Saturday, 21 February 2009

Les Miserables

The picture of crime and punishment in post-Napoleonic France in "Les Miserables" is a grim one. Jean Valjean has, at the outset, just been released from nineteen years in prison with hard labour having initially been convicted for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his starving sister and her child. I do not know if Hugo was exaggerating about conditions in the period- which concerns his own lifetime but I found myself recalling visits to the former abbey of Fontevraud. The abbey church held the tombs of some of our Plantagenet kings including Henry II and Richard I. Their effigies remain - their bones having been scattered at the French Revolution when the government had ordered the evacuation of all monasteries. From 1804 until 1963 the abbey served as a prison. The pattern of events seemed very similar to that described in Cobbett's "History of the Reformation in England and Ireland" where the dissolution of the monasteries resulted in poverty and criminality which in turn led to the Elizabethan Poor Laws which are the background to much of Dickens as well as the eighteenth century enthusiasm for capital punisment and transportation to the colonies.

I think it was Chesterton who declared that the Reformation was a revolution in which the rich had revolted against the poor and he was clearly correct but the same seems true in other cases, as in the French Revolution, where the Church was attacked. It is, of course, the well-heeled who make revolutions even if they are carried out in the name of "the people". Some two hundred nuns were expelled from Fontevraud, the last abbess dying in poverty in Paris, but I don't suppose they counted. They were not "the people".

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