For its compelling narrative of love, hate, revenge and redemption, few books in history can match Les Misérables. It was a huge success when first published on 3 April 1862, thanks to its gripping story, epic sweep and outspoken political message. Written over a period of nearly twenty years, and completed while Hugo was in exile on Guernsey, this historical novel included a devastating critique of the ills of contemporary France.
Les Misérables centres on Jean Valjean, imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. Eventually released in 1815, just after Napoleon’s final defeat, Valjean betrays the kindly Bishop Myriel, but through the latter’s forgiveness he repents and goes on to adopt Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a prostitute. Over the years he rises to eminence as mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, but his struggle to achieve respectability is constantly thwarted by an unforgiving society and in particular by his implacable enemy, the police officer Javert. In the end, despite their personal battles, none of the protagonists can avoid the groundswell of revolution that is brewing in the slums of Paris.
The book teems with unforgettable characters, from the prostitute Fantine, forced to sell her hair and teeth, to the lovable street urchin Gavroche, who becomes a symbol of the uprising. Hugo has a masterly understanding of the power of intimate, everyday details and situations placed within the grand setting of the novel. The cumulative emotional effect of the book is overwhelming, proving Hugo's stature as a peerless storyteller.
Les Misérables was written to highlight the plight of those who, often without justice, find themselves at the very bottom of the social order. As Norman Denny, translator of this edition, puts it, ‘Hugo’s misérables are not merely the poor and wretched, they are the outcasts, the underdogs, the rejected of society and the rebels against society.’
The political message of Les Misérables was unwelcome in some quarters. Narcisco Gay, a contemporary critic of the Royal Academy of Barcelona, called it ‘a tremendous, defamatory libel against society’. But its rapturous public reception told another story. The critic Sainte-Beuve wrote that Hugo had ‘snatched the greatest popularity of our time under the nose of the very government that exiled him. His books go everywhere: the women, the common people, all read him. Editions go out of print between eight in the morning and noon.’
Delivery of limited editions may take longer than standard editions. Please contact us for more information.
The son of an officer in Napoleon’s army, Hugo spent his childhood attached to various garrisons, in Italy, Spain and France. He became well known for his verse and plays, and his first novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, was published in 1831. Having rejected the Bonapartist loyalties of his family, Hugo began to espouse liberal ideals, and he supported the founding of the Second Republic in 1848. Following the establishment of the Second Empire in 1851, he openly criticised Napoleon III and was forced to leave France.
He lived in exile on Guernsey for fourteen years, and it was there that he completed Les Misérables. In 1870, following France’s capitulation in the Franco-Prussian War, Hugo returned to France to a hero’s welcome, showing how much the famed writer and his greatest novel had touched the hearts of his compatriots. He died aged 83 and is buried in the Panthéon in Paris, the final resting place of France’s greatest artists and thinkers.
Norman Denny was commissioned to translate Les Misérables for The Folio Society in 1976. His wonderfully lively and expressive text is now the accepted English–language version of the novel. This limited edition is illustrated with engravings from original 19th-century editions. These include drawings by de Neuville, Morin, Volnay and the great Emile Bayard, whose famous representation of Cosette and her broom has become the iconic image of the novel in the popular imagination.
‘The Divine Stenographer’, a fascinating essay on Les Misérables by the great Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, is included as a companion essay to this edition. Vargas Llosa highlights the ingenious nature of Hugo’s narrative voice, and how, in his words, ‘We dance to his tune, becoming, by turns, sad or happy, depressed or excited, plotters or rebels.’ As an outspoken critic of political corruption and authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Vargas Llosa’s political convictions and his literary gifts offer a fascinating personal insight into Hugo’s masterpiece.
Jeff Clements has designed the bindings for a number of previous Folio limited editions, including Boccaccio’s Decameron and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For Les Misérables, ‘The design grew out of the novel, its grimness and in particular the people as a massed group’. The red, white and blue of the French tricolore flag is used as the basis for the colour scheme. The central design with its crossed golden bars reflects Valjean's business and political success as mayor, and most poignantly, his prison cell and the lines of the barricade.
Review by Raikoh_911 on 21st Jun 2012
"This was the first limited edition folio society book I have bought so I wasn't sure how much better this book would be than any of the standard edition books on the site. First impressions were good..." [read more]