by Victor Hugo
“History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality. Furthermore, history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath momentary man.” ― Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three
Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo is a glorious romantic imagining of an episode from the year 1793, during the French Revolution and the year of the Great Terror. The setting is Brittany where counter-revolutionary forces have risen up to oppose the Revolutionary leaders. The leader of this group, the aged Marquise de Lantenac, is a romantic hero in the grandest sense. A Breton noble, he disguises himself as a peasant after landing on the western coast. His mission, which he pursues with ruthless single-mindedness, is to act as a leader to the rebels, harness them to the royalist cause, and contrive an opportunity for an English military invasion.
His fate seems to be determined by the Revolutionary forces which are led by his grand-nephew, Gauvain. Pitted against Lantenac, Gauvain, formerly the Vicomte de Gauvain, has renounced his noble heritage and embraced the republican cause. Gauvain commands the republican troops allied with Marat and tasked with hunting down and killing Lantenac.
The third protagonist is Cimourdain, once a priest and Gauvain’s tutor, now a fervent revolutionary. It was from Cimourdain that Gauvain first learned the political ideals he has adopted. Cimourdain has a secret, the one weak spot in his ideological armour, for he loves Gauvain, has loved him since childhood, like the son he himself never had. Cimourdain is sent by the revolutionary leader, Marat, as a special agent to the Vendée to ensure that Gauvain does not waver in his loyalty, for Marat has heard disturbing rumors that Gauvain may be capable of mercy, and revolutionary leaders view this as a cardinal sin.
The tension of the story is provided not only by the action, which is fiercely exciting, but by ideas. At one point Gauvain says to Cimourdain:
"Louis XVI was a sheep thrown among lions. He tried to flee, to save himself . . . But not everyone can be a lion who wants to. His feeble attempt was regarded as a crime."
He asks Cimourdain, "lions? What are they?"
"This made Cimourdain think. He raised his head and said, 'Those lions are consciences. Those lions are ideas. Those lions are principles.'" (pp 197-98)
While Gauvain is a man of action, a revolutionary for the republic, he is also a thinker and it is his thoughts about the humanity of men that lead him to his ultimate actions.
The grandeur of this novel is superb, while Hugo builds suspense in every section. Some scenes are so vivid that you are unlikely to forget them. One scene that is sometimes excerpted from the novel is the great cannon episode; depicting a loose cannon on a ship of anti-revolutionary French Royalists sailing towards Brittany, to aid the anti-revolutionary Chouannerie rebellion.
The whole of the novel is like this, filled with one astonishing experience after another, keeping this reader spellbound.
Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo. Bantam Books, 1962 (1874)