No room at the inn — in the 19th Century

The other day, I glanced at my bookshelf and my eyes fell on Les Miserables, a book I had planned to read two dozen years ago.

Jan 10, 2020

By Anil Netto
The other day, I glanced at my bookshelf and my eyes fell on Les Miserables, a book I had planned to read two dozen years ago.

I blew the dust off the book, sneezed repeatedly, and slowly turned the pages. I had seen the musical in 2012 in the cinema, but here was the novel by Victor Hugo, one of the greatest literary works ever written.

Hugo divided his work, set in the first half of 19th Century France, into five volumes, 48 books and 365 chapters, making it one of the longest manuscripts ever written – 655,478 words in all.

What I had with me was the “abridged version” by Paul Benichou – a 520-page book!

The opening chapters are riveting enough.

The story begins in 1815 with two main characters, the saintly Bishop Myriel of Digne, around 75, and a former peasantconvict Jean Valjean, released from 19 long years in jail.

Valjean had initially been sentenced to five years – for stealing a loaf of bread. But his jail term was extended repeatedly after he made four daring escape attempts.

When he is finally released, he enters the little town of Digne, weary, hungry and dishevelled, with just a haversack on his back. He tries to find food and lodging at the inn in town – he has money to pay from his savings from hard labour.

But the innkeeper, who initially welcomes him, turns him away once he finds out the newcomer is a former convict.

Furious, Valjean walks on and even shakes his fist at the church as he passes by  the cathedral square. Cold and hungry, he finally rests on a stone bench.

But an old woman spots him and urges him to try knocking on the bishop’s door.

Valjean takes up the suggestion.

“Come in!” answered the bishop. The bishop’s sister and the house-helper are alarmed and tremble at the sight of the hideous and fierce-looking stranger.

But Bishop Myriel remains calm and tranquil. He welcomes the scruffy stranger warmly for supper and invites him to spend the night at his place. “You need not tell me who you are. This is not my house; it is the house of Christ. It does not ask any newcomer whether he has a name, but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering; you are hungry and thirsty; be welcome… What need have I to know your name? Besides, before you told me, I knew it.”

Valjean looks astonished. “Really, you knew my name?”

“Yes, your name is My Brother.”

The bishop then requests the house-helper to make the frugal meal even grander by adding three more expensive silver plates to add to the three already laid on the table.

After all had gone asleep that night, Valjean wakes up at 2.00am and reflects on his hard life. 

Born into a peasant family, he was raised by his elder sister after both their parents died when he was young. Life was tough and food was scarce. Later, it was his turn to take care of his sister when she became a widow with seven young children to feed. Valjean worked hard as a labourer, his sister too when she could. But often there was no bread for the family. One night in 1795, Valjean yielded to temptation and stole a loaf of bread from the baker. He was caught, convicted and jailed. Who would take care of his sister and her seven children now?

Sure, Valjean knows he was guilty; he could have just asked the baker for a loaf – but as he (and Hugo) reflects, isn’t society also to blame when a worker is unable to find work or to earn enough to put food on the table for the family? Does stealing a loaf of bread to feed a family warrant such a lengthy jail term? Does society have the right to crush a person’s life with pitiless care – especially those who are victims of a lopsided distribution of wealth and who deserve more compassion?

But once again, Valjean falls into temptation. This time he steals the good bishop’s silverware and dashes out with it into the night.

When the women in the bishop’s house later discover the silver is missing, they are aghast: “The abominable fellow! He has stolen our silver!” The bishop looks serious. “Now first, did the silver belong to us?”

The house-helper Magloire remains silent.

The bishop continues with words so profound: “I have a long time wrongfully withheld this silver. It belonged to the poor. Who was this man (Valjean)? A poor man evidently.”

The bishop would eat from wooden plates from now on.

Soon, the police manage to catch Valjean, but he tells them the bishop had given him the silverware.

Naturally, the police don’t believe him and haul him back to the bishop.

The bishop stuns Valjean, by playing along in front of the cops. “Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates? ...Before you go away, here are your candlesticks; take them.”

The bishop then whispers to Valjean: “Forget not, never forget, that you have promised me to use that silver to become an honest man.”

Those unexpected non-judgemental words of great compassion move Valjean deeply. His life will be forever changed.

And that’s just from the opening chapters of this novel, which serves also as social and philosophical commentary that is just as relevant today.

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