According to Hugo, the Gorbeau Hovel was named after an attorney who was the proprietor of the house in 1770. Hugo says that opposite the house was road called the ‘Rue de la Barriere des Gobelins’ where during the Restoration ‘prisoners condemned to death re-entered Paris on the day of their execution.’ At the time when Victor Hugo wrote this book, the area of Paris in which the Gorbeau Hovel was situated, was outside the city walls. It was an ill-reputed area, having the Salpetriere (a hospital) along from it, where many people with mental or physical illnesses were kept. Hugo also mentions well-known events such as a ‘mysterious assassination called “The assassination of the Fontainebleau barrier”’ that happened on the road to Bicetre and a murder in the Rue Croulebarbe where ‘Ulbach stabbed the goat-girl of Ivry to the sound of thunder, as in the melodrama.’
‘It was an inhabited spot where there was no one; it was a desert place where there was some one; it was a boulevard of the great city, a street of Paris; more wild at night than a forest, more gloomy by day than a cemetery.’
‘…..there could be seen, at that epoch, a mean building, which, at first glance, seemed as small as a thatched hovel, and which was in reality, as large as a cathedral…Nearly the whole house was hidden. Only the door and a window could be seen.’
‘…by day it was ugly; in the evening melancholy; by night it was sinister.’
Place in the Narrative
This location is central in the narrative of Les Miserables, as all the main protagonists lodge here at some point during the story. It is probably the most important location, in terms of the sequence of events that alter the storyline and characters within the confines of one building.
The most prominent event that happens here is Thenardier’s attempt to imprison Jean Valjean in his lodging. Thenardier, at this part of the narrative is living under the pseudonym of Jondrette, and hopes to imprison Valjean to discover his true identity and give him up to the police. With the help of his gang, Patron Minette, he manages to bring him there under false pretences of giving money to his poor family for them to live on. He does this frequently at this point in the book as his source of income.
While Jean Valjean is bound in Thenardier’s room, Marius, who lodges next door, sees all that is happing and alerts the police. A further layer of emotion is added when his lost love, Cosette, appears in the room. Javert, the police officer on duty, comes to the aid of Marius, and locks up the whole of the gang. But before he can get to Valjean, he disappears out of the window. Hugo describes the room. ‘The lair thus lighted up more resembled a forge than a mouth of hell, but Jondrette, in this light, had rather the air of a demon than of a smith.’ It is a significant event in the book as we see the culmination of all the characters feelings under one roof.
What I wrote in Paris
Another site no one seems quite sure about. Hugo lists all of the monuments of the time in the book but not surprisingly these have disappeared long ago. The Avenue des Gobelins is a road he refers to so we tried there and I found a sort of hovel in the middle of the back streets between the Avenue des Gobelins and Boulevard de Hopital. The Gobelins factory is they made carpets, we discovered, but later than when the book in written. Difficult to imagine to come here to escape view but I suppose it’s less central and the streets are larger and in the small streets you can here birds singing. The houses are almost all 3 or 4 storeys from after the time that Hugo was here. (Lovely Bakery!)
This is a site that not many internet bloggers seem to know much about in terms of where the actual building was located. Hugo lists many localities of the time such as the Salpetriere (a hospital for the mentally ill and impoverished) in the book but not surprisingly these monuments disappeared long ago. The Avenue des Gobelins or the Rue de la Barriere des Gobelins is a road he refers to as being opposite to the house so we tried there as a possible location. The first thing that strikes you is how different the area is now compared to what it was then. Hugo describes it as the place where ‘…Paris disappeared.’ He describes the area saying ‘It was no longer solitude, for there were passers-by; it was not country as there were houses and streets…’ which is a way of describing suburbia he experienced then. Today, however, this is far from the truth as it is full of mainstream shops and the hustle and bustle associated outer limits of a city. Very few buildings are less than four storeys high but I found a sort of hovel in the back streets between the Avenue des Gobelins and Boulevard de Hopital. The back streets are in sharp contrast to the expansive Avenue as the Avenue feels spacious with trees lining the both sides of the street. As I wandered around the streets in the centre of the two main boulevards, I wondered whether if Hugo was writing it now, he might have written Valjean and Cosette to live in a grotty apartment block as an alternative to his one storeyed hovel. You can hear birds twittering away there too, acknowledging the fact that you are definitely far from the centre of the city. We discovered the Gobelins factory, where they made carpets on the Avenue, but later than when the book is set. Although it is difficult to imagine coming here to escape public interest, I know that when Hugo set it here it was a very different place and that now it has been changed into the modern place we see today.