Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables” – and the Guernsey Connection

In John Wilmot on March 13, 2013 at 1:16 pm

The film (not to mention the stage production), of Les Miserables, has become one of the most unlikely musical successes of recent times.

Not because it isn’t spectacular. It is. But it’s not exactly the kind of “feel good” musical beloved by Hollywood (or even UK studios) in the past. It’s a story of poverty and conflict set against the turmoil of mid-19th Century France.

It’s taken from the novel by Victor Hugo, one of France’s most renowned writers – a man for whom politics and literature were often intertwined.

Victor Hugo was born in 1803, at a time when France was already in turmoil. The French revolution had swept away the monarchy, the “reign of terror” had left its mark, and Napoleon Bonepart was about to dominate the European stage. In his earlier years, In his youth, Victor Hugo was a committed royalist, but the turbulent times through which he lived shifted his views, until he became a passionate republican.

His first successful novel was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (also made into a film in later years), published in 1831. But Les Miserables didn’t appear until 1862.

Because of his political views – which he pursued perhaps rather too actively for the regime in power – he was forced into exile, eventually settling on the island of Guernsey where he stayed for fifteen years. And it was here that he wrote Les Miserables.

On his return to his homeland, he was feted by much of the literary establishment – though not all critics liked his new novel. He was elected to the French National Assembly, where he served as something of an “angry old man”, and finally died in 1885 at the age of 83.

During his life time, Hugo lived through some of the most turbulent times in France’s history. He grew up during Napoleon’s short-lived empire, when conflict swept across Europe. He witnessed the return of the monarchy and its overthrow, uprisings (including the short-lived Paris Commune) and the horrors of the French-Prussian war. He remained an intellectual rebel, siding with the poor and downtrodden, even though he died as a “grand old man” of French literature.

Les Miserables

culminates in one of these periods of conflict – the rebellion of June 1832. I wouldn’t want to give away too much of the plot – suffice to say that the central character is Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who rises to become a successful businessman and mayor of his local town – but following the uprising, he eventually finds redemption.

In the words of Hugo, it charts a “progress from evil to good… from corruption to life.” During this journey Jean Valjean may become a force for good, but he cannot escape from his dark past.

It’s a complex plot, drawing in many strands and sub-plots. And, as novels go it is probably one of the lengthiest ever published (the original English language edition ran to well over a 1,000 pages). But it seems to have stood the test of time.

JOHN WILMOT

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