Europe and America in the time of Les Misérables:
Hearing the people sing beyond the world of Jean Valjean
By Jake Stigers
Quick: When in history did the events of Les Misérables happen?
The farther we get away from the past, the easier it can be for us to file stories about--for instance--the Black Plague, Michelangelo, Les Misérables, the Civil War or the Titanic into a singular Olden Times mental folder and not fully understand any larger historical context that might shape or define our understanding of those events.
(Before you reach for your phones to google all that: The Black Plague wiped out up to 60% of Europe’s total population around 1350. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was one of the defining artists of the Italian Renaissance in the early 1500s. We’ll get to Les Misérables in a minute, but for the sake of this rough timeline remember that it took place in France in the early 1800s. The American Civil War prevented the Confederate southern states from seceding over the issue of slavery when it ended in 1865. And the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage between Southampton and New York City just over 100 years ago in 1912.)
For the masterful way the musical Les Misérables telescopes the events and the settings of the book Les Misérables into 49 songs in two sung-through acts, an understanding of a more global context can meaningfully enhance any appreciation of it--if for no other reason than to triangulate it into the broader timeline of history.
It’s understandably impossible to cover every aspect of the history and culture surrounding the protagonist Jean Valjean’s journey through Les Misérables, and this essay in no way tries to do so. Instead, it touches on a range of events from the epic to the merely interesting that can hopefully offer useful context for understanding the world in which Les Misérables unfolds:
1796: Preamble: Jean Valjean is sentenced to prison in the Bagne of Toulon
Nineteen years before the story of Les Misérables begins, the peasant Jean Valjean is sentenced as prisoner number 24601 to serve time in the notorious Bagne of Toulon for stealing bread to feed his starving sister. During his almost two decades of incarceration, France and the entire Western Hemisphere undergo a chain reaction of revolutions and wars that radically alter the course of modern global history. But first, let’s back up a bit more ...
Just three years before Valjean entered prison, the former King Louis XVI of France and his wife Marie Antoinette were convicted of high treason and guillotined at the Place de la Révolution in Paris as a thousand-plus years of French monarchy fell and the French Revolution began. The ensuing French Revolutionary Wars raged from 1792 to 1802, first pitting the French Republic against monarchies in Europe and then spreading as far as Egypt and North America. Their end segued almost directly into the era of Napoleonic Wars that carried over unresolved disputes between Napoleon’s French Empire and a fluctuating array of European coalitions. A total of seven wars in all, they ended when the European Allies finally defeated Napoleon in the one-day Battle of Waterloo near what is now Belgium in 1815.
Aside from the expected cataclysmic destruction wrought by two decades of prolonged combat, these wars also brought explosive revolutions in European social structures, redefined international borders and relationships, and radically transformed the ways future wars would be strategized and fought to this day.
Partly to fund his eponymous wars, Napoleon Bonaparte sold France’s Louisiana Territory in North America to President Thomas Jefferson of the fledgling United States in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase, as the acquisition of this territory came to be called, stretched from present-day Louisiana to what is now Montana on land that would eventually be partitioned into 15 states—including Iowa—and parts of two Canadian provinces. It more than doubled the existing square mileage of the United States and fueled what our growing country would declare to be our Manifest Destiny: a continued and often ruthless expansion all the way west across the continent to the Pacific Ocean that involved annexing and conquering land from Mexico, Britain and the continent’s Native Americans.
Back in Europe, Ludwig van Beethoven composed his now-iconic dum-dum-dum-DUMMM Symphony No. 5 in 1808 that would help define a burgeoning era of Romanticism in music, art and literature. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—the quintessential composer of the Classical period in music—had died seventeen years earlier, at the early pre-dawn of this new Romantic period that would begin to shape almost a century of culture in both Europe and America. Romanticism was a bold new paradigm that shed the Classical era’s emphasis on structure and melody in favor of exploring emotion, imagination and the free expression of feeling—all of which spilled over into the worlds of art and literature. Case in point: Les Misérables and Valjean’s operatic journey through morality, love, sacrifice, penance and ultimately grace.
Here are a few more interesting milestones that Jean Valjean missed during his incarceration: After observing that milkmaids who had caught cowpox seemed immune to smallpox, Edward Jenner introduced the first successful smallpox vaccine—actually the first ever vaccine—in England in 1796. French soldiers fighting under Napoleon in the Ottoman territories of Egypt and Syria discovered the Rosetta Stone—a decree from Egypt’s 300 BC Ptolemaic dynasty that was inscribed in three languages and unlocked the mysteries of deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs—in 1799. The Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland merged to become the United Kingdom in 1801. The world population officially reached one billion people in 1804. And the Industrial Revolution hit its peak, radically transforming the way we produced everything from textiles to energy to physical and social infrastructure.
So the narrative of Les Misérables opens in a radically new world from the one Jean Valjean knew when his theft of a loaf of bread landed him in prison 19 years earlier. And, as worlds have a way of doing, his just keeps changing ...
1815: Jean Valjean is released from the Bagne of Toulon
Valjean is released and left homeless in the commune-city of Digne-les-Bains in the early years of France’s Bourbon Restoration, a new constitutional monarchy set in place after the fall of Napoleon. Under the new King Louis XVIII, France restored relationships with longtime allies, centralized its government in Paris and moved forward with relative stability under a Revolution-inspired motto: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Across the pond, the War of 1812 had ended and America was experiencing what is still called the Era of Good Feelings marked by a decline in partisan politics and a sense of nationalist identity thanks to a series of Supreme Court opinions supporting a more centralized government here. A year earlier, a lawyer and amateur poet named Francis Scott Key saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry after an all-night bombardment by British forces near the end of the war. The sight inspired him to write “Defence of Fort M'Henry,” a poem that soon became the lyrics to our National Anthem: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Three years after Valjean’s release, twenty-year-old Mary Shelley published, initially anonymously, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in England. This gothic novel is considered to be the first work of modern science fiction for its premise that employs a deliberate use of science and technology to create a creature of fantasy and imagination. Not to be outdone in the genre of gothic literature, American author Washington Irving killed off—or did he?—poor Ichabod Crane after a terrifying encounter with the Headless Horseman in his 1820 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
And in a slight detour from this essay’s stated narrative about Europe and America in the time of Les Misérables, it’s interesting to note that in January of 1820, German explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Russian explorer Mikhail Lazarev were the first to see and officially discover Antarctica.
1823: John Valjean, under the alias Monsieur Madeleine, is now a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer
France’s Bourbon Restoration period lasted until the 1830-32 uprisings depicted later in Les Misérables, but by 1823 the constitutional monarchy had been slowly disassembled by hard-right ultra-royalists, and with the rise of King Charles X in 1824 it lurched even farther right with severe restrictions on the press and a campaign to compensate the families of nobles whose property had been taken during the Revolution.
Here in America, we’d carved the state of Missouri out of the Louisiana Purchase territory in 1821, bringing our state count—and the number of stars on our growing flag—to 24. To assert our independence and declare our neutrality in any future European conflicts, President James Monroe introduced the Monroe Doctrine in his 1823 State of the Union address, declaring that any European attempt to re-colonize the Americas would be considered a hostile act toward the United States. And three years later on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the approval of our Declaration of Independence—both former presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died.
To modern historians, the Classical era in music had officially ended by 1820, leaving Romanticism as the dominant voice in Western music, art and literature. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Symphony No. 9 in 1824 thunderously marked the occasion, as did many iconic works of art, including Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 La Liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People), which depicted the goddess Liberty bearing the flag of France in its brilliant red and blue as she guides the triumphant citizenry forward over the pro-royalist bodies who fell in the victorious July Revolution of 1830.
1823 ended on a visions-of-sugar-plums note with the anonymous publication of A Visit from St. Nicholas (later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore), which introduced America to the Santa Claus we celebrate to this day with his like-a-cherry nose and bowl-full-of-jelly laugh.
1832: The Paris June Rebellion
The June Rebellion—also called the Paris Uprising—depicted in Les Misérables was an actual historical event. The last of a two-year series of violent anti-monarchist outbreaks in Paris, this battle was inspired by the cholera death of French Parliamentarian Jean Maximilien Lamarque, a popular anti-royalist and champion of the poor. The uprising lasted only two days: June 5-6, 1832.
The song “The ABC Café - Red and Black” that student revolutionaries Marius and Enjrolas sing in Les Misérables to stir the passions of their fellow students into battle has a coincidental—albeit not specific—relationship to the French novel The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) that had been published two years earlier by Stendhal (a pen name of French novelist Marie-Henri Beyle). While the Red and the Black in the Les Misérables uprising represent “the blood of angry men” fighting on behalf of the poor who have been long oppressed by “the dark of ages past,” the novel tells the story of a poor man’s ultimately futile attempts to rise above his station in life through hard work, talent, and eventually deception and hypocrisy.
Speaking of revolutionary insurrections, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (he used this name to distinguish himself from a number of similarly named relatives), the longest-lived and last surviving signatory of America’s Declaration of Independence, died on November 14 of 1832, 56 years after the document was signed. He was 95.
But the revolutions of the era weren’t tied entirely to politics. The British sloop HMS Beagle had set sail a year before the rebellion on a five-year expedition to chart the coasts of South America, and it carried as a passenger a young English biologist named Charles Darwin. Darwin published The Voyage of the Beagle in 1839 as both a travel memoir and a scientific journal documenting the discoveries in biology, geology and anthropology he made on the trip. These discoveries inspired additional expeditions and research that supported his theories of evolutionary biology that he eventually published in his 1859 On the Origins of the Species.
1833: Marius and Cosette make their final reconciliation with Valjean
The French Charter of 1830 had overthrown the conservative government of King Charles X and signaled the beginning of the 18-year July Monarchy, where the ascending Louis Philippe conspicuously proclaimed himself Roi des Français (“King of the French”) instead of the imperialistic “King of France” and pledged to follow the juste milieu—the middle of the road that avoided radical political extremes.
As Valjean reconciles with his past at the end of Les Misérables and finally understands that “to love another person is to see the face of God,” Romanticism is at its peak celebration of both emotional life and the unknown afterlife, nature and the supernatural, the Medieval past and the infinite future. Its brave-new-cultural-world outlook mirrors his final resolution from guilt to atonement … and it indeed allows him a new “life about to start / when tomorrow comes.”
An interesting side note: After spending four years studying American representative democracy from the wide-reaching perspectives of our Constitution, economics, separation of church and state, and societal attitudes toward women, French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville published in 1835 De La Démocratie en Amérique, which is commonly translated to Democracy in America. Tocqueville was interested in examining the successes and failings of our democratic revolution in comparison to the aftermath of the revolution in France—in particular the fall of the aristocratic class and the rise of the concept of equality. Among his conclusions: While democracy carries with it the danger of a tyranny of the majority and a loss of governmental control by the people, the promise of equality at its foundation was one of the greatest political and social ideas of his era … and the United States at the time was the quintessence of successful democratic equality.
Four years after the narrative of Les Misérables ends, Queen Victoria ascended the English throne at the age of 18 and ushered in a 63-year period of cultural influence and British expansion that lasted until the very dawn of the 20th century. While her reign saw both cataclysmic wars and monumental advances in technology, we can all agree here that the two defining landmarks of her monarchy were these: Iowa became the 29th of the United States in 1846; and in 1862, Victor Hugo introduced the world to Jean Valjean and his immortal journey through sacrifice, morality, love, penance and ultimately grace when he published Les Misérables.
Jake Stigers is a writer, singer, actor and incurable history buff living in Cedar Rapids. He hates to brag, but he saw the original production of Les Misérables in London.