[Spoiler alert! If you don’t know the story of Les Misérables and want to see the film without already knowing a lot of plot points, including the ending, then stop right now.]
I’ll be the first to admit that I am a shameless Les Mis fan. I’ve always loved the story, since seeing some movie version or other as a child. I became a passionate fan of the stage musical back when it opened on Broadway in 1987, when I still had good intentions of going into show business, while already being well on the way to the history nerd and French Revolution geek that I am today. (I nearly went to the open casting call they held in New York for the part of Eponine, but no, I really didn’t have the right kind of voice. I could have played Cosette, but that role was already cast . . . bummer.)
So eventually I became a writer instead, and made a career, of sorts, of my French Revolutionary geekdom, and quietly waited and yearned for someone, anyone, to make a grand, epic, over-the-top film of that grand, epic, over-the-top stage musical.
Finally they’ve done it, and (thank heavens) they got it right. Yes, I LOVED it, with a few minor quibbles.
And today, if I read one more review or online discussion of the new movie of Les Mis which states that the story is about, or takes place in, or culminates in, “the French Revolution”—always meaning the 1789 one with the guillotines and everything, which Les Mis absolutely isn’t about and doesn’t take place in—I think maybe I’ll man the barricades myself and start ranting.
Crash course in French history forthwith for all new or potential Les Mis fans!
No, Les Misérables is not historical fiction about “the French Revolution.” Not the biggie, la grande révolution, 1789-94, the one everybody knows about, featuring Parisians (not “peasants,” please) attacking the Bastille; Marie-Antoinette getting her head cut off; Madame Defarge knitting at the guillotine; and Napoleon somehow taking over at the end and cleaning up the mess.
Les Misérables is, among many other things, about the legacy of the French Revolution.
The uprising in the second half of Les Mis is no huge, nation-sized, world-shaking revolution like the 1789 biggie; it’s a relatively small Parisian insurrection, a couple of days of street riots and resistance that did take place in June, 1832 (Victor Hugo witnessed it firsthand), and which was quickly and bloodily suppressed by government troops, just as it is in the novel/musical/film. And if you do your math (1832 minus 1789), you’ll soon figure out that the climax of Les Mis is taking place a good 43 years after la grande révolution, at a time when the Revolution-with-a-capital-R is only a distant memory, for good or evil, in the minds of a very senior generation, people in their late fifties and above . . . like memories of 1968 (44 years ago!) for Americans today. But for those seething, leftist, idealistic, twentysomething students in Les Mis, the 1789 Revolution-with-a-capital-R is a glorious, if mightily flawed, piece of history that they’re looking back to and hoping they can revive—without it going sour this time.
Hugo, of course, was writing his historical novel for a French audience in the 1860s, who knew their recent history and who would have recognized nearly everything and everyone he mentioned. But it’s all a bit more obscure 180 years after the fact and on another continent. So, in order to know what, historically, is going on in, and—perhaps more important—leading up to Les Mis, here’s a quick and grossly oversimplified chronology of French history from 1789 to the mid 19th century:
1789, May to July: The French Revolution, la grande révolution, begins, with a political rebellion and then (symbolically) with the capture of the Bastille. Over the next year or two the king—Louis XVI, well-meaning but something of a bumbler and a waffler—reluctantly accepts the reforms that are put into place and agrees to reign as a constitutional monarch.
1792, August: After three years of royal incompetence; royal waffling; political squabbling between progressives and hardline royalist conservatives; and discontent among the poor at how the Revolution turned out to be a lot more about Liberty than Equality, the French Revolution reaches a more radical phase. The conservative constitutional monarchy is overthrown in a violent uprising and Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette are imprisoned.
1792, September: The monarchy is officially abolished and France is declared a republic; the democratically elected National Convention becomes the ruling body. During the next year and a half, under the influence of some radical politicians, various laws are enacted or proposed, which attempt to spread the wealth around a little and improve the lives of the working poor.
1793, January: Louis XVI is executed, after being tried (for treason against the nation) by the National Convention.
1793, spring: a small executive body, the Committee of Public Safety, is formed to streamline the clunky workings of an inexperienced republican government that is running things mostly by trial and error. Maximilien Robespierre joins the Committee in July 1793 and soon becomes its chief spokesperson, though not its “leader” in any way.
1793, autumn: The Terror begins, in response to pressures within and without of foreign war and civil war. (Not nearly as many people were guillotined during the Terror as you probably think, after reading The Scarlet Pimpernel or A Tale of Two Cities—see my previous post, “Propaganda, Clichés, and History.”)
1794, July: The Committee of Public Safety begins to fracture as its members divide along ideological lines and quarrel violently. Robespierre and his closest adherents are overthrown, and quickly guillotined, in what is essentially a palace coup. The Terror ends, mostly because the sleazy politicians who overthrew Robespierre realize it would be a very good idea to stop the bloody political purges right away so that they can blame them all on Robespierre, who is now dead and can’t refute the accusations. The Committee of Public Safety and the National Convention continue to govern for another year.
1795, November: the National Convention and Committee of Public Safety disband and make way for a new, far less radical, governing body, the Directory. At this point a lot of the progressive laws enacted or proposed in 1793 and 94 by the revolutionary radicals, intended to ease poverty and help the working classes, have already been, or will soon be, repealed by the cynical, greedy, mostly corrupt new ruling class. (My, this is beginning to sound awfully familiar, isn’t it?)
1796: And finally, here, the backstory of Les Misérables begins—when Jean Valjean, to feed his sister’s starving children, steals a loaf of bread and is sent to prison. Hugo was clearly pointing out that, despite this episode taking place right after the Revolution, the poor were just as wretched as they had ever been—and the laws were just as brutal.
1795-99: The Directory runs things while a fair number of smart, unscrupulous opportunists get very, very rich, and the poor remain very, very poor. In the end, nothing much has changed in ten years of shakeup, except that the ruling class is now made up of wealthy bourgeois profiteers and financiers instead of the blue-blooded hereditary nobility of the prerevolutionary regime.
1799, November: Napoleon Bonaparte, the hot young military superstar who’s just put down some minor uprisings in Paris and conquered Italy, decides that he can run things better than the politicians can, and that he doesn’t feel like taking their orders any more. A political coup ends with him as “First Consul” and head of the once again restructured government.
1804: Napoleon, still successfully governing France and taking over chunks of Europe, is declared Emperor of the French.
1804-1814: Although it looks as though the government system is headed back toward a hereditary monarchy, Napoleon’s imperial rule is moderately progressive and sticks to many of the first basic reforms and advances of the Revolution. Unfortunately, he decides he’d like to conquer the rest of Europe, including Russia (very, very bad idea), and spread the revolutionary ideals around.
1812: Napoleon tries occupying Moscow, is defeated by the Russian winter, and slinks back to France with his tail between his legs.
1814: Military defeat; Napoleon’s allied enemies invade France and force him to abdicate; he’s exiled to the island of Elba. The “legitimate” king, Louis XVIII, younger brother of the guillotined Louis XVI, is restored to the throne. (What happened to No. XVII? That’s XVI’s son, the “lost Dauphin,” the little boy who never became king and who disappeared/died/whatever around 1795, under mysterious circumstances.)
1815: Jean Valjean is released from prison and eventually tears up his parolee papers, disappears, and begins a new life under a new name.
1815, June: Napoleon decides he’s had enough of Elba and leaves it behind, heading back to France, picking up supporters and loyal troops along the way to Paris (“the Hundred Days”). Louis XVIII panics and gets the heck out of town. Napoleon makes his last bid for power but is finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo (June 18). Louis XVIII returns to Paris and the royal line is officially restored for good, although as a limited constitutional monarchy. Louis XVIII is just smart enough to realize that trying to go back to the absolute monarchy of his dead brother’s prerevolutionary era would be a bad idea.
1815, June: (Backstory in the novel: ) Marius’s father, a Bonapartist general, is wounded at Waterloo and is “rescued” afterward on the battlefield by Thenardier. Marius, born a couple of years earlier, is brought up by his staunchly royalist grandpapa. Cosette is born sometime around this date.
1821: Napoleon dies in exile on the remote island of St. Helena.
1823: Valjean, now a successful small-town businessman, tries to save Fantine, runs afoul of Javert, rescues little Cosette from the Thenardiers, and escapes to Paris.
1824: Louis XVIII dies. He has no son, so the crown goes to his younger brother, Charles X. Unfortunately, Charles X is a clueless, rigid reactionary with kitty litter for brains, who thinks that going back to the prerevolutionary absolute monarchy would be a perfectly swell idea.
1830, July: After six years of Charles throwing his weight around, and pissing everybody off by trying to obliterate 35 years’ worth of (very) modest social and political progress for the sake of restoring the ancien régime’s feudalism, arbitrary rule, and aristocratic privilege, France has had enough. After three days of Parisian riots that is soon known as the “July Revolution,” Charles X is forced to abdicate. Rather than declaring a republic, the provisional government proclaims Charles’s distant and much less conservative cousin, Louis-Philippe of the royal house of Orléans, as king by the will of the people (rather than by mere right of inheritance).
1830, roughly: Marius becomes an ardent Bonapartist and leftist, quarrels with his royalist grandfather, and moves out to mingle with like-minded students and workers at the radical, working-class cafés.
1832: Within two years, the leftists in France are disillusioned by the new king, Louis-Philippe, and his “liberal” regime, the July Monarchy, which isn’t nearly as liberal as they’d hoped it would be. Radicals dream about a second republic while Bonapartists dream of restoring the Empire.
1832, June: Jean Maximilien Lamarque, popular liberal politician and former Napoleonic general, dies during a cholera epidemic in Paris. His state funeral sets off rioting and armed resistance among disaffected students and workers, who are hoping to repeat the success of the July Revolution and overthrow Louis-Philippe, or at least to have the clout to demand additional social and legal reforms in the established system. (The funeral procession and the beginning of the riot, as shown in the film, are taken straight from the novel and it’s a pretty good depiction of what historically happened.)
June 5-6, 1832: And we’ve finally made it to the barricades of Les Misérables, 43 years after the French Revolution!
(France’s revolutions still aren’t over yet after 1832. After 18 years of Louis-Philippe, the Parisians kick him out, too, in the Revolution of 1848—which is kinda-sorta foreshadowed with that ginormous barricade full of singing ghosts in the grand finale of the film—and proclaim the Second Republic . . . which is soon taken over by Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, who becomes president of the Republic. He then decides he’d prefer to be emperor like his uncle and proclaims the Second Empire. The Second Empire lasts for almost 20 years, 1851-70, before collapsing after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. A new republic is proclaimed. Radical Parisians foresee the sort of cynical, conservative bourgeois republic that has existed before, decide they would rather bring back the leftist ideals of la grande révolution, and declare Paris in revolt (the Paris Commune). The government troops eventually suppress the rebellion in May 1871 by shooting down about 20,000 people in one week, ten times as many as were guillotined in Paris during the 16-month Terror of 80 years before; and the Third Republic comes into being—which chugs creakily along until Hitler invades France in 1940. Whew.)
Postscript: So what’s with that elephant in the movie, anyway???
Well, chalk one up to faithfulness to the literary (and historical) source. The elephant actually existed. The original elephant was a very impressive 40 feet high, somewhat larger even than the version they built for the movie, and was erected in 1812-13 to commemorate Napoleon’s military victories—referring most obviously to his first great victory, the Egyptian expedition of 1798. From 1813 to 1846, it stood in the center of the Place de la Bastille (where the July Column stands now, commemorating the July Revolution, on what was originally the elephant’s pedestal). Though the final elephant was intended to be a gigantic bronze statue, only a full-size plaster and wood mockup was built before Napoleon went into exile. It deteriorated badly over the next three decades, eventually becoming a decrepit, crumbling, rat-infested eyesore. Hugo wrote a whole chapter about it in Les Mis, as a symbol of post-Napoleonic France’s moral decay, and had little Gavroche, the homeless street urchin, sleeping inside it.
And finally—the phrase “les misérables,” which has a whole range of subtly shaded meanings in French, is much better translated into English as “the dispossessed” or even as “the outsiders”—which can describe every major character in the novel in one way or another—than simply as “the miserable ones” / “the wretched ones.”
Go see the movie!
And then go and send a donation to your favorite human rights group or homeless shelter, since this story isn’t really over at all.
Alleyn’s ’s most recent novel is Palace of Justice (St. Martin’s, 2010), an Aristide Ravel mystery set in Paris in 1793, during the French Revolution-with-a-capital-R. She is also the author of Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths (2012), and is strongly considering publishing an annotated edition of Les Misérables in her spare time.