The first time I heard someone mention Les Misérables and the French Revolution in the same sentence, I didn't sweat it. Maybe that person hated Victor Hugo. Maybe they hated me. Maybe they were drunk. These things happen. When it happened for the fifteenth time, I began to have grave concerns for Victor Hugo's legacy. My mind went to dark places. I started asking myself terrifying questions: Does everyone in America think "Les Mis" is set in 1789? Do Eddie Redmayne's groupies think he was plotting against Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette? Is "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" really about Robespierre?
Portrait of "Cosette" from the original edition of Les Misérables (1862)
I think we can all agree that the widespread acceptance of this historical misconception would be catastrophic. Why would it be such a big deal? Because Les Misérables is set during the Paris Uprising of 1832. Also known as the June Rebellion, the insurgency has nothing to do with the French Revolution. The revolution in Les Misérables isn't even in the same century as the storming of the Bastille. Victor Hugo wrote the book after he witnessed the brutal suppression of the June Rebellion firsthand. Want to know what the author was doing in 1789? NOTHING BECAUSE HE WASN'T BORN YET.
I didn't have any concrete proof that a large portion of the US population believed this terrible lie, so I laid low. Tom Hooper's Oscar-nominated adaptation of Les Misérables changed everything. In the lead-up to the 2013 release, the Internet was inundated with articles referring to the production as a "film set during the French Revolution." Did you believe them? It's not your fault. You were flat-out lied to.
Why does this matter?
In addition to being inaccurate, the gaffe is artistically dangerous. How are you supposed to understand why Marius and Gavroche are willing to die on the barricades if you don't know who's on the other side. Forty-three years may not seem like much of a gap—but we're talking about post-Revolutionary France. A lot went down between 1789 and 1832. Napoleon rose to power, conquered all of Europe, and was definitively exiled to St. Helena in 1815. Once the Little Colonel was out of the way, the Bourbon Monarchy was restored to power: Louis XVI's brothers ruled France until the July Revolution of 1830. Commonly referred to as the "Three Glorious Days," the July Revolution saw the overthrow of King Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch, and the ascent of his cousin Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans. Hugo's student revolutionaries weren't plotting against Louis XVI. They were the sons of Waterloo veterans who grew up pining for a revolution they were too young to remember.
The Paris Uprising of 1832
What was the June Rebellion?
Unfamiliar with the finer points of the Paris Uprising of 1832? The June Rebellion was a relatively small antimonarchist insurrection that took place on 5 and 6 June 1832. Primarily students and workers, the republican revolutionaries were attempting to reverse the establishment of the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe. The death of Jean Maximilien Lamarque, a popular liberal politician and former Napoleonic general, helped spur them to action. On 6 June, the insurgents were slaughtered on the barricades they had built in the narrow streets around rue Saint-Martin and rue Saint-Denis. Victor Hugo saw the whole thing go down. The June Rebellion was the last outbreak of violence linked to the July Revolution of 1830.
What's the key takeaway?
Hugo's novel isn't required reading in American high schools. But most people know the words to "On My Own" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?" Why do you know songs from a musical you've never even seen? Because Claude-Michel Schönberg's stage adaptation is one of the most popular musicals in the history of human entertainment. If, by some twist of fate, you've managed to evade Hugo and Schönberg, you've probably seen the 2013 film adaptation. The takeaway here is that Les Misérables is everywhere. Since you can't escape it, you might as well know when it takes place. Don't let anyone refer to it as "that French Revolution movie with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway" on your watch.
Feature image by Cameron Mackintosh via YouTube