adèle had a rendezvous with Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), a French critic and friend of the Hugo family. Possibly in retaliation, Hugo began seeing the French actress Juliette Drouet (1806-83) in 1833. As well as his mistress, Drouet acted as Hugo’s secretary and travelling companion. It is evident from letters that Drouet devoted her life to Hugo, but he did not treat her with similar respect.

Hugo’s celebrity status earned him friendships in many circles, including amongst composers and musicians. Hector Berlioz (1803-69) and Franz Liszt (1811-86) were among his closest companions and the latter regularly played for Hugo in private concerts. Liszt also taught Hugo to play his favourite piece by Beethoven (1770-1827) on the piano, albeit with only one finger. Another musical friend, Louise Bertin (1805-77) based an opera on Hugo’s Notre-Dame de ParisLa Esmeralda premiered in 1836 but closed after its fifth performance. Despite the flop, Hugo’s various works have inspired thousands of musical compositions, including over 100 operas. Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Rigoletto, for example, is based on Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse, and Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86) based La Gioconda on the historical work Angelo, Tyrant of Padua.

As well as writing for pleasure, Hugo used his skills to tackle political issues. He joined the Académie française in 1841, but briefly withdrew from the scene in 1843 following the death of his eldest daughter. At just 19 years old, Léopoldine drowned in the Seine after a boat overturned, leaving her father devastated. He did not learn of her death straight away because he was travelling in the South of France. The first he knew of the incident was in a newspaper that he read while sitting in a cafe. He expressed his grief through poetry and used his daughter as the subject of many of his future works.

Hugo returned to the political scene in 1845 when King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) nominated him for the Higher Chamber as a pair de France (Peerage of France). He took the opportunity to speak out against social injustices and the death penalty. His strong opinions were known across Europe, especially after joining the National Assembly in 1849. Around the same time, he began an affair with the author Léonie d’Aunet (1820-79), which lasted approximately seven years. Due to his peerage, Hugo avoided punishment for his adultery. Unfortunately, d’Aunet faced two months in prison and a further six in a convent. Hugo promised to support her financially for the rest of her life, but he continued to conduct affairs with other women. 

When Napoleon III (1808-73) seized power in 1851, Hugo openly called him a traitor for his anti-parliamentary ideas. As a result, Hugo gained many enemies, prompting him to flee to Belgium and then the Bailiwick of Jersey, the largest Channel Island. Hugo’s politics caused problems in Jersey, most notably his support for an anti-Queen Victoria newspaper. In 1855, Jersey expelled Hugo from the island, and Hugo spent the next 15 years in exile on the Bailiwick of Guernsey. His family joined him the following year at Hauteville House in Saint Peter Port.

Portrait of “Cosette” by Emile Bayard (1862)

While in exile, Hugo continued to attack Napoleon through political pamphlets, such as Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d’un crime. France banned these works, but many copies found their way into the country, smuggled in bales of hay and tins of sardines. Hugo also produced three poetry collections while on the island, but his most notable work from the period is his novel, Les Misérables. Although published in 1862, Hugo started planning the story as early as the 1830s.

“My conviction is that this book is going to be one of the peaks, if not the crowning point of my work.”

Victor Hugo, 23rd March 1862

The inspiration for the main character in Les Misérables came from an incident Hugo witnessed in 1829. Hugo saw a policeman arrest a man for stealing a loaf of bread. At the start of the story, the protagonist Jean Valjean is in prison for stealing bread. Hugo also took inspiration from the ex-convict Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1557) for Valjean’s character. Vidocq’s criminal actions had landed him in prison, but on his release, he changed his ways. Vidocq became the father of modern criminology and was also the world’s first private detective.

Hugo’s diaries record many scenes that he later wrote into Les Misérables, including the attempted arrest of a prostitute. Hugo stepped in to defend the girl and recorded his speech in his diary, which, in turn, made it into his novel. This scene inspired the character Fantine, whose only means of earning money to look after her daughter Cosette was prostitution. Many real-life figures Hugo met or observed appear in the story. Examples include a street urchin (Gavroche) and French republican students fighting during the 1848 Paris insurrection (Enjolras and Les Amis de l’ABC). 

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables as though he is narrating the story rather than a character. He includes factual information to make the story seem less fictional, often referring to recent events. At one point, he even addresses the reader: “The author of this book, who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself…” Hugo also hid personal information in the novel. Examples include, the date his parents conceived him for Jean Valjean’s prison number “24601” and the date of (spoiler alert) Marius and Cosette’s wedding night is 16th February 1833, the same day Hugo first met his mistress Juliette Drouet. 

Due to his popularity as a poet, many people had high expectations for Hugo’s forthcoming novel. Hugo forbade his publishers from summarising the story before its publication. Instead, he asked them to focus on his past successes as a means of publicity. For example “What Victor H. did for the Gothic world in Notre-Dame de Paris, he accomplishes for the modern world in Les Misérables.” Rather than printing the entire novel, the publishers released Les Misérables in five volumes, the first of which they released in Brussels on 30th March 1862. The second volume appeared the following day, but sales of the remaining volumes did not start until 15th May.

Compared to Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo’s new novel received a lot of criticism. Many found the subject matter immoral, artificial and disappointing. Some people expressed contempt about Hugo’s support of revolutionaries. On the other hand, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) praised Hugo for drawing attention to social problems of the time. Despite the initial criticisms, Les Misérables sold well and remains a popular book today. During the same year of its publication, copies appeared in other languages, including Italian, Greek and Portuguese. Before long, people all over the continent knew the story.

Les Mis Poster

Since its publication, Les Misérables has been adapted for eight films, a radio production, three television programmes and an anime series. Of course, the most famous adaptation is the 1980 musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg (b.1944) and Alain Boublil (b.1941). Although originally performed in French, Les Misérables is the longest-running musical in the West End, running continuously since October 1985.

After the publication of Les Misérables, Hugo turned his attention to other social matters, particularly slavery. Although he believed colonialism would help to civilise “barbaric” nations, he called for an end to the slave trade.

“Only one slave on Earth is enough to dishonour the freedom of all men. So the abolition of slavery is, at this hour, the supreme goal of the thinkers.”

Victor Hugo, 17th January 1862

As well as campaigning against slavery, Hugo called for the abolition of the death penalty. Before his exile, Hugo declared “You have overthrown the throne… Now overthrow the scaffold.” Whilst he successfully influenced Geneva, Portugal and Colombia, he had little impact on the French government. In 1859, Napoleon III granted amnesty to all political exiles, but Hugo refused to return to Paris until Napoleon fell from power in 1870.

Shortly after his return to the French capital, the Siege of Paris began. This resulted in the capture of the city by Prussian forces. During this time, Parisians, including Hugo, were reduced to “eating the unknown” meat supplied by the Paris Zoo. Following the siege, Hugo temporarily moved to Brussels where he observed the goings-on in Paris through newspapers. Between March and May 1871, radical socialists created a short-lived revolutionary government. Writing for the Belgian newspaper l’Indépendance, Hugo expressed his support for the rebels, which angered many people. That evening, a mob of sixty men attempted to break into Hugo’s home, shouting “Death to Victor Hugo! Hang him! Death to the scoundrel!”

In 1872, Hugo attempted to encourage Parisians to re-elect him to the National Assembly, stating in his diary, “Dictatorship is a crime. This is a crime I am going to commit.” Despite people hailing Hugo as a national hero, he lost his bid. Nonetheless, he continued to express his views, prophesying that by the 20th century there would be no more war, no death penalty and no hatred. He believed Europe should unite as the “United States of Europe” to make the continent a peaceful place.

Avenue Victor-Hugo in Paris

Victor Hugo’s health started to go downhill from the mid-1870s after he suffered a mini-stroke. By this time, his wife Adèle had died, and his sons passed away soon afterwards. His remaining daughter Adèle lived in an insane asylum, so it fell to Hugo’s mistress Juliette Drouet to care for him. In 1878, Hugo suffered another mild stroke, yet he continued to inspire the people of Paris. For his 80th birthday, the city presented him with a Sèvres vase, an item traditionally reserved for sovereigns. Following this honour, the longest parade in French history took place, lasting 6 hours. Hugo watched the paraders from his house on the Avenue d’Eylau, soon renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo.

In 1883, Juliette Drouet passed away. Although they lived as lovers since the death of Hugo’s wife, they never married. On 22nd May 1885, at the age of 83, Victor Hugo breathed his last after suffering from pneumonia. The whole of France mourned his death and, although he requested a paupers funeral, he received a state funeral attended by over two million people and his final written words, “To love is to act”, became immortalised. His body rests in the Panthéon along with the writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-70).

“I leave 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be buried in their hearse. I refuse [funeral] orations from all Churches. I demand a prayer to all souls. I believe in God.”

The Will of Victor Hugo
Town with Tumbledown Bridge, Victor Hugo, 1847

After his death, it came to light that Hugo drew and painted as a hobby. He produced over 4000 drawings but never revealed them to the public for fear they would detract from his literary work. His family and close friends knew about his artistic skills and often received handmade cards from the author, particularly during his exile. A few painters of the time tried to encourage Hugo to seriously consider working as a professional artist, including Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), who believed Hugo had the potential to outshine the artists of their century. Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) also admired Hugo’s work.

Marble bust of Victor Hugo by Auguste Rodin

Hugo’s legacy lives on in many ways, not just through the award-winning musical Les Misérables. In Guernsey, Jean Boucher (1870-1939) erected a sculpture of the author to commemorate his stay on the island. Several shops and cafes in Paris honour Hugo’s name, as does the school Lycée Victor Hugo, founded in the town of his birth. Hugo’s fame also spread across to America where he is remembered by street names in Quebec and San Francisco, and a city in Kansas. In 1929, the Vietnamese religion of Cao Đài venerated Hugo as a saint. 

Who is Victor Hugo? Most people answer “the author of Les Misérables“, but his biography proves this is just one of his many achievements. Victor Hugo was a poet, novelist, dramatist, politician, peer of France, drawer and painter. He has hundreds of works to his name and, in France, he is remembered for his radical thinking and opinions. As the crowds at his funeral show, Victor Hugo had many fans and his greatest works will live on through modern adaptations forevermore.

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