8 short biographies of celebrated French writers

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French writers are a vital ingredient in the nation’s rich cultural heritage. Adding colour and controversy, a long list of celebrated scribes helped shape the national character. Some remain beloved today, in and outside France.

We’ve picked out 8 literary greats from across French history. All French icons, all staggeringly influential. All with an intriguing biography.

Victor Hugo

A handful of French writers built a lasting legacy. Victor Hugo is, perhaps, the finest example.

The author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862) was inspired by the contemporary Romantic movement. Born in 1802, by the time Romanticism’s heyday was over (around 1850), he was one of its leading lights.

A restless genius, Victor Hugo’s prolific output over a 60 plus year career spanned everything from satire to funeral orations. He even found time to sketch over 4,000 drawings. Yet it was his writing which earned him acclaim.

Alongside his two best-known books, Hugo was a feted poet, responsible for ambitious collections like La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Ages; 1859) that sought to articulate the human condition.

The son of a Napoleonic general, Hugo’s political beliefs shifted markedly left over his lifetime. A campaigner for social justice, he would later oppose the ascension of Napoleon III, leading to his temporary exile in Brussels.

Despite holding radical views for the day, after several thwarted applications, he was accepted into the Académie Française, the august body charged with safeguarding the French language. The nation’s leading man of letters used his growing stature to campaign for change: opposing the death penalty and slavery while supporting universal suffrage and press freedoms.

A rational and tireless voice for progress, Hugo was elected to the National Assembly at critical junctures in French history. First in 1848 against the backdrop of the February Revolution (Révolution de Février), then in 1870 after returning from exile when Napoleon III was deposed.

By 1870, he was so popular that there was talk of him replacing Napoleon III. His own notes suggest he was inclined to accept this fanciful honour. Yet despite his exalted status, he failed to get re-elected to the National Assembly and Hugo spent the remainder of his life fighting for social and political progress in the Third Republic as a political outsider.

In a life touched by personal tragedy (only one of his five children survived him), his later years were characterised by illness. Yet by the time he reached his 80th birthday, he was able to witness parades through Paris in his honour that passed directly under his bedroom window.

His death in 1885, aged 83, was met with national mourning and, against his own wishes, Hugo was honoured with a state funeral. He was laid to rest in France’s monument to heroes, the Panthéon. Interred alongside two other revered French writers, Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola, Victor Hugo is still considered a giant of French literature.

Did you know? You can visit Victor Hugo’s home in Paris, lovingly restored to how it was when he lived.

Jules Verne

A contemporary of Victor Hugo, Jules Verne was not a political campaigner. But his influence on French culture and international literature is probably bigger, and his novels have been translated into more languages than any other French writer.

The author of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (20,000 Leagues under the sea; 1870) and Voyage au Centre de la Terre (Journey to the centre of the Earth; 1864) as part of his ‘Voyages Extraordinaires’ (Extraordinary Journeys) series, he has been hailed the ‘father of science fiction’. Adding other illustrious works like Around the world in 80 days and The Mysterious Island to his body of works, he is one of the French writers whose works are still read by schoolchildren today.

Despite, or because of, his commercial success, Verne was never fully recognised by his literary peers. He failed to win a seat in the Académie Française. And there was a prevailing view that his works did not add anything substantial, unlike the French writers Victor Hugo or Émile Zola, for example.

By his death in 1905 (aged 77), he reportedly regretted not playing a more prominent role in French literary discourse. Yet in the years that followed, his star only grew brighter.

Verne’s works gained newfound respect and legions of fans outside France. ‘Serious’ French writers started to recognise the quality of his writing matched his talent for storytelling. He gained such a fervent posthumous following that he inspired an informal cult that would create the Société Jules Verne, an academic society for scholars of his writing.

Today, Jules Verne’s influence can be spotted across France. From theme park rides to the steampunk aesthetics at Les Machines de l’Île in Nantes, his birthplace. His works are the cornerstone of science-fiction. Countless luminaries, from cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, cite him as their inspiration.   

One of the most respected French writers of all time, Jules Verne’s novels continue to inspire French writers and Hollywood producers today.  

Alexandre Dumas

If any French writer can match the international acclaim of Jules Verne, it is Alexandre Dumas. Author of Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers; 1844) and the enduringly popular Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo; 1844-46), Dumas is another French icon who rests in the national monument to French legends, the Panthéon.

Real name Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, Alexandre was the son of a slave and a French general. His unusual upbringing in (modern-day) Haiti did not stop him from quickly joining the elite in France when he moved there aged 14.

A high achiever from a young age, Dumas followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the army, rising to the rank of General by the age of 31. The first person of Afro-Antilles heritage to achieve the status.

By then, Diderot had already made his name amongst French writers. At 27 years old, his first play Henry III and His Courts was well-received. He followed up just a year later with another respected play, Christine.

Balancing writing with a part in the political machinations of the day — he participated in the coup that removed Charles X from the French throne — Dumas’ books sold well. Often translated into English, he experienced commercial success. Yet a bon viveur who had numerous affairs, he spent what he earned and lived like a penniless artist for much of his life.

In 1844, he finished the two novels he is remembered for today, the Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Partly inspired by his military and political experiences in the doomed Second Empire, they are still cherished globally today.

Adding noted works like La Reine Margot (The Queen Margot), Le Prince des voleurs (Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves), and El Hombre de La Mascara de Hierro (The man in the iron mask) to a colossal repertoire, Dumas’s novels have reportedly been turned into over 200 movies.

On the bicentenary of his birth in 2002, Alexandre Dumas received the highest honour France can bestow when his ashes were moved to the Panthéon, thus confirming his status as one of the finest French writers.

Denis Diderot

Denis Diderot is remembered as one of the respected Enlightenment figures in France who co-created and edited the seminal Encyclopédie.

Encyclopédie was a mammoth undertaking, drawing together myriad enlightenment thinkers, including Voltaire and Rousseau, from across the intellectual sphere. Mathematicians, historians, natural historians, economists and more contributed 71,818 articles to the 28 volumes of work.

Diderot was an encyclopédiste (contributor), but his primary role was chief editor. Working with mathematician and philosopher Jean le Rond d’Alembert, he helped pull the sprawling work together. It was not the first encyclopedia (the Romans had that covered), but its depth and scope were immense.

Aiming to bring all the world’s knowledge into one collection of written works, Encyclopédie was both a product of the Age of Enlightenment and a vehicle to bring those ideas to a wider audience. It was groundbreaking, controversial, and audacious. In short, it was a hugely important work that etched Diderot’s name in French history.

Diderot did not emerge from nowhere. He was a philosophical writer and playwright for many years before. But he gained little recognition amongst French writers of the day and had to scrape a living, only realising financial security after Encyclopédie was finished. In his later years, his main income came from working as chief librarian for Russian empress Catherine the Great.

Some novels, Les bijoux indiscrets (the indiscrete jewels), were published anonymously to dodge censorship in pre-revolutionary France. While many of his works were published posthumously, like his novels La promenade du sceptique (The sceptic’s walk) and Jacques the Fatalist.  

Diderot passed away in 1784, aged 70, just 5 years before the revolution. While many of his written works are considered of minor importance, he will always be remembered as one of the French writers who brought Enlightenment ideas to the masses and paved the way for change.

Honoré de Balzac

Among the many pioneering nineteenth century French writers, Honoré de Balzac is best remembered for his use of fiction to detail the state of the nation. Writing in the post-Napoleonic era, his finest works are collected within La Comédie Humaine (The human comedy; 1829-48), a highly-personal sequence of novels.

Renowned for its rare observational honesty, La Comédie Humaine follows a colourful tapestry of relatable characters. It encompassed 91 finished pieces, from essays to novels.

Helping birth the idea of fictional novels, Balzac was a sensation in his day. One of the rare French writers of that period to dodge political controversy, he is credited with influencing writers like Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert.

Born in 1799, ill health and misfortune dogged Balzac’s life. Yet those experiences, including failed careers in law and politics, helped inform his writing, adding a layer of realism rarely seen by French writers before.

Today, you can visit Balzac’s tomb in the celebrity-filled Père Lachaise Cemetery, where he is remembered as one of the French writers who truly shook up the literary world.

George Sand

Still stirring controversy today, George Sand (real name: Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) is the only woman on this list of venerable French writers.

Beloved by peers during her day — her friends included Balzac and Gustave Flaubert — she is partly remembered for her flamboyant lifestyle. A voice for women’s rights, she caused scandals in her day by wearing male attire, smoking in public, and having extra-marital lover affairs, most famously with Frédéric Chopin.

Illustrating how she remains a figure of controversy, a plan to have her remains reinterred in the Panthéon was shelved in 2003. The move was claimed to be a token gesture for feminism that managed to upset both ends of the political spectrum.

Today, Sand’s remains are still buried in the small family plot in her home village of Nohant, Indre. Her home is a museum. In Paris, the Musée de la Vie Romantique (Museum of Romantic Life) also contains a collection of her momentoes, displayed in the home where she once entertained peers like Charles Dickens and Franz Liszt.

(Are you interested in discovering new French museums? Check out our guide to 12 of the most extraordinary French museums).

Influenced by the contemporary romantic school, Sand was a prolific author of novels. Her rustic novels series, including La Mare au diable (The Devil’s Pool; 1846) and La Petite Fadette (The little Fadette; 1849) were incredibly popular in their day, with her books outselling Balzac and Victor Hugo. She even found time to write a collection of children’s stories for her own grandchildren, Contes d’une grand’mère (Tales of a grandmother; 1873).

George Sand’s life was lived in technicolour. She stands out amongst French writers: not just for her early feminism and the scandals that lit up Parisian salons, but because she was a writer of renown. Influencing writers from South America to Russia (Fyodor Dostoevsky was a huge fan), she remains one of the most famous French writers ever.

Molière

No list of French writers can ignore Molière, aka Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. A legendary playwright and favourite of the Bourbon monarchy, his works transformed the nature of comedy.

Writing at a time when the French language was being codified, it has been said that today the French speak the ‘language of Molière’. Immeasurably influential on drama, comedy, and the written word, he is a scribe who is often hailed the greatest of all French writers.

His most admired works covered tragedy and farce yet were nearly all comedies. They include L’École des femmes (The School for Wives; 1662), the critically adored Le Misanthrope, and his most praised and controversial play, Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur (Tartuffe, or The Imposter; 1664).

Patronised by royalty, Molière the wordsmith and dramatist had an eye for tragi-comedy. His influence is undimmed long after he died in 1673, aged just 51. Living his entire life in Paris, his bones were eventually moved to the illustrious Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, to rest among distinguished company.  

Marcel Proust

Another of the exalted names to reside at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Marcel Proust is one of the twentieth century’s peerless French writers. A novelist and essayist, he is best known for the monumental seven volume series À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time; 1913-27).

Born in 1871 in Auteuil, Proust learned his craft writing for literary magazines and reviews. Aged 38, Proust started writing his magnum opus. Thousands of characters and personal recollections were interwoven into a timeless novel charting a young man’s path through life. At the heart of his prose is a wry analytical style that was considered fresh and unique.

Plagued by ill health brought on by asthma, Proust died aged 51, and three volumes of his work were completed and published posthumously. À la recherche du temps perdu was hailed an instant masterpiece, with Graham Greene pronouncing Proust the “greatest novelist of the 20th century”.

From Molière to Proust, eminent French writers have been inspiring, informing, and entertaining for centuries. Worthy names are missing, but there is no question that all the French writers on our list rank among the greatest of all time.

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