Saturday, November 2, 2019

"He Entered His Novel"

In a masterful article on Notre Dame Cathedral, Ken Follett shares an account from Victor Hugo’s wife about how that French poet began work on an epic novel about the cathedral in 1830. “He bought himself a bottle of ink and a huge gray knitted shawl, which covered him from head to foot,” Mme. Hugo recalled. Then he “locked away his formal clothes, so that he would not be tempted to go out, and entered his novel as if it were a prison.”

Hugo finished his 180,000-word masterwork four and a half months later. Publishers of the English edition gave it the title we know today: The Huchback of Notre Dame.

I’m struck by her statement that Hugo “entered his novel as if it were a prison.” I believe she saw something more than an obsessive work habit, though he certainly had that. (Let’s see, if he wrote 180,000 words in 20 weeks, that was 9,000 per week or about 1,400 per day. Every day. Seven days a week. Without a computer or even a typewriter. We might call that the “hard labor” typical of prison.)

But I sense something more in her comment. By cutting himself off from social engagements, Hugo immersed himself in the book he was writing. He took up residence in its world and would not leave until its story was fully told. Such single-minded devotion produces great literature. It also produces the best Christian fiction, regardless of its genre or length.

How about it? Have you entered your novel as if it were a prison?


  1. Fortunately or unfortunately, no, I have not. Fortunately, because I desire more from life than the novel, and I don't want to abandon family for that length of time. Unfortunately, because as a Christian, if Jesus and I were writing the book nonstop, what a masterpiece that would be!

  2. I'm with you, Linda. I know that writing requires a certain amount of sacrifice by the writer's family, but it seems rather presumptuous to think that our spouses would shoulder all management of the household for a year while we curl up with our WIP.