This is the fifth blog post in a series about a Grand Tour of Paris with Victor Hugo. Here we talk about the changes that occurred in Paris in the 1850s while Hugo was in exile.
Image: Close up of map from Galignani's New Guide to Paris (1832)
Why Hugo left Paris: Louis-Napoleon and the Second Empire
In the last blog post, we left off at rue Beaubourg. Now we shall wander through Les Halles to rue de Rivoli. But first, let’s take a moment to talk about the important French history behind this next part of the tour… 1850s Paris.
Why did Victor Hugo go into voluntary exile? Hugo initially supported Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte when the Bonaparte Dynasty came back to France. The writer and the young politician seemed to display the same Romantic and conservative ideals, and Hugo believed that President Bonaparte could aid the return to a better France.
Caricature of Napoleon III. Jacques Joseph Tissot, “Sovereigns No. 1. Le régime parlementaire,” Plate no. 44, Vanity Fair, 4 September 1869, p. 134. Wikimedia Commons.
Hugo soon realized, however, that a juggernaut had been unleashed, and he quickly got out of the country. Not that there was much indication that the nephew and heir to the man who had started Europe on a course of endless war would do…
Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte came to France seeking asylum - or so he said. He was potentially a member of the group trying to unify Italy called The Carbonari. The harsh reaction against 1831 uprisings in Italy that were led by The Carbonari gave Louis-Napoleon the opportunity - read: the excuse - to flee to France for protection.
But upon his arrival in 1831 he was asked to leave France again, and he wandered the world for the next two decades. He stopped in London, prison in northern France, Brazil, New York, France again (this time he attempted re-entry with an army), and his favorite place of retreat Switzerland.
After (yet another) revolution in 1848, this time a success, he returned to France. Various kinsmen of his entered politics to shine up the golden Bonaparte name, and he waited until the next round of elections to make his move. With the assistance of the so-called Docteur Veron and his newspaper Le Constitutionel, the mission of his campaign was to protect "religion, the family, property, the eternal basis of all social order."
This was very similar to the motto of another set of conservatives in power, The Party of Order headed by Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about the American Revolution, and Adolphe Thiers: "Order, Property, Religion."
Prince-President Louis-Napoleon was smart enough to include de Tocqueville and Thiers in his administration, but his increasingly inappropriate grasps at power shook them to draft a policy prohibiting a second term for the Prince-President.
Then, when he was unable to run for office again in 1851, Louis-Napoleon merely organized a coup d'état and declared himself second Emperor of France on December 2, 1851. On the 11th, Hugo packed up his entourage and headed to Brussels.
But the Bonaparte dynasty had many branches, and by 1852 Hugo had moved from Brussels to the English protectorate of Guernsey, an island in the English Channel a mere twenty miles from the coast of France. Here he would stay for nearly twenty years.
Safe in the arms of France’s traditional enemy, he made important contacts that would launch his career, including in The United States and, even more importantly, in the British Empire - a nation upon which the sun never set. Because of these connections, someone could in theory be reading an English translation of Victor Hugo’s works by daylight everywhere on Earth.
Hugo’s work Napoleon the Little
In 1852, Hugo published his polemic on the betrayal his beloved former Republic, Louis-Napoleon’s coup d'état in France. The title is Napoléon le Petit - literally Napoleon the Little. Hugo writes in this piece, “M. Louis Bonaparte has succeeded. He has with him henceforth money, speculation, the Bourse, the Bank, the counting-room, the strong-box, and all those men who pass so readily from one side to the other, when all they have to straddle is shame.”
He reduces Louis-Napoleon to a “M.” for “Monsieur,” a “Mr.” or “Mister” like any common citizen of France, refusing to address the usurper with an unearned title. Hugo is especially succinct: The self-proclaimed Second Emperor of France is in it for the money and has surrounded himself with yes men in order to capitalize on the branding of his family name - Bonaparte.
Even when political refugees were granted asylum in 1859 by the Second Empire, Hugo refused to return. He knew that he would not be able to speak or write against the Emperor to the extent necessary while living in France. And write against the Second Empire he did. He finished Les Misérables while living on Guernsey.
Meanwhile, the Paris of his memories, the Paris of Les Misérables, was totally demolished and redesigned beyond recognition in his absence.
The Hugo Tour continues…
Hugo’s horror at the so-called renovation of Paris
Nouvelle Halle au Bled (Nouvelle Halle aux Blés), Framed game board “Game of French Monuments of Paris,” c.1820s-1830s, at The Curio of Norfolk, LLC.
In Napoleon the Little, Hugo addresses the Emperor’s plan for the renovation of Paris. Well, he admonishes the collaborators in this project. He writes,
Is it possible that, because we still eat and drink, because the coachmakers' trade is flourishing, because you, labourer, have work in the Bois de Boulogne, because you, mason, earn forty sous a day at the Louvre, because you, banker, have made money in the mining shares of Vienna, or in the obligations of Hope and Co., because the titles of nobility are restored, because one can now be called Monsieur le Comte or Madame la Duchesse, because religious processions traverse the streets on the Fête-Dieu, because people enjoy themselves, because they laugh, because the walls of Paris are covered with bills of fêtes and theatres,—is it possible that, because these things are so, men forgot that there are corpses lying beneath?
Keep in mind that Napoleon III’s first cosmetic facelift of a renovation began where Hugo would have walked from Comédie-Française to his home at the Place du Vosges, via Les Halles and La Nouvelle Halle aux Blés (the New Wheat Market - new as of 1789), which had been the only major change in the area in hundreds of years. Actually, Hugo referred to La Nouvelle Halle aux Blés in Book III, Chapter 2 of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) as “an English jockey-cap on a magnificent scale,” so clearly he was not particularly enamored with the current architecture but more interested in the preservation of the city’s culture.
Changes to the Rue de Rivoli, site of the barricades
Over the course of only four years, the rue de Rivoli was widened and lengthened across Paris. And what was removed for this beautification? Thousands of buildings, the humble homes of tens of thousands of citizens, on hundreds of streets, the streets on which were formed the barricades of revolutions.
Hugo describes theses barricades and streets in Les Misérables from memory while in exile on Guernsey. He wrote his account of the heart-wrenching struggle while that battlefield was slowly being knocked down, stone by stone and beam by beam, and erased from existence.
Where to eat snails at Les Halles...
Surely, this history of Paris and the Second Empire has left you hungry, so why not slow down and dine at a classic restaurant in Les Halles, L’Escargot Montorgueil at 38, rue Montorgeuil. Since 1832, they are famous clearly for escargot and they are also known for good cuts of steak.
Map of Paris insert in Galignani's New Guide to Paris (1832), The Curio of Norfolk, LLC. Follow this link to see more about this book.
Further Paris with Hugo tour tips coming very soon! We will be looking the battlefields and graves of the revolutions…