Excerpt taken from the book The Story of French ( Ch. 8 )
The son of a general in Napoleon’s army, Hugo was only fourteen when he wrote in his schoolbook that he would be “Chateaubriand or nothing.” He started his first literary journal at age seventeen and soon made his mark with poems and a series of popular novels. He wrote with an ease and freedom untypical of his predecessors. At twenty-one Hugo earned himself a royal pension. His first play, Cromwell, turned him into a celebrity. Its preface—in which Hugo made a plea for what he called le grotesque (popular reality) and against the classical canon of unity of time, place and action—was considered the manifesto of French Romanticism. “All too often, the cage of unity contains a mere skeleton,” he wrote. As to the play itself, it was anything but classical, with hundreds of characters and dozens of locations.
At about the same time Hugo began experimenting with a new approach to prose, based on telling the story of less than ideal characters—a poor bohemian girl, a deformed bell-ringer and a lecherous archdeacon—the three pillars of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Few fans of the novel, which has inspired several successful films, know that Hugo wrote it to save the famous Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame from demolition. During the Revolution Notre Dame had been used as a saltpetre plant. By the nineteenth century it had suffered so much neglect that builders wanted to reuse its stones for bridge construction. Gothic art was then regarded as ugly and offensive; so Hugo’s choice of the location was deliberate: it linked the grotesque characters with the ugly art. The first three chapters of the novel are a plea to preserve Gothic architecture—in Hugo’s words, a “gigantic book of stone,” which he, as a Romantic, found beautiful.