I have to admit, I have not seen the movie or the play or read the book. Les Misérables, as most of you know, was written by Victor Hugo and published in 1862. I’m sure many of you have seen the play or movie. However, I have seen Marianne in person.
Here’s what most of you don’t know: Les Misérables has nothing to do with the French Revolution. The book covers the time between Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (1815) and the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. The underlying principles and consequences of the French Revolution certainly provided the foundation for the events depicted in Les Misérables but the actual events of the Revolution had been over since 1794 (most historians will probably quibble with that date).
The Revolution of 1830 and the Rebellion of 1832 were struggles between the Republicans, Royalists, and Bonapartists. It was all about how France was to be governed. Hugo was a staunch supporter of the French Revolution and the Republicans. The 1830 Revolution saw the abdication of Charles X (the last king in the Bourbon dynasty). That appealed to the Republicans and the Bonapartists. The leadership gap was filled by Louis-Philippe (son of the guillotined Duke of Orléans or as he was commonly known: Philippe Égalité). Louis-Philippe was crowned king and now everyone was upset for one reason or another. He survived the 1832 Rebellion—until 1848, when he abdicated and fled to England and the French Second Republic was born.
Another common misconception is that Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting titled, Liberty Leading the People, was painted to commemorate the French Revolution. No it wasn’t; it was painted in 1830 to celebrate the July Revolution of 1830 (when you visit the Place de la Bastille, the monument in the center of the roundabout commemorates the 1830 Revolution and has nothing to do with the French Revolution or the Bastille).
During the French Revolution, the female personified the ideals of “Liberty” and “Reason”. Marianne made her debut on a coin minted in 1789 to celebrate the storming of the Bastille. Standing in the former Place Louis XV, the statue of King Louis XV was torn during the French Revolution and the area became known as the Place de la Révolution—today it’s known as the Place de la Concorde—and replaced by a woman sitting in a chair on top of a tall pedestal. She was considered to represent liberty, equality, and brotherhood. She also looked on as thousands were guillotined right in front of her (so much for liberty, equality, and brotherhood). You might want to think about our own Statue of Liberty—it was a gift from France.
The French symbols that originated during the French Revolution (1789–1794) include the tricolor flag (a topic for a future blog post), the national motto Liberte, Égalité, Fraternité, and the national anthem La Marseillaise (albeit the song has been shortened considerably).
I guess now I’ll have to go and read Les Misérables. I read somewhere that Hugo spent 25% of the book arguing moral issues and trying to impress the reader with his encyclopedic knowledge—none of which had anything to do with the original plot. I think I’ll go get the Cliff Notes version. Oh, you too can see Marianne in person if you visit the Louvre.
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Copyright © 2014 Stew Ross