In 1862, French writer, Victor Hugo, published one of his most famous novels. Along with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame“, the world-famous “Les Miserables” remains one of the most famous books ever written. It has been made into at least half a dozen films or TV series, a world-famous, globally successful musical theater production, and a musical film, released last year.
The novel’s title, (pronounced “Le’ Miser’abe“), translates into English as “The Miserable“. The book chronicles the seventeen-year struggle of French convict, Jean Valjean, jailed for stealing bread to feed his dying nephew. His original sentence is five years, but his sentence is extended over and over due to repeated attempts to escape, until he eventually spends nineteen years in chains, finally gaining his freedom, of a sorts, in 1815, the year that Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo.
“Les Miserables” was written over a century and a half ago, and many of the cultural references are lost to history. This posting will look at the various historical events and persons mentioned in the novel, the films, and the play, so that the overall story of the book can be better understood.
The Bagne of Toulon
The story opens in 1815. Jean Valjean, convict #24601, has been imprisoned at Toulon, in France, since his arrest for theft in 1796. But what is Toulon, and where is it?
‘Toulon’ itself, is a city, located in southeastern France, on the Mediterranean coastline. The ‘Toulon’ of the story is actually the Bagne of Toulon.
The Bagne of Toulon (1748-1873) was an enormous, and infamous French prison.
Previously, Frenchmen who had been convicted of crimes had been drafted into the French navy. They were used as rowers to power the enormous French naval galleys. When galleys became obsolete, to be replaced by wind-powered sailing-ships, all the prisoners who were once sent to sea were instead sent to the Bagne of Toulon, where they were sentenced to years of hard labour.
Toulon was also a naval base and harbour during this time. The prisoners sent to the Bagne of Toulon were made to serve their sentences doing hard labour, carrying out tasks such as digging foundations for buildings, splitting stones, building fortifications and other structures, and to operate the machinery and treadmills and wheels which ran the rope-making factory nearby. Prisoners were branded with letters that showed the extent of their imprisonment at Toulon. They were either branded as having to serve hard labour (for a specific number of years), or were branded as having to serve hard labour for life, which of course meant that they would most likely die in prison.
The Yellow Passport
When he’s granted parole, Jean Valjean is forced to carry around his parole-documents, comprised of identification information and a passport, printed on yellow paper. The paper is colour-coded so that anyone who looks at it knows at once that he is a convict on parole, and a dangerous man (even though all he did was steal a loaf of bread for his nephew). The paper makes it impossible for Valjean to find work, food, or even a bed for the night, as he tries to make his way to his parole-officer where his papers are to be checked.
The yellow French passport shouldn’t be confused with the yellow card mentioned in the book “Crime and Punishment”, which serves a different purpose. During the time of imperial Russia, to prove that they had the right to practice their profession, prostitutes had to carry around a yellow I.D. card, to show that they were prostituting themselves legally, and had a license that allowed this.
The Bishop of Digne
Although the good Bishop Myriel is a fictional character, the town of Digne (“Deen”) is not. In the early 21st century, the town enjoys a population of some 17,000-odd people. In the 1820s at the time of ‘Les Miserables‘, its population was a much smaller 3,500 people.
Fantine Sells Her Hair and Teeth
After being kicked out of Valjean’s factory by the foreman, the young woman named Fantine is forced to sell her hair, and even her teeth, to survive, and to send money to the innkeeper who houses her daughter, Cosette.
Selling hair was a common practice among the people who were down on their luck during the 19th century. Hair was used in wigmaking, hair-jewellery (where it would be braided into ropes and bracelets), and even in dollmaking. Hair was laboriously inserted into the heads of dolls using needles and tweezers, a few strands a a time. Excess hair was used to stuff the insides of dolls and fill out their forms!
Although hair might grow back, and its loss would only be temporary, Fantine goes so far as to even sell her teeth! And yes, you could sell your teeth…if you were really desperate.
Dentistry during this time was crude, and people often had their rotten teeth yanked out by the dentist, the barber, the doctor, or even the village blacksmith with a pair of his smithing-tongs!
To replace missing teeth, it was necessary to manufacture replacements. Dentures and such other dental add-ons were variously made of everything from metal (if there was just one or two teeth missing, you might get them replaced with gold!), wood, bone, and ivory! Sometimes, animal teeth were used to manufacture replacement dentures.
During the time of Les Miserables, replacement teeth were even taken from dead bodies! Especially, during those years, from the bodies of dead soldiers! “Waterloo Teeth”, literally from the bodies of dead soldiers killed during the final battle of Waterloo, were especially common. After all…lots of dead, healthy young men with nice, white teeth…and lots of people living, who want them. Why waste them? Surgeons, barbers and anyone else out to make a quick franc, went through the battlefield with a jar and a pair of pliers, yanking teeth out of corpses to sell them to denture-manufacturers!
But apart from all these avenues of dental delivery, you could still sell your own teeth, if you were brave enough to have them ripped out of your mouth without anesthetics! But you would have to really need the money, and be really desperate to do this!
By the 1830s, Jean Valjean has fled the town where he held a factory and the office of mayor. He has become Cosette’s guardian and father-figure, and he lives as a wealthy gentleman of means, but with a private life which he does his best to keep from his adopted daughter.
Although Valjean is fictional, the author, Victor Hugo, almost certainly based him on the real-life convict Eugene Francois Vidocq. Vidocq (1775-1857) is one of the most famous figures in the history, both of crime, and of criminal investigation.
Vidocq’s childhood was spent during the crumbling days of the French monarchy. As a boy, he was wild and untamed. To get money, he stole the family silverware and sold it. He was arrested and thrown in prison. The arrest was orchestrated by Vidocq’s own father, who had hoped that this spell behind bars might scare his son straight.
As a young man, Vidocq enlisted in the army and fought during the French revolutionary war. Between 1795-1800, Vidocq spent his life in and out of various French prisons, disguising, escaping, running, and being recaptured over and over again. Eventually, he was sent to the infamous Bagne of Toulon, just like his fictional counterpart, Valjean.
In 1800, Vidocq escaped from Toulon and went on the run. He hid at his mother’s house, but before long, the authorities caught up with him once again, and he was arrested…again. And he escaped…again.
Sick of running around, Vidocq attempted to create a new life for himself as a merchant, but his extensive criminal past made this impossible, with everyone knowing who he was, what he had done and his enemies around him everywhere. In 1809, he was arrested…AGAIN.
Finally fed up, Vidocq approached French criminal authorities and offered them a deal. His freedom in exchange for information on other criminals. The police liked the idea, but not enough to let him just run wild. He would be imprisoned again, but this time, he would have more freedom within the prison to spy on inmates and report their goings-on to the guards and police-officials. He proved to be a capable spy, and eventually, Jean Henry, the chief of the Paris Police, agreed to Vidocq’s formal release from prison.
So that it didn’t look like Vidocq was being given favourable treatment, which might tip off other inmates about his spying activities, Henry arranged for the release to look like another one of Vidocq’s famous escapes. Now outside of prison for the last time, Vidocq became a secret agent for the Paris police-force.
Originally, Vidocq was part of the newly-formed “Security Brigade”, of the Paris police-force in 1811. This organisation of detectives and secret-agents was originally just an experiment. Nobody knew if it would really work. But Vidocq’s long life as a criminal meant that he was able to get into minds of the criminal classes and solve crimes in ways that other police officers could not. The brigade was so successful that in 1813, the brigade was formed into its own formal organisation, the French “Surete Nationale“. ‘Surete’ means ‘Surety’, as in ‘assurance’, or ‘security’. Literally, the National Security Force, or in more plain language, the French State Police.
The agents of the Surete Nationale were small in number; even by 1824, the agency had only 28 members. But each agent was trained by Vidocq in criminal detection. How to disguise oneself, how to think ‘outside the box’, and see things from a criminal perspective. The agency also kept a roll of spies and informants who would infiltrate French criminal organisations.
Through the turbulent changes of French history during this time, Vidocq’s roles and his influence on French government officials wavered constantly. Once more, Vidocq spent his life in and out of prison, mostly because he was branded as an enemy of the state for various reasons. But by now, Vidocq’s new position and fame meant that he had powerful friends. Thanks to a little string-pulling, Vidocq never spent more than a few months in prison at any one time.
In 1843, Vidocq was once again thrown in prison. Even though his prominent friends managed to get retrials and shorter sentences for him, when Vidocq was released from prison a year later, his reputation had been destroyed.
Vidocq became something of a recluse, and in 1849, was imprisoned yet again, for eleven months. When he was released, he lived the rest of his life in general seclusion. His career as a detective was not what it once was, although he did occasionally take on cases, to earn himself extra money.
Vidocq died in 1857, at the age of 82, after surviving a bout of cholera.
Despite his shaky life, Vidocq is famous today as being the father of modern criminology. He was the first person to use techniques such as undercover agents, plaster-casts and moulds, and even very early ballistics, to solve crimes. He even developed the science of criminology, and early crime-scene investigation to aid in the solving of crimes and the gathering of clues and evidence, techniques that most police-forces wouldn’t use until the late 1800s.
Since 1990, the Vidocq Society, named after him, has been solving cases presented to them by various police forces. The Society is an elite club of criminologists who assist police in solving ‘cold case’ homicides which regular police-forces are unable to solve.
Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the U.S.A., the Vidocq Society is comprised of experts ranging from criminologists, FBI agents, scientists, coroners, psychologists and homicide detectives.
Members can be currently-serving professionals, or former, and retired professionals, but membership of this exclusive crime-solving club is strictly by invitation only, and membership is limited to only 82 members (the number of years in Vidocq’s life) at any one time.
The Society does not go out looking for work. It only solves cases which police-forces bring to them for review, and even then, they’ll only work on the hardest and most challenging of cases which meet a strict set of criteria.
It’s been suggested by articles on the internet that Eugene Vidocq was Hugo’s inspiration, not only of the character of Jean Valjean, but also of Inspector Javert. Vidocq’s troubled youth and repentance is represented by Valjean’s character, whereas Javert represents Vidocq’s later life as a relentless law-enforcement officer who will go to any lengths to see that justice is done.
During the second half of the play, the members of the student rebellion mention ‘General LaMarque’ as the last living champion of the oppressed and poor people of Paris.
LaMarque was a real person, and his death in 1832, really did spark a rebellion in the streets!
‘General LaMarque’ is Jean Maximillien LaMarque, (1770-1832). A famous revolutionary war army officer, LaMarque was famous for his republican views. He opposed the French monarchy and complained that the royalist government did not see to the needs and wants of ordinary French citizens. It trampled human rights, and did not support political liberty of the people.
LaMarque became ill in 1832, contracting cholera. He died on the 1st of June, 1832. Within a week, riots had erupted in the streets of Paris. The champion of the people was dead!
The June Rebellion, 1832
There really was a June Rebellion in 1832 Paris, although it did not involve an organisation called the Friends of the A.B.C. (which was a fictional group created by Hugo for the story). The Friends of the A.B.C., (in French, “Les Amis de l’ABC“) is actually a pun. In French, ‘A.B.C.’ is a homophone for the French word “Abaisse” (“The Oppressed”), so literally, “The Friends of the Oppressed”.
It’s a joke about the fact that the rebellion was sparked mostly by students and schoolboys, youngsters still learning how to read and write their A.B.C.s, and the fact that they were trying to win rights for the downtrodden citizens of Paris, the abaisse, or ‘oppressed’.
The Rebellion was short-lived. It lasted only three days! It started on the 5th of June, 1832, during the funeral procession for the late, great General LaMarque.
Spurred on by the waving of red and black flags (such as those mentioned in the musical), students began rioting and chanting.
The famous Marquis de Lafayette, the famous French aristocratic army-officer who had helped the Americans win their Revolutionary War back in the 1780s, attempted to calm the riot. He was one of General LaMarque’s many supporters and fans, but even the marquis’ presence and calls for calm did not help. The marquis was an old man by then (over seventy!) and close to death himself, but that didn’t stop him from trying to quell the violence.
Government soldiers moved into Paris, attempting to crush the rebellion, and the students and their supporters fell back to their barricaded strongholds.
The rebellion lasted from the 5th of June, the date of General LaMarque’s funeral, to the 7th of June. During that time, fierce gun-battles raged across Paris, and at several intersections and streets, government soldiers opened fire on the rebels, and the rebels only fired back!
But the rebels were never going to win. Outnumbered literally 10-to-1, before long, they were forced to put down their arms and surrender.
Victor Hugo himself was involved in the rebellion. To be precise, he was caught in the crossfire between government troops and rebellious Parisian citizens, and had to take cover in the street.
I thought France was a Republic?
France has gone through many revolutions and rebellions, and the June Rebellion of 1832 was just one of many, many, MANY such events in French history.
From the 1400s until the 1780s, France was a kingdom. In 1789, the French Revolution (the famous one that everyone knows, with the guillotine and the storming of the Bastille and all that) took place.
In 1791, the monarchy was restored as a constitutional monarchy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this monarchy was not popular. It only lasted a couple of years.
From 1792 until 1804, France was a republic. For a decade between 1805-1815, France entered the period of the “First Empire”, which centered around the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. It ended with Napoleon’s defeat and exile in the 1810s.
With the defeat of Napoleon, the House of Bourbon, which had ruled France up until the 1780s, returned to power in the Bourbon Restoration. This lasts from 1815 until 1830.
In 1830, yet another revolution changes everything, and we have the July Monarchy (so-called because it was established in July of 1830), a constitutional monarchy, much like the one of the 1790s. The king on the throne of France is Louis-Philippe I, cousin to the abdicated King Charles X.
It is Louis-Philippe who is the king of France in the 1832, when the June Rebellion mentioned in Les Miserables takes place. But even this monarchy wouldn’t last. It would be overthrown in 1848, to be replaced by the Second Republic, which would be replaced by the Second Empire, which would be replaced by the THIRD Republic, which would last until the Fall of France during the Second World War.
Right now, France is on Republic #5.
And there you have it. A little glimpse at just some of the historical realities behind one of the most famous novels, plays, musicals and films in the history of western literature.