Friday, 26 March 2010

Pencil Leads in Paris Barricades. Victor Hugo's Pencil Stub.

Baudin, représentant le peuple. By Ernest Louis Pichio (1840-1893). Photogravure

Paris 1851. Alphonse Baudin lends his pencil stub to Victor Hugo. Baudin has been a parliamentary deputy since 1849 and now on the day of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's coup, he and other parliamentarians gather to form committees and draw action plans. Victor Hugo borrows the lead-pencil to write a proclamation. Who thinks about returning pencil stubs when barricades are being erected? Hugo sticks Baudin's pencil in his own pocket.

The pencil remains in Hugo's pocket while a barricade is erected at Sainte-Marguerite street. It is still there when the workers are confronted by the 19th infantry regiment and when Baudin joins them on December 3. And when a shout comes "Do you think we are going to kill ourselves so that you can keep your 25 francs a day?" the pencil still wringles in Victor Hugo's pocket. Baudin steps on the barricade and retorts "Now you'll see how one dies for 25 francs!" At which point and while the pencil is probably still at Victor Hugo's pocket a bullet strikes Baudin dead.

Painting of Battle at Soufflot barricades at Rue Soufflot Street on 24 June 1848 
by Émile Jean Horace Vernet (1789–1863)

And now the pencil rests in peace under a glass cover at Victor Hugo's place of exile in Guernsey. Its presence is a medal, an identity badge, a token of resistance. "I was there", Hugo says. "This is the relic of a hero" and I was near that hero. Abandoning his conservative past and his visions of becoming a writer-politician eradicating social injustice on Louis-Napoléon's side, Hugo turns to anti-clericalism and the Republican Left. He stays in exile for some 20 years. As does I presume the pencil stub.

"Recollections of Victor Hugo", The New York Times, 15 June 1879; "Baudin Monument in Paris to be Unveiled on Sunday", The New York Times, 20 December 1901; Edward Behr, The Complete Book of Les Miserables, Little, Brown & Co. 1989.


  1. Intriguing - great way of telling an historical titbit. History through pencil stubs - that is something :) Great blog too (just found it)!

  2. Dandelion, thank you :)
    Even pencil stubs have a story to tell.