Five fun facts about Victor Hugo, the celebrated author of Les Misérables
1. He had an unusual technique for dealing with writer’s block. While he was writing – or trying to write – Les Misérables, Victor Hugo found himself suffering from colygraphia (that’s our suggested technical word for ‘writer’s block’). So he decided to take all his clothes off, take himself off to a room where he had only pen and paper for company, and force himself to write, without even the distraction of clothes to derail him from his task. His servants reportedly had orders that they weren’t to return his clothes to him until he had written something. He worked on Les Misérables for many years, beginning work on it in the 1840s but not finishing it until 1862.
2. The most popular novel among soldiers in the American Civil War was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Published in 1862, the book had begun to appear in the US in an English translation before that year was out, and was a huge hit among soldiers fighting in the conflict.
3. And this, despite the fact that Les Misérables was originally something of a critical flop. Now widely regarded as Hugo’s masterpiece, the novel sold well but met with mostly negative reviews when first published. The New Englander had this to say: ‘The whole career of Jean Valjean presents a series of impossible cases, of strange incongruities, and stands in continuous antagonism with the principles of truth and honor which ought to be every honest man’s line of conduct.’ Even the New York Times, which praised the novel as ‘remarkable’ and ‘brilliant’, also went on to call Hugo ‘a prosy madman’ – something of a mixed review, after all.
4. Hugo was a foot fetishist. And he wasn’t alone in the world of great writers in being fond of feet – Dostoevsky, Goethe, George du Maurier, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were also podophiles (we’ve had to be careful with the spelling there).
5. Hugo claimed he made love to his wife nine times on their wedding night. According to Edward Behr in The Complete Book of Les Misérables, Hugo’s diary – which he kept compulsively – records that he managed it nine times with his hapless bride, Adèle. Even allowing some room for possible embellishment, it was evidently something of a trial for his poor young wife. Her feelings for her husband, Behr observes, were never to be the same again.
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Image: Victor Hugo, c. 1884, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.