Editor’s Letter

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Posted on: June 9, 2019

If God should deign to give me such fame as makes my last words worth knowing, then let them be: “Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables does not take place during the French Revolution of 1789.” The novel begins in 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, and runs up to 1832. The street revolt which prompted all those soul stirring anthems was actually a rather minor episode in the revolutionary turntable of French history.

I have mentioned previously that the republican shenanigans of 1830 somehow brought about the July Monarchy of Louis Phillipe the Citizen King. A more detailed description of the events ran thus; longstanding animosity of the Bourbon monarchy finally boiled over when the King finally boiled over when he issued the July Ordinances, which abolished freedom of the press and further limited the French electorate. In Paris, citizens began to throw paving tiles and flower pots at the soldiers and barricades sprang up in the street. When ignoring the revolution proved futile, King Charles bravely made a run for it and jetted off to Great Britain to sulk in exile for the remainder of his life.

Louis Philippe of the House of Orleans, who had hitherto done absolutely nothing at all, was plucked from his comfortable country house and onto the balcony of the Hotel de Ville, where Lafayette made him king by kissing him.

The authors of those aforementioned republican shenanigans, though showered with epaulets and laurels by the new regime, never really reconciled themselves to the idea that the revolutionary bloodletting simply netted them a more permissive tyrant.

In this group fell the merry band of rebels from Les Mis. The book glosses over the 1830 Revolution in a few passages; the musical blithely skips over it, eulogizing the dead rebels as “schoolboys… who never held a gun”. In actuality, almost all those who took up arms to overthrow the government in 1832 had taken up arms to accidentally inaugurate it two years prior.

The would be revolutionaries gathered in secret societies, most notably the pithily named “Society of the Rights of Man”. In true revolutionary fashion, the members gave themselves romantic names which conjured up images of the glorious recent past- “Robespierre” and “Babeuf” and “War with the Castles”. (The last was a reference to the quote “War on the castles, peace to the villages!” which has been variously ascribed to Danton, Lenin, and Buchner.)

The trigger for the rebellion was the death of General Lamarque. Lamarque was the son of an OG French Revolutionary. He joined the army in 1791, when the First French Republic declared war on all and sundry, and was awarded the title of brigadier general by Napoleon in 1800.

After the fall of Napoleon, Lamarque briefly went into exile, returning to his homeland in 1818 to throw hands with first the Bourbon Restoration and then the government of the Citizen King Louis Philippe. This, naturally, made him a darling of the people, and when he died, huge crowds gathered in mourning.

This was altogether too good a chance for the revolutionaries to pass up.

On June 5th, revolutionaries quite literally crashed his funeral, waving a black bordered red flag, whereupon a shoot out ensued between the crowd and the soldiers.

In spite of this auspicious beginning, the revolt failed to spread. The government of Louis Phillipe had not quite lost the sheen of novelty and the revolutionaries did not garner the mass support that had made the July Revolution a possibility. By the night of June 6th, the rebellion had been crushed by the National Guard, with a total count of something around 800 on both sides.

The revolutionaries, now serenading in heaven, did manage to have the last laugh in 1848, when the people of Paris finally rose up in strength and drove the government of Louis Philippe from the city.

The pretext for the revolution of 1848 was almost unimaginable in its stupidity.

By now thoroughly soured on the Citizen King, the enlightened men of France decided to vent their frustration by holding self congratulatory banquets, where they drank wine and decried the tyranny of the present government. As far as threats to the existing regime went, this did not quite rank as revolutionary.

The sans culottes of Paris decided to ape their frock coated superiors and arranged their own banquet, with less fine food and more political radicalism, at which point the government had an apoplectic fit and outlawed all political banquets. It was this clumsy, heavy handed reaction which sparked the revolution of 1848.

To bring this ramble full circle; Les Mis was written in 1862, while Victor Hugo stewed in exile. He was elected as a representative of the Second Republic after the revolution of 1848 as a conservative, whereupon he promptly about faced and sided with the leftists. When Louis Napoleon finagled his way into an Empire, Hugo was exiled and after kicking about Europe for a bit, he finally settled in- of all places- Guernsey, where he wrote Les Mis.

The book was widely denounced at its publication. A famous French novelist- Lamartine- wrote that the characters in the book were not “miserable at all… merely lazy and sinful”. Nevertheless, the book was- and remains- wildly popular, and is today one of the most adapted works of all time. The Soviets, in particular, were extremely fond of making spin off miniseries only tangentially related to the main novel.

To conclude, I would like to shill, once more, for Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, which contains a series on the 1830 revolution which brought Louis Philippe to power and the 1848 revolution which kicked him out. Les Mis scarcely needs to be advertised, but I’ll put in a good word for it anyways.

 

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