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The Victor Hugo working naked story: myth or fact?

Submitted by Druss on Mon, 2012-08-20 00:12

I ran into a Neatorama article the other day which listed authors who like(d) to work naked. One of them was apparently Victor Hugo:

When Victor Hugo, the famous author of great tomes such as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, ran into a writer's block, he concocted a unique scheme to force himself to write: he had his servant take all of his clothes away for the day and leave his own nude self with only pen and paper, so he'd have nothing to do but sit down and write.

That's a cute story. But how true is it? Googling around revealed a number of reports and articles in the web which recite this story without really letting us know how they came about this curious anecdote; i.e., none of them provided references. The fact that Hugo died in 1885 doesn't really help matters and, in my experience, such stories tend to "grow" as time goes by.

So I had to dig a little deeper. Looking at some Google Books results did bring up hits such as the following:

Victor Hugo, author Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, used pre-commitment to resist being tempted into ABC cycles of distraction and procrastination. He instructed his valet to hide his clothes, forcing Hugo to work naked in his study until the valet returned at the pre-arranged end of the writing session.

The above is from Psychological Foundations of Success: A Harvard Trained Scientist Separates the Science of Success from Self-help Snake Oil (2002) by a Stephen Kraus and is just about identical in its details to the excerpt from the Neatorama article. While the book does provide a reference, it is rather cryptic: Wallace & Pear (1977). I noticed that a number of other reference to the Hugo story also provided the same cryptic reference without elaborating further. But it appeared to be a step in the right direction and got me digging even deeper.

Searching for details on the reference itself finally led me to Cognitive-behavioral Psychology in the Schools: A Comprehensive Handbook which does provide a more informative reference entry: Wallace & Pear (1977) is short for Wallace, I., and Pear, J. (1977). Self-control techniques of famous novelists. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 10, 515–525. I was momentarily floored when I found out that the Wallace in question was another purveyor of fiction, Irving Wallace.

The next step took me to the National Library of Medicine which linked me to a PDF copy (1.2 MB) of the Irving Wallace paper from which I quote the following relevant excerpt:

While the story may be apocryphal—I should like to believe it is not—it is said that Victor Hugo sometimes forced himself to work regularly by confining himself to his study. To do this, he had his valet take away every stitch of his clothing, and ordered this servant not to return his attire until the hour when he expected to be through with his day's writing.

The entire article is a good read and Irving Wallace's Hugo anecdote is most likely the source of all the other facsimiles that litter the Internet. But as you can see, he himself was unsure if the story is apocryphal or not. The tone of his "voice" as well as my personal opinion of his writing style, suggested to me that it was highly probable that the tale, if true, was a well embellished version of the truth. I was not wrong.

A professor of psychology at Harvard named Richard J. McNally wrote an article for a periodical titled Behavior Therapist where he references the Irving Wallace article as follows:

Victor Hugo used contingency management methods while writing his novel, Notre-Dame of Paris. He had been down in the dumps, finding it difficult to get started. Hugo then hit upon the idea of confining himself to his writing room after having his valet lock away his formal clothes “so that he would not be tempted to go out”, as his wife put it (p. 7, quoted in J. Sturrock’s Introduction; Hugo, 1831/1978; Wallace & Pear, 1977). Lacking any suitable clothing until he finished his daily writing session, Hugo had no choice but to work on the book instead of goofing off and procrastinating.

So, in this version, Hugo was not writing while naked. He was just stuck in his pyjamas and had no formal clothes to leave his study. This sounds a lot more plausible. We also learn that the source of this anecdote is his wife (Adèle Foucher). McNally cites a J. Sturrock in his article who turns out to be a John Sturrock, a translator of Hugo's works. The "introduction", I find out is Sturrock's introduction to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame:

'He bought himself a bottle of ink and a huge grey knitted shawl, which swathed him from head to foot, locked his formal clothes away so that he would not be tempted to go out and entered his novel as if it were a prison. He was very sad.' This engagingly domestic report on Victor Hugo sitting down in the autumn of 1830 to write Notre-Dame of Paris is by his wife, Adèle, who in the 1860s published a quaintly tinted memoir (dictated, some have hinted, by its subject himself): Victor Hugo Recounted by a Witness of His Life.

To summarise,

  1. Yes, there is some truth to the story that Hugo locked himself in a room, naked, with nothing but pen and paper to distract him.
  2. However, he was not naked. He just didn't have access to his formal (going out) clothes and chose to (only?) wear a large shawl.
  3. There was no valet involved. He locked away his formal clothes himself.
  4. The source of this anecdote is his wife, Adèle Foucher's memoir, Victor Hugo Recounted by a Witness of His Life, which was published in the 1860s.

Update: I came across this article which, while again sounding a little embellished, uses a version of the anecdote which is closer to the truth:

Even more curious were the resourceful methods authors used to compel themselves to execute their daily quotas. In the fall of 1830, Victor Hugo set out to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame against the seemingly impossible deadline of February 1831. He bought an entire bottle of ink in preparation and practically put himself under house arrest for months, using a most peculiar anti-escape technique:

Hugo locked away his clothes to avoid any temptation of going outside and was left with nothing to wear except a large gray shawl. He had purchased the knitted outfit, which reached right down to his toes, just for the occasion. It served as his uniform for many months.

He finished the book weeks before deadline, using up the whole bottle of ink to write it. He even considered titling it What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink, but eventually settled for the less abstract and insidery title.