I knew I would cry when I saw the film version of Les Miserables. I wept at the play when I saw it in London. I cry half the time I listen to the soundtrack.
What I didn’t expect was to be moved beyond the sad stories of Fantine and Eponine and Jean Valjean. I didn’t expect for Victor Hugo’s theme to hit home.
Sometimes I think classic literature is wasted on the young. I’m a former high school English teacher, so I have led many young students through the perils of Shakespeare, Dickens, and their kin. I read the same books when I was in school, and what I found was that I appreciated and understood them so much better when I read them as an adult.
This is the way it was for Les Miserables as well. I read it in high school or as an undergrad in college, and I didn’t get it. I mean, I got it enough to write an essay about it. I got an A too, but I might owe that more to my writing ability than my insights. To me, the book was about a guy imprisoned for no good reason and the cop who seems to have nothing better to do than harass him.
But after I saw the movie a few weeks ago, I re-read the book, and I saw Hugo’s novel differently. It wasn’t a story about a convict. It was a story about revolution. Not the student revolution because those guys have it all wrong. The revolution was one of kindness and love. What really made a difference in the life of Jean Valjean, and subsequently Cosette and Marius and even Eponine, was the kindness shown to Valjean by that bishop. One man’s magnanimous gesture inspired another man to do the same for others.
I wish I had understood that as a young adult. I understand it now, and I often write about the poor and miserable (as much as one really can in a romance novel). In my forthcoming If You Give a Rake a Ruby, the heroine is from the slums of London and she would have had a life very much like the poor wretched souls on the streets of Hugo’s Paris.
Were there any novels you read as a young adult that you re-read later and experienced differently? Do you think forcing high school kids to read the classics turns them off to reading in general?