Nick Trend, The Daily Telegraph, January 14, 2013
Given his spectacular shifts in status and fortune, Victor Hugo’s own life story is in some ways not so different from that of his hero, Jean Valjean. Born the son of one of Napoleon’s republican officers, Hugo was brought up in Paris society by his monarchist mother. In 1831, at the age of 29, the publication of the Hunchback of Notre Dame made him famous around Europe. But despite a developing social conscience, his sympathies were against the revolutionaries of the early 1830s. Only later was he to cast Marius and his friends as heroes of the barricades. In fact, Hugo was so much part of the Royalist establishment that in 1841 he was elected to the peerage by Louis Philippe.
However, over the next few years, his growing belief in republicanism, meant that when the 1848 revolution once more deposed the French king, he was elected to the new national assembly. But it all went wrong for him with Napoleon III’s coup d’etat three years later. His vociferous opposition led to social and political exclusion and 20 years of exile, mostly in the Channel Islands. The fall of Napoleon in 1870 combined with the huge popular success of Les Miserables, published in 1862 meant that he returned to Paris as a people’s hero. On his 79th birthday the public paraded past his Paris apartment for six hours, and two million are said to have joined his funeral procession in 1885.
Sites associated with Victor Hugo
This June sees the first public opening of Hugo’s birthplace in Besancon (pictured below), in the Jura. According to the publicity it will not be a museum but “a place of memory for the man who was engaged with both his own times and the future”. It will try to bring his works and words to life. Official details are currently rather scant, but more information will be posted at besancon-tourisme.com nearer the opening date.
Hugo lived in his apartments in the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée overlooking the Place des Vosges from 1832 to 1848, with his wife Adèle and their four children. Here he held court to the intellectuals of the time and made a start on writing Les Misérables. The building now houses the Maison de Victor Hugo museum (below), and features memorabilia of the time, as well as examples of his paintings and drawings. ( www.musee-hugo.paris.fr )
In 1851, Hugo, by now a vociferous opponent of Louis Napoleon, fled France, first to Belgium, then to Jersey, and then in 1856 to Guernsey (below), an island he loved and where he lived until his return to France in 1870. Hauteville House, in St Peter Port, is the most evocative museum to his memory and is still furnished as it was when he lived there 150 years ago. Here, overlooking the sea and with the Normandy coast on the distant horizon, was where he finished Les Misérables. The oak tree in the garden was planted by Hugo on July 14, 1870. By the time it was mature, he predicted, a United States of Europe would have become a reality. Open April - September: Monday - Saturday ( victorhugo.gg ). Tours of Hugo’s Guernsey are also available, details on the same website.
At his request, on this death 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 ( pantheon.monuments-nationaux.fr ; below) where his tomb lies in the crypt with fellow writers Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola.
Locations for the novel
Not surprisingly for a book of 1,500 pages, Hugo set Les Misérables on a broad geographical and historical canvas (once which is drawn on only selectively in the musical). He used a good deal of poetic licence, rather than precise detail, but some of the key sites and towns which feature in the novel are well-known to visitors to France.
One of the most attractive towns in northern Provence, the novel opens here, immediately after Valjean’s release from labour camp in Toulon. The local bishop, Myriel, who takes pity on him and from whom he steals the silver, is based on the incumbent at the time, Bienvenu de Miollis, who gave 90 per cent of his income in alms, even moving out out of the palace so that it could serve in a hospital. ( telegraph.co.uk/provenceguide ).
Jean Valjean then moves north, prospers and becomes mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, a short drive from Calais. In September 1837, Hugo had been touring the area with his mistress and stopped there for lunch. Two events that afternoon inspired his story - an encounter with a crying girl who brushed him by the church (a model for Fantine), and the rescue of a man trapped under a cart (the moment which Javert recognised Valjean as a former convict). See John Graham-Hart’s article for a full account of the town’s links with Hugo and the novel.
The Paris of the barricades, through which 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 (partly to help the authorities prevent the barricading of streets), and although it’s possible to find approximate locations, these original settings have been lost. 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. Should you wish, you can also bring to life Valjean’s rescue of the wounded Marius by doing a tour of the sewers (below). I haven’t done it myself, but many of those who have recommend carrying a scented handkerchief. Search for Les Egouts de Paris on paris.fr, for full details. Thénardier's Inn, where Cosette is made to work as a virtual slave, was set in Montfermeil, in the eastern suburbs, about seven miles from the centre of Paris. It’s notoriety endures as one of the troubled banlieus and is not the sort of place which draws many tourists.
Locations for the film
Only one scene in the recently launched film of the musical, was shot in France. The spectacular hill town where Valjean has his moment of revelation after the Bishop’s generosity, is Gourdon, in Provence, and the mountain scenery nearby also features on screen. The rest of the locations, and the studio work, was all done in the UK.
The opening shots of the convicts in the shipyard were filmed in one of the docks at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard ( historicdockyard.co.uk, below), home to HMS Victory, which also features. But other scenes early in the film, including the red-light district of Montreuil-sur-Mer, where Fantine is arrested for assault, were shot in Portsmouth’s historic rival - Chatham docks ( www.thedockyard.co.uk ) in Kent. The backdrop for Fantine’s death-scene is the Ropery loft at Chatham.
Shifting to revolutionary Paris in 1832, with the help of some impressive computer graphics and a giant polystyrene elephant (the elephant of the Bastille) Christopher Wren’s twin-domed Royal Naval College in Greenwich is transformed into the setting for Lamarque’s funeral procession through Place de la Bastille, and other grand Parisian panoramas in the fim. However, most of the barricade scenes were conjured up at Pinewood Studios, which are not open to the public.
Of the two other key death scenes, Javert’s suicidal jump into the Seine, was actually filmed at the weir by the Poulteney Bridge in Bath, while Valjean’s demise takes place in the chapel of Winchester College, which can be visited by guided tour (more information: winchestercollege.org ). Javert’s pursuit of Valjean and Cosette was also filmed in the medieval streets of the city. Finally, the wedding of Cosette and Marius was set in Boughton House, Northamptonshire, the residence of the Dukes of Buccleuch, open to the public at Easter, Witsun and throughout August ( boughtonhouse.org.uk ).