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Eugène François Vidocq: Misérables Inspiration

Eugène François Vidocq

Eugène François Vidocq

“The book the reader has now before his eyes – from one end to the other; in its whole and in its details, whatever the omissions, the exceptions, or the faults – is the march from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from brutality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting point: matter; goal: the soul. Hydra at the beginning, angel at the end.”
-Les Misérables

No list of the greatest novels ever written would be complete without Pride and Prejudice, if not all of Jane Austen’s novels. However, one other novel that often joins Jane at the top of such lists, is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Set in France during the tumultuous years 1813-1840, the novel examines the complex themes of sin, grace and redemption.

It will, no doubt, come as a surprise to many that the two main characters of this novel, Jean Valjean (a convicted thief) and Inspector Javert (the officer dedicated to making him pay for his crimes) were inspired by the same person. Eugène François Vidocq, a direct contemporary of Jane Austen, was an ex-convict who became a successful businessman widely noted for his social engagement and philanthropy.  In 1828, Vidocq, already pardoned, saved one of the workers in his paper factory by lifting a heavy cart on his shoulders as Valjean does in the novel. Vidcoq, a personal friend of Victor Hugo, eventually became the head of the Sûreté Nationale, the first recorded private detective, and possibly even the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.

Eugène François VidocqEugène François Vidocq ( July 24, 1775 – May 11, 1857) was a French criminal and criminalist whose life story inspired several writers, including Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. A former crook who subsequently became the founder and first director of the crime-detection Sûreté Nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agency, Vidocq is considered to be the father of modern criminology  and of the French police department.He is also regarded as the first private detective.
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The Elephant of the Bastille

“Mr. Worthing. I must confess that I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred in a handbag, whether it have handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life which reminds one of the worst excesses of the French revolution, and I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to…”
Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde

Elephant of the Bastille

“Mr. Worthing. I must confess that I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred in a handbag, whether it have handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life which reminds one of the worst excesses of the French revolution, and I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to…”
Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde

The Elephant of the Bastille was a monument in Paris which existed between 1813 and 1846. Originally conceived in 1808 by Napoleon, the colossal statue was intended to be created out of bronze and placed in the Place de la Bastille, but only a plaster full-scale model was built. At 24 m (78 ft) in height the model itself became a recognisable construction and was immortalised by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Misérables (1862) in which it is used as a shelter by the street urchin Gavroche. It was built at the site of the Bastille and although part of the original construction remains, the elephant itself was replaced a few years after the construction of the July Column (1835-40) on the same spot.

 Elephant of the Bastille

When the Bastille fell in July 1789, there was some debate as to what should replace it, or indeed if it should remain as a monument to the past. Pierre-François Palloy secured the contract to demolish the building, with the dimension stones being reused for the construction of the Pont de la Concorde and other parts sold by Palloy as souvenirs. Most of the building was removed over the subsequent months by up to 1,000 workers. In 1792 the area was turned into the Place de la Bastille with only traces of the fortress that had once dominated the area remaining.

 Elephant of the Bastille
Prise de la Bastille, by Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Houel

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