Bohemianism and Counter-Culture
Victor Hugo
The Prince of Youth

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The Romantic Army

 

Victor Hugo was born in 1802 to a conservative mother and a father who had been a general in the Napoloeonic wars. He belonged to the old system of patronage, as by the age of eighteen he had received a gift from King Louis XVIII for verses he had written, and was later given a royal pension. Odd then, that it was he who began the Romantic Movement.

In 1827, Hugo produced Cromwell, a long historical drama. In its preface, he demanded a freedom from the restrictions imposed by the classical style. This preface was taken to heart as a call to arms for all the young struggling writers in Paris. The piece seemed to sum up the irresistible desire for liberty that they all felt.

The publication of Cromwell enabled Hugo and his wife Adele, to hold their own salon, where his influence over the visual artists, as well as the writers, only increased. Artists who read his work, or heard him at the salons, could easily place themselves in the shoes of the writer, attacking Classicist positions. They called for "Down with theories and systems! Let us tear away the old lath-and-plaster hiding the face of art! There are neither rules nor models; or, rather, no rules but the general laws of Nature!" (Easton 45)

 Hugo, aged 30, drawn by Nanteuil. (Miller 17)

 It was this group of people that Hugo turned to for the battle of Hernani. The censors of France had recently prohibited one of his plays from being performed. To ensure that this did not happen to Hernani, Hugo assembled a Romantic Army. They ensured that there was enough of a crowd upon opening night that the play could not be shut down. The arrived in the most absurd styles, and fashions, most of them exceedingly young, though already accomplished. Upon the premiere night, these proto-bohemians were locked within the auditorium for three hours, and in that time managed to make quite a mess of it, mostly due to the lack of facilities provided for them. When the bourgeois audience members arrived for the show, they were appalled at the damage, and at the absurd looking people who were already there. Hernani stayed on the stage for one hundred performances, but never went on without a scuffle or argument. (Miller 60.)
 
Scuffles at Victor Hugo's Hernani. (Miller 25)

 

The young men who took part in the Hernani debacle were the same ones who went on to become the bohemians, though the name did not come into vogue for several years. As for Hugo, he gradually left his bohemian circle. He was essentially a bourgeois, and he returned to that much larger potential audience. The dedicated audience of artists that he left behind preferred to remember him as the author of the Preface to Cromwell, rather than keep up with his newer writing (Such as Les Miserables.)