Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo has been described as one of literature’s greatest novels. The first two volumes were published in French in March 1862 and translated into English later the same year. Since then it has been translated by numerous others and has been adapted for film, television, radio, animation and the stage.
This epic novel tells the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who is attempting to escape from his past. Newly released from the galley-ships, Jean Valjean steals the silverware from the bishop who has taken him in for the night. When he is captured, the bishop urges him to use the silver to become an honest citizen. Valjean becomes a wealthy man, owner of a factory and mayor of his town but his past is only a footstep away in the form of Javert, Inspector of Police, who recognises Valjean from his time as a guard.
A factory-worker, who has been dismissed from Valjean’s employment, is sentenced to six months imprisonment but ends up dying in the town’s hospital and Valjean feels responsible for the downward spiral of her life, so rescues her child, Cosette, from the corrupt inn-keepers with whom her mother had left her.
The rest of the novel tells the stories of Valjean, Cosette and other characters which intertwine with each other. Hugo also included a number of “digressions” on subjects including cloistered religious orders, the use of slang language and, most significantly, the battle of Waterloo.
The book was highly anticipated in 1862, having been advertised from as early as 1860. Hugo did not allow the publishers to summarise the story in advance, surely because any summary could not do a novel of this length any justice.