This beautiful novel is definitely one of my desert island few. I’ve loved this book since the very first time I read it many years ago when I was about 25 years old. Within its 1232 pages are everything I want in a novel; philosophy, love, compassion, intensity, depth, and triumph over adversity; the battle between kindness and unkindness, forgiveness and the relentless pursuit of punishment. I took a pen to it many times to capture his words to read again and again. This is a long journey of the human soul and of all that it can endure along the way.
I remember when I first read it I felt outraged that it could be translated to the West End stage as a musical, this felt like sacrilege to me! I resisted going to see it for years, until one birthday, knowing how much I loved the book, a friend of mine bought me tickets, and I couldn’t say no! Since then, I’ve seen it 3 times! It is a wonderful production, the music is beautiful and the scenery stunning, and there is just the right amount of tragedy and humour to achieve the perfect balance. The Thenardiers are funny, and give the performance the much needed relief and lightness from the sadness of Fantine’s life and indeed Jean Valjean.
Hugo’s wisdom and philosophy is so wise, and I love how he recognised human failings and wickedness as much as he recognised the beauty of love; his writing sears the soul and pierces the heart. I love this book. My own copy is now battered and worn, but it’s my favourite edition.
Jean Valjean was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. Javert the prison officer pursues him for the rest of his life. His prison sentence was extended more than once when caught trying to escape, but finally he is released, bitter and hating humanity and full of pain and anger. Prisoner number 24601 tries to find a place to stay for the night but is turned away by all the inn keepers because they reject convicts. Tired, cold and hungry he alights upon the cottage belonging to the Bishop of Digne who invites him in to share his supper with his sisters who set an extra place at their table for Jean Valjean. After their supper, Jean Valjean is given a bed for the night and it is the first night in all those years that he has laid down on a proper bed. He sleeps, but when he wakes early the bitterness, rage and anger which has fuelled him for all these years consumes him, and he wraps the Bishop’s silver into a blanket and he leaves the house with his stolen treasures.
Along the way, Javert catches up with him, arrests him, and takes him back to the Bishop’s house, whereupon the Bishop tells Javert that Jean Valjean is no thief, but that he had given the silver to him, and he turns kindly to Jean Valjean and gives him two silver candlesticks, telling him that he had forgotten to take them with him. This is the moment that Jean Valjean’s life is turned around. From this moment on, he seeks only to live an honest life, with love and dignity and goodness.
I won’t recount the entire plot, suffice to say he encounters a young woman along the way called Fantine, who tells him she has a daughter, Cozette who needs taking care of, she is dying and she makes him promise to take care of her. It’s a long, long story, but the tenderness he extends towards Cozette is so poignant.
I loved so many scenes in this novel, from his first meeting with Cozette, to their escape together through Paris, their time at the convent, and the thrilling final underground pursuit in the Parisian sewers. There were also very tender scenes of Gavroche the peasant boy, his sunny personality, and how heart breaking it is when he dies in the battle.
I can honestly say, I loved this book from cover to cover, and yes my copy is worn and battered, but it made me cry, it made me smile, it made me FEEL. Hugo is a brilliant writer, and has a profound understanding of the human soul. It made me feel alive to read it, and to absorb myself amongst his vivid characters. Exquisitely painful sometimes, but overwhelmingly uplifting because of Jean Valjean’s triumph over adversity. It’s a wonderful journey.