Angela Youngman

Discover Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

the legend, the story, the writer and places to go inspired by the book, the film and Victor Hugo

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Written over a hundred years ago to draw attention to the problems of justice and poverty in France; Les Misérableshas become a global phenomenon.  Its message is seen as applicable to people throughout the world facing oppression and unfair justice.  Yet it is the film and the musical that has achieved this global status – not the book itself.


Millions of people have been left in tears by the story of Cosette, Fantine, Valjean and Javert as portrayed in the musical and film. When Colm Wilkinson (the first Jean Valjean) first sang Bring Him Home, there was an awed silence before someone commented that God had been booked to sing the song.   Impressario Cameron Mackintosh said that the production was ‘A Dream beyond all Dreams’ and that ‘at the very core of the story is the survival of the human spirit and the music that drives that story. It’s probably the most successful adaptation of any book in the history of music.’ 




Outside France, far fewer people have read the book as compared to watching the musical adaptation. The amount of philosophy, social thought and politics pervading the book can be off putting – as can the sheer size of the novel.  It is recognised as one of the longest novels ever written as it contains 365 chapters spanning more than 1,500 pages. Despite this, Les Miserables has had a significant literary impact, influencing writers like Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky. 


Even when first published, Les Misérableswas a media sensation. There were teaser campaigns starting six months before the book was released, giving hints about the content.  Character adverts were put up all over Paris, there were competitions to win copies of the book, and author Victor Hugo made attention-grabbing comments such as ‘Dante described hell in the afterlife, whereas I have described hell on earth’.


Critics hated it – but Hugo and his publisher were happy. The book was a sell out.


So what makes Les Misérablesso appealing? As actor Russell Crowe (who played Javert in the film) pointed out ‘it is a timeless story of unrequited love, passion and sacrifice.’ 


Victor Hugo had the same aim in mind.  He wrote ‘Les Misérablesis written for a universal audience………Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, ‘Les Misérablesknocks at the door and says open up, I am here for you.’


Victor Hugo wrote many novels and poems as well as being an active politician, making a considerable impact on the nation of France as well as its culture.  Yet without Les Misérableshis impact on the world stage would have been much less.


It is this book that is the subject of countless Son et Lumiere productions every year; attracts millions of people into the theatre or cinema; and many more to visit the places and locations linked to the author and the film.   None of the sites involved are far apart – it is an area confined to France, the Channel Islands, Belgium, Luxembourg and England. The film itself was shot almost entirely within southern England and involves some of the most stunning locations imaginable such as the Royal Hospital Greenwich, Chatham Historic Dockyard and Bath’s spectacular weir.


Les Misérablestells the story of a group of characters living in early nineteenth century France. The action begins in 1815, and ends with the 1832 uprising in Paris. 


Having stolen a loaf of bread to feed some starving children; Jean Valjean has spent 19 years in the notorious Toulon prison. Javert has been working at the prison and takes an intense dislike to Valjean. Javert believes that once a convict, always a convict. Redemption and a change of heart are not possible. Each time Valjean tries to escape, his sentence was extended.  Finally Valjean is released on parole and told that if he breaks the conditions of the parole, he will immediately be returned to prison. 


He tries to make a new life for himself. Each time he seeks work, he is rejected, because he has been a convict.  Eventually Valjean arrives in the town of Digne.  The Bishop of Digne takes pity on him and gives him food and shelter for the night. Valjean responds by stealing from the Bishop’s church.  When the police interrogate Valjean before the Bishop; the Bishop states that the stolen items were actually a gift. The Police have to let him go. The Bishop talks to Valjean and extracts a promise that Valjean will change his ways and adopt a law-abiding lifestyle.  Later, Valjean accidentally steals some money that has fallen under his foot. While trying to return the money, he is reported for theft, but escapes.


Valjean decides to adopt a new identity to match his new lifestyle, and to live up to his promises to the Bishop of Digne.  He goes to live in the town of Montreuil-sur-mer and takes the name of Monsieur Madeleine. Valjean becomes the owner of a prosperous factory, and eventually is appointed as the town’s Mayor.


Meanwhile, Fantine, a young woman from Montreuil, has been working in Paris.  She becomes pregnant, but is abandoned by her lover.  Aware that she will never be able to find work if it is known she has an illegitimate child; she arranges with the Thénardiers to leave Cosette in their care.  In return, she has to pay a monthly allowance.  Cosette is not well treated. The Thénardiers constantly demand more money from Fantine, and make the young child work in their inn.


Returning to Montreuil-sur-mer, Fantine finds work in Valjean’s factory until her secret is discovered.  She immediately loses her job.  Desperate to make money to pay for Cosette’s care; Fantine is left with little choice. She becomes a prostitute and is forced to sell her hair and teeth.  Javert, the town’s newly appointed police chief arrests her.  Discovering her plight, Valjean tries to rescue Fantine, and promises to fetch Cosette.   Recognising Valjean, Javert arrests him and sends him back to Toulon prison. 


Valjean regains his freedom when he saves a sailor from drowning.  Discovering that Fantine has died, Valjean is determined to help her daughter. He rescues Cosette from the Thénardiers. Cosette and Valjean flee to Paris.  Javert pursues them, determined that Valjean should not escape.  Taking refuge in a convent, Valjean becomes the convent’s gardener while Cosette is educated by the nuns.


When she grows up, Cosette falls in love with a student, Marius Pontmercy, who lives with his wealthy grandfather.  Marius is involved with a group of students fighting for democracy on the barricades during the 1831 uprising.  Valjean seeks to protect Marius, and while doing so, encounters Javert who is working as a spy for the Parisian authorities. 


Valjean lets Javert escape.  The French army storms the barricades, killing many people and puts down the uprising.  Marius is wounded but rescued by Valjean who carries him through the sewers.  Javert pursues Valjean, arrests him but later releases him.  Torn between his profession and his beliefs, Javert finds it impossible to cope with the compassion shown by Valjean.  Eventually, Javert commits suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Seine. 


Marius and Cosette marry.  Telling Marius about his true identity, Valjean leaves Cosette in Marius’ care, saying she will be constantly under threat if he stays near.  Reconciliation eventually takes place when Marius and Cosette visit Valjean as he lies dying in the convent. 



It is the characters that really make this story memorable.  The plot line is almost subsidiary to the sheer power of the characters.  It is often said that one of the strongest features of the musical is that there are no stars because there are so many significant, important characters.


Jean Valjean (also known as Monsieur Madeleine, Monsieur Leblanc, Urbain Fabre) is the unlikely hero.  Convicted for stealing bread, he tries to escape, is continually punished and eventually spends over 19 years in prison.  His bitterness and hatred is turned to goodness following his attempt to steal from the Bishop of Digne.  His attempts to help others constantly lead him into conflict with the police.  Valjean is physically and mentally strong, keen to do good but constantly prevented from doing so by the society in which he lives.