Legend has it that Victor Hugo, the prolific French scribbler whose body of published work amounts to seven novels, 18 volumes of poetry and 21 plays, also holds the record for the world’s shortest correspondence. In 1862, while in exile on the British Isle of Guernsey for speaking out against Napoleon III, Hugo telegrammed his publisher “?” demanding the reaction to the release of his latest novel, Les Misérables. The reply: “!”
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A century and a half later, “!” is still an apt description of Hugo’s epic masterpiece, which is still spawning numerous iterations on the page, stage and screen. In fact, many modern admirers may only be familiar with the iconic, 1980 musical production of the story created by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. It is this stage version of Les Misérables that will be brought to life again this month in director Tom Hooper’s film starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, the redeemed convict who prevails in the face of repeated persecution, and Anne Hathaway as the downtrodden single-mother, Fantine. Amanda Seyfried will play Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette.
“The story is, in many ways, a love affair with Paris,” says Kathryn Grossman, a French professor at Pennsylvania State University who has authored four books on Hugo and Les Misérables. She notes that at the time of its release, Les Mis was both a call to arms for the French people and a lamentation of the “old Paris” that Hugo loved.
The controversial urban planner, Baron Haussmann, razed much of Hugo’s old Paris in the mid-19th century while the writer was in exile. The labyrinth of narrow, interweaving streets and hidden neighborhoods, relics of the medieval age, was leveled into the broad, sidewalk-bordered avenues that define modern Paris. This was both an effort to quell the city’s rampant congestion and the disease it fostered, and to prevent the building of revolution barricades. Today, though, it is still possible for travelers to find echoes of the Paris that Hugo once knew, from the house where he lived and the places he frequented, to the subterranean abyss that haunts the pages of the author’s most enduring novel.
The first stop for any Hugophile in Paris is undoubtedly the writer’s home-turned-museum on the second floor of the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée, where he lived from 1832 to 1848 with his wife Adèle and their four children. It was in this apartment, in the crimson-draped drawing room, that Hugo solidified his position as the father of French Romanticism. It is also the place where he wrote two collections of poetry, plays such as “Ruy Blas” and “Les Burgraves,” and a portion of Les Misérables. He started Les Mis in 1845 and worked for 17 years, spending the entire last year at Guernsey making corrections—eight hours a day—to the manuscript.
The museum is divided to illustrate the three sections of Hugo’s life: before, during and after exile. It contains hundreds of his drawings and is decorated with artifacts collected by the writer during his travels. The China Room exhibition, which represents his exile in Guernsey, was designed by Hugo for his mistress, Juliette Drouet, and is scattered with romantic allusions to her.
6 Place des Vosges
Tel: 01 42 72 10 16
Metro: Bastille, Saint-Paul ou Chemin Vert
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm; closed on Mondays and public holidays
Admission: Free for permanent collections