But Which Revolution Was It?: A Crash Course on the History of Les Mis

Last week, a friend of mine told me about how confused she was about the references to revolution in the movie Les Misérables. Wasn’t there just one French Revolution, and didn’t it take place during the eighteenth century? And how did Napoleon Bonaparte fit into all of this? Then I realized that other people might be confused, too, so here’s a basic summary of what occurred during the time period.

The revolutions shown in Les Mis are the 1830s revolutions, which took place during the reign of Louis Philippe I. Louis Philippe was the son of Philippe Égalité, ci-devant Duc d’Orléans, who was an ardent supporter of the Jacobins during the Revolution but who was guillotined during the Terror.

Detail from the painting Portrait of Louis-Philippe, King of the French by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
Louis Philippe I of France. Image via Wikipedia.

Fast forward to the end of Napoleon’s reign in 1815. Louis XVI’s younger brothers each ruled until 1830, when Louis Philippe – who was descended from Louis , XIV’s brother, Philippe, Duc d’Orléans – became king after Charles X abdicated. His monarchy – the July monarchy – was overthrown in 1848. It’s after this that Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became president of the ensuing republic, and in 1851 overthrew that government and became Napoleon III, Emperor of the Second French Empire, which lasted until fall of 1870. Louis-Napoleon was the son of Napoleon’s brother Louis and Josephine’s daughter Hortense and was, at one point, one of the heirs to Napoleon Bonaparte’s throne. Since his two brothers and Napoleon’s son by Marie Louise of Austria were all dead, Louis-Napoleon was, technically, the heir to his uncle’s throne, so it’s only natural that he would reestablish his uncle’s empire and basically go on like the Bourbon Restoration had never happened.

Painting: Napoleón III by Alexandre Cabanel
Louis-Napoleon, or Emperor Napoleon III. Image via Wikipedia.

All of this information has come from years of reading, but I did check the dates on Wikipedia to make sure that everything was correct.

4 replies on “But Which Revolution Was It?: A Crash Course on the History of Les Mis”

Of course, one would already know this if one had bothered to read the original novel — or as it is known in fandom: the Brick (no extra points for guessing why). ;p

No offense, though — it took quite a while and quite a bit of research before I understood the references myself. Plus I first heard the musical when I was very young, which didn’t help much (practically everything went over my head). However, I did manage to get my hands on a *heavily* abridged version of the Brick, which excised all of Hugo’s extremely long tangents on various historical and cultural subjects.

As far as I know, there were two revolutions: the July 1830 revolution, which was much more fortuitous than its successor, the June 1832 “revolution”, which was heavily outnumbered and brutally suppressed. The latter was the one in which Les Amis took part in (and were subsequently killed in); though TBH they actually participated in both.

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