Your Ancestors Could Have Met Jean Valjean

I’m currently on a French literature binge. Having recently finished The Count of Monte Cristo, I started Les Misérables a few weeks ago. While both these stories are worth reading (and re-reading), they’re both very long. I read an abridged version of Les Misérables in high school without realizing it was abridged. Who would expect the abridged version to be 500 pages?

And that’s less than half the full book. That Victor Hugo is a rambler.

Reading the two books back to back has taught me quite a bit about France in the nineteenth century, most of which I didn’t know, or had forgotten.

The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille, the medieval prison in Paris, on July 14, 1789. This day was followed by the years known as the Reign of Terror.

This part I was familiar with. The guillotine, the mass genocide, and the execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are dramatic and bloody.

But I wasn’t as familiar with the period after this, which was rocky for France as well.


By 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte had taken over and declared himself the Emperor—so much for democracy. His reign lasted ten years. In 1814, he was exiled to the Island of Elba, but escaped a year later to make a final attempt at power. He lost the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, at which point King Louis XVIII permanently resumed the throne.

Please excuse the history lesson. All this interested me because The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Misérables both take place in the years after the king has regained the throne. Even though the monarch isn’t going anywhere, France is still reeling from the political upheaval of the last thirty years, elements which play heavily into the plots of both novels.

This similar time frame interested me so much that I decided to investigate the book timelines more closely. If the fiction world existed, both Jean Valjean and Edmond Dantès would be living out their adventures at the same time. I found this amusing, so I included a few other books in my research as well. Here’s how that timeline would look, if these fictional heroes walked in our world:

In 1769, Jean Valjean of Les Misérables is born. While he is a child, the American colonists are fighting for freedom in the 1770s.

Somewhere around 1780, Mr. Darnay and Lucie Manette of A Tale of Two Cities give birth to their daughter.

guillotine3 Benjamin Franklin dies in 1790. Two years later, during the Reign of Terror, Mr. Darnay comes to France to free a faithful servant. He is imprisoned himself. While he is in prison, Sir Percy Blakeney of The Scarlet Pimpernel is secretly smuggling French nobility out of the city to escape the guillotine. Apparently, he misses Mr. Darnay.

In 1795, Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to keep his sister’s children from starving, and goes to prison for it. A year later, in 1796, Edmond Dantès of The Count of Monte Cristo is born.

Over in America, George Washington dies in 1799. By this time, Darnay and Lucie’s daughter is probably married, and Lucie has grown old.

When Abraham Lincoln is a two-year-old toddler, in 1811, Miss Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice meets Mr. Darcy. They are married in 1812, while their county is at war with the Americans.

Jean_ValjeanThree years later, Jean Valjean has just been released from 19 years’ worth of prison, and has his fateful encounter with the Bishop Myriel. Meanwhile, Edmond Dantès is sailing into port as a young 19-year-old, ready to become a ship’s captain and the husband of the beautiful Mercedes.

As Jean Valjean’s good fortune rises, Edmond Dantès’ sinks. By the time Dantès emerges from prison in 1829, Jean Valjean and Cosette are safely tucked away at a convent in Paris, and young Marius Pontmercy is learning to become revolutionary.

In 1832, Marius helps with the short-lived revolution in Paris, Jean Valjean saves him from death, and dies himself. Dantès, meanwhile, is biding his time before he takes his vengeance against his enemies in 1838.

In 1845, just seven years later, Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind is born.

Of course, I could go on an on. There are so many wonderful books from the nineteenth century, and I’ve hardly touched on some of my favorite British characters. Fun to imagine, right?

Question: Who is your favorite character from these books? Why? Leave a comment!


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