Victor Hugo

Graham Robb

1998 Winner

Whitbread Biography Award

09 October 1998
720 pages


Victor Hugo was the most important writer of the nineteenth century in France: leader of the Romantic movement, Revolutionary playwright, poet, epic novelist, author of the last universally accessible masterpieces in the European tradition, among them Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He was also a radical political thinker and eventual exile from France, a gifted painter and architect, and a visionary who conversed with Virgil, Shakespeare, and Jesus Christ – in short, a tantalizing personality who dominated and maddened his contemporaries.

Graham Robb has written an extraordinary biography that does full justice to the drama of his subject’s life – a life that Robb calls ‘the most lucid case of madness in literature’. By grasping the giant in his entirety and in his many disguises, Robb, bestselling author of The Discovery of France, rewards us with a panorama of French and European society from the Revolution to the dawn of the twentieth century.

Victor Hugo won the Whitbread Award for Biography and the Royal Society of Literature award.

Mr Robb has written an enthralling book – one of the great biographies of our time. He contrives not to be dwarfed by his subject, which is some contrivance. He makes of Hugo’s life a story as exciting to read as it was extraordinary to have lived. He has a matchless gift for narrative. His style is epigrammatic and compelling. His judgements seem fair – not something Hugo was used to in life. Every Place Victor Hugo should now have a Café-Bar Graham Robb. He deserves, and will probably get, the Légion d’honneur.
One of the best biographies I have read, ever.
Robb achieves the goal of all good literary biographies by making us long to regain, or savour for the first time, Hugo’s company as a writer. Surely no chronicler of his life or analyst of his work has ever looked this prodigy of nature so unflinchingly in the eye.