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English Republicanism Meets French Romanticism:
the Portrayal of Oliver Cromwell in the Works of Victor Hugo

by Marina J. Neary

part 1 of 2

Dedicated to Eric Bertrand, a dramatist, an educator and an expert on Victor Hugo


“When am I to be King?” asks Lord Protector pensively at the end of Victor Hugo’s play Cromwell.

It would be appropriate to mention that my fascination with Oliver Cromwell has its roots in my fascination with Victor Hugo. I owe my knowledge of 17th-century English history to my study of 19th-century French literature. Strangely enough, it was neither textbooks nor documentary films that triggered my interest in Lord Protector. In my high-school days I devoted my leisure to studying Victor Hugo’s lesser-known works. At the time Hugo was my primary literary idol, and I made it my quest to examine all aspects of his repertoire, not only what is readily available on the shelves of mainstream bookstores.

Over the course of this academic endeavor I discovered that Hugo possessed profound knowledge of the English Civil War and held Oliver Cromwell in high esteem. As it turns out, English Republicanism and French Romanticism complement each other, and Victor Hugo’s play Cromwell and his novel The Man Who Laughs are the fruits of this harmonious union.

Hugo did not conceal his republican inclinations. In fact, those sentiments were one of the reasons behind his exile from France to the Channel Islands.

By the time the great romantic had begun his exile he had turned one hundred and eighty degrees, from an adherent of the restored monarchy to a champion of a democratic and social republic. (W. Scott Haine)

In Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, Marius, an impoverished young student, converts to republicanism. It is apparent that Hugo opposed monarchy in general, regardless of what country it affected. Seeing England in the hands of Queen Victoria distressed him just as much as seeing France in the hands of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that Hugo fostered a fondness for Oliver Cromwell, the 17th-century rebel who dared to challenge the monarchist system.

Although it would be somewhat presumptuous to state that Hugo supported all of Cromwell’s views and tactics unconditionally, it is clear that Hugo found Cromwell fascinating enough to devote two voluminous works to him.

The play Cromwell

Hugo wrote Cromwell in 1827, long before his open rebellion against monarchy. At that time in his life he was only beginning to explore republicanism as a potential political route and endeavored to write a play dealing with the subject of revolution. His goal was to depict the internal conflict that so many leaders have faced throughout history: thirst for justice versus thirst for power. How often does a revolutionary start off with the noblest of intentions and in the end merely replace one tyrannical regime with another? How difficult it is to keep one’s ego and sense of duty in balance?

Hugo hesitated to write about Napoleon Bonaparte, because this topic was still fresh and sensitive for many Frenchmen. Instead of 18th-century France, Hugo chose 17th-century England as a setting for his play. He perceived this setting “safer” since it was more chronologically and geographically removed. At the same time, Cromwell’s life and career paralleled Napoleon’s. These two men had much in common. Hugo chose to write about the one who was less controversial to his contemporaries.

The play has never been performed because of its daunting proportions. There are seventy-seven characters, and the text itself goes on for well over four hundred pages. I do not hesitate to refer to this play as a masterpiece, in spite of its stylistic flaws. Imagine four hundred pages of rhyming poetry written in iambic pentameter. That alone is an impressive achievement for an author who at the time was only twenty-five years old. In the English translation quoted in the essay the rhyme has been dropped but the meter preserved.

The preface to Cromwell is read and quoted more frequently than the play itself. It is often published on its own, as an independent piece of literature. It became the manifesto of romantic drama.

The play presents a very personal, very intimate portrait of Lord Protector. Cromwell is not only a politician and a warrior but a father, husband and friend. He does not make a personal appearance until Act II, Scene II. The audience meets Cromwell’s son Richard before Lord Protector himself.

Amusingly, even though Richard technically belongs to the Puritan group, his lifestyle is far from Puritanical. This is how he describes his friendship with Sedley, Clifford, Downie and Roseberry:

For near ten years we’ve been the best of friends,
We’ve shared all things in common until now,
Balls, hunts, delights forbidden or allowed,
Our purse, our joys, our griefs, our mistresses.
Your dogs were mine, my falcons were your own;
And we sought the same balconies by night.

This passage suggests that Cromwell was not a particularly staunch disciplinarian, since he tolerated such behavior from his son, who later on became his successor.

There is a scene in which Cromwell verbally chastises Richard for having drunk to the health of King Charles. Cromwell hints that this act of treachery is a result of demonic possession and makes eloquent threats to kill his son.

Reserve your oaths to give your Tyrian king.
Don’t come here, you blasphemous parricide,
To flaunt your baseness in my very eyes.
Some hellish wine has overpowered your mind,
That was a poison which you drank to Charles.
My vengeance, on the watch, observed your crime.
Although a son, my victim you shall be.
The tree will fire itself to kill its fruit.

Surprisingly, Cromwell’s reprimand does not go beyond verbal. Having scolded his son, he leaves the room. He gives no orders to seize and imprison Richard, and he does not challenge him physically himself. The fact that he does not follow through with his threats significantly undermines his authority as a father and credibility as a leader. Left alone in the room, Richard shrugs his shoulders without a trace of remorse or fear, and concludes that his father is a madman.

I never had perceived, until to-day,
That very precious truth! My father’s lost his senses!

Being perceived as a madman by his own successor is certainly not a desirable situation for any leader. Richard is one person whose regard and loyalty Oliver should be most determined to obtain. Yet Oliver misses this opportunity to assert his authority in his son’s eyes with inconsistent parenting.

In Act II, Scene II Cromwell dismisses his council when his wife, Elizabeth Bourchier, comes in with their daughters. Elizabeth appears to be depressed because she is ill at ease in her new role as Lady Protectress.

The queen’s room, where I sleep, is much too large;
The bed with crests of Stuarts and of Tudors,
Its canopy of silver, posts of gold,
Tall plumes, and all that high railing which shuts me
A prisoner within my royal cell,
The velvet furniture, the golden vases,
They are horrible dreams that kill my sleep.
Besides, to know this palace is an art.
I never shall learn how to walk about;
Always lost, here in this grand White-Hall,
And in a royal chair I can’t sit well.

A few moments later Elizabeth expresses nostalgia for the times when her husband was still unknown.

Happy days when Cromwell was no one
When I was comfortable and slept well.

When it comes to listening to his wife’s constant complaints, Cromwell is surprisingly patient and almost apologetic. He allows Elizabeth to express her displeasure. A few times he interrupts her, more timidly than rudely. Not once does he assert his authority as husband over her.

As if Elizabeth’s ranting was not enough, Cromwell’s daughter, Lady Cleypole, joins her mother.

The strength I had is almost gone
I need the air and sunshine of the fields.
This gloomy palace is a grave to me.
Through these long corridors and the vast halls
The chill of misery appalls my soul.
I’ll soon die here.

Instead of putting his daughter in her proper place, Cromwell responds with paternal tenderness.

Ah, no, my child, not that!
Soon we will find your pleasant fields for you.
Just wait a short time longer for me here.

Based on Hugo’s text, Cromwell goes out of his way to cater to the whims of the women in his life. As for his relationship with his youngest daughter, Lady Frances, his affection borders on subordination. Cromwell openly admits that he favors her over other children. He is extravagant in his expression of tenderness for Frances and ascribes to her almost divine qualities, referring to her as his “human angel”. Without realizing it, he commits an act of blasphemy by deifying a human being. The Puritan faith is very strict about creating human idols, yet Cromwell’s paternal love overshadows his faith.

Your brilliant eye, your pure and gentle voice,
Have magic ways of bringing back my youth.
With your dear arms give to your sire new life.
You, who know naught of all the sins of life,
Embrace me. You’re my favorite child.

For the sake of fairness, it is not altogether unusual for a father to believe that his beloved daughter is above the filthy and sinful world. Cromwell is not the first man to refer to his daughter as an “angel”. While this kind of self-deception is benign for ordinary men, it can be very dangerous for political leaders. Frances happens to be a royalist. She wants to see King Charles return to the throne. When she learns that her father considers restoring monarchy, she automatically thinks that he wants to give the scepter back to Charles.

My father and my lord, how pleased she’ll be,
Your good, kind sister! We are then to see,
After eight years of waiting, our King Charles.

When Frances learns that her father has no intention of restoring a Stuart but wants the throne for himself, she throws a fit of indignation and calls him a usurper.

That you have clothed yourself with transient power
Is a misfortune of the times you keenly fee;
But from the martyr king to steal the crown,
Become one of his executioners,
Reign by his murder! Oh!

At the end of the confrontation, Frances curses her father along with the rest of the regicides:

I hate them! May they be accursed — all!

Cromwell is more perturbed by his daughter’s disapproval than by her royalist convictions. He threatened to kill Richard for drinking to King Charles’ health, but he does nothing to challenge his daughter. Again, it is not unusual for a man, regardless of his social status and power, to be more lenient with his daughters than with his sons. Men often find justifications for their daughters. The “human angel” can do no wrong. When Richard drinks with Cavaliers to King Charles’ health, Cromwell perceives it as treachery. When Frances openly defends the Stuarts, Cromwell perceives it as innocence.

Implacable are innocence and virtue!
And yet men think I go unpunished! Ah!
This dearest daughter and my last-born child
Is a relentless conscience in my path.
The sweetness of her youthful eye and voice
Abash this Cromwell who defied the world.
Before her purity I have no strength.

He admits to being disarmed by his youngest daughter. Terrified by the prospect of losing the remains of Frances’ affection, he begins to question his very plan to take the throne.

Shall I go on? Dare I attaint the goal?
Prostrate beneath the weight of my firm throne
The world will hold its peace. What will she say?
What will her eyes say, in their eloquence,
Those winsome eyes which stab me to the heart.

There is another voice that compels Cromwell to spiritual humility — that of John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, who had written propaganda for the English Republic in the early 1650s. Cromwell’s haughty attitude towards Milton’s works distresses the poet. In turn, Milton mocks Cromwell’s lack of formal education.

How Cromwell treats me. What great thing it is
To govern Europe? Nothing but child’s play.
I’d like to see him make Latin verses as I do.

Later on Milton opens his heart in a private meeting with Cromwell and confesses his admiration.

I have no wish to humble you, my lord;
No one but you could have eclipsed yourself.
The mighty man of thought and man of sword,
You, only filled the measure of our dreams.
In all of Israel I loved you best,
My hero; and none placed you nearer to
God’s throne than I.

Having praised Cromwell’s potential as a leader, Milton compels him to change his ways and be a just ruler.

Maintain the equilibrium of the world.
Be Cromwell! O’er the earth let a free nation
Rule. Don’t fetter it. Respect its liberty.
How often this proud commonwealth has blushed
To see you begging from the Parliament
A little tyranny in change for gold.

Milton’s monologue is what originally makes Cromwell doubt his measures. It is after the meeting with Milton that Cromwell runs to his youngest daughter Frances for support and encounters more judgment, which shakes his confidence even further. The people around Cromwell serve as his mirrors. They merely vocalize his doubts.

Granted, this is merely Hugo’s fictitious portrayal of Cromwell and those close to him. The author depicts the central hero as heavily dependent on the whims of his family members. Although there are historical records testifying to Cromwell’s attachment to his wife and children, he probably was more authoritarian and assertive with his family members in reality than he is in Hugo’s play.

But what would a romantic drama be without a conflict between ambition and conscience, new temptations and old attachments? Every powerful man has his vulnerability. In Cromwell’s case, his complex relationship with his family members, especially with his youngest daughter, becomes his Achilles’ heel. His desire to remain on amicable terms with his family members poses a serious threat to his plans.

Over the course of the play, Cromwell comes dangerously close to abandoning his ambitions on more than one occasion. And yet it was not Hugo’s intention to portray Cromwell as weak or pathetic. The author continues to admire his central hero who is torn and conflicted. It is amazing that Cromwell advanced as far as he did with so many people in his life distracting him, tugging on his heartstrings, trying to manipulate his emotions.

There is another peculiarity worth mentioning — the physical depiction of Cromwell. Even though the play itself falls in the romantic category, Cromwell is not portrayed as larger-than-life. On the contrary, Hugo emphasizes Cromwell’s outward unattractiveness. When the Lord Protector makes a public appearance, the public seems disappointed by his short statue.

Lord Cromwell! — Is that Cromwell? — What, the king?
The regicide? — He is very homely! — What
A little man to be a hero — Yes!
I thought him taller! — I thought him less fat!

After examining Hugo’s voluminous drama, it is clear that his goal was not to create an invincible demigod. The author presents a very real, complex, psychologically convincing portrait of Lord Protector. In Hugo’s work Cromwell is someone who stirs both admiration and indignation. There is no resolution at the end of the play. Cromwell is still very uncertain of his fate.

It is unfortunate that the play Cromwell, which holds both literary and historical value, does not receive the attention it deserves from Academia. Undeniably, the play is much too long to be performed on stage. However, the play should be read as part of a French literature curriculum.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Marina J. Neary

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