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Victor Hugo earned 300,000 francs for his masterwork “Les Misérables”

Stefan Andrews

Best known for his books Les Misérables (1862), and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), Victor Hugo gained an iconic status around the world as one of the greatest and best-known French writers of all times.

Les Misérables, his major novel that depicts the social misery and injustice of 19-th century France, was easily applicable to other cultures too. A masterwork of his lifetime, Hugo began planning to write the novel as early as the 1830’s, and it took him seventeen years to fully complete it.

Victor Hugo in 1853

During the writing of the book, he poured in tremendous efforts and infused his detailed knowledge of the French society. For example, one of the early stories in the book revolves around the notorious French prison in Toulon, that was made famous in the novel as the place of confinement of the memorable protagonist Jean Valjean. For the story and the book, Hugo had traveled to Toulon himself and visited the Bagne of Toulon, taking extensive notes in 1839. He did not start writing the novel until six years later, and in one of the pages of his notes, he had written in large block letters a possible name for his character – it read “JEAN TRÉJEAN.” In the final output, Tréjean evolved into Jean Valjean.

Jean Valjean as Monsieur Madeleine. Illustration by Gustave Brion

Hugo was undoubtedly conscious of the quality of his work, and in a letter sent to his publisher, Albert Lacroix, on 23rd March 1862, he says: “My conviction is that this book is going to be one of the peaks, if not the crowning point of my work.” Reportedly, before Lacroix who was based in Brussels and was a new publisher, Hugo had already declined an offer for the book worth 150,000 which came from a renowned publishing house, too.

The author was looking forward to cathing the highest bidder for his new book.

Portrait of “Cosette” by Émile Bayard, from the original edition of Les Misérables (1862)

The appearance of Les Miserables was unlike anything else seen in the history of literature before. At the time the contract was signed with the Belgian house, which went under the name “Lacroix and Verboekhoven,” Hugo was already living in exile. According to professor and translator, David Bellows and his book entitled “The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables,” the publication was still pioneering.

The deal, Bellos points out, was pathbreaking on several levels. First, Hugo earned an unprecedented sum: 300,000 francs (roughly $3.8 million in today’s money) for an eight-year license,” also reports the Paris Review.

It was a tremendous amount of money, and since it entitled the publisher to own the work for only eight years, it remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature. It would probably have weighed around ninety-seven kilos in gold.,” writes Bellos.

“The Chaine”; prisoners, chained at the neck, being marched from Paris to Toulon  photo credit

Lacroix was determined to publish Hugo, and he even took a dangerous risk of loaning money from a bank to pay the French writer. Also, he went through a logistical hell to facilitate the whole procedure plus avoid loss of sales in case the book was banned in France. The Catholic Church indeed banned the book later, placing it on the notorious list of works that were deemed heretical and known as Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Aside to the loan, the Belgian publishing house conducted a unique marketing campaign for the novel. Press releases were issued six months before the book was launched and when it was finally out, only the first part known as Fantine got released. “Fantine went out in few European cities simultaneously, including Brussels, Paris, London, Leipzig, and Saint Petersburg. In Paris, the hype was so high that within the first hours, the first edition of six thousand copies sold out. The book fulfilled its expectations and announced an enormous influence on the French society.

A bust of Victor Hugo by August Rodin at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco photo credit

Despite its huge popularity, Les Miserable was a peak for critics and hostile attitude in Victor’s native France. Novelist Gustave Flaubert found “neither truth nor greatness” in Hugo’s novel. French poet Charles Baudelaire despite providing positive reviews in newspapers reproved the book privately as “repulsive and inept.” Regardless the critics’ demotion of the book, the sales were so good that Lacroix quickly returned his loan to the bank and the book gained its monumental status as it addressed some of the biggest social challenges of the era. Its influence went cross-borders, and within decades the story was reproduced in other media.

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A most interesting anecdote relates to Hugo and his publisher in England,  Hurst, and Blackett, from 1862. Allegedly, this was also the shortest correspondence in history, in which the writer queried the reaction to the work by sending a single-character telegram reading “?.” The publisher had then replied with a single “!” to designate that the book was a success.