Thursday, January 24, 2013

Les Mis - The Book

Regular readers will know that Les Miserables is my favourite stage show and that I never miss an opportunity to see a live production, whether professional or amateur. Many of the local amateur musical societies are the equal of the professional troupes. I have also seen just about every film version there is of Les Mis, including the French versions, but I will confess that I have never been able to get past the first 30 pages or so of the book, it is just too heavy going and dull. 

Here are some interesting Les Mis facts and trivia about the book, you may have more dedication in finishing it than I: 
  • The book was written by French poet, novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Within France he is best known for his poetry; outside France, for his novels Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Victor Hugo, 1876 
  • Les Miserables was first published in 1862. The novel begins in 1815 and ends with the June Rebellion in 1832 in Paris. 
Title page, first edition
  • The title can be translated to The Miserables, The Wretched, The Miserable Ones, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims
  • Hugo says in the novel’s Preface: 
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless. 
  • At 1,500 pages (1,900 in the French version) it is one of the longest novels written. It also has a sentence 823 words long. One quarter of the novel consists of Hugo discoursing in detail on various aspects and issues – cloistered religious orders, the Paris sewers, street urchins and the battle of Waterloo – without any character involvement or storyline development. 
  • Below are the sources for some of the characters and incidents in the novel: 
  • The character of Valjean is based on the life of ex-convict Eugene Francois Vidoq (1775-1857). After Vidoq abandoned crime and became a businessman, he went on to establish and become the first director of the Surete, originally the criminal investigation bureau  of the Paris police that inspired Scotland Yard and the FBI. He was also the head of the first private detective agency.  He is today regarded as the father of modern criminology and of the French police department, and the first private detective.   A compassionate man, he was kind to those in deserving and in need, relentless to those who weren't., 

Eugene Vidocq 
  • In 1828 Vidocq, already pardoned, saved one of his workers in his paper factory by lifting a heavy cart on his shoulders as Valjean does.
  • The novel’s kindly Bishop of Digne is based on Francois–Bienvenu de Miollis (1753-1843), the real Bishop of Digne between 1805 and 1838. 
The Bishop of Digne, Francois–Bienvenu de Miollis 
  • The scene where Fantine is assaulted by a rejected customer is based on an actual incident from Victor Hugo's life. It was witnessing that incident that led to the creation of the character of Fantine. Hugo was on his way to his editor's office when he encountered a young man harassing a prostitute. When she rejected his advances, he shoved a handful of snow down her dress and shoved her to the ground. She defended herself with her fists and he immediately called the police to arrest his "assailant". Hugo was a minor celebrity at the time and spoke up on the woman's behalf when the police arrived and was able to have her set free. Hugo said he was horrified by the unfairness of the woman's situation and began to imagine that she might have children depending on her, and thus Fantine appeared in his mind. 
  • On 22 February 1846 Hugo witnessed the arrest of a bread thief whilst a Duchess and her child watched the scene without emotion from their coach. Hugo was already working on the novel and incorporated it into the book. 
  • During the 1832 revolt, Hugo walked the streets of Paris, saw the barricades blocking his way at points, and had to take shelter from gunfire. 
It existed between 1813 and 1846 and was known as “The Elephant and the Bastille”, a statue intended by Napoleon to be cast in bronze to commemorate his military achievements. The plaster and wood model never proceeded to casting in bronze, becoming derelict, infested in vermin and the refuge of Gavroche and his young street friends. In the novel Gavroche is also a child of the Thenardiers, Eponine’s brother. The young friends he looks after are also, unbeknownst to him, his brothers as other children of the Thenardiers. 
  • The character Javert is also based on Vidocq, the “good” aspects of Vidocq’s life being embodied in Valjean and the dedicated, relentless detective in Javert. Hugo in effect divided Vidocq into two characters for the novel, describing Javert in the novel as “a marble informer, Brutus in Vidocq”. Just like Vidocq, Javert has an excellent memory, great detective skills, an ability for disguise and a relentless capacity for dogged pursuit. Unlike Javert, Vidocq took pride in never having arrested anyone who stole out of need. 
  • Some pics from the original book:

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