Ninety-Three is the last of Victor Hugo’s novels and provides in many ways a coda to his wayward intellectual career.
Ninety-Three takes its title from the year 1793, the year I of the French Revolution, the year of the Great Terror. We open in the woods of Brittany, where Revolutionary forces are struggling to suppress the counter-revolutionary uprising of the Vendee. The Vendean forces are led by the aged Marquis de Lantenac, a terrifying but superhumanly courageous nobleman of the Old Regime. The Revolutionary forces are commanded by his nephew, the youthful Gauvain, who rejects his aristocratic inheritance to support the Republic.
The Republic, however, does not fully trust Gauvain’s loyalty. In a chilling scene in Paris, the leaders of the Republic – Danton, Marat, Robespierre – appoint a radical ex-priest, Cimourdain, to monitor Gauvain and to kill him if he should show any mercy. Unknown to them, Cimourdain was Gauvain’s tutor. It was he who led Gauvain to republicanism, and he loves him as the child he never had.
The novel culminates in a grand siege of the Lantenac clan’s ancestral castle, the marquis defending, the revolutionaries assaulting. After a long career of ruthless cruelty, the marquis redeems himself with an act of mercy that puts him at the mercy of the revolutionaries: He rescues three young children that he himself had seized as hostages just seconds before they are burned to death in a fire set by his own soldiers.
Lantenac is apprehended and sentenced to the guillotine. (As Cimourdain orders his death, Lantenac gravely intones: “I approve of what you do.”) Young Gauvain, however, believes that mercy should be met with mercy – and that the republic should found itself on love and forgiveness not terror and retribution. He slips into Lantenac’s cell, exchanges clothes with him, and pushes him out the door to freedom, submitting himself to revolutionary justice in his place.
Cimourdain orders Gauvain executed. Gauvain thinks lofty thoughts about the future of man as he goes to his death. At the instant the blade falls, Cimourdain shoots himself in a final act of atonement and reconciliaton.
As I recite the plot, I am reminded again of how preposterously operatic Hugo can be. I can well understand why it appealed to the young Ayn Rand. I think most other readers will conclude that it teeters a little too close to the edge of the bombastic and absurd.
As a novel, I find it far inferior not only to Les Miserables, but also to Hugo’s early career-launcher, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
As a window into French political and intellectual history, however, Ninety-Three is extremely interesting indeed.
Ninety-Three was written in 1874-75, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, the Paris Commune, and the violent suppression of the Commune by the forces of the Third Republic based in Versailles. Almost 30,000 Communards were killed; about 7,000 deported. In Ninety-Three, Hugo (aptly) describes the first French Revolution as “the triumph of France over Europe, and of Paris over France.”
Between 1793 and 1871, however, French politicians discovered an important and unsuspected fact:
From 1790 through 1870, revolutionary factions in Paris had again and again attempted violent seizures of power in the name of “the people.” Against “the people,” counter-revolutionaries rested their claim to power on the brute force of the army and the ideology of Throne and Altar. But when the First Republic redistributed land from the nobles to the peasants – and when Napoleon ratified the revolutionary land settlement – the revolutionaries had inadvertently transformed rural France into a profoundly conservative place. Give the vote to all (men), and they would elect governments of the right.
One could rephrase Hugo’s verdict on 1793 for 1871 as “the triumph of Germany over France – and of France over Paris.”
Hugo’s enthusiasm for revolutionary violence had been dwindling for some time anyway. His verdict on “the barricades” in Les Miserables is ambiguous, but essentially positive. 1871 may have opened his eyes to the real meaning – and led him to a better appreciation that the Great Revolution was not an uprising of the people against monarchy, as he had earlier tended to assert, but a civil war, a Franco-French war in the phrase of the 20th century historian, Francois Furet.
In Ninety-Three, Hugo remains a partisan of the Revolution. The counter-revolutionary peasants of the Vendee are shown as primitive, ignorant, and savage. Counter-revolutionary atrocities are highlighted; the revolutionary forces are shown engaged only in proper military operations. No mention is made of General Carrier’s policy of sinking boatloads of counter-revolutionary suspects in the Loire, or of the Paris regime’s use of famine as a weapon of war.
On the other hand, Hugo does make some effort to understand how alien Paris and Paris ideology must have seemed to Breton peasants who did not even speak French. He concedes that the counter-revolution did have a popular following, that it was something more than a reactionary conspiracy. And he allows himself to think that the repression and terror with which the First Republic established itself did after all disgrace the regime and the revolutionary cause – and maybe invite the prolonged political instability that plagues France through Hugo’s lifetime.
Overwrought as it may be, Ninety-Three remains a great work of literature, albeit a great work of the kind that explains why so many French agree with Andre Gide’s response to the question, Who is France’s greatest writer? “Victor Hugo, alas.” But if it is a very troublesome great work, it is unequivocally a great milestone on the way to the destination Francois Furet announced when he proclaimed: “The French Revolution is over.” By the end of his life, Victor Hugo had come to understand that the Revolution’s justification could be accepted, and its achievements defended, only if its evils and crimes were also acknowledged. Ninety-Three is not an acknowledgement in full, or anything close to full. But it is a beginning – a beginning of a long reconciliation of which even in our time France has not yet quite seen the end.