At least three great novels are blighted by overlays that would not have survived a strong editor – Les Miserables, War and Peace, and Moby Dick. You can prune the last, and you get used to glossing Tolstoy’s diatribes against Napoleon – but there is a huge amount of fat in the Hugo novel, including long dissertations on Waterloo (to vindicate Napoleon) and the sewers of Paris. It is curious that the enormous ego of Napoleon should have prompted the equally enormous egos of Tolstoy and Hugo literally to lose the plot and just bang on about their hero or anti-hero as the case may be. Both could do with being told of the first law of advocacy – if you have a good point, do not spoil it with a dud: you will lose your audience. As it is, while the Everyman Middlemarch comes out at 890 pages, their Les Miserables comes out 1430.
A strong young man named Jean Valjean is sentenced to the galleys when he steals to feed the family. With time for escapes, he does about twenty years, and when he gets out he is a marked pariah. A saintly bishop, a contradiction in terms then, gives him refuge. Valjean steals the silver, but when he is arrested, the bishop says that he gave the silver away. This act of goodness changes Valjean forever. He becomes a man suffused with benevolence, and after perfecting a new process, he becomes fabulously rich, and the benefactor and mayor of a town.
But his past catches up with him in the form of an obsessive police agent called Javert, who pursues Valjean as his life’s work. A young woman called Fantine is left pregnant by a young man about town in Paris. She comes to work in Valjean’s factory, and without his knowledge she is sacked. She sells her hair, her teeth, and then her body to keep herself and her daughter Cosette alive. She dies in misery, and Valjean accepts responsibility for raising Cosette, in large part in a convent where Valjean works under cover as a gardener.
A link between the two threads is provided by the Thenardiers, frightful people who Fantine first left Cosette with. We are told that Thenardier was one of those who scavenged the dead after Waterloo, while posturing as a soldier, and that is the model of his life. He keeps coming back into the story like a cancer through coincidences that are fantastic.
These lives are played out in the aftermath of the French Revolution starting in 1789 and the further revolutions in 1830, 1848, and 1870. A young student called Marius – whose military father wrongly thought that Thenardier had come to his aid at Waterloo – gets caught up in the revolutionary fervour of the times. When he is wounded at the barricades, he is saved by Valjean and he will marry Cosette. Javert is finally unmanned by the goodness of Valjean in saving his life. When he cannot do his duty and arrest Valjean, Javert ends his own life in the Seine. The book ends as Cosette and Marius cover the dead hands of Valjean with kisses.
Early on we get this about the Great Terror:
‘1793. I was expecting that. A cloud had been forming for fifteen hundred years; at the end of fifteen centuries it burst. You condemn the thunderbolt’.
It is a good line. But what happens when the abstraction leads to the dismissal of a class?
They [the Thenardiers] belonged to that bastard class formed of low people who have risen, and intelligent people who have fallen, which lies between the classes called middle and lower, and which unites some of the faults of the latter with nearly all the vices of the former, without possessing the generous impulses of the workman, or the respectability of the bourgeois.
The Thenardiers are awful, and we know such people are about, but is this clever, or merely nasty? Did George Eliot stoop to this typing or aspire to this judgment? This preoccupation with abstraction and class looks anything but humanist.
When we get to Waterloo, we get pure bullshit. We are told it was a great battle won by a second rate general, and that Napoleon lost because fate decided he had had enough – rather like the gods with Hector. Here is some of the claptrap.
…this war, which broke the military spirit of France, fired the democratic spirit with indignation. It was a scheme of subjugation. In this campaign, the object held out to the French soldier, was the conquest of a yoke for the neck of another. Hideous contradiction. France exists to arouse the soul of the peoples, not to stifle it. Since 1792, all the revolutions of Europe had been but the French Revolution: liberty radiates on every side from France. That is a fact as clear as noonday. Blind is he who does not see it. Bonaparte has said it! The war of 1823, an outrage on the generous Spanish nation, was at the same time an outrage on the French Revolution. This monstrous deed of violence France committed, but by compulsion; for aside from wars of liberation, all that armies do, they do by compulsion.
This is very nasty claptrap. A Russian man being bayoneted or a Russian woman being raped takes no comfort from the fact that the crime against humanity is committed in the name of Napoleon rather than Hitler, or in the name of liberation rather than enslavement.
This preoccupation with intellectualism and a refusal to come to grips with history are not helpful to Hugo. Sometimes the jingoism is breathtaking.
But this great England will be offended at what we say here. She has still after her 1688 and our 1789 the feudal illusion. This people, surpassed by none in might and glory, esteems itself as a nation, not as a people. So much so that as a people they subordinate themselves willingly, and take a Lord for a head. Workmen, they submit to be despised; soldiers, they submit to be whipped.
It is as if the French had found the answer to peaceful governance and equality, but the whole 1430 pages of a book whose title could be The Have-nots is dedicated to showing that any such proposition must be false and that France had to endure agony for a century after 1789. The importance of the English 1689 is that they never needed another revolution.
People were slaughtered in France in 1830, 1848 and 1870.
The Revolution of July  is the triumph of the Right prostrating the fact. A thing full of splendour. The right prostrating the fact. Thence the glory of the Revolution of 1830, thence its mildness also. The right when it triumphs has no need to be violent. The right is the just and the true. The peculiarity of the right is that it is always beautiful and pure……
Revolutions spring, not from an accident, but from necessity. A revolution is a return from the factitious to the real. It is, because it must be.
This may be par for the course for Continental rationalism, but what happens when the beautiful and pure gets feral, as it did in 1793 (and as it had done on 14 July 1789)?
The Edenisation of the world, Progress; and this holy, good, and gentle thing, progress, pushed to the wall and beside themselves, they demanded terrible, half-naked, a club in their grasp, and a roar in their mouth. They were savages, yes; but the savages of civilisation….They seemed barbarians, and they were saviours. With the mask of night, they demanded the light.
Anyone falling for that kind of nonsense has got real problems. It poses real issues of trust in the author. It is a pity, because the story is strong, and good when the author sticks to it. A cohort of Marius at the barricades named Enjolras shoots in cold blood a fellow revolutionary who gets out of line. Here we meet the credo killer like the Commissar in Doctor Zhivago.
‘Citizens’, said Enjolras, ‘what that man did is horrible and what I did is terrible. He killed, that is why I killed him. I was forced to do it, for the insurrection must have its discipline. Assassination is a still greater crime here than elsewhere; we are under the eye of the revolution, we are the priests of the republic, we are the sacramental host of duty, and none must be able to calumniate our combat. I therefore judged and condemned that man to death. As for myself, compelled to do what I have done, but abhorring it, I have judged myself also, and you shall soon see to what I have sentenced myself.’
Those who heard shuddered.
There in truth is the eternal dilemna of the revolutionary – where does the power come from, and how will it be surrendered? You can get more from that one paragraph than all the reams of political nonsense in the whole work. And there you can get an idea of the hold of this novel on the French imagination, as great as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and an idea of why it is the subject of more films and theatre than perhaps any other novel.
III George Eliot and Victor Hugo
Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880) had a religious middle class upbringing; she only rejected the former, although she shed her provincial accent while studying French and the piano at Coventry. Because she was thought to be plain, she was given a full education. She got into literary circles and edited the radical Westminster Review for a while. She lived in a happy de facto marriage for more than twenty years with a writer who was her helper. She had travelled and could set her writing in Europe. She wrote a number of successful novels. Middlemarch is the best known. According to the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, she was one of the finest letter-writers in the language, and she stands pre-eminent in a century of gifted women writers.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was the son of one of Napoleon’s generals. He studied law, and went into writing. He became best known in France as a poet, and best known outside France as the writer of two great novels. France endured unsettled agony throughout almost all Hugo’s life, with one form of revolution and change of government following another. Hugo was actively involved in politics, as is the way with French intellectuals. He spent some time in exile in Guernsey, and his views on religion and politics fluctuated, although he was dead against the Church of Rome. In many ways his ups and downs mirrored those of France. The whole of France mourned his death, and he was given a funeral for a hero of the nation. His body lay in state under a black-draped Arc de Triomphe; more than two million showed up for the funeral.
His personal life was at least as vibrant as his public life. M. Hugo was a man of appetite. He had wives, partners, and mistresses. He might maintain three households at once. He went after actresses, courtesans and any woman except one living under one roof with a husband. He might bed a prostitute before lunch, then rendezvous with an actress, and then meet in private with a courtesan, before going home to his mistress or his unofficial wife for dinner and love-making. Alexandre Dumas, the creator of The Three Musketeers, fancied himself with women, but he knew what happened in a straight contest with Hugo.
I can spend many days in the preparation of love with a lady. I sigh, I send her gifts, I inscribe tender sentiments in my books, I dance attendance on her. He smiles. He bends over her hand, and when he kisses it, she believes she is the only woman in all the world for him. She is not only captivated by him, but she forgets that I exist.
The reputation of M. Hugo was such that women called and waited on him
He had immense endurance. Breakfast was just coffee, but the light meal at lunch was more serious – pate, an omelette or fish, a roast meat with vegetables, a salad, pudding, and cheeses, all with different wines. The big meal was dinner. Two dozen oysters or mussels; a hearty soup; fish, say two broiled lobsters in their shells; roast chicken and then beef; a salad; dessert (say chocolate mousse with brandy sauce), plus four to six oranges, unpeeled. And again, a different wine with each course. He did not get fat or contract any venereal disease, and he lived well into his eighties.
It is perhaps, then, not surprising that a novel of George Eliot might have a different tone to a novel of Victor Hugo.