Where was Les Miserables set you may ask? Well, its a long story…
In the late summer of 1837 the writer Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, took a trip to Belgium with his mistress Juliette Drouet. On the way back to Paris he travelled across northern France and on the afternoon on 4th September he arrived in the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. He didn’t stay very long, just a few hours to have something to eat and look around. He dined at the Hôtel de France, in room 12b overlooking the courtyard. He wandered around the ramparts and the streets close to the hotel. He confessed to being a little disappointed – there was no “mer” as in the name. He’d expected to see the sea, perhaps a little harbour and boats but the sea had long since departed thanks to a build up of silt.
A few hours in a pretty town on a long journey – it could have been just another pit stop, a pleasant enough afternoon. But it wasn’t just another repose, to be forgotten as soon as the writer moved on. His memories of that afternoon, the people he met, the sights he saw, the location itself – they would all become significant decades later. The next day Hugo wrote to his wife Adèle in Paris, painting a picture of the town where he stopped for lunch the day before. He writes of the streets, the hospital and town hall, of seeing a runaway cart on a hill… “I left Etaples early in the morning. I wanted lunch at Montreuil-sur-Mer. Montreuil-sur-Mer would be better named Montreuil-sur-Plaine. It was once a charming city. It is now a citadel. But the walls – there is a wonderful view of hills and fields because the city is located above. And there are still in place one or two old churches that have a certain charm. […]
I walked on the ramparts. I was alone with old guns lying on the ground and an old priest sitting beside them. A venerable priest! He had his eyes fixed on his book and I watched the campaign. He read his breviary and I read mine. The fact is, you see, my dear Adèle, mine is a beautiful and glorious book of nature. It has the most sublime psalms and hymns. I hope that my children will understand one day and religiously enjoy these wonders that meet outside the inner wonder that God has placed in us, the soul. I never get tired of this great and ineffable alphabet. Every day it seems I discover a new letter. One thing struck me yesterday morning, while dreaming of the old boulevards of Montreuil-sur-Mer […] Down the rampart, I met a little boy who bit into a big apple. Who gave you this apple? I asked him. He replied: – I do not know, it fell from the tree, the wind was the person who gave it to me. I gave him ten cents and I told him “My child, when there is no person it is God …” Twenty-five years later Hugo’s memories of Montreuil-sur-Mer were vividly resurrected in Les Misérables which was published in 1862.
The Hôtel de France where Hugo dined in Montreuil-sur-Mer became the inspiration for the Inn in Les Misérables as did the Inn Keeper, his wife and Cosette, the waitress. The Hôtel de France is still a hotel and looks remarkably unchanged though these days its run by a couple of expats from the UK and South Africa.
In Les Misérables there is a pivotal scene where a runaway cart rolling down the hill on the cobblestones crushes a pedestrian. Hugo witnessed a similar event on the main cobbled road, the Cavée Saint Firmin, leading into the Coaching Inn courtyard of the Hôtel de France. This steep cobbled hill is today lined with old houses leaning against each other for comfort and support on the steep incline but it is easy to imagine how the sight that Hugo saw would have been memorable. Hugo saw a young girl crying as she left the church of Saint-Saulve in the town, later that moment would provide the inspiration for the character of Fantine. The priest whom Hugo met on the ramparts is reminiscent of Monseigneur Myriel in Les Miserables; the child biting into the apple is in the story; the names of people in the book are often the names of people in the town.
It is a charming town which in places looks much as it did when Hugo visited, it is almost a time capsuled town with ancient buildings and narrow alleys. The cobbled streets and houses all higgledy piggledy, propping each other up with dates engraved above doorways – 1637, 1822, 1725. The main square is flanked by a series of twisting medieval alleys leading to the ramparts and the squares where events are held, such as the annual Bastille Day Antiques Fair.
The ramparts with their stunning views over countryside encircle the Haut Ville draw walkers all year round. At the base of the hill is the lower town, the place in which Hugo’s story, the unfortunates would have lived. Just as Victor Hugo never forgot the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, so the people of the town have never forgotten the man who made their home famous. Every summer the town holds a Les Misérables Son et Lumière festival, an outdoor production starring a huge cast of proud locals, set on the ramparts where Hugo wandered.
Montreuil-sur-Mer is a beautiful town, echoing with memories of the past and its not hard to see why it remained in Hugo’s mind – visit for yourself and you may find a similar fate awaits.
Click here for a resume of the book Les Misérables.
Click here for a short biography of Victor Hugo.
Click here for a summary of Les Misérables.