Traugott on Jeanne, ed. Bouchet (2010)


Jeanne, Charles. À cinq heures nous serons tous morts! Sur la barricade Saint-Merry, 5-6 juin 1832. Présenté et commenté par Thomas Bouchet. Paris: Vendémiaire Éditions, 2010. Pp. 217. ISBN: 978-2-36358-018-4.

Mark Traugott, University of California at Santa Cruz

The failed Paris insurrection of June 5-6, 1832 would hardly be remembered beyond the ranks of period specialists had it not served as the backdrop for Books 4 and 5 of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Literary scholars and historians continue to debate how faithfully that work of fiction (and, more recently, the stage and film versions based upon it) captured the reality of urban unrest in nineteenth-century France and whether Hugo's portrayal of the 1832 insurgents was colored by passions aroused by later political events, notably those that led to his own exile. The fascinating volume under review poses the question of how our understanding might be reshaped were we suddenly to unearth an authentic first-person account penned by the real-life individual on whom Hugo loosely based his characterization of the rebel leader, Enjolras.

Thanks to Thomas Bouchet, we now have access to the recently discovered sixty-page letter that Charles Jeanne addressed to his sister from his prison cell on Mont-Saint-Michel in December 1833. It provides a comprehensive account of those two days of struggle, from the funeral procession paying homage to General Lamarque, to the call-to-arms Jeanne then issued to fellow members of the militant Société Gauloise, through the desperate last stand insurgents mounted at the barricade in the rue Saint-Martin. There, virtually in the shadow of the Église Saint-Merry, some 120 insurgents fought, very nearly to the last man, in a cause rendered hopeless by the lack of support from the general Parisian population.

Jeanne's account touches upon aspects of the insurrectionary dynamic familiar enough to those who study these ephemeral events. It relates how the repressive actions of the forces of order--responding, Jeanne was convinced, to the actions of agents provocateurs--caused a relatively peaceful demonstration to escalate into an armed conflict. It details the steps involved in constructing, in what seemed the twinkling of an eye, a formidable redoubt consisting of three interconnected barricades that made strategic use of adjacent buildings. It highlights how quickly and completely bonds of solidarity were forged among combatants committed to shared principles and resigned to their common fate. It retraces the crucial interactions between insurgents and the forces of order, as each side probed the other's weaknesses and sought tactical advantage and as the insurgents tried, mostly in vain, to fraternize with the troops on whose wavering loyalty their lives depended. It discerns the subtle distinctions the rebels made between soldiers of the line, whom they harbored fading hopes of winning over, as opposed to the National Guard (above all those from the city's suburbs), for whom they reserved a special hatred. It describes the reckless, last-minute charge, once their ammunition was depleted and canon had reduced their once imposing barricades to heaps of rubble, that, against all odds, allowed Jeanne and seven other survivors to break through enemy lines and avoid falling victim to the final massacre.

Jeanne's account helps us understand not just these sorts of factual details but also the subjective mindset of those who manned the June barricades. He conveys the contempt and revulsion that republicans like himself felt for Louis-Philippe, whom they reproached with having "stolen" the 1830 revolution from those who had shed their blood to free France from monarchical rule, only to see a new king installed on the throne. But we also learn that Jeanne, though a decorated hero of the July Days and a committed activist, hardly represented the views of the radical fringe of the republican movement. On the contrary, he displayed a moderation most eloquently expressed in a brief, impromptu speech in which he criticized those of his men who had raised a red flag atop the barricade in the rue Saint-Martin. In insisting that the tricolor, signifying the glory of the French nation, was the more appropriate symbol for their struggle, he neatly prefigured the argument that Lamartine would make on the square before the Hôtel de Ville on February 25, 1848. In retelling such incidents, Jeanne places in relief the range of motives and outlooks within the insurgent camp.

Point-by-point comparisons of Jeanne's and Hugo's versions of events can be instructive. The fictional barricade in the rue de la Chanvrerie owes a considerable debt to the actual ones that Jeanne oversaw. Hugo chose a different site, but one within earshot of the Cloître Sant-Merry, so that the constant tolling of its tocsin provides the soundscape for his narrative. It many ways, the characters and incidents that enliven his novel appear to have been lifted from the pages of Jeanne's letter. Consider the principal protagonists. Jeanne identifies three law students and a polytechnicien, leaving the university contingent somewhat sparsely represented relative to the band of insurgents that Hugo imagined. Rather over-represented in Jeanne's narrative, on the contrary, were youths, fourteen to sixteen years of age. He tells us that more than a dozen (one of them his own cousin) rejected his repeated pleas that they withdraw to safety and instead volunteered for the dangerous mission of conducting reconnaissance of enemy positions. One redhead, younger still, whom Jeanne calls "le petit rouge," stands out among them for his unmistakable resemblance to Gavroche. Meanwhile, the fictional Mabeuf is something of an amalgam of two of Jeanne's comrades-in-arms: the first a flag bearer, more than sixty years old, killed by a bullet to the forehead; the second an old soldier, veteran of Napoléon's armies, whom Jeanne refers to as "mon inséparable" because he never strayed far from his commander's side. And the reader inevitably thinks, upon reading Jeanne's remarks on the presence of police spies in the ranks of the insurgents, of the incident in Les Misérables in which Le Cabuc is summarily executed by Enjolras after killing a non-combatant. Jeanne, in fact, tells how he managed to unmask the lies of just such a traitor and had him confined in a nearby cellar awaiting a lull in the fighting that might give the insurgents the opportunity to judge him. As it happened, no real break in the action occurred on June 6, causing this individual to be forgotten, so that he, like the fictional Javert, can be presumed to have survived the battle.

These correspondences raise the obvious question as to Hugo's familiarity with Jeanne's version of events. It seems all but certain that this letter was unknown to the author of Les Misérables, since it had never previously been published and came to light only in 2010 when it was entrusted to Bouchet by a generous colleague who had acquired it from a private seller. There can, however, be no doubt about Hugo's awareness of Jeanne's key role, since the latter is mentioned by name three times in the novel. There were several ways that Hugo might have become aware of Jeanne's story by the time he began work on the earliest draft of the novel in the mid-1840s. One was the transcript of Jeanne's interrogation and testimony at his trial. But since Hugo, despite claiming a broad familiarity with the official documents of the period, made no specific allusion to the judicial records, a more likely source was the account of the October trial of twenty-two insurgents put out by the publisher Rouanet late in 1832 in which Jeanne was the dominant figure. An alternative source might have been coverage of the trial by the Moniteur universel as well as the commentary, poems and other tributes that appeared in the leftist and working-class press. But it seems unlikely that Hugo was then closely following the events, as he was still a monarchist and remained a supporter of Louis-Philippe (who had elevated him to a peerage) even in 1842, as he began work on what would become his masterpiece.

We know that in the 1840s Hugo read a number of these earlier sources, including the much shorter, earlier letter by Jeanne published anonymously in December 1832 as an appendix to a novelistic treatment of the June insurrection by Marius Rey-Dussueil, an editor at La Tribune. And we can be certain, not only from his notes but also from certain incongruities, that Hugo relied on secondary sources like Louis Blanc's 1841 Histoire de dix ans. The quote from which Bouchet has drawn the title of his book provides a case in point. Jeanne's letter gives this rendering of his dramatic response to his men's pleas for bread: "Bread! . . . It's four o'clock . . . At five we'll all be dead!!. . ." Les Misérables sets both times one hour earlier, a discrepancy copied directly from Blanc, indicating that Blanc and not Jeanne was Hugo's source.

The history of insurrectionary episodes, most of which fail, is generally written by the victors or sometimes based upon the court records of subsequent trials at which the rebels have the strongest of incentives to deny or distort their true role. Authentic, first-person accounts by actual participants are rare documents, usually written long after the fact when memories have dimmed and the author's understanding of what transpired has been influenced by both the personal and political events that have intervened. Jeanne, who consistently--even proudly--acknowledged his central role in the events in question, has provided us with the perspective of an insider who directed much of the action. Of course, his text cannot be taken at face value but must be examined, as with any other historical source, in light of his motives and intentions. For example, though addressed to his sister, his letter has a self-justificatory tone that clearly suggests it was intended for a broader audience. Its timing happened to correspond to a moment when Jeanne's standing among the imprisoned survivors of the 1832 insurrection was under attack and he had been accused of cowardice and the misappropriation of funds intended for the group of convicted insurgents as a whole.

These and other nuances are very skillfully drawn out in the supplemental material in which Bouchet undertakes the invaluable work of contextualizing Jeanne's account. The letter itself is preceded by an analytic introduction that provides a framework allowing even those unfamiliar with the 1832 insurrection to grasp the document's significance, and is followed by two additional chapters that synthesize relevant historical and literary research. The first relates Jeanne's personal experience to what historians know about barricade combat and those who fought and died in the revolutionary struggles of the long nineteenth century. It also provides a concrete sense of the sights and sounds in which those insurgents were immersed and the concrete activities in which they took part. The second examines how the insurrectionary experience came to be translated into the historical and literary sources to which we owe our knowledge of such events, including the contributions of both Jeanne and Hugo to that tradition.

The book includes a series of extremely useful appendices presenting sample entries from Jeanne's letter and the records of his trial; portraits and texts dedicated in his honor; representations of the fighting; maps of the combat site; an intelligently-organized chronology of events; and a discussion of sources. All of this adds immeasurably to the appeal of the volume even for the reader whose interest, perhaps sparked by Hugo's novel, is mainly in an enthralling story told with passion by a key participant. For those who study urban insurrection, a phenomenon normally resistant to inquiry, the combination of primary text and grounded secondary analysis make this slim volume a treasured resource. À cinq heures is a remarkable document that provides a revealing view of what it meant to take a stand behind a revolutionary barricade in nineteenth-century France.