Among the many remarkable facts about Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is that its title has never been translated into English. Who are these wretched creatures that they should have remained so unshakably French throughout the century and a half that has elapsed since the work first appeared in English? In The Novel of the Century, David Bellos explains that Hugo’s working title for the book was ‘Les Misères’, conveying an idea of ‘all the woes of the world’. Only in the final phase of composition did it become Les Misérables, a much more ambiguous term embracing both pity and contempt and encapsulating a contemporary view of the poor and downtrodden which the writer was determined to challenge. ‘The outcast’, ‘the wretched’, ‘the humiliated’, ‘the oppressed’? None of these renders Hugo’s meaning broadly enough, so Les Misérables the title remains, whether of the novel itself or of its incarnation as a musical that has broken box-office records worldwide.
If not crushed by his own misery when landing on the island of Guernsey in 1855, Hugo was certainly outcast and oppressed. Not the least of the forces driving him to complete Les Misérables, begun nearly a decade earlier, was the bitterness of exile. As with many a