News that Victor Hugo had taken ill was announced on May, 18 1885. He was a superstar before the age of superstars, a literary figure whose personal and political life had attained mythic proportions in his country and among his contemporaries.
For four days, the nation held its breath, waiting and praying that the poet would recover. When death finally claimed Victor Hugo at around 1:30 a.m. on May 22, men and women throughout the nation joined together in a shared display of grief and respectful devotion the likes of which none had seen. To contemporary observers, the event marked nothing less than the end of the nineteenth century.
Léon Daudet, son of the popular writer Alphonse Daudet, Jeanne Hugo, the beloved granddaughter of Victor Hugo, and Jean-Baptiste Charcot, son of the renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, were among the more than two million people who filled the city on June 1 to watch as Victor Hugo’s body, carried in a pauper’s coffin, wound its way through the city streets.
Victor Hugo and the values he incarnated had served as a powerful point of reference for generations of Frenchmen; his passing, when Léon, Jeanne, and Jean-Baptiste were all teenagers, marked an important turning point not only in their lives but in the history of the nation.
These three families—Hugo, Daudet, Charcot—represented the best of what France had to offer: integrity, success, Republican fortitude, and even genius. Now, with the death of Victor Hugo and the new century looming ahead, these three adolescents were faced with the daunting challenge of making names for themselves in a changing world, their very personal quests for self-discovery increasingly bound up in the great debates of the day. Their time together and the subsequent choices they made offer an illuminating glimpse into the possibilities and frustrations of growing up in the public eye in fin-de-siècle France.