Maurice Samuels, Author and Yale’s Betty Jane Anlyan Professor of French, joins the Based on a True Story podcast to separate fact from the fiction we saw in 1998’s depiction of Les Miserables.
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Dan LeFebvre: [00:02:54] Before diving into some details, let’s start with some of the main characters in Les Mis. Do we know if Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, Cosette, or any of the main characters are based on real people?
Maurice Samuels: [00:03:06] First, Dan, let me say that I’m really happy to be doing this podcast. I just taught a class devoted to Les Miserables the novel, and we read the whole novel by Victor Hugo.
And I actually work in Hollywood for a couple of years before I went to grad school. So this totally is allowing me to nerd out on my two favorite things: 19th century French history and movies. But to answer your question, whether Hugo go based his characters on real life is: Loosely.
So throughout his life, Victor Hugo actually kept a journal called things scene of just little vignettes he had observed in the street.
And one of those had a prostitute who got a man’s shoved snow down her dress. And he saw her get arrested for that. And that, of course, happens to Fantine in both the novel and the movie. He also records having seen it, or man in rags get arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. And that, of course, happens to Jean Valjean in the movie, but on a deeper level.
The character of Jean Valjean was partially inspired by a really fascinating real life reformed a criminal named Vidocq wrote memoirs at the time and who Victor Hugo knew. Vidocq was actually born, unlike Jean Valjean, who was born to a very poor family, he was born to a middle-class family. He turned to crime early on.
His first crime was stealing his family’s silverware, which is what Jean Valjean does in the book and in the movie. He was sent to prison. He managed to escape. This happened a couple times. He escaped and then started a very successful business under an assumed name, which is what happens in the book, in the movie.
But then he was caught again, sentenced to prison. And this is where it gets really interesting because he decided to reform while he was in jail and become an informant for the police. And so he becomes like a spy in prison, and then they release him because of this. And he then becomes, he founds the security brigade for the Paris police and also ran a very successful private detective agency.
And he’s seen as really the founder of modern criminology. So strangely the same character. And it becomes a model for both Jean Valjean and for Javert, which is an incredible thing.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:05:35] That’s fascinating that at one one person would take that almost complete 180 there and become Javert as well.
Maurice Samuels: [00:05:43] Exactly. And there’s actually one more little possible real life story for a character, which is a childhood friend of Victor Hugo’s, who was born to actually a pretty rich family, but then kind of turned to a license crime, got sent to jail, and then, kept milking Hugo for money for many years. And he becomes, I think, a model for the character of 10.
RVA the kind of corrupt innkeeper who keeps cassette and then keeps blackmailing saltine. I actually got that information from David bellows, his book, the novel of the century.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:06:15] Wow. I guess I didn’t realize that, that he go just kept notes on everyday life and then basing characters off of that.
Maurice Samuels: [00:06:23] Yeah. Well, Hugo thought of himself as a genius. He was an incredible genius. Everybody thought so. I think he was very sensitive to the fact that anything he wrote or observed would have monumental importance. And so that book though wasn’t published until after his deaths of the things he had seen.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:06:40] Heading back to the movie at at the very beginning, we see Jean Valjean as a prisoner, of course, that now famous number two four six Oh one and I didn’t notice this in the 1998 version of layman’s, but there’s other versions of the story and we find out that he’s there because he stole some bread. I believe he was imprisoned and forced to do hard labor for that offense, but then after he was released on parole, he tries to escape.
He breaks parole according to inspectors of air, and that offense is punishable by life in prison. That’s the way that the dialogue goes there. Can you speak to how realistic those punishments would have been? What, what people sent to prison for almost two decades, just for stealing bread and then in prison for life, for breaking parole.
Maurice Samuels: [00:07:28] Yeah. Those punishments were pretty realistic, so you could get, you know, five years of hard labor for stealing even something pretty small. John Paul Jones then gets many more years in prison for trying to escape, which was definitely true. Also. And the conditions in prison were awful. So you were sent to this prison colony and too long in the South of France.
Just kind of a Naval yard and you know, so what they, you know, show him like breaking rocks. That was pretty realistic. And then if you, it’s true that if you committed another offense, you could often get life in prison, which is what happens to that poor guy who’s wrongly thought to be Jean Valjean.
And he stole some apples in the, in the novel that sell off a tree. So you can’t really think of anything more minor than that. But he was being threatened with life in prison because it was his second offense. And of course, the injustices of the criminal system are one of the main things that you go is trying to argue against in the novel, trying to really make people aware of how unfair the system is, how it’s rigged against the poor.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:08:35] Do we know if after the novel came out where people more, where their eyes open to just how unfair a lot of that was? Did it actually start to cause some change?
Maurice Samuels: [00:08:44] Yeah. I don’t have any direct any evidence of a direct cause and the fact that the novel came out and they change things, but yes, things did liberalize throughout the 19th century.
This is one of the, I think we have to think about this novel a little bit like Harriet Beecher stows uncle Tom’s cabin, which you know, was credited with sparking the civil war with making people aware of the injustices of slavery. This is around the same time. It’s a little bit after, and I think it, Hugo is trying to do the same thing in this novel to make people sympathetic, playing on people’s sympathy through his stories.
And that’s, that’s one of the goals. Even
Dan LeFebvre: [00:09:25] though the movie doesn’t really give any days, I’m going to, I’m speaking about the 1998 movie. It doesn’t really give dates to let us know when things are happening. We do know that the story takes place between 1815 and 1832 there’s one scene that caught my ear and it happened.
When we see Liam Neeson’s version of Jean Valjean, he goes to trial of a man accused to be him. Like you mentioned earlier. In that trial, while he’s proving who he is to free the other man points to a tattoo on one of his former prison mates. And according to Val John, that tattoo is the date of the revolution, 1789 now, that’s before the timeline of the movie itself, and not to boil the storyline later, but we also see revolutionaries in the film later on.
So can you give a little more historical context between. These two different revolutions mentioned in the movie in both 1789 and 1832
Maurice Samuels: [00:10:20] from my experience, one of the most common misconceptions about the movie or people who’ve seen the musical, for example, think that it’s taking place during the French revolution, which is to say the revolution of 1789.
That was the big revolution that everyone knows with the storming of the best Stevie and the reign of terror and all that stuff. That was the revolution that ended basically a thousand years of monarchy by killing the king, but that is not the one that this story is about. So what people don’t realize normally is that the revolution of 1789 was really the beginning of a century of revolutions in France.
So it’s a little complicated, but interesting. And I can give like just a thumbnail sketch here of what happens. So the revolution of 1789 basically ended when Napoleon, who had been a revolutionary general choke power, he declared the empire and became a kind of dictator. Napoleon was overthrown after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 which is when the story of Les Mis.
So after Waterloo, the other European countries who had defeated France reimposed the bourbon monarchy on France, they, that was the Royal family that had been kicked out by the revolution in 1789 or, or killed. So the bourbons then remained in power between 1815 and 1830 and this period is called the restoration because it was a restoration of the Bourbon monarchs, and it was an incredibly reactionary period.
As those former Kings tried to pretend like the revolution had never happened. They push things a bit too far, though they’re reactionary policies and they were overthrown by another revolution in 1830. And this is the period that we’re in when the revolt takes place. So in 1830, the left wing revolutionaries wanted to establish a democratically elected Republic, and they were actually called Republicans who, unlike our Republicans today, we’re very on the left.
So these radical Republicans eventually after the revolution of 1830 wound up compromising by accepting a more liberal King Louis Phillipe, who was a cousin of the Bourbons. So, everyone thinks he’s going to be better, or this is the kind of compromise thing. He starts to rain in July of 1830. Now, what happens though is pretty quickly the left wing Republicans grow dissatisfied with Louis Felipe and start to plot against him, pretty quickly after the revolution of 1830.
And the rebellion depicted in Les Miserables is one of their attempts. Just spark another revolution. So it fails miserably. again, sorry for the spoiler there, but they kept trying and eventually they did manage to overthrow Louie for the, during the revolution of 1848. So it’s strange that Hugo would have chosen to make this relatively minor and failed revolt.
The one from 1832 the centerpiece of his novel rather than one of the more successful revolutions of 1830 or 48. But I have a couple of theories about that. 1830 was a bloodless and kind of undramatic revolution with very little actual fighting. Basically, the bourbons just fled at the first sign of trouble.
I’m an 1848 was still really kind of true, fresh in people’s minds when go publish the novel in 1861 and too controversial. Really. So I think 1832 seems like a good event to use as the centerpiece because it was so minor that he could make it mean what he wanted it to mean. But I think people who were reading the book when it came out in the 1860s probably would have had the revolution of 1848 in mind and would have known that the revolutionaries who are failing in 1832 would eventually succeed in getting rid of Louis.
Phillipe. And if I can just say one more thing, because you mentioned that tattoo on the prisoner’s arm, right? In the Liam Neeson 1998 movie, it, you know, says 1789. Strangely, that’s wrong. I don’t know why they decided to change that in the novel. The tattoo says March 1st, 1815, which is the day that Napoleon returned from exile his first exile and recaptured France for a hundred days.
This was what led to Waterloo. So really the prisoner with the tattoo was not a revolutionary. He was a Bonaparte, so he would have supported the great hero Napoleon, and I don’t know exactly why they changed that. Maybe they just didn’t want to introduce the confusion of Napoleon and or maybe just remind people of the revolution of 1789
Dan LeFebvre: [00:15:24] huh.
That’s interesting. Yeah, I know. Before the revolution happens in the movie, there’s a scene where we see the character of Mary as speaking to a crowd, and he says that the King has declared writing a crime and they’ve destroyed the newspaper. He goes on to say, being poor is a crime and the King has betrayed us.
Where’s the Republic? Our fathers died for? Was writing declared a crime? And how did people feel? The King betrayed them.
Maurice Samuels: [00:15:53] In fact, it was censorship of the press that really sparked the revolution of 1830 the brought Louis Phillipe to power. So the revolutionary the Republicans who led that, that revolt were really angry when six months after Louis Phillipe came to power, he restored a form of censorship and it became illegal.
Especially one of the things that he declared was that it was illegal to insult the King. And political cartoons, especially depicting the weak Felipe were explicitly forbidden. And this is kind of a funny story. So one of the leading caricaturists at the time was this guy named Charles , and he was put on trial in 1831 for having depicted the King.
And in order to defend himself, he drew a series of caricatures of, or pictures of pears. And saying that really anything could look like the King. And in fact, Louis Phillipe did look like a pear, so he had big jowls and these mutton chops, sideburns. And so that the left wing Republicans seized on that picture of Louis Phillipe as a pair.
And that became all of a sudden pears went up all over the walls of Paris on every street you could see pears. And it drove Louis Phillipe. Totally crazy. But for the shinny, Paul was trying to argue that you can’t, you know, anything could be considered a caricature of the camera. So we believe came to be known as the pair King.
And it was this more of a words and images that Marius is referring to in that scene in the novel, so that this was a total hot button issue at the time.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:17:40] I could just see how that would just get under his skin and just make him upset and thing and the pair King,
Maurice Samuels: [00:17:47] and if you Google a picture of Louis Phillipe, you’ll see why they pick
Dan LeFebvre: [00:17:50] what one thing kind of to help set a little more of the context of the film there.
One thing that I noticed was there’s a lot of. Identity papers being checked everywhere. When Jean Valjean is the mayor of a small town and inspected arrives, one of the first things he does is show his papers to the mayor. When bell John and cassette sneak into Paris, the police set up a blockade to force people to show their papers later, Gervais or shows his papers to the French troops so he can get past the lines to try and find Jean Valjean and cassette.
Was it common in that time to have to show identity papers all the time?
Maurice Samuels: [00:18:27] Yes and no. So the I, the idea of identity papers were, was really a product of the revolution of 1789 and it was meant to control immigration. So people fleeing like, especially Nobles who are trying to flee from France and then later to manage conscription in the army.
So they did start to have a more, a robust system of identification. It was definitely true that in the 19th century. So you know at the time that the story’s taking place, you needed a passport to travel even within the country. So the idea was that you would get your passport from your local mayor. You would then present it to the mayor of the town you were going to.
But the thing is, it was not really always observed. So in the movie, especially, they, you know, they act like everyone was constantly showing their identity papers. And that’s kind of an exaggeration. I think it allows them in the movie. To up the stakes of Jean Valjean trying to get into Paris and it makes it kind of more dramatic that we don’t see in the novel and that, you know, he didn’t really have to show his papers a lot of times.
That’s what allowed him to come in and out of Paris constantly. One thing that was definitely true that we see in the movie. Is that prisoners, when they got released from prison, got a special yellow passport and that they did have to show where they had to be in a certain town and a certain time show their passport, and that part is definitely true.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:20:04] Okay. Okay. When I was watching that and with all the papers, one of the first things that came to mind question, we see this in a lot of other movies, they, Oh, I’m going to forge the papers. And so I was thinking, well, okay. If it’s that important, then surely somebody at some point would have figured out that, Hey, we can start to fake some of these.
Maurice Samuels: [00:20:21] at that time, I mean, if you’re, you know, think about it. This is before photography. So photography doesn’t get invented until like the 1830 is, and they don’t really have. You know? And then it’s like a kind of long exposure to the karyotype, so they’re not able to really trace individual bodies in that way.
So it’s a kind of loose system until much later in the 19th century. So really after 1870 you start getting a much more developed, a system of surveillance and identity control in France that hadn’t really happened yet. By the time this takes place in the 1820s and thirties.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:20:59] Now, anytime I see numbers in a movie, it’s kind of low hanging fruit to start to see how accurate it is.
And in the movie, there was this big contrast between the French authorities and the revolutionaries during the planning stages. Now it’s only in the dialogue, but there’s this one scene where Javert, he’s among the French authorities, and he’s saying that they’ll have 24,000 troops in the city and those troops will be reinforced with an additional 30,000 within two days.
And then. There’s another scene with the revolutionaries or they start to talk about how they need to make plans for the next day, the day of the revolution. Now, in my mind, that tells me that a lot of this would seem to be last minute going up against a pretty significant force. Can you give a little more historical background of these two sides and how the movie portrays them.
Maurice Samuels: [00:21:50] Yeah. So this part is pretty accurate actually. So historical records show that there were around 3000 writers in June, 1832 versus about 30,000 government troops and national guardsman. So that’s pretty true. The revolutionaries were vastly outnumbered, and they knew it. Their hope though was that the people of Paris would rally to the cause of revolution.
So that was the idea that they would spark the revolution. And then the populist would join them on the barricades. And that had happened during the revolution of 1789 to a lesser extent. And it happened in 1830 and it would happen again in 1848 but unfortunately for them, it did not happen in 1832. And that was one of the reasons that the revolution was put down relatively easily by the government.
So, and as for planning, there were, there were revolutionary clubs that were going on in the novel and the movie, they refer to the friends of the , which is the ABC, that had been plotting for awhile. And it’s true that there were these like revolutionary clubs all over the place that we’re, that we’re trying to bring down Louis Phillipe.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:23:08] Hmm. Was there something different about, I mean, I guess I’m wondering why people would not have gone with the revolution this time when they did previously?
Maurice Samuels: [00:23:17] It’s a good question. I think it’s possible that they just hadn’t done enough organizing at the time. The conditions just weren’t quite right. Then there were other bigger revolts, like right around this time, the silk workers in Lille also had a big rebellion.
And that was a bigger deal, and that took more effort to suppress. I think that one had a better chance of turning into a bigger revolution excepted in, in in France. It’s such a centralized country that they were used to looking to Paris for leadership. So really every revolution that worked wound up coming out of out of Paris.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:24:00] Okay. I wonder if maybe when they’re showing all this happening last minutes with their preparations, maybe that’s kind of one of the ways that they’re trying to imply that why it failed is because they didn’t, weren’t able to get the word out or whatever that may be.
Maurice Samuels: [00:24:13] Yeah, that’s true. It did have a much more spontaneous character.
But you know, you could say that the same thing happened in 1830 so when the bourbon King re-imposed censorship from like one day to the next on a few newspapers put out a kind of call to arms, and then there was a kind of spontaneous revolt that did work at that point.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:24:36] But heading back to the movie, the revolutionaries mentioned something about how they can’t let the king bury Lamarque as his hero.
So when they try to bury Lamarque will bury them instead. Is the dialogue something like that. Jean Valjean later explains to cause that, that the King is trying to claim the Mark as his own hero. And that’s a lie. It’s the final insult. And that’s why they’re angry. So the movie clearly indicates that this is part of the revolution, but it doesn’t really go into a lot of detail there.
So who was Lamarque and was the movie correct. And suggesting that he had something to do with the revolution.
Maurice Samuels: [00:25:13] Yeah. So this is basically correct. Also, general Lamarque was a hero of the Napoleonic Wars, and then he became a hero of the revolutionaries because during the restoration period, so 1815 to 1830 he spoke out loudly against the bourbon’s reactionary policies during that period.
So he became a hero for the revolutionaries. But what’s missing from the movie is the context. You’re how he died. This is actually pretty interesting, especially for our own moment right now, because in 1832 there was a global cholera pandemics and people had no idea what caused the disease. Now we know it’s caused by a bacteria that is like contaminated water and food, but at the time there was widespread panic.
So over the course of a few months in 18 in the spring of 1830 to 20,000 people in Paris died out of a population of 650,000 and across the whole country in France, 100,000 people died. And there was actually really a lot of class warfare around this because the mortality rates were higher in the poor neighborhoods.
And so the rich thought that the poor were spreading disease and they mostly fled to their country houses, and the poor actually thought that the rich were trying to poison them. So it was really, there was a lot of vast tension and social panicked at this time. So one of the most high profile deaths from cholera was the prime minister.
This guy Cassie mere Perrier, who is a conservative, and he was really hated by the common people. So when he dies, he gets a state funeral. Lamar, the people’s hero died of cholera on June 1st, 1832 at the height of the epidemic when these tensions were running really high. So what happened? This is a little bit distorted by the movie.
In real life and in the novel, the revolutionary is tried to hijack the funeral procession of Lamarque and bring his coffin to the Pantheon, which is where there was this former church where France buried its greatest heroes, but Louis Phillipe was not going to bury Lamarque there. The people wanted him to.
That’s what sparked the rebellion. Although there were, you know, deeper causes, as I was saying, like dissatisfaction with Louis Felipe’s policies that were behind it. But it’s true that this funeral of Lamarque was the immediate pretext for the revolt.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:28:02] Okay. Kind of gave an events that they were going to time things around and base it.
Maurice Samuels: [00:28:06] Yeah, and actually they had been planning, so the, the revolutionaries, and we’re talking about like a, a relatively small group of rebels here had been looking for a pretax and they were actually planning to do it around someone else’s funeral, but then Lamarque happened to die and that was even better for them.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:28:27] Hmm. Interesting. I was going to say then maybe that would be why it was, it seemed to be so last minute, but if they were planning to do it anyway on around somebody else’s, then wasn’t necessarily the case. They just took advantage of the timing.
Maurice Samuels: [00:28:38] Exactly.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:28:39] Yeah. Some of the more iconic imagery that we see from layman is both in the movie and the musicals, and pretty much every version of it are the barricades and the fighting in the streets.
one side you have sandbags and carts. The barricades from the revolutionaries. They’re kind of set up in random streets in Paris. I don’t know that the specific location to really focus in the story, but then on the other side, you see organized sandbags, uniforms, troops behind them. Things look a little more put together on this side from the French authorities and overnight the troops advance on the barricades.
They’re driven back then in the morning, the troops use cannons to shoot down the barricades. And it’s pretty easy. And as I was watching that, I was like, why didn’t they just use the cannons to begin with? It seemed like it was so easy just the second time. But how did the movie do depicting the battles in the streets of Paris.
Maurice Samuels: [00:29:39] Not bad, I would say, although a few discrepancies, which all come through here, so barricades were definitely a characteristic of Parisian revolts going back to the 16th century. Even. So as soon as I’m riot started, barricades would go up in the streets of Paris, and you have to remember that before the 1850s Paris was kind of a medieval city.
It didn’t have, for the most part, these big wide boulevards that we have today. Those were a product of the 1850s partly to prevent barricades from going up. We’re mostly these small kind of narrow streets that were easy to barricade. And the idea was that rebels, you know, put up these barricades to prevent police from.
Advancing into their neighborhoods, and especially, it really was very effective. Barricades were really effective stopping mounted police, so stopping horses, and those were the main sources of crowd control at the time. We actually see that in the movie too. So basically as soon as Ryder riots started, the police would send the cavalry in to kind of just ride into the crowd.
And that was terrifying. So barricades were pretty effective at stopping that. But it’s a good question why the army didn’t just use cannons from the beginning. So in reality, most of the barricades were pretty easily overtaken without Shannon’s. But there was a little more to it than that actually. So, so would have been effective at destroying almost all the barricades except for the biggest at the time.
But there were reasons why I think that the army didn’t want to use them. And I’m partially getting this from Mark book, the insurgent barricade, which is, if you’re interested in a really good history of barricade finding in France. So for one thing, there are a lot of innocent people in their houses. So it’s like, you know, kind of hard to fire a cannon in the streets of Paris.
You know, you’re going to kill it. You’re going to destroy a lot of buildings. But probably more importantly from a strategic standpoint. But what would happen is if their American was destroyed, the rebels could just easily disappear, either into the surrounding streets or into the neighboring buildings, and they’re not wearing uniforms, so they could just blend in with the crowd.
So basically what would happen is if the army fired a Canon, destroyed the barricade, it didn’t actually do anything because the people would know that was they were about to do that. They would just disappear and move on to the next barricade. And by moving onto the next barricade, they were draw the army into these narrow streets.
And then what would happen is the rebels, or sometimes even just normal people, would fire guns at them from the upstairs windows of the streets, or even throw like boiling oil on them or throw furniture on them and stuff like that. So, you know, for one thing, it didn’t really get the rebels and it could be really dangerous anyway for the army.
And in fact, I think that the movie shows that just as a convenient way to kind of lead to a climax and end the movie in the book, it’s much more, I think, realistic. So you see them that the army vision basically has to storm the barricade for the most part. They kill some people there. The rebels then disappear into the surrounding houses.
They have to kind of track them into the houses and you see a lot of people getting shot. like the courtyards of houses in the book.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:33:23] That’s a great explanation. I could definitely see now how it would be the movie, just trying to speed things up and give a little bit of a summary. Oh. But all we see that happen a lot in movies where they’re trying to condense the timeline and trying to just show bits and pieces.
Maurice Samuels: [00:33:36] Yeah. They’re not imagining they’re going to be people like you saying, wait, why didn’t they just do that from the beginning? It solves all their problems. Yeah. Yeah.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:33:46] That’s, I guess that’s
Maurice Samuels: [00:33:47] fair.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:33:49] Now, one of the primary plot points throughout the entire movie is that we see chief inspectors over there trying to catch John Val, John, and he always seems to be just a step behind and is the game of cat.
And Masa goes on for almost two decades, 19 years according to some versions of Les MIS, near the end of the movie, Joe Rivera’s captured by the revolutionaries. He’s going to be killed. Val John ends up saving Javez life by letting him go. Then it’s very emotional. At the end of the movie, Jovie recognizes that Valgiano will never be able to stop looking at his over his shoulder as long as he’s still alive.
So he writes a letter to the prefect to explain what happened to the prisoner, and then he takes Val John’s place. He sacrifices his own life so that Val John can continue to live his. Now, I know you mentioned earlier that there’s. A possible historical, w C being the same person of Val, John and Javert.
But is there any historical evidence that there’s this prolong search that culminates in a police officer willing to give his own life for a prisoner?
Maurice Samuels: [00:34:57] Yeah, so this actually is exactly what happens in the novel, but to my knowledge, it’s a total fabrication. So this did not happen. But it fits perfectly, I think, with what Hugo was trying to do in the novel, which is to model a kind of Christian ethics as a solution to social strife at the time.
So if you think of the Bishop at the beginning of the story, who, after being robbed of his silver, where my Janelle Bellshaw turns the other cheek and gives him his silver candle, his silver candlesticks. This has a profound effect on Joan Bellshaw, who then consecrates himself to God and to doing good work for the rest of his life.
So there in the story is someone who only understands black and white right and wrong. So you’re either on the side of the criminals or you’re on the side of the police. He’s not a bad person, I don’t think, but he’s an inflexible one and he can’t understand a concept like forgiveness. So when Joan vowel Jones spares his life at the barricade, it kind of shatters Chavez worldview.
He learns the lesson though and decides to let Jones that Jean Valjean go free. But that’s not a world he can live in himself. so that’s why he commits suicide and it’s the moral culmination of the non, the kind of moral climax of the novel. But did it happen in real life? I really doubt it. Although Hugo surely hope, as I said before, that his novel would spark some pangs of conscience and people like Jeff heir who were just only could understand criminals and good people.
They couldn’t understand that some criminals could actually be good people or learn to be good people could
Dan LeFebvre: [00:36:51] reform. So the prisons really, we’re not trying to reform people at all like some prisons claimed to do these days.
Maurice Samuels: [00:37:00] No, no. There, there was a movement for prison reform, but certainly where John was in too long was not one of those kinds of prisons.
And often they would lock people up for just being poor. You know, you could get sentenced to prison for debts. Also, at the time. And you know, insane people would be locked up sometimes in the same places, and the conditions were just pretty appalling.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:37:26] I always thought that was as circular logic where you have somebody go to prison for being in debt and then you can’t pay off the debt because you were in prison.
And so it just gets even worse and worse and worse, and it’s like, well, you’re not really trying to get people to pay off these debts then because they can’t while they’re
Maurice Samuels: [00:37:44] in prison. Yeah. This was really a time when. Things were rigged to use kind of contemporary language for the 1% you know, at the time, I mean, this was, and they did it make ugly.
The laws were seen as serving the interests of property holders at the time. And so Hugo is really, this is one of the reasons this novel was so important to so many people at the time. It was really a kind of cry into the darkness to try to get people to change some of these policies. But not preaching revolution.
And that’s, I think one of the other kinds of misconceptions of the novel is the, about the, this, this story is that you could come away just watching the movie or the musical instinct that the novel is really advocating armed revolt. It’s not really, it’s actually advocating this kind of Christian ethics and forgiveness and let’s just be nicer to people and then we won’t have to revolt.
So I think that it’s important to make that distinction too.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:38:53] That’s a very good distinction because I definitely, first time I watched it, I came away thinking that, okay, this is a movie about the French revolution, and it’s talking about these people that are trying to get some of their rights back and call to arms essentially was the overall
Maurice Samuels: [00:39:07] message.
It’s interesting because in the, in the novel, what happens is that, you know, Mary is survives a destruction of the barricade because John vaginal escapes with him through the sewers of Paris, but then he winds up marrying and basically becoming a itself satisfied bourgeois middle-class guy. So if you think about the musical version, he sings this beautiful song called the empty chairs at empty tables where he is morning has lost friends, and you get the sense that he’s really gonna keep fighting until justice is done.
Actually in the novel, there’s like a couple sentences where he’s like, yeah, it’s really too bad about my friends. And then he basically becomes. You know this like happy self satisfied rich guy because he uses presents, huge dowry and we don’t get the sense he’s going to be on the barricades anytime soon.
So that I think is something that the many of the adaptations want us to believe about the characters. And that’s not really the case in the novel itself.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:40:17] Hmm. Interesting. Not at the very end of the movie. Of course, we met, you mentioned this earlier, their revolution fails. We also see many of the revolutionaries behind that were behind the barricades.
The soldiers lined them up and shoot them. And you mentioned earlier kind of what happened with the revolution overall, but what happened to some of the revolutionaries? Were they also involved in the next version of the revolution or where they executed if they were captured, or how did, how did that turn out
Maurice Samuels: [00:40:46] for them?
The revolution, as I said, failed because the Parisian populace as a whole didn’t join in, and the government quickly took control of almost all the barricades that went up during the funeral. So by midnight that night, the rebels only held a couple of barricades, mostly in the Eastern part of Paris in the neighborhood called the FUBU or sound, Antoine, which was a a working class neighborhood near the best eat.
So they held out for just until the next day, and then at that time, the, a lot of them got chilled in the barricade fighting. The government surely did execute a bunch of people just on the spot. So it seems like from most historians, think that about a hundred insurgents died during that fighting, or immediately after it, about 200 to 300 more were wounded.
And then the government lost many fewer. so this was a pretty big defeat for the revolutionaries, but as I said, they didn’t give off and it would take another 16 years or so. But eventually they did manage to bring down Louis in 1848 and establish at that point, a short lived Republic. But it was really only after 1870 that France permanently became a democratic Republic.
So it keeps going back and forth between kind of monarchy and Republic until 1870
Dan LeFebvre: [00:42:21] now we’ve talked about some. Myths have been perpetuated because of the movie or musical version. Are there any other big ones that you see? A lot of people believe because of the movie adaptation, any of the movie adaptations or musical, that just isn’t true.
Maurice Samuels: [00:42:39] As I said, I think the big one is this idea that the novel and the story is. Ultimately like really progressive in the sense that we would kind of associate with it. Whereas actually it’s kind of advocating faith in God is the ultimate solution to society’s problems. So I think we would, maybe it’s clear that you go was a real humanitarian, was really concerned with the plight of the poor.
But I think that there is a myth that the novel is more revolutionary, and it really was, it’s strange because in Soviet Russia, this was like one of the most popular novels along with like Pushkin’s novels, which is a little strange because if you read it closely, it’s not actually as revolutionary as we think.
So that’s one big myth. I think another myth though is about gender. I think, and this is something that if you read the novel, and I think it also in like the, the musical version, the women are pretty, like, cassette is sort of incapable of having a political idea. You know, these women are kind of depicted as angels of purity who can’t really understand big issues and are not.
Trying to rebel and I back. And it’s almost like in the novel, I think they even saved something along the lines of, don’t bother your pretty little head about these things to CO’s that she’s really only interested in, in her love. So this was, I think, not the case in the 1998 Liam Neeson version, partially because Claire Dan’s is playing cassette.
And she’s such a smart and feisty actress. So I think that she kind of presents a much more independent minded cause that then is in the novel, but they clearly changed it and probably to cater to modern sensibilities. So you see in the 1998 movie, rebelling against John vowel jaw and kind of accusing him of like, you’re, you know, not letting me do this.
And, you know, and, and kind of trying to win him to her side and let him, let her see Marius and stuff like that, that is not in the novel. So they, the, the movie definitely makes her a much feistier. I think that the novel from a gender equality standpoint is pretty retro grade. Even though, and it’s important to point this out.
It’s saw itself as defending and speaking out against some of the particular ways that women were oppressed. So it definitely is doing that with Fontine and kind of exposing the plight of poor women who are forced into prostitution. That was true for a lot of women at the time, and the novel is definitely it.
Probably Jugo saw himself as a feminist now, but certainly by modern standards, there’s a lot that’s like pretty retrograde about the gender ideology and the novel.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:45:42] Were there others who were trying to tell stories from that perspective during that time, or was that a pretty novel idea and, and just not done very much.
Maurice Samuels: [00:45:53] There were, so one of the most widely read novels and what’s clearly a precursor to this novel was a novel by this guy named Eugen SU, and it was called the mysteries of Paris. This one is from the 1840s this was actually the first really successful serial novel published in France, or one of the first, and this novel.
Also, it was about a handsome Prince who went undercover in the slums of Paris to try to reward the virtuous poor. So we can see the kind of, and in the process, you know, he, he winds up exposing a lot of social inequalities. The plight of prostitutes was also one of these. But of course here again, it’s a kind of slightly dubious ideology here that only the virtuous, poor deserve to be saved and rewarded and the kind of encouraged poor people to be policing themselves.
I think Hugo was very influenced by the mysteries and Paris, and we get some of that in there. The contrast between John and Fontine, we’re clearly the virtuous, poor who, you know are forced into crime, quote unquote like stealing a loaf of bread or becoming a prostitute versus the 10 RDAs who are just bad people.
And they’re there, I think to show a contrast that there are not all poor people are deserving of our sympathy, but the good ones who are, have faith in God and who tried to reform themselves, they are, and we should try to save
Dan LeFebvre: [00:47:31] them. Hmm. Yeah, that’s a good, it’s a good contrast between those two that I hadn’t really thought about being a central storyline to it, but now that you’ve raised it that way.
Yeah, that makes perfect sense.
Maurice Samuels: [00:47:41] Yeah. And the tin RDA is, are kind of, not as big a feature of the 1998, movie as they are. Actually in the musical version, there are big characters, and in the novel, they’re really big characters also. So yeah, but base, but to answer your question, yes. So there were other, Hugo was certainly not the first one.
There was a whole kind of a genre of, of, of novel that focused on social issues from the time and tried to inspire sympathy for oppressed groups. This was a kind of. Dominant feature of the novel at the time, and you know, not just in French literature. As I said, like uncle Tom’s cabin in American literature was definitely also trying to do the same thing in the same way.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:48:25] If you were directing the 1998. Version. Is there anything that you wish they had done differently?
Maurice Samuels: [00:48:32] I’m not a fan. I have to say of the 1998 movie, but it’s not because I don’t like movies and I’m not like against adaptations. I’m not like one of those like, you know, professors who just is like, no, this is wrong.
You have to stick to the facts. But. I, you know, I am, I’m a literature professor, and the 1998 movie just takes a lot of liberties with the story from the novel, including things that I don’t even really understand, like changing the names and change. Not so much in the main characters, but of like the towns and things like that.
But the, the real, the problem for me was that they hint at a love affair between John Balshaw and saltine. Which is, at one point later in the movie, Joan vaginal and tells Kozack like, I loved your mother and I think we’re supposed to sort of think that it’s, if fontina had survived, they would have gotten together.
This is really not in the book. And so what’s strange because Victor Hugo himself was, I wouldn’t say like a sex addict, but he definitely had a lot of affairs. He had many mistresses, which was pretty common at the time, so he wasn’t the only one doing it, but he had like one official mistress who his wife knew a man through his whole life and who went into exile with them, and plenty of other, he was a very sexual guy, whereas the main characters.
In this movie, John bow on and farm team are not in love at all. Joan Belgium, basically, it seems to have no sexual impulses whatsoever, in the novel. And then even. Mariuce and Marius and coset, the movie shows them sneaking out together and Croisette being able to like get out and like meet him in the street.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:50:23] Definitely
Maurice Samuels: [00:50:23] not possible at the time. In the book, they should. This was a time when women could not walk in the streets alone alone, or they would be considered prostitutes, or at least upper class women, women who are well dressed. So you were, you know, kind of like a virginal daughters, like coset would not have been allowed liberties like that.
What happens in the novel. Is that, Mary’s finds a way to sneak into their garden, and so they wind up meaning in the protected space of the garden. So anyway, I’m kind of a purist. I would not have deviated from the novel that way. I would say though, that if you want a really good adaptation, in my view, by which I mean one that’s really faithful to the novel.
Check out the BBC, the recent BBC version from a, like maybe one or two years ago, starring Dominic West from the wire as Sean Boshaw, and it aired, about a year ago on PBS. That one I think is really pretty close, stays pretty close to the novel. But of course it plays out over multiple episodes, so they have a lot more time to include all this stuff, whereas I get it that, you know, the 1998 version, they have basically two hours.
They have to kind of condense a lot and change a lot to make it like work as a movie. So I totally get that, but it’s just, it’s a, as a kind of lover of the novel, it bothered me.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:51:53] Well. Sure. But there’s some things that don’t necessarily take a different amount of time, like you were talking about earlier, that the date, the tattoo date, things like that, it would change no amount of time whatsoever in the movie to have a different date on there.
Maurice Samuels: [00:52:06] Although you could maybe argue that they just didn’t want to mention Napoleon or something because it just sends you down a rabbit hole, you know? So I can’t remember exactly, but I feel like in the movie, I don’t think Napoleon is, is a big deal, whereas in the novel, he’s a huge deal. And it’s true at the time that everyone was thinking about Napoleon and of the different political factions at the time.
A lot of people, especially among the common people, were Bonaparte who wanted to bring back. Napoleon himself died in 1821 but they wanted to bring back his family to rule over France, and that does happen after 1848 the Polian, his nephew is elected president of the newly founded Republic in 1848. And then he liked his uncle has a coup d’etat and establishes an empire again, so that was definitely in the air, but I think the movie probably just didn’t want to go there.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:52:58] Leave that for a different movie perhaps.
Maurice Samuels: [00:53:01] Exactly. Exactly.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:53:02] Yeah. Well, thank you so much for coming on to chat about Les MIS. I know we’ve been talking about that mostly, but I also know everyone listening to this loves to learn about real history. And earlier you did mention the bourbon monarchy, and I know you have a brand new book that just released today called the betrayal of the Duchess.
Can you give us a little bit more information about the book and where we can get a copy.
Maurice Samuels: [00:53:27] Yes. Gladly. so my new book, which as you said, is called the betrayal of the Duchess actually also happens to take place in 1832 the year of the revolt in Les MIS. My book though, is about an aspect of this period’s history that’s only barely mentioned in the novel and not at all in the movie.
So at the same time that the left wing Republicans were fighting on the barricades in Hugo story. The right wing supporters of the bourbon monarchy also launched a civil war to bring down Louis sleep’s government. They also were hoping to take advantage of the cholera epidemic and they wanted to actually time their revolt with the left-wing revolt.
They thought it would be harder for Luis Felipe to fight on two fronts at once. Their commander was a four foot seven woman, this juices Dewberry, who was the mother of the bourbon era to the throne. And she was a fascinating character, led a guerrilla army, and might’ve succeeded actually in bringing down Luis Aliyah, but she was betrayed by her trusted confidant who was Jewish.
And this led to the first real outpouring of antisemitism in modern France at this time. So it’s a really interesting story. As you said, the book comes out today, and it’s available from any online bookseller, or you can try to maybe support your local bookstore if they’re still open. It’s a really hard time for a lot of bookstores, so try to maybe see if they’re open and you can order it through them.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:55:01] That’s fascinating. I’m sure it dives into a lot more of the things that we talked about, but just a completely different perspective. I had no idea that there was this other angle that Felipe had to try to fight the battle of two fronts.
Maurice Samuels: [00:55:14] Exactly. And then a lot of people actually wanted to bring back the bourbon.
So you get the sense watching Lee, ms or you know, even reading the novel that people were all in favor of a Republic and it was just a matter of, but actually a lot of people were pretty conservative. Oh, all these, you know, Nobles and wanting to bring back the old monarchy and they thought, you know, this was a really unstable time.
Cholera was making everyone really anxious. And a lot of people thought, why not go back to the most conservative old form of government that will lead us, give us stability in this time of crisis. But basically my book though is, is it’s a really good story. I think. Because she was such a fascinating character.
So I just tried to really tell this story in the book.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:55:55] Thank you so much for coming on.
Maurice Samuels: [00:55:57] Well, thank you, Dan. This was really fun. Thanks for giving me the chance to talk to you.