Les Misérables: the epic that changed hearts and minds
In light of a new BBC adaptation, here is a look at the turbulent historical setting of Hugo's masterpiece
Les Misérables begins in defeat. The immensely complex and rambling plot – united by the long cat-and-mouse pursuit of the convict Jean Valjean by Inspector Javert – takes off in October 1815, a few months after Waterloo, when France’s prestige had suddenly plummeted to its lowest level for centuries.
Only five years previously, Napoleon’s empire had extended from Lisbon to Moscow and seemed like the mightiest force that mainland Europe had known since the Romans. But now the humiliations of defeat had reduced it to a vassal state, its fate at the mercy of the conquering and occupying Allies.
The reckoning was devastating: two decades of military campaigning had incurred the deaths of perhaps one and a half million French citizens (more than World War 1). Inflation, heavy taxation, unemployment, food shortages and Britain’s naval blockade intensified the hardship; thousands of deserters and criminals were on the run in the chaos; the revolution’s utopian attempt to replace the church’s charity with state welfare had failed dismally, and at least two million people were suffering the brutal deprivation that Victor Hugo describes so graphically through the character of Fantine (played by Lily Collins in a new BBC adaptation) who has to sell her hair and front teeth to survive.
Over the next six decades, as intense division and repression periodically exploded, France would struggle to re-establish stability and dignity. Les Misérables follows this history from Waterloo up to 1832. But Hugo wasn’t greatly interested in the corridors of power or the outcome of battles.
Born in 1802 at a point when Napoleon had declared himself First Consul for life, Hugo had been a royalist in his youth, then converted to republicanism in his mid-20s but was too much of an individualist to engage seriously in party politics (the character of Marius, the young boy who was barred from seeing his father and who grows up to be a student revolutionary, has often been seen as a partial self-portrait).
Like much of Dickens’s fiction, Les Misérables is not an ideological manifesto but a passionate protest on behalf of the downtrodden and, above all, the victims of a system that delivered so much injustice.
The novel is one of the longest yet written; at 655,000 words, running in many editions to 1,500 pages, it is considerably longer than War and Peace. A leading light of the romantic movement since his early success with the play Hernani, his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and his voluminous poetry, Hugo had become France’s most popular writer and a beacon to the idealistic young. A man of astounding egotism and energy, he gestated Les Misérables over decades, drawing on personal memories and experiences but writing it largely during the late 1850s – a period when he was based in the Channel Islands, living in voluntary exile from the regime of the Emperor Louis Napoleon, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, who in 1851 had seized power in an illegal coup d’état that Hugo vociferously deplored.
Because this hostile attitude made him persona non grata in France, Les Misérables originally appeared in Belgium and copies were smuggled over the border. Such was Hugo’s international reputation that it was instantly translated into many languages and sold in its hundreds of thousands. Highbrow critics deplored its prolixity and tub-thumping (Flaubert sneered at it as “infantile”) but posterity ranks it with Oliver Twist and Uncle Tom’s Cabin as one of those 19th-century novels that changed not only hearts and minds but also the social agenda.
Hugo was a writer who had views about everything and no inhibitions about expressing them. But he expends little space on explaining the forces that were driving and enforcing the oppression he was excoriating (and Andrew Davies, who has written the BBC television adaptation, simply hasn’t the luxury of time to do so).
In October 1815, when Les Misérables starts, Napoleon has abdicated and just arrived at St Helena, the island in the Atlantic Ocean where he was detained by the British until his death in 1821. In his stead, the British have placed Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI who was guillotined by the revolutionaries in 1793. A man of moderate and malleable views, the new king seemed to stand a fair chance of holding the middle ground. But the issues confronted by his government – voted in by a small gerrymandered electorate – did not lend themselves to peaceful negotiated compromise.
One sensitive area was the problem of how much of the pre-Napoleonic and pre-revolutionary order to restore, particularly in relation to confiscated land and nobles who had left the country to escape persecution. Almost immediately there was an outbreak of “White terror” in the south of the country, as bands of “Ultra” royalists took the law into their own hands by purging hundreds of Bonapartists and seizing what they considered to be illegally expropriated property.
The legitimists then took draconian measures to punish these rebels, setting up a chain reaction of kangaroo courts, brutal kidnappings, arson and massacres. This anarchy was the last thing France needed: in the post-war slump unemployment was high and the government’s coffers were being emptied by the Allies’ demands for a huge indemnity of 700 million francs. In 1816-17 the harvest failed, creating a crime wave that bred thousands of Jean Valjeans; and in 1820 the duc de Berry, third in line to the Bourbon throne, was assassinated by a fanatic Bonapartist. This provoked a state of emergency and a paranoid fear of liberals and students, causing a marked swing to the right and the empowerment of ruthless investigative police chiefs such as Hugo’s monomaniacal Javert (played with intensity by David Oyelowo in the new series).
In 1821 the “Ultra” royalists, mostly provincial landowners, came to command a parliamentary majority. But in 1825 the thumbscrews of reaction were turned too tight. A hugely unpopular law enforcing the guillotine for sacrilege was passed, and after Louis XVIII died his brother Charles X was crowned in a ridiculously medieval ceremony involving holy oil. The Ultras’ continued insistence that land lost during the revolution should be restituted to émigré nobles enraged a population that was seeing no economic benefits from strong rule. The result was the gradual strengthening of what liberal elements remained in the government and the formation of illegal clandestine societies such as Hugo’s Friends of the ABC, to the cause of which the idealistic character of Marius is sympathetic.
Their energies were in the ascendant: Charles X proved a weak ruler, and when violence erupted in Paris over “three glorious days” in July 1830, the army was caught unprepared, nobody rushed to the Ultras’ defence and Charles abdicated, escaping to Britain.
Having rejected what looked too similar in spirit to the pre-revolutionary absolute monarchy, the chambers of government then elected the duc d’Orléans Louis Philippe, whose conciliatory tone and bourgeois lifestyle at first boded well. But in 1832 an epidemic of cholera erupted in Paris, killing 20,000, and as the novel chronicles, the funeral of a popular liberal, General Maximilien Lamarque, became a flashpoint.
Barricades were thrown up in working-class areas of the city, with hundreds of casualties and calls for republican liberty ensuing. The insurrection was successfully quashed and of no lasting consequence, but Hugo was an eyewitness to the action, and his vivid recreation of the violence has given the episode an immortality far in excess of its political significance.
That power to move and inspire is at the heart of Les Misérables, which isn’t a novel of meticulous realism, to be read with a cool head. The incredible saga of Jean Valjean is more like a romantic epic, fuelled by the author’s moral outrage as well as his thunderous rhetoric and boundless ambition. It asks fundamental questions about society, pointing a finger of responsibility at us all: and its passion and compassion remains central to the conscience of the French nation.
• Rupert Christiansen’s City of Light: The Reinvention of Paris was published in 2018 by Head of Zeus.
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