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Jan
15

Let’s Be Miserables in Paris

victor hugo

victor hugo

Did you know Victor Hugo’s own life story was not so different from the main character of his film, Jean Valjean? Born the son of one of Napoleon’s republican officers, Hugo was brought up in Paris. He published the Hunchback of Notre Dame when he was only 29 and became  famous around Europe. Ironically, Hugo was very much a monarchist and supported the king. In other words, he was against the revolutionaries of the early 1830s. In fact, Hugo was so much part of the Royalist establishment that in 1841 he was elected to the peerage by Louis Philippe.

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But then he grew a social conscious. This was a period of incredible upheaval in France. In 1848 the revolution got rid of the French king and Hugo was elected to the new national assembly. He was very outspoken on politics and social concerns. But when Napoleon III came in and overthrew the government, Hugo was angry beyond belief.  His opposition led to 20 years of exile, mostly in the Channel Islands. When Napoleon finally fell in 1870 Hugo was allowed back in. And because of the incredible success of Les Miserables, he returned a hero of epic popularity. Two million people are said to have joined his funeral procession in 1885.

Napoleon-III

Napoleon-III

And now once again, he’s in the news. The movie, the songs are making a new generation of parents and kids weep. Myself and my daughter included. So when I happened upon this summary of Hugo’s Paris, I thought what better angle to lean on while navigating the streets of the city?  So listen up all you parents out there: Before settling on somewhere boring and tropical for Spring break, book a few cheap flights to Paris and take your children down the lanes where Victor Hugo once walked, once touched and once breathed. It will make the movie and the literature come alive.

Besancon

hugo house

hugo house

Cradled in a loop of the river Doubs, the ancient city of Besançon is one of the best preserved historic cities in France. In pre-Roman times, it was the capital of an area known as Sequania. When the area was conquered by the Romans, Julius Caesar described this naturally defensive site as “the jewel in my crown”. Today Besançon is the capital of the region of Franche Comté, a university town, and one of the more popular places to visit in eastern France. It is also the birthplace of Victor Hugo. By June it is promised that there will be some kind of museum here for people to come and see. Keep your eyes open.

Paris

house in paris

house in paris

Victor Hugo was 30 when he moved into the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée with his wife Adèle and their four children, Léopoldine, Charles, François-Victor and Adèle.  In the rooms overlooking Place des Vosges he would receive visits from all the greats It is in this apartment that he wrote some of his major works,  along with much of ‘Les Misérables’, the beginning of ‘La Légende des siècles’ and part of Contemplations. During this period he became a member of the Académie Française, a peer of France and a member of Parliament. The building now houses the Maison de Victor Hugo museum.

Guernsey

hauteville house

hauteville house

In 1851, Hugo, by now a huge opponent of Louis Napoleon who had taken over, had to leave France, first to Belgium, then to Jersey, and then in 1856 to Guernsey, an island he loved and where he lived until his return to France in 1870. Hauteville House, in St Peter Port, is the most personal museum to his memory and is still furnished as it was when he lived there 150 years ago. Here, overlooking the sea is where he finished Les Misérables. The oak tree in the garden was planted by Hugo on July 14, 1870. It’s a fun place to visit.

Burial

paris pantheon

paris pantheon

At his request, when he died in 1885, Hugo was buried in a pauper’s coffin. But such was his status that he lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and was buried as a national hero in the Panthéon where his tomb lies in the crypt with fellow writers Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola. I’m not so sure he would ahve wanted this. No one listens to people’s last wishes, do they?

Digne-les-Bains

digne-les-bains

digne-les-bains

The novel opens here, immediately after Valjean’s release from labor camp in Toulon. It’s one of the most beautiful places in northern Provence. Jean Valjean moves north, where he makes a fortune then becomes mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.  In September 1837, Hugo had been touring the area and stopped there for lunch. It is said that two events that afternoon inspired his story – a crying girl who brushed him by the church (a model for Fantine), and the rescue of a man trapped under a cart—remember the moment in which Javert recognized Valjean as a former convict? If not, look for it.

Paris

jean valjean

jean valjean

The Paris of the barricades, where Javert later pursued Valjean; the gate where Cosette meets Marius; and the convent where Valjean took refuge, were also based on real places. But the city was radically remodelled by Haussman at the end of the 19th century. Notre Dame, still stands, of course, and you can get a feel of the older street plans of Paris in the Marais, and some parts of St Michel, south of the river. For the diehard fans, bring to life Valjean’s rescue of the wounded Marius by touring the sewers. Thénardier’s Inn, where Cosette is made to work as a slave, was set in Montfermeil, in the eastern suburbs, about seven miles from the center of Paris, but it’s not the safest of areas.

Or you can just book a flight, a small apartment in the 7th or the 8th arrondisemont, get croissants, stay in bed until late then check out a few museums. Paris is the perfect walking for hot chocolate city, there are cafes every few feet so you’ll never quite feel as desperate as poor Fantine.

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