Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Les Misérables In the Year 1817/ En l'année 1817 V1B3



So much history crammed is into Chapter 1- The Year 1817. So much. We are given five pages of seemingly random facts, yet knowing with Victor Hugo that these are certainly not random facts, and indeed he tells us directly.

Yet these details, wrongly called trivial- there is no trivial fact in the affairs of man, no trivial leaf in the vegetable world- do serve a purpose. The features of the years are what the face of the century is composed of. 
Many of the details overwhelmed me, I felt ignorant, and uneducated, not knowing about so many of the events or personalities. I do wonder how contemporary French readers would have fared, but Les Miserables was published in 1862, and these events take place almost a generation before in 1917. But some names leapt out at me. Napoleon (of course), David, Dupuytren...
Dupuytren and Récamier had an argument in the amphitheatre at the School of Medicine and threatened to come to blows over the divinity of Jesus Christ. (Initially I thought this was the intriguing Juliette Récamier, but it was the more predictable Gynaecologist Joseph Récamier)
Madame Récamier - Jacques-Louis DAVID
I've seen this at the Louvre
I'm learning more about art history than I expected to!
and some of the details were just too delicious, and caused me to pause in my reading.
At 27 Rue St-Dominque, Chateaubriand stood at his window every morning in leggings and slippers, his grey hair in a madras head scarf, staring into a mirror and with a complete set of dentist's instruments laid out before him cleaning his splendid teeth while dictating to his secretary Monsieur Pillage drafts of 'The Monarchy according to the Charter'.
I was very excited to meet Fantine finally and also discover her background which isn't really dealt with in the stage or movie versions that I've seen. Much is made of Fantine's beauty. She is blonde, which was surprising to me, as I've seen Fantine played by brunettes on stage and screen. 
Fantine was beautiful, and remained chaste as long as she could. She was a lovely blonde with splendid teeth. She had gold and pearls for her dowry, but her gold was her head of hair and her pearls were in her mouth. 
Fantine was born in poverty, possibly orphaned, or abandoned at least, she went into domestic service at ten, and went to Paris to 'seek her fortune' at fifteen. Unfortunately for her she finds and love Tholomyès. What a cad Tholomyès is. 
A conquest for him, for her the love of her life. 
An hour later, back in her room, she wept. He was, as we said, her first love- she had given herself to this Tholomyès as to a husband. And the poor girl had a child. 
I found his desertion of her bizarre. 

There is much to astonish in In the Year 1817. Firstly there was a rollercoaster in Paris!
At about three o'clock the four gleefully terrified couples were rattling down on the coaster ride, a curious structure which then stood on the Beacon heights and whose serpentine loops could be seen outlined above the trees on the Champs-Elysées. 
Picture source
Rollercoasters have a rather fascinating history, from Russian monarchs forwards, and much lengthier than I expected. 

As someone very interested in names I was fascinated by several references to character's names in Chapter 2, Two Foursomes. Names were fashionable even in the 19th century. 
The pure English style would not prevail until later, as the first of the Arthurs, Wellington, had only just won the battle of Waterloo. 
And Fantine? An unusual name then and now. 
She was called Fantine. Why Fantine? She had never been called by any other name. At the time of her birth the Directoy was still in existence. No family name, since she had no family; and no baptismal name, since the Church was gone. 
I wonder if she was given a novel name to emphasise her aloneness? No family, no friends, not even someone else in the world with the same name as her? The reference to the Directory is intriguing, but I can't find anything specifically about them and names. Did they have an official list of sanctioned names at that time? I need to do further research.

I launched myself down another rabbit hole of research with the mere mention of a white flag. 
The white flag, faintly pink in the sunset, fluttered above the dome of the Tuileries.
A plain white flag was indeed the flag of France from 1814 to 1830. The famous tricolour flag of France was (re)designed by Jacques-Louis David (him again) in 1794! to display colours of equal stripes, an earlier design by Lafayette, had increasingly large stripes, blue then white then red. As an aside, blue and red were the traditional colours of Paris, during the storming of the Bastille the attackers wore red and blue cockades. White was added as an ancient French colour.

Tuileries Palace was of course still standing in 1817. It was later destroyed by arson in 1871 and then demolished in 1882. There has been modern day talk of rebuilding it, making the Paris skyline look like this:



And how gobsmacking to find an anti-sugar rant delivered by Tholomyès:

Well, that's as may be, but remember this, my dears: you eat too much sugar. You have but one fault, O women, and that's nibbling sugar. O rodent sex, your pretty little white teeth adore sugar. Now, listen carefully, sugar is a salt. All salts cause dehydration. Sugar is the most dehydrating of all salts. It draws the blood fluids out of the veins. Hence, coagulation, then solidification of the blood. Hence, tubercles in the lungs. Hence, death. That's why diabetes is little short of consumption. So don't crunch sugar and you'll live!

This week I found this fabulous Khan Academy video of the historical background to Les Miserables (it does contain some spoilers for those wanting to avoid them).




There is so much more to Les Mis than just the story (which of course is fabulous in and of itself). 

All quotes are from the 2013 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, translated by Christine Donougher. 

6 comments:

Nancy Burns said...

Wonderful piece of research....Louise!
I was trying to find some backround information about the name Fantine.
All I could find is that she was 'created' after VH witnessed a young girl being harassed in the streets of Paris 11841. Perhaps there is a link to that girl...that we will never know!

Louise said...

Perhaps we won't. I was wondering if the Bellos book had any mention of it.

Brona Joy said...

I've now ordered the Bellos but it sounds like it is spoiler-ish, so I will have to wait until Dec to read it :-)
Along with your video link here.

Louise said...

It does sound very spoiler-ish, which isn't such a big deal for me. I'm keen to read it soon. I just order a Victor Hugo biography.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

You always bring so much to a book. I can see how much you are enjoying this one.