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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Novel of the Century

The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables

David Bellos

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Victor Hugo Opens His Eyes

Victor-Marie Hugo was born in 1802 in the garrison town of Besançon, where his father was stationed. At that time France was under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican soldier whose meteoric career had brought him to be commander in chief and, from 1799, the inspirational leader of a nation turned upside down by the Revolution of 1789 and now asserting itself on the European stage.

Hugo’s father and uncle were both soldiers in Napoleon’s armies and rose to high rank in the campaigns that brought almost all of continental Europe under French rule for a time. Napoleon was crowned emperor at Notre-Dame Cathedral in 1804 and won more great victories after that. The invasion of Russia in 1812 was the turning point. Unable to hold Moscow through the winter, the Great Army began a retreat that turned into a rout. The first French Empire came to its end on 18 June 1815, at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was banished to St Helena, and a Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, was restored to the French throne.

Hugo was an intellectually precocious thirteen-year-old when Napoleon fell. He had a great gift for Latin and a prodigious talent for writing fixed-meter verse in French. His father’s fortunes shrivelled on the fall of the Napoleonic world, and Hugo left school soon after to earn a living by his pen, which was not an easy thing to do. But his years of scraping by on odd jobs and small commissions did not last long. He was soon recognized as a ‘sublime child’ for the verses he wrote; he won prizes and acquired royal patronage too. He wrote a breathless short novel about a slave revolt in Haiti culled from secondary sources and also dashed off a seafaring yarn before he ever smelled salt water. Hugo soon became a leading figure in a group of writers and artists of his own generation who called themselves ‘Romantics’, and set about conquering the theatre, the highest rung on the narrow ladder of literary fame. He was already a Parisian celebrity when his tragedy Hernani was performed in 1830, and its unconventional treatment of the strict rules of classical French theatre caused a great stir. He then turned his hand to historical fiction, a genre made fashionable throughout Europe by Walter Scott. Notre-Dame de Paris (also known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) appeared in 1831 and was an immense success. Its publication came just a year before the death of the German poet Goethe, the undisputed eminence of European literature for the preceding half-century. Victor Hugo was ready and willing to take on his mantle of European genius-in-chief.

Hugo’s poetry and plays of the 1830s confirmed his prominent position and he was elected to a seat in the Académie française, making him one of France’s forty ‘immortals’ at the early age of thirty-nine. His standing was such that in 1845 he was appointed to the Chambre des pairs, the Upper House of the French parliament, making him a pair de France or ‘lord of the realm’. A splendid career crowned by a spectacular honour for a man still so young. How much higher could he go?

He didn’t. Between his maiden speech as a peer and his wet and windy landing on Guernsey in 1855 came ten turbulent years that turned him from a pillar of the establishment into an exile, from a brilliant careerist into a stand-alone protester, from a man of the middle into a spokesman for progressive causes. The social and political transformation of Victor Hugo accompanied and affected profoundly the story of transformation that became Les Misérables.

Hugo lost a great deal from the political changes that took place in France between 1848 and 1852, and though he ceased for a while to be a wealthy man, he never became poor in the way Valjean, Fantine, Cosette and the Thénardiers were. In that respect the central thread of Les Misérables is not drawn out of the life of Victor Hugo. On the other hand, he knew quite a lot about the material conditions of people far less fortunate than he was. Some of that knowledge he gleaned from reading books, surveys and reports, but he learned it most of all from what he saw.

* * *

Near the peak of his glory in January 1841, when he lived in a spectacular apartment in Place Royale chock full of antique bric-a-brac (the square is now called Place des Vosges, and the apartment is another Maison de Victor Hugo), he went to a dinner party where an army general held forth on the pointlessness of pursuing the conquest of Algeria (first undertaken in 1830, as a punitive raid). Hugo was walking down Rue Taitbout in search of a cab to take him home on that wintry night when a well-dressed young man in the street picked up a handful of snow and shoved it down the back of a girl in a low-cut dress. She screamed out loud and then fell upon the middle-class lout. He hit back, and the noise of the scuffle alerted the police. They ran up and took not the man but the girl into custody. ‘Come along with us, you’ll get six months for that.’

This story comes from Choses vues (‘Things Seen’), a precious ragbag of reportage, memoir, gossip and (literally) things seen to which Hugo kept adding all his life. Unlike other pieces, this report is in the third person, referring to the author not as ‘I’ but as ‘V. H.’. It turns out that it was actually written by Hugo’s wife Adèle and put in the wrong folder in the ocean of manuscripts that Hugo left on his death. When was it written? Perhaps shortly after the event, but more probably in 1861 or 1862, when Adèle was drafting a memoir of her life with Hugo, published a few months after Les Misérables. Hugo cooperated in the endeavour and allowed his wife to scavenge his memory over dinners on Guernsey. At Hauteville House, as at most other times, Victor Hugo was not averse to talking about himself.

In the text Adèle wrote down, V. H. accompanies the girl to the police station, hesitates to say who he is at first, then decides to identify himself as a member of the Académie française in the hope that pulling rank would stop an injustice being done. He asked the police to release the girl because the offence committed had not been committed by her. V. H. signed a statement, and the girl was let off. She couldn’t stop saying how grateful she was. ‘“How good the gentleman is! My God, how good he is!” These unfortunate women are astonished and grateful not only when you take pity on them; they are just as grateful when you are just.’1

Except for telling the story to Adèle – perhaps twenty years later, or perhaps that very night – Hugo never boasted about his generous intervention. What he did do was to attach this episode to the life of Jean Valjean, who saves Fantine from a spell in jail after an identical assault on a snowy night in Montreuil.2

There were plenty of poor people to be seen on the streets of Paris, and no shortage of petty thieves either. But Hugo tried to see through the scenes that he encountered and make out the social and political meanings they had. Here’s one that he wrote up on a sheet of paper that he put away in ‘Things Seen’. It is going too far to call it the inspiration for the story of Valjean, but it certainly belongs to the material from which Les Misérables was made:

Yesterday … I was on my way to the Chambre des pairs. It was a fine day but very cold despite the noonday sun. In Rue de Tournon I saw a man being led away by two soldiers. He was fair-haired, pale, thin and drawn; about thirty, coarse canvas trousers, bare and bruised feet in clogs with bloody linens wrapped around his ankles in lieu of stockings; a short blouse with mud stains on the back, showing that he usually slept on the streets; no hat and hair standing on end. He had a loaf under his arm. People around said he’d stolen the loaf and that was why he was being taken away …

A coach was standing outside the barracks door. It was a covered coach with a coat of arms and a ducal crown on its lanterns … The windows were raised, but you could see the interior upholstered in buttoned yellow silk. The man staring at the coach drew my own eyes towards it. Inside was a dazzlingly beautiful woman with a fresh white complexion, wearing a pink hat and a black velvet dress, laughing and playing with a charming sixteen-month-old baby swaddled in ribbons and lace and furs.

The woman did not see the fearsome man who was looking at her.

It made me think.

That man was no longer a man in my eyes but the spectre of la misère, of poverty, the misshapen and lugubrious apparition in broad daylight, in broad sunlight, of a revolution that is still deep in the shadows, but is on its way. Previously, the poor could rub shoulders with the rich, such a ghost could meet such brilliance; but each did not look at the other. They went on their way. Things could go on like that for a long time. But once this man realizes that this woman exists while the woman does not notice that the man is there, a catastrophe is inevitable.3

The loaf stolen by the man who looked at the Duchess, like the one stolen by Valjean in Les Misérables, was not the stick loaf we now think of as ‘French bread’. The white-flour baguette was not invented until 1838, and it remained a high-priced specialty for decades after that. The standard loaf of the poor in nineteenth-century France was an oval weighing four and a half pounds, with a thick black crust and heavy grey meal inside. Not the sort of thing you would want to eat nowadays.

Hugo was probably not alone in fearing that injustice as well as the mental gulf between rich and poor would lead to a social catastrophe. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he adhered to no particular plan for averting it – he wasn’t a Fourierist or a Saint-Simonian or a socialist, nor even a convinced republican yet. He also had no idea how soon the catastrophe would come.

31 August 1847

A pieceworker brings his master, a shoemaker, a job for which the contract price is three francs. The master finds the work shoddy and won’t give the man more than fifty sous.4 The pieceworker refuses to accept it. A row ensues. The master throws the worker out. He comes back with some fellows and breaks the cobbler’s windows with stones. A crowd gathers. A riot … The whole of Paris is in chaos.

I do not like these symptoms. When there’s poison in the blood even a small pimple can set off the malady. A mere graze can lead to an amputated limb.5

In the 1840s, France was a constitutional monarchy with a legislative body elected by male taxpayers alone. Because there was no tax on incomes, gains, inheritances or consumption, taxes were levied exclusively on property, and every voter was therefore an owner of a building or of land. The charge of a government responsible to an assembly representing the well-off defined in this way was to maintain order among those less privileged than the voters it served. That’s to say, improving the lives of the ragged masses was of interest only if it helped to head off civil strife. The Paris poor were an edgy crowd, always on the brink of disturbing the peace. What caused the common people to be disorderly so often? Were they idle by nature? Irremediably bad? Was poverty the cause of their frightening behaviour, or was their behaviour the reason they stayed poor?

Despite a long history of political and military conflict between them, England and France were constantly borrowing ideas from each other. The Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, for example, the great monument of Enlightenment thought, began as an imitation of Chambers’s Cyclopaedia. Its article on ‘poverty’, however, strikes modern readers as something less than enlightened, for it begins by berating the poor for their own plight. But it turns this conventional attitude around by then attacking monarchs for creating the conditions that turn the poor into such lamentable folk:

Few souls are strong enough not to be laid low and eventually debased by poverty. Common folk are unbelievably stupid. I do not know what magical illusion makes them blind to their current poverty and to the even greater poverty that awaits them in old age. Poverty is the mother of great crimes; sovereigns are responsible for making people misérable and it is they who will be judged in this world and the next for the crimes that poverty commits.

A more substantial contribution to the European debate on the ‘problem of the poor’ comes from the writings of an English cleric, Robert Malthus. And he was even less sympathetic to the lower classes than the French contributor to the Encyclopédie.

Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 but read for many decades after that, claims that, absent the benefits of education and refinement, human beings are naturally idle and can be roused to productive labour only by a pressing need. Its second premise is that the uneducated and unrefined always take the easiest path. Given the opportunity, poor people steal what they need instead of working to acquire it. In Malthus’s dim view of human nature, the poor constitute a different species. Few of his contemporaries yet dared imagine that the overall size of the cake to be shared out could be increased or that poverty itself might be relieved by agricultural, industrial and technological improvements that had barely begun. For that reason, even people who were not convinced by Malthus’s grim analysis of the unequal race between population and the land’s capacity to feed it took it for granted that crime and poverty were two sides of the same coin. The ‘lower classes’ were most often seen as ‘dangerous classes’ in England and in France.

But there were other forces at work. Support for the ‘lame and the halt’ had long been the responsibility of the church. Malthus and the Encyclopédie both expressed in their different ways profound scepticism, if not outright hostility, to the alleviation of the suffering of the poor by religious institutions. In England, however, there was a separate tradition with no equivalent in France. Laws dating from the reign of Elizabeth I obliged parish councils to give ‘outdoor relief’ to the sick, the disabled, abandoned children and the old. These ‘Poor Laws’ did not apply to the ill-paid, ill-clad, ill-fed and ill-housed but only to people we might now call victims of life events. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, a change arose in the way the laws were applied. The new rule required parish councils to give relief to labourers whose earnings fell below the poverty line and to unemployed men, including those who were fit for work. This administrative tweak had immense long-term effect on social policy, and it also changed the way the word ‘poor’ was understood. It came to refer to people who for whatever reason did not have enough to live on – the modern meaning of the word ‘poor’ (misérable in French), replacing the older sense of ‘victim of misfortune’. The gradual but fundamental shift in meaning from ‘laid low by ill fortune’ to ‘short of money’ ran into a wall of resistance from entrenched economic, moral and political positions, and it took a century and more for them to be overcome. Les Misérables was a key element in the history of that long-drawn-out change.

The French Revolution established new political rights for all its citizens, but it did not have much to say about the economic origins of poverty. Article 21 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, for example, reiterates the traditional distinction between the needy (orphans, the disabled, the sick and the aged) and everybody else: ‘Society owes subsistence to citizens in misfortune, either by providing them with work, or by giving means of existence to those who are not fit to work’.6 Had the article been put into practice it would simply have brought France into line with the Poor Laws of England as they had been for two centuries already, by providing income support to the destitute with no opportunity to work (‘citizens in misfortune’) and leaving the able-bodied and the unemployed to fend for themselves. But this was just a paper reform. In revolutionary France the state had no institutions or resources to provide alms to those who had no prospect of supporting themselves. As under the old regime, in towns large and small there were beggars on the corner of every street.

The ever more visible gap between needs and resources was filled to some extent by private charitable institutions, many of them acting on behalf of or in association with the church, and also by individual philanthropists. In Les Misérables, Bishop Myriel is an exemplar of private charity of that kind. He donates 90 per cent of his stipend to a range of philanthropic institutions, not all of which are specifically religious ones, some giving care to unmarried mothers (‘Societies for Maternal Charity’), others giving education to ‘girls in need’ or looking after foundlings, orphans and hospital patients.7 These charities are chosen by Hugo on Myriel’s behalf, so to speak, because Fantine’s life might have been less harsh and less short had she been helped by any of them. However, many potential donors to charitable enterprises were held back by a worry that the ideas of Malthus made sharper and more pressing: how can an association or a benevolent individual provide assistance to people in need without giving a free ride to the idle and the bad? Even those who rejected Malthus’s prediction of an ever-rising tide of scum needed guidance to allow them to distinguish ‘honest poor folk’ from the dangerous and inherently criminal underclass that could so quickly turn into a mob.

People face the same issue nowadays under a different guise. With a choice of over a thousand international organizations seeking to help poor countries (and the poor people who live there) by supporting development programmes, health programmes, environmental programmes, educational programmes, how do we make our charitable donations do only good and not exacerbate the problems they were meant to abate?

One answer among many was provided 200 years ago by Joseph-Marie de Gérando in a widely read ‘how-to’ book, Le Visiteur du pauvre (The Visitor of the Poor). The main solution he offered to members of the moneyed middle class was to put prejudice and distaste aside and to call on all the people in the same street who appeared to need help. Men and women of means should get to know ‘poor people’ as individuals and make their own judgement as to what kind of poor people they were. Paternalistic, condescending and also slightly sinister, a ‘visitor of the poor’ in de Gérando’s construction would become a benefactor of the honest and a corrector of the undeserving. But there is one important thing to be said in defence of Le Visiteur du pauvre: those who followed its recommendations would at least become less ignorant, and presumably less fearful, of the other side. It is a small step, but a step nonetheless, towards the social reconciliation that Hugo called for forty years later in Les Misérables.

‘Poor visiting’ is given a key role in the main narrative of Hugo’s novel. Valjean goes to pray in the church of Saint-Sulpice and is approached by a waif with a letter that begs him to visit her starving family. He agrees to do so. Éponine rushes back to the Gorbeau tenement to announce the imminent arrival of a ‘millionaire’. Valjean goes back to Rue Plumet to collect goods and also Cosette, for he wants her to accompany him to learn what it is to be a visitor of the poor. At this first interview, Valjean willingly hands over warm clothes, woollen stockings and blankets. When he is asked for money, however, he holds back. He’s as wary as any other bourgeois of his age of being the victim of benefit fraud.8 It turns out that the wisdom of de Gérando and all the cunning of Jean Valjean were not sufficient to pierce the Thénardiers’ scam. On his next visit to the tenement Valjean is ambushed by a whole gang.

If private charity was no real solution to the ‘problem of poverty’ in France, the Poor Laws of England also seemed powerless to thin the ranks of the ragged to be seen on the streets. Indeed, although England was at that time ahead of France in industrial development and material wealth, it was even further in front in the number of really poor people it had. On a brief visit to London, the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, despite its galloping prosperity, it was the European capital of poverty too. How did that come about? The fault lay in the system, he wrote – in the entitlement to support fostered by Poor Laws inherited from an earlier age. Tocqueville stepped into a dispute over a reform of these ancient practices and took the side of those who wanted to do away with them altogether. Like many others he was convinced that abolition of ‘outdoor relief’ for the able-bodied would cause the number of poor people to fall.9 The out-turn of the political debate was not simple abolition, however, but a new kind of Poor Law that drove a wedge between people who didn’t have enough money to live on – the poor, in the modern sense of the word – and paupers, who were to be removed from public sight. Income support for the underpaid was indeed abolished, but so was direct payment to the ‘victims of misfortune’, who were now to be cared for in institutions called poor houses, or workhouses. These were designed to be as unpleasant as possible. The rationale behind the considerable expense of constructing them was to provide a standard of living lower than any that could be had from work: the workhouse should never tempt the able-bodied to abandon toil, however pitiful the wages of honest labour came to be. So horrible and humiliating were they that some indigents, like Mrs Higden in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, preferred to die on the road rather than enter the doors of a poor house for their last days.10

Charles Dickens, who had spent his teenage years putting shoe-black into pots in a rat-infested warehouse at Hungerford Stairs, was outraged by the new law. He blasted back at it in his story of a boy brought up in the workhouse. Oliver Twist appeared in 1837, came out in French translation in 1841 and has never been out of print in either language since then.11

The workhouse is an instance of the cross-Channel traffic that makes the stories of England and France so similar and yet not the same. The idea came from the dépôts de mendicité (‘beggars’ repositories’), prison-like dormitories set up by Napoleon in 1808 to put beggars, vagrants, lunatics and the disabled out of public sight. The scheme may have had a cosmetic effect in town centres, but it made no impact on the number of indigents and beggars in France. It was also open to abuse, as documented by Stendhal in his novel Red and Black: the unscrupulous M. Valenod, who runs the dépôt de mendicité at Verrières, makes a fortune from spending less to feed the inmates than he receives in fees from the state. Similar scandals in real life led to a gradual abandonment of the nationwide network of dépôts in France. There were hardly any left by the 1840s – when workhouses had spread to almost every English town.

But Oliver Twist takes for granted the transition from poverty to a life of crime. Oliver leaves the workhouse and joins a band of junior thieves working for Fagin, who resells what the boys steal. Oliver is mentored in scarf-snatching by Jack Dawkins, the ‘Artful Dodger’, a wisecracking Cockney who wears a (filched) top hat. Dickens’s happy scamp came to play a key role in the later history of the reception of Les Misérables. In 1960, Lionel Bart, a musical prodigy from London’s East End, devised a stage musical based on Oliver Twist. When Oliver! had another run in London in 1977, the French composer Alain Boublil went to see it. ‘As soon as the Artful Dodger came on stage,’ he recalled, ‘Gavroche came to mind. It was like a blow to the solar plexus. I started seeing all the characters of Les Misérables – Valjean, Javert, Gavroche, Cosette, Marius and Éponine – in my mind’s eye…’12 Dickens’s warm-hearted vision of good and evil among the riffraff on London’s streets turned out to be the first prompting for the invention of a musical version of Les Misérables that has given a fresh impetus to Hugo’s novel over the last thirty years.

Oliver Twist is the first major work of literature that puts a child at its centre, and among the first to introduce the colourful language of the underclass, including many words borrowed from cant, or thieves’ slang. What brings it closer still to Les Misérables is its generosity of spirit. It is no mere coincidence that an adaptation of Dickens’s novel should have led to the most widely seen reworking of Hugo’s masterpiece to date.

* * *

Hugo probably never read Oliver Twist, but he did get to meet its author, who visited Paris with his comrade John Forster in 1847. He granted an audience to the Englishmen in his splendid apartment in Place Royale. There’s not a trace of the visit in any of Hugo’s records, which suggests that Charles Dickens didn’t make a strong impression on the literary star of the day, but it was a memorable occasion the other way round. In Dickens’s eyes, Victor Hugo looked ‘like the Genius he was’; his wife Adèle had such a glowering air that he thought her capable of putting poison in the poet’s breakfast any day; and the daughter who brought in the tray looked so sinister that Dickens suspected her of carrying a sharp poignard in her stays ‘but for her not appearing to wear any’. In this lugubrious atmosphere that must owe something to Dickens’s wish to entertain his correspondent, Hugo addressed ‘very charming flattery, in the best taste’ to his English guests.13 That’s not surprising. Hugo may have had the status of a rock star, but he didn’t behave like one at all. He was always neatly and soberly dressed, and his manners were exquisite. It’s part of what made him the perfect ladies’ man.

At the time of Dickens’s visit Hugo had already drafted the basic narrative of most of what are now Parts I and II of Les Misérables, and the manuscript was most likely lying on the writing shelf just a few feet away from the deep sofa where the English writer sat. But the two great novelists did not talk about it. Despite all the feelings and ideas they shared, despite the parallel tracks they were following in their work, the conversation between them could only be an exchange of pleasantries. Hugo had never learned English (and never would), and Dickens knew no Latin, which was Hugo’s second tongue. They were stuck with the conversational French that Dickens learned quite late in life, for he had not been to the right kind of school. If only he had had a proper education … but then he would not have written the novels of Charles Dickens.

The real conversation between Dickens and Hugo didn’t happen in 1847, but fifteen years later. In 1861, the English writer completed his story of an ex-convict, Magwitch, transformed by an act of kindness into a power of good. Just a few weeks later, Victor Hugo brought the story of Jean Valjean to its conclusion. Great Expectations and Les Misérables say more to each other than their authors ever could.

Oliver Twist brought the lives of workhouse orphans and criminal gangs to attention in England, but in France, the lower depths were brought to the surface most spectacularly by Eugène Sue. His Mystères de Paris, published in daily instalments in a mass-circulation newspaper in 1842–3, were read by maids and mistresses, bootblacks and bosses, teenagers and adults, students and workers … It was such a huge success that it transformed the economics of newspaper publishing; and because it was often read aloud in cafés and bars, it reached beyond the literate to create the first mass audience for fiction in France.

In each episode of the Mystères, the recurrent hero, Prince Rudolph of Gerolstein, delves into a corner of Paris misérable, the hidden city of the poor. There he encounters prostitutes and pimps, exploited workers and oppressed artisans, crooks and dealers, single mothers, orphans, beggars and cripples. To each of the social ills that he finds, he brings some noble, practical or charitable relief. Rudolph is more like a figure from popular theatre or pantomime than what we expect to find in a literary novel: he’s an aristocrat and a master of disguise who can pass himself off as a bourgeois, a worker or a crook, as required, because he’s also as fluent in street slang as he is in the dialects of artisans or the language of the court. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of readers recognized their own situations in the serial and wrote letters to the author begging him to tell them how their own lives would work out, or else asking him to insert episodes they had written themselves.14 Such was the popular impact of Sue’s novel that nobody could pretend any more not to know about the poor. It wasn’t the only thing that drew Hugo’s eyes towards the problem of poverty, but it surely confirmed that it was the burning issue of the day. Not just in France, moreover. In Russia, Gogol’s Petersburg Tales focused on the lives of the lowest ranks in the civil service; Dostoevsky’s first full-length novel, Poor Folk, was written in 1845, just as Hugo was beginning the first draft of Les Misérables; and in London, Bulwer Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830) and Disraeli’s Sybil (1845) created a new awareness of the ‘condition of England’ and its two nations of rich and poor. The only one of these that Hugo is likely to have known about is Les Mystères de Paris. Sue was just a little ahead of Hugo in responding to a sea change in literary and social sensibilities across Europe as a whole.

I find Les Mystères de Paris turgid and boring to a degree, but as it was read with enthusiasm by such a wide public the fault must surely lie with me. The French novelist Honoré de Balzac objected to it for other reasons besides. He was jealous of Sue’s earnings, for a start, but he also deplored the appeals to ‘social justice’ that its episodes contain. Unlike Hugo, Balzac saw French society in decline and thought that only a return to the legitimate monarchy and the rule of the church could provide ‘a complete system of repression of the depraved tendencies of the human race’.15 His response to Les Mystères de Paris came in two sombre masterpieces gathered together under the topical title Poor Relations ‘to overthrow the false gods of that bastard literature,’16 by which he meant serial fiction in the manner of Eugène Sue. Hugo’s response, which he never acknowledged as such, took much longer to work out. But it is buried just under the surface of the prose work he began in 1845 and which eventually turned into Les Misérables.

There are some obvious parallels between the two works. Like Prince Rudolph, Jean Valjean dies and is reborn many times: sent down for the theft of a loaf in 1796, he loses his name and becomes 24601; on his release in 1815 he goes to Montreuil-sur-Mer, where he changes into M. Madeleine; after owning up in 1823 to being a wanted man, he is reincarcerated as convict 9430; then he jumps off a mast into deep water and is given up for dead, but is spotted by Javert in Paris a few months after that; he flees, then disappears over a wall into a convent. But to have the right to stay there he first has to leave it in a coffin, and is nearly buried alive. He becomes ‘Ultime Fauchelevent’, and when he leaves the convent five years later others know him by the names of ‘Monsieur Leblanc’ and ‘Urbain Fabre’. Valjean vanishes and reappears under new names more times than the Count of Monte Cristo, more often than Princess Bari, like the hero of some ancient saga – or of a modern one, like Sue’s.

Copyright © 2017 by David Bellos