Enjoy Les Misérables. But please get the history straight.

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A marvelous little church with a story to tell. (Photo: Nichole Robertson)

It’s Christmas Eve.  The world awaits in joyful expectation the coming of… Les Misérables in a theater near you.

Evocations of the 16th century (Photo: Nichole Robertson)

But please, do me a big favor, in the spirit of the season.  Please don’t say this film is about the French Revolution.  Many of us have repeatedly corrected the media, Huffington Post included, for this oft-repeated gaffe.  No surprise, perhaps, since even Director Tom Hooper seems a little dim about French history.

So let me help everyone sort this out.  The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789.  The principal events of Les Misérables take place in 1832. Different century. The July Revolution two years earlier had put the Orléanist monarchy on the throne, under the popular “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe.  Popular for awhile, that is.  Despite his unpretentious manners and a character that Les Miz author Victor Hugo commended as “good” and “admirable,” the income gap widened and the conditions of the working class deteriorated.  By the spring of 1832, a deadly cholera epidemic had exacerbated a severe economic crisis.

His death pulled the trigger.

In the early morning hours of June 5, crowds of workers, students, and others gathered in the streets of Paris.  The immediate trigger was the death of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque, who had been a friend to the poor and downtrodden.  The crowd had hoped to accompany Lamarque’s hearse before it took the general home to his native district in the southwest of France.  Those mourning and those with a political agenda merged into a mob that numbered in the tens of thousands – some witnesses claimed it eventually grew to 100,000.

The 30-year-old Victor Hugo was nearby, in the Tuileries Gardens, writing a play.  Then he heard gunfire from the direction of Les Halles.  Instead of going home to safety, he followed the sounds of gunfire through the deserted streets. He was unaware that the mob had taken half of Paris, and the barricades were everywhere in Les Halles.  According to Wikipedia, Hugo headed north up the Rue Montmartre, then turned right onto the Passage du Saumon, finally turning before the Rue du Bout du Monde (if this street still exists, it has a different name now): “Halfway down the alley, the grilles at either end were slammed shut. Hugo was surrounded by barricades and flung himself against a wall, as all the shops and stores had been closed for some time. He found shelter between some columns. For a quarter of an hour, bullets flew both ways.”  Three decades later, he would write about the unforgettable experience in Les Misérables.

I had hoped to visit some of the route during my recent visit to France.  Alas, my trip was too brief, and I couldn’t quite figure out what had happened, and where, on my Paris map.  I had to make the journey vicariously, later, through Mark Traugott‘s The Insurgent Barricade (University of California Press).

No wonder I was confused.  Traugott’s map of the insurrection shows that Lamarque’s funerary procession made a wide arc around the city’s right bank.  The insurrection affected both sides of the Seine, but the flash points were here, on the right bank.

Dragoons had been under orders to refrain from the use of deadly force, but when a shot rang out from somewhere, the crowd began to throw stones at the military.  The cry “To the barricades!” resounded through the streets. But what, exactly, did that mean?

According to Traugott:

“Insurgents began uprooting the saplings planted to replace the larger trees cut down during the July Days. They also scavenged planks and beams from nearby construction sites and improvised tools for prying up paving stones. These classic raw materials were natural choices because they added mass, helped knit the structure together, and were usually found in abundance right at the site of the barricade construction. Between 5 p.m., when the first sporadic gunfire was exchanged, and 6:30, when pitched battles were initially reported, dozens of barricades had been completed on both the right and left side of the Seine. Individual structures took as little as fifteen minutes to erect.

“Even as the first barricades were going up, a frantic search for arms began. Some rebels had to be content with sabers, staffs, or scythes, but rifles were the weapons of choice, and bands of insurgents boldly seized them from small patrols of soldiers encountered in the streets.  Others joined in pillaging the premises of Lepage frères, the largest of several Paris gunsmiths whose establishments were looted.”

Why, you may ask, have I chosen to illustrate this post about a doomed revolt with the elegant photos of Nichole Robertson over at Little Brown Pen?

This little gem of a 16th-century church is Église Saint-Merri.  The insurgents staged a desperate last stand in and around this church, at the heart of the district where the fiercest fighting took place.

Empty chairs at empty tables. (Photo: Nichole Robertson)

The insurgents pleaded for help, but no help came. The citizens of Paris were not as quick to join the revolution as they were to join the unruly funeral procession.  In the theatrical production of  Les Miz, the army officer warns the insurgents via a loud-bailer:

You at the barricade listen to this!
No one is coming to help you to fight
You’re on your own
You have no friends
Give up your guns – or die!

And it was true.  According to Traugott, “The casualty toll among the insurgents, mounting as high as 800 dead and wounded, was particularly heavy because the people of Paris withheld their support, leaving most of the committed insurgents of June 1832 to pay for their rebellion with their lives.”

If nothing else, please remember is that the whole point of the French Revolution is that the revolutionaries  won.  Remember the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Robespierre et al.?  This was different. In 1832, writes Traugott, “The last guns were silenced a barely twenty-four hours after hostilities had begun.”

Eléphant_Bastille_Les_Misérables

Gustave Brion’s illustration for the novel in 1865

Postscript on 27 July, 2013:  Comments are continuing to trickle in for this post.  Today, Reader Karen wrote to ask: “Have enjoyed reading all the comments, but am still searching for an answer to the elephant in the movie.  Did that actually occur?  Was there an elephant structure in the area during that period?   If so – why?  Will it help if I actually finish reading the novel?”

I couldn’t resist the educational opportunity.  From Wikipedia:

The Elephant of the Bastille was a monument in Paris which existed between 1813 and 1846. Originally conceived in 1808 by Napoleon, the colossal statue was intended to be created out of bronze and placed in the Place de la Bastille, but only a plaster full-scale model was built. At 24 m (78 ft) in height the model itself became a recognisable construction and was immortalised by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Misérables (1862) in which it is used as a shelter by the street urchin Gavroche. …

The elephant itself was described negatively by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables; little other account of contemporary public perception is available.

It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. “The aediles,” as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.   —Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862


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146 Responses to “Enjoy Les Misérables. But please get the history straight.”

  1. Linda Says:

    Wonderful article !

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Congratulations, Linda! You made the 100th post! You’ll get a special mention in the post here: http://stanford.io/1vfLvqP

  3. patty goodman Says:

    Hi Cynthia, Am I number 101? My 15 yr. old daughter convinced me to watch the movie and since then I have been listening to the music and I think the story is incredible. As far as the historical context, are the events that occur in the story historically correct? eg. The way that the prisoners were treated, the way that Fontine (sp?) was treated after she was fired? I’m going to read the book now. And probably see the show on Broadway. Thanks for all of your interest and information.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Linda was technically #100, but only for a few minutes. She had an earlier comment that wound up in a spam filter, so when that posted, she was #98 and #101. I believe Humble Moi was #100, but what fun is that? I don’t wish to give myself a prize – too much like the Dodo’s Caucus-Race. So we gave Linda a cyber-bottle of champagne here: http://stanford.io/1vfLvqP . That makes you #102.

    The story is incredible – I have a post on the influence of Hugo’s book on Mario Vargas Llosa here: http://stanford.io/1hyOt4R . The Industrial Revolution was a pretty nasty time to live. Charles Dickens describes parallel stories in England, Hans Christian Anderson in Denmark. Some people complained at the time the publication of Hugo’s masterpiece that things weren’t so bad, but it largely meant it wasn’t so bad for them.

  5. John Clifford Says:

    Hi Cynthia – I am a huge fan of Les Mis – book, film, stage, musical anything !! Here in Melbourne, Australia there is an exhibition at our State Library that has as its centrepiece the original manuscript (the first ever time it has left Europe) – I felt like I was looking on a holy relic !! I have been to France several times (going again in 6 months) and I find it remarkable that a country lauded for its fashion, wine, cheese, champagne, gourmet foods and overall quality of life can also be the host of so much bloodshed and rebellion between 1789 & 1870 in particular. Then again Austria produced both Mozart and Hitler – the best and worst of humanity !! Your thoughts ?

  6. Deb Says:

    You might look at the conflation of the French Revolution and the Paris Uprising as part and parcel of the same revolutionary tendencies in late 18th early 19th century Europe. For another way to look at this, a comparison/contrast with the American Revolution and the War of 1812 is interesting.

  7. Rob Says:

    This is one of the greatest literary works of all time. I have read the book, seen the play (many many times), and watched the movie. Getting ready to start the book all over again. These characters have beome well known to me. Thank you for the history lesson it is much appreciated. If I had only one book (outside the Bible) to take with me through the rest of my life it would be Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

  8. bob Says:

    “The principal events of Les Misérables take place in 1832. ”
    It is only after book ten of the fourth volume do we get to June 5th 1832. That’s right, all 264, or about, other chapters reference the French revolution or a time prior to 1932. This blog gives an illiterate account of Victor Hugo’s intent.

    “M. Myriel was the son of a councillor of the Parliament of Aix; hence he belonged to the nobility of the bar.”
    Why did he join the priesthood? What were his motives or convictions? Would he had done so had there not been a revolution of 1789?
    “It was said that his father, destining him to be the heir of his own post, had married him at a very early age, eighteen or twenty, in accordance with a custom which is rather widely prevalent in parliamentary families.”

    “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe put them back in serfdom/slavery. August 10, 1792 revolt was for the abolition of the monarchy.

    “By the spring of 1832, a deadly cholera epidemic had exacerbated a severe economic crisis.” This statement should read, …a severe economic crisis had exacerbated a deadly cholera epidemic. Why was there an economic crisis? Who won the revolution? Who controlled the finances?

    You lose credibility by referencing Wikipedia instead of the author’s writing. And “According to Traugott:”

    “The elephant itself was described negatively by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables; little other account of contemporary public perception is available.” Why don’t you read that chapter of his writings? Are you trying to translate this from French and don’t read French? Read it in English.

    Stanford must be a community college in California.

  9. Cynthia Haven Says:

    By “principal events,” I was referring to the dramatic action of the movie under discussion, which focuses on the 1832 uprising. At the time of the movie’s release, these events were commonly misunderstood to be part of the “French Revolution” that began in 1789.

    It was not in the scope of this short blogpost to present an academic paper on a turbulent half-century of French history, the intent of the author, or the motivations of his characters.

  10. bob Says:

    Thank you for responding to my post and allowing it to remain and even more so my impertinence, please, forgive me.
    A quote from volume V and from chapter XX of Les Miserables.

    “However that may be, even when fallen, above all when fallen, these men, who at every point of the universe, with their eyes fixed on France, are striving for the grand work with the inflexible logic of the ideal, are august; they give their life a free offering to progress; they accomplish the will of providence; they perform a religious act. At the appointed hour, with as much disinterestedness as an actor who answers to his cue, in obedience to the divine stage-manager, they enter the tomb. And this hopeless combat, this stoical disappearance they accept in order to bring about the supreme and universal consequences, the magnificent and irresistibly human movement begun on the 14th of July, 1789; these soldiers are priests. The French revolution is an act of God.

    Moreover, there are, and it is proper to add this distinction to the distinctions already pointed out in another chapter,—there are accepted revolutions, revolutions which are called revolutions; there are refused revolutions, which are called riots.”

  11. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for this, Bob. It’s a stunning paragraph. It’s a side of Hugo I tend to overlook – the side of him that made a god of “progress” and applied such beautiful language to such bloody ends. Vendée.

  12. Sarah Says:

    Great article, thouroughly enjoyed it and has very useful information for my A2 English coursework. However, a downside to the article is the constant mis-spelling of ‘Les Mis’, I understand completely that that is how it sounds but it is really off putting constantly correcting it in my head as I read. ‘Les Mis’ is short for ‘Les Misérables’ not Les Mizerables. As a fluent french speaker and fan of ‘Les Mis’ it really made me dislike your article despite the great content.
    I hope you understand my annoyance.

  13. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I checked before using the “z,” Sarah, and it seems to be ubiquitous. Obviously, it’s a concession to phonetics. It would be too tempting for many to pronounce “Les Mis” as “Les Miss.” The “z” insures a pronunciation consistent with the French title.

  14. Patrick Says:

    European revolutionary history is full of long and twisted tales so I am pleased that you started this great conversation and nice to see how long it has been running and that I found it today! This is not a digression, but I am a fan of Irish history, particularly the rather brief revolution led by the Young Irelanders in 1848. They looked to America’s revolution (same antagonist) as well as revolutions/rebellions throughout their own history for inspiration. But I always found their connection to revolutionary France to be fascinating. The current Irish tricolor flag was brought back from France in the 1840’s by one of the Young Irelanders as a gift from France, after a delegation was sent there to learn about France’s revolutionary successes. So without further research and forgetting my childhood history lessons, I was thinking they must be talking about the “French Revolution”, even if well after the fact. But as was pointed out earlier in this conversation, France, like Ireland suffered centuries of revolt/rebellion. And in 1848 (according to Wikipedia – which I love by the way – under the tag “Revolutions of 1848”), apparently over 50 countries, predominantly in Europe, were in revolt. So I can see why people are confused. I just finished a book called the Year of the French which is set in Ireland in 1798 (six years after the “official” French Revolution started). The Irish at that time also wanted the French to come over and help liberate the country from England. So 1000 French soldiers landed in the more remote west of Ireland and along with a raggle-taggle Irish peasant army were handily defeated by the British army. The French were officially at war with Britain at the time (6 years after the start of the “revolution”) but Napoleon appears to have had little interest in a full assault of the British in Ireland. So thank you for helping me connect some dots and hopefully encouraging more people to take a broader view of what was happening during that time. (SU CC class of ’87)

  15. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Interesting history. Thanks for checking in, Patrick!

  16. Jackie Says:

    I was perusing the internet looking for current productions of Les Mis, when I came across your blog on Google. Wow! I am FINALLY finishing the unabridged English translation of Les Mis since starting the 1400+ page venture about 10 years ago! Hugo’s writing makes my brain hurt (I’m a high school math teacher for goodness sake!), but I am so in love with the story. Hugo’s lengthy political and social opinions throughout the book would make me put it down for awhile! But I’ve seen the play so many times, it was never hard to pick up where I left off. I finally recently began googling French history of the times, mainly so I could have a better feeling for where Hugo’s head was at the time. Your blog has provided even more clarity; thank you.

    Gavroche and Eponine had more siblings who were cast out in the street. Boy, nothing funny about the Thenardiers in the original novel. So despicable, my heart hurt for their children.

  17. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You’re welcome, Jackie! I’m afraid the latterday Thenardiers still exist in the world today.

  18. Priyadarshini Mukherjee Says:

    Thank you so much for this explanatory note. This clears up a lot of confusion as I, too, thought to myself after watching the movie that the time period mentioned was a century away from The French Revolution. I haven’t had the fortune of watching the musical live on stage but I have seen the movie.
    However, you deserve a huge thank you from me.

    😀

  19. Lynnette Says:

    I have just seen the latest production of Les Mis in Sydney, Australia. Absolutely fantastic. Brilliant cast. On the subject some time ago in your posts of Gavroche having a cockney accent, we also were puzzled as to why he would have had a cockney accent in this production in Australia. If they hired a cockney boy for the role, why? I thought he was supposed to be french like Everyone else. Is there a reason he has a cockney accent in the play here in sydney too? Loved the show, just wondering,

  20. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Lynette, I think it was a holdover from the British productions, where the Cockney accent signified he was a street urchin of low social standing. The equivalent in French (if there is an equivalent) wouldn’t mean anything to us.

  21. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You’re welcome, Priyardarshini, and apologies for the late posting!

  22. Isabelle Gurble Says:

    Actually just watched this in theaters a few weeks ago. Quite the amazing discussion, this is incredible.

  23. Alexandra Says:

    Actually the setting for the book takes place from 1789-1832, not beginning in the 1800s. You’re confusing it with when it was written, not when it was set. He wrote this fiction loosley based on the french revolution from 1845-62 when he completed the work. It was set earlier, but is not an historical account, not does it claim to be…But it IS indeed about the french revolution.

  24. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Alexandra, Jean Valjean stole the loaf of bread in 1796, give or take a few months. He is released from prison in 1815, when the story begins in Digne. The conflict in which Marius takes part is the 1832 revolution, not the 1789 one. You can tell, because the very brief revolution was snuffed out. The revolutionaries didn’t win. But yes, Victor Hugo wrote it years after the events. It was published in 1862.

  25. Em Says:

    I enjoyed reading this site very much. Have been to Paris recently and found most sites. You and other readers may be interested in a small book (unfortunately not yet translated into English) called “Á cinq heures nous serons tous morts!” – sur la barricade Saint-Merry, 5-6 juin 1832. It’s been edited by Thomas Bouchet (collection Généalogies -Vendémiairie Éditions, Paris). It contains, amongst essays and maps the letter Charles Jeanne, the leader at the Saint-Merry barricades wrote to his sister during his imprisonment. He details what happens at that barricade during those two days.

  26. Cynthia Haven Says:

    My goodness, this book sounds terrific! Thanks for letting us know, Em!

  27. Colin Findlay Says:

    An absolute wonderful story,which beautifully illustrates the events of the period. Why the assumption that it was set during the earlier revolution arose I have no idea. I first saw a stage production of it performed by an amateur youth ensemble (the oldest in the cast was 18), at Whitley Bay playhouse in the north of England and I am not ashamed to admit I bawled my eyes out for the last 20 minutes or so, and was still emotive long after leaving the theatre. Well done the authors of this site for educating Joe Public.

  28. Julie K Says:

    Very interesting post!
    I haven’t seen the 2012 movie, but I’ve read the novel and seen the Broadway show. I was just watching the Sesame Street (!) parody of Les Miz on youtube, which included a statue of an elephant (well, a statue of Snuffleupagus), and since I don’t think the statue was in the stage show, I was wondering at first if the creator of the Sesame Street video had actually read the novel, until it occurred to me, as you confirm, that the elephant might appear in the movie.

  29. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Julie. I’ve seen the stage production several times, and though it was several years ago, I’m pretty sure that “The Elephant of the Bastille” figures prominently in the set design.

  30. Stella Says:

    I am thoroughly alarmed by the amount of Wikipedia citations in this article, regardless that it is not meant as an academic paper, but merely a blog post. Because Stanford’s name is on this blog and plenty of laymen and/or nonacademics are coming here for correct information, it is the responsibility of the blog author to 1) fact check Wikipedia sources and use original sources (as opposed to couching information in “according to”), and 2) provide an example of responsible research. A blog with Stanford’s name on it that cites Wikipedia implies that Wikipedia is reliable and/or valid, which we know it is not, else Wikipedia citations would be allowed in schools and universities wouldn’t “talk trash” about other universities by claiming said university cites Wikipedia. I understand Wikipedia is progressing in it’s veracity; however, it is not quite up to academic par. I know the tedium of running to ground sources instead of slapping on the “qtd in,” but there is a reason it has to be done. Students are not allowed to cite Wikipedia and neither are we. http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/11/espn-college-gameday-signs-harvard-yalo

  31. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I appreciate your concern, Stella, though “alarm” would seem to be overstated. In my original post, there is only one sentence from Wikipedia – and that describes the Hugo’s panicky movements in an obscure cul-de-sac during the day of the revolution. I could not follow these on a modern map, because the streets have changed. Traugott’s book did not have any maps this detailed, either, as I recall – in any case, I repeatedly asked for permission to republish the maps the book did have, to no avail. A second occasion was for a quick postscript to the original post, in answer to a reader’s question about the famous Elephant. The information is very general, and most of the citation is from Hugo’s masterpiece.

    This is not, as you suggest, meant to be an academic paper. This is one of hundreds of blogs on the Stanford website.

  32. Mark Evans Says:

    A great book on the French Revolution with detailed anecdotal stories from a diary (think Samuel Pepys) is “Dancing To The Precipice”. Check it out.

  33. Ernesto Rivas Says:

    This is terrific! I just started reading Les Misérables and was not quite sure about the historical context. Your article sets things straight for me so thank you very much. I found your article by a Google search “Is Les Misérables true.” Bravo! E

  34. james lortz Says:

    Great info! And great handling of the masses. I’m reminded of a quote from Peter Stone when he was writing the book to the musical “1776”: “God writes lousy theatre.” The actual events are always more interesting but don’t always lend themselves to a dramatic telling. I appreciate all your efforts and am glad to have discovered your postings. Thank you!

  35. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Why, thank you, James! And you’re welcome!

  36. Cheryl Bonner Troup Says:

    I have seen Les Mis so many times that I sometimes start wondering when MY PLAY is coming back to town(Kansas City.)
    I have never learned so much about the history before tonite. Thanks so much for putting it all together. Cheers!

  37. Undertaker Blog Says:

    The Miz Awesome The Movie Youth

    […] amed to admit I bawled my eyes out for the last 20 minutes or so, and was still […]

  38. Commune Blog Says:

    Paris Commune Liberty On The Barricades

    […] e (the oldest in the cast was 18), at Whitley Bay playhouse in the north of Engl […]

  39. C. Crowley Says:

    Thanks for the detailed information and the references. I have read the book at least three times and found your site very helpful.

  40. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You’re certainly welcome!

  41. Bonnie Says:

    Wow. I had no idea people were making this mistake. Seems a bit inane to confuse this later people’s revolution with THE French Revolution. It is quite obvious that is not the setting or the time period represented in the film nor are the events congruent with those of the 1789 Revolution and ensuing reign of terror. Guess I assume people that bother with this movie bother with the history and literature as well.

  42. George Dupre Says:

    Your stupid down-the-nose response, like Tilley in the New Yorker,
    seems symptomatic for a Harvard wanna be on the left coast,
    but at least you seemed to understand that Les Miserables is, in fact,
    directly related to the Revolution, the July one of 1830.

    If one didn’t read your nasty retort to the end,
    one would have thought you had no understanding of the underlying issues.

    Perhaps you should do some re-training in basic rhetoric – perhaps a local JC would be appropriate.

    Less then best regards

  43. Andrew McGarrigle Says:

    An excellent thread.

    However , I have to take issue with ‘When French people talk to each other they don’t have accents…they sound normal’

    I can assure you that there are huge regional accents within France and there are certainly ‘working class’ accents, vernacular and dialect…A Parisian sounds totally different to someone from the South or Brittany. As a fluent French speaker I am often asked if I come from the North, which is where I learned French

    I strongly suggest that the ‘cockney’ accent is to accentuate the working class and is probably using a reference to ‘Oliver Twist’…

  44. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Andrew. I agree.

  45. Avalon Says:

    One of my best friends is a huge fan of Les Mis, and while I enjoy it, I actually had no idea that it wasn’t THAT revolution until I played through Assassin’s Creed: Unity and found a text saying just this.

    Thanks for helping me clear up exactly which one it was 😀 <3

  46. james Says:

    Superb blog Cynthia, although I have to say the richest seam lay in the first 2/3rds of the posts. I wish I could visit Paris to get an idea of ‘place’. Ive seen the musical and film, and kind of knew about the post revolution poverty through, ironically, Naval fiction from Patrick O Brian. Nothing beats going there though and doing a bit of historical detective work.

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