1 April 2020 Susannah

Les Misérables

Les Miserables

I dithered in a bookshop some weeks ago over buying a copy of The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’ by David Bellos. Fortunately, I bought it as I’ve had my money’s worth in pleasure and interest many times over. I just adored every page of this book and hated having it come to an end. I’ve always loved books about other books, and it is hard to find a better one than this.

Bellos tells the story of how Hugo came to write Les Misérables, the amazing tale of its publication and the money paid for it, and then its phenomenal popularity (including in the Soviet Union). The book was the first truly international bestseller, it was the first novel ever to appear on film (and remains the most filmed novel in the world), and thanks to Les Misérables the crowd that assembled in Paris for Victor Hugo’s funeral was the largest crowd ever gathered in that city.

Southern soldiers in the American Civil War called themselves ‘Lee’s Miserables’, after their leader Robert E. Lee, and read the novel eagerly throughout the war.

But interspersed with all this information, is additional social and historical detail about the book. I was fascinated to learn that Hugo grew a beard in the belief that beards protected a man from infections and so a beard would mean he could live long enough to finish his masterpiece. I loved reading about what colours people wore in 19th century Paris, what words different classes of society used for coins, the coded use of numbers within the novel, and the ground-breaking use of the word ‘Merde’ in its pages. I could picture Hugo’s mistress Juliette devotedly copying out pages of the manuscript, understand why the book had to be published in Belgium, see how it has been used and abused, filmed, made into musicals, plays and comics, and enjoyed an incredible after-life – oh there was just SO much to enjoy in this wonderful book. No wonder it won the 2017 American Library in Paris book prize!

Have you read Les Misérables or have you, like many, only seen the film or musical? Reading the Bellos book made me want to re-read this classic, especially as he made me aware of how vital it is NOT to read an abridged version. There’s an unabridged audio version available that runs for just over 67 hours.

You should read Hugo’s book before you read The Novel of the Century. Then you should read the excellent biography of Victor Hugo by Graham Robb. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy a great classic than to follow it up with a gem like this.

Have you read the book? I’d love to hear what you think in a comment.

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Header image credit- Les Miserables, Village Theatre Mainstage Production, 2013. By VillageTheatre – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34949824
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Comments (10)

  1. Kate

    I recommend the 1995 film which is a loose adaptation of the story, set in the 20th century during the second world war.


    I watched it when I was a teenager. It was my first experience of the Les Miserables plot and the one that stayed with me the most, despite having seen other arguably more faithful adaptations since.


  2. Diana Paulin

    I have not read Victor Hugo’s book, nor have I read the book by Bellos. Now I want to read both.

  3. Jenny Gray

    Hi Susannah,
    I’ve not yet read the novel Les Miserables, however my favourite film version is one with Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush and Uma Thurman, made in 1998. I have never liked the musical stage version, and the musical film version with Hugh Jackman (although he’s one of my not-so-secret heartthrobs) just left me cold. These days of home isolation are not a problem for me – more time for reading and movie-watching!
    Jenny Gray

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, that’s a very good film version of ‘Les Miserables’. Like you, I’m not a huge fan of the musical. I think the deeper themes and richness of the novel are lost because of the focus on the songs.
      I don’t know how people who do not love reading will manage to get through this difficult time.

  4. Hi Susannah, most interested – I love Graham Robb’s books on France – might well start with his biog – once I’ve got through current pile! Books on books are good Jane’s Fame by Claire Hartman keep well, Karin

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Lovely to hear from you, Karin. I hope you are coping in this awful time, even though people cannot come and hear your wonderful lectures.
      Graham Robb’s biographies are wonderful – I agree! I am sure you would love the David Bellos book. I felt sad when it ended because it was so good.
      Stay well!


    Les Miserables is my favourite book of all time. Second favourite is To Kill a Mockingbird.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Then you will love the book by David Bellos. I just didn’t want it to end!

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