Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo.

Title-page of Ninety-Three illustrated by
Émile Bayard.
Ninety-Three (Quatrevingt-treize) is the final novel of Victor Hugo, and the title refers to a period within the French Revolution which lasted between 1789 to 1799. In 1793 the king, Louis XVI, was executed, the monarchy was abolished, and the Reign of Terror (la Terreur) began. When Hugo's novel was published in 1874, France had faced another upheaval: in 1852 following a coup the Second French Empire had been established, and following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 it collapsed (Émile Zola writes about this period in his Rougon Macquart novels), leading to the establishment of the Third Republic (1870 - 1940; France is now in its Fifth Republic). During 1871 France was ruled by the Paris Commune, which was marked by its radical socialist ideas (Karl Marx would describe it as a "dictatorship of the proletariat"); this led to a war with the government and the week beginning 21st May was known as 'The Bloody Week' (La semaine sanglante). Though Ninety-Three was specifically about the French Revolution, there can be no doubt this had been brought to mind by the events Hugo witnessed during this period.

The novel is divided into three parts:
  • Part I: At Sea
  • Part II: In Paris
  • Part III: In Vendée
'At Sea' by
Fortuné-Louis Méaulle.

It begins in Brittany in the woods of La Saudraie: a peasant woman, Michelle Fléchard, encounters the "Blues", or republican soldiers, who question her, asking what her name is, where she's from, who her parents are or were, and which side her husband fights on. Bemused, she tells them he is dead:
"And what does your husband do, madame? What's become of him?"
"Nothing has become of him, because they killed him."
"Where?"
"In the hedgerows."
"When?"
"Three days ago."
"Who?"
"I don't know."
"What! You don't know who killed your husband?"
"No."
"Was it a Blue? Was it a White?"
"It was a bullet."
"Three days ago?"
"Yes."
"In what direction from here?"
"Towards Ernée. My husband fell. That's all."
This line of questioning has brief and almost darkly comic moments, but it shows the high emotions of the time. It's revealed that this peasant woman's husband was killed during the peasants' revolt, and therefore the soldiers agree to help her and her three children.

As this plays out, the Whites (royalists) meanwhile are at sea with the Marquis de Lantenac, an aristocrat who will help their cause. The ship becomes damaged when a sailor fails to secure a canon. He manages to save the ship and is rewarded for his bravery, and then is swiftly executed without trial for his failure. When the ship is spotted by the Republicans, Lantenac steals away and safely lands, and he is protected by a local beggar. When he meets with the other royalist peasants he is now in a position to attack the republicans, and captures many of the Blues, including Michelle Fléchard. He then orders them to be shot, keeping Michelle's three children as hostages. Yet Michelle survives.

'In Vendée' by
Fortune-Louis Méaulle.
'In Paris' by
Fortuné-Louis Méaulle.
Clearly, the bloody ruthlessness of the Marquis de Lantenac is a grave threat to the republicans, and the matter is discussed by Danton, Robespierre and Marat. These three are in fact figures from real life. Danton is Georges Jacques Danton, the first president of the Committee of Public Safety created in April 1793. Robespierre is Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer and politician instrumental in creating the Committee of Public Safety. Finally, Marat is Jean-Paul Marat, who, among other things, was a radical journalist. With Cimourdain, a revolutionary priest, they decide to execute all republicans and those who help the republicans, as well as to keep a close eye on Gauvain, the commander of the republican troops. What they don't know is that Cimourdain was the tutor of Gauvain.

From here Hugo describes not only the bloody war between the 'Blues' and the 'Whites', the injustices and senselessness of the many deaths during this period, but also on how Michelle Fléchard finds and tries to save her three children. It's a very gripping novel, and frequently very shocking. As well as an account of one of the bloodiest periods of French history, the fictional element portrays the terror and the divided loyalties of individuals to their people and to the state. A very great and unsettling read.

Comments

  1. I was soooo looking forward to your review, as I saw on Goodreads that you were reading Ninety-Three. I love Hugo but I've only read Les Misérables, so I was hoping that this novel was good as well. Thanks for the excellent review. I need to do some sort of Hugo project; his poetry is just wonderful, not to mention his art. He was truly a man of varied talents!

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    Replies
    1. I love Les Mis! Aside from that and this, the only other Hugo I've read is Hunchback, which I wasn't so fond of. But Ninety-Three is very good, probably not as good as Les Mis though.

      Remember I told you ages ago I didn't buy that Hugo poetry book when I had the chance? I still regret that. Jeanette Winterson is right - one rarely regrets the books one buys, but always the ones *not* bought... :)

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  2. It's one of the last Hugo novels I have to read, and I can't wait. As always, you found some great imagery for this post :)

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I liked the illustrations too! Glad I found them :) Hope you love this book! :)

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