But please, do me a big favor, in the spirit of the season. Please don’t say this film is about the French Revolution. Many of us have repeatedly corrected the media, Huffington Post included, for this oft-repeated gaffe. No surprise, perhaps, since even Director Tom Hooper seems a little dim about French history.
So let me help everyone sort this out. The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The principal events of Les Misérables take place in 1832. Different century. The July Revolution two years earlier had put the Orléanist monarchy on the throne, under the popular “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe. Popular for awhile, that is. Despite his unpretentious manners and a character that Les Miz author Victor Hugo commended as “good” and “admirable,” the income gap widened and the conditions of the working class deteriorated. By the spring of 1832, a deadly cholera epidemic had exacerbated a severe economic crisis.
In the early morning hours of June 5, crowds of workers, students, and others gathered in the streets of Paris. The immediate trigger was the death of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque, who had been a friend to the poor and downtrodden. The crowd had hoped to accompany Lamarque’s hearse before it took the general home to his native district in the southwest of France. Those mourning and those with a political agenda merged into a mob that numbered in the tens of thousands – some witnesses claimed it eventually grew to 100,000.
The 30-year-old Victor Hugo was nearby, in the Tuileries Gardens, writing a play. Then he heard gunfire from the direction of Les Halles. Instead of going home to safety, he followed the sounds of gunfire through the deserted streets. He was unaware that the mob had taken half of Paris, and the barricades were everywhere in Les Halles. According to Wikipedia, Hugo headed north up the Rue Montmartre, then turned right onto the Passage du Saumon, finally turning before the Rue du Bout du Monde (if this street still exists, it has a different name now): “Halfway down the alley, the grilles at either end were slammed shut. Hugo was surrounded by barricades and flung himself against a wall, as all the shops and stores had been closed for some time. He found shelter between some columns. For a quarter of an hour, bullets flew both ways.” Three decades later, he would write about the unforgettable experience in Les Misérables.
I had hoped to visit some of the route during my recent visit to France. Alas, my trip was too brief, and I couldn’t quite figure out what had happened, and where, on my Paris map. I had to make the journey vicariously, later, through Mark Traugott‘s The Insurgent Barricade(University of California Press).
No wonder I was confused. Traugott’s map of the insurrection shows that Lamarque’s funerary procession made a wide arc around the city’s right bank. The insurrection affected both sides of the Seine, but the flash points were here, on the right bank.
Dragoons had been under orders to refrain from the use of deadly force, but when a shot rang out from somewhere, the crowd began to throw stones at the military. The cry “To the barricades!” resounded through the streets. But what, exactly, did that mean?
According to Traugott:
“Insurgents began uprooting the saplings planted to replace the larger trees cut down during the July Days. They also scavenged planks and beams from nearby construction sites and improvised tools for prying up paving stones. These classic raw materials were natural choices because they added mass, helped knit the structure together, and were usually found in abundance right at the site of the barricade construction. Between 5 p.m., when the first sporadic gunfire was exchanged, and 6:30, when pitched battles were initially reported, dozens of barricades had been completed on both the right and left side of the Seine. Individual structures took as little as fifteen minutes to erect.
“Even as the first barricades were going up, a frantic search for arms began. Some rebels had to be content with sabers, staffs, or scythes, but rifles were the weapons of choice, and bands of insurgents boldly seized them from small patrols of soldiers encountered in the streets. Others joined in pillaging the premises of Lepage frères, the largest of several Paris gunsmiths whose establishments were looted.”
This little gem of a 16th-century church is Église Saint-Merri. The insurgents staged a desperate last stand in and around this church, at the heart of the district where the fiercest fighting took place.
The insurgents pleaded for help, but no help came. The citizens of Paris were not as quick to join the revolution as they were to join the unruly funeral procession. In the theatrical production of Les Miz, the army officer warns the insurgents via a loud-bailer:
You at the barricade listen to this!
No one is coming to help you to fight
You’re on your own
You have no friends
Give up your guns – or die!
And it was true. According to Traugott, “The casualty toll among the insurgents, mounting as high as 800 dead and wounded, was particularly heavy because the people of Paris withheld their support, leaving most of the committed insurgents of June 1832 to pay for their rebellion with their lives.”
If nothing else, please remember is that the whole point of the French Revolution is that the revolutionaries won. Remember the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Robespierre et al.? This was different. In 1832, writes Traugott, “The last guns were silenced a barely twenty-four hours after hostilities had begun.”
I couldn’t resist the educational opportunity. From Wikipedia:Postscript on 27 July, 2013: Comments are continuing to trickle in for this post. Today, Reader Karen wrote to ask: “Have enjoyed reading all the comments, but am still searching for an answer to the elephant in the movie. Did that actually occur? Was there an elephant structure in the area during that period? If so – why? Will it help if I actually finish reading the novel?”
The Elephant of the Bastille was a monument in Paris which existed between 1813 and 1846. Originally conceived in 1808 by Napoleon, the colossal statue was intended to be created out of bronze and placed in the Place de la Bastille, but only a plaster full-scale model was built. At 24 m (78 ft) in height the model itself became a recognisable construction and was immortalised by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Misérables (1862) in which it is used as a shelter by the street urchin Gavroche. …
The elephant itself was described negatively by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables; little other account of contemporary public perception is available.
It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. “The aediles,” as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker. —Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862
Update on April 29, 2019: The new production of Les Misérables on the BBC has generated a lot of fresh interest in this 2012 post. Due to spam attacks in recent years, we’ve had to turn off comments for older posts, but if you have something to say, please email me at cynthia dot haven at gmail.com and I’ll post your thoughts below. Be sure to put Les Misérables in the subject header!