Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The History Behind 'Les Miserables'.

The logo for the famous 1980 theater production.
You've experienced the emotion of "Les Miserables" - but what is the history behind the story?
I'm still haunted by scenes from "Les Miserables" - that closing sequence was just devastating; but I admit to being confused about the historical events portrayed. According to my shaky French history the revolution happened in 1789, so what was this about a rebellion in 1832?
So, for those who like me were puzzled, here is a potted guide to events leading up to the revolt of 1832.
Cosette - illustration from Victor Hugo's
"Les Miserables" - original edition.
 Let us start with the abdication of emperor, Napoleon I, in 1814. The senate decided on a constitution that protected the achievements of the revolution, but appointed the brother of the late king, to the throne. Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, returned from exile in England and was crowned as Louis XVIII of France.
At first things went well, Louis approved a constitution that defended the freedom of the press, the right to worship and a fair judiciary. But then he started to do unsettling things such as spending vast amounts of money restoring Versaille - that symbol of aristocratic excess, and stipulating Catholicism was the official state religion. He took things a step further in 1822 by making it an offence to criticise divine-right kingship. A couple of years later, 1824, Louis died and a new king, Charles X, took his place.
Eugene Vidocq - his life was said to be the inspiration
behind the character of Jean Valjean. 
Charles X sacked ministers who disagreed with his policies and appointed his aristocratic allies into positions of great power.  Mutterings of unrest became rife in the press. His response, in 1830, was to suspend the freedom of the press, with the result that on 27 July 1830 - barricades went up on the streets of Paris.

"This is no longer a riot, it's a revolution."
Commander of the royal troops.

The rebels had a strong following and perhaps fearing for his life, Charles abdicated in favour of his grandson, the duke of Bordeaux, Louis-Philippe.

"The idolatry of a name is abolished; monarchy is no longer a religion."
Viscount Chatter Briand.
The June rebellion. 
However, these were years of hardship; harvests had failed year-upon-year and cholera was rife such that people muttered the government had poisoned the wells. Uprisings were common and those republicans seeking relief for the poor, set up secret societies. These consisted of twenty members (meetings of more than 20 were outlawed) with a president and vice-president.
General Lamarque was sympathetic to the plight of the people, and when he died, his funeral became a flash point. Rebels hi-jacked his funeral cortege to rally support and then one night in 1832 the rebels took over the narrow streets in the Eastern districts of Paris. But this time the government was ready. The National Guard was reinforced by 25,000 state troops and the rebels hopelessly outnumbered. It is these events that are portrayed in the closing scenes of Les Miserables.
The death of Eponine - illustration from
the original novel. 
Afterwards the government ran a smear campaign, portraying the rebels as an extremist minority, and it wasn't until a rebellion in 1848 that Louis-Phillipe's reign was eventually overturned.
Have you seen "Les Miserables"?
What did you think of the movie? 


  1. Excellent summary of the events, Grace - and I thought the movie was fantastic!

  2. I would describe the movie as 'devastating' - all the more so because I didn''t know the story or what to expect. I thought I was doing really well when Fontime died (I did'n't cry) and was congratulating myself on keeping emotion in check - right up until the closing scenes with Jean Valjean....Let's just say the neck of my cardigan got soaked I cryed so much!
    Thank you for leaving a comment, Paula.
    G x

  3. I have loved the music since the show debuted in the '80s, and I've seen it on stage a couple of times. I thought the performances were excellent for the most part, but I felt the director fell short a bit. For example, I thought that "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" was edited too much in close-up; I felt that pulling back a bit more, showing us the empty bar, showing how alone Marius is at that moment, would have evoked more emotion from the audience. I took a few film history and film-making classes in college, last century, so perhaps I'm over-thinking this, but I wasn't surprised when the film didn't get an Oscar nod for the director.

  4. I enjoyed the movie very much, especially the music and the way that song themes intertwined the characters throughout. Haven't seen the stage show to compare it with. Thanks for your summary Grace, that added pertinent background info. I was wondering which rebellion it was too. Thought the actors were all well cast,even Russell, and Loved Fontime's 'I have a dream'.

  5. Brilliant article. Currently researching the French Revolution of 1848 as a tangent to my current novel so naturally this is very interesting!

  6. Thanks for the great synopsis. Just what I was looking for!


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