Place in the narrative
The winding streets no longer remain where the Friends of A B C built their barricade on the 5th of June 1832. The Corinthe Tavern, where the workmen members of the Friends met prior to the insurrection, happens to be where they decide to base themselves during the uprising, as they pass by it on the funeral route of General Lamarque (the people’s man). Students and workmen come together to disrupt the funeral of General Lamarque, and join many other secret societies across Paris, in rebelling against the Royalists by building barricades across the city. They build a wall out of all sorts of odd bits and make a stand by fighting the National Guard, who represent the Royalists. Secret societies are fighting for freedom for the ordinary man.
It is the setting for the climax of the action in the book. The barricades are a physical explanation of the internal struggle of the protagonists.
‘Persons who wish to picture to themselves in a tolerably exact manner the constitution of the houses which stood at that epoch near the Pointe Saint-Eustache, at the northeast angle of the Halles of Paris, where today lies the embouchure of the Rue Rambuteau, have only to imagine an N touching the Rue Saint-Denis with its summit and the Halles with its base, and whose two vertical bars should form the Rue de la Grande-Truanderie, and the Rue de la Chanvrerie, and whose transverse bar should be formed by the Rue de la Petite-Trunanderie. The old Rue Mondetour cut the three strokes of the N at the most crooked angles. So that the labyrinthine confusion of these four streets sufficed to form, on a space three fatehoms square, between the Halles and the Rue Saint-Denis in the one hand, and between the Rue du Cygne and the Rue des Precheurs on the other, seven islands of houses, oddly cut up, of varying sizes, placed crosswise and hap-hazard, and barely separated, like the blocks of stone in a dock, by narrow crannies.’
‘Nothing of this is in existence now. The Mondetour labyrinth was disembowelled and widely opened in 1847, and probably no longer exists at the present moment. The Rue de la Chanvrerie and Corinthe have disappeared beneath the pavement of the Rue Rambuteau.’
‘Then, the barricades having been built, the posts assigned, the guns loaded, the sentinels stationed, they waited, alone in those redoubtable streets through which no one passed any longer, surrounded by those dumb houses which seemed dead and in which no human movement palpitated, enveloped in the deepening shades of twilight which was drawing on, in the midst of that silence through which something could be felt advancing, and which had about it something tragic and terrifying, isolated, armed, determined, and tranquil.’
'The street and the barricade remained sunk in gloom, and nothing was to be seen except the red flag formidably illuminated as by an enormous dark-lantern.’
‘The rue Saint-Denis was as dumb as the avenue of Sphinxes at Thebes. Not a living being in the cross-roads, which gleamed white in the light of the sun. Nothing is so mournful as this light in deserted streets.’
What I wrote in Paris
It was really quite a challenge to imagine everything that Hugo wrote happening in this location at the moment. They are in the process of rebuilding a huge shopping hall, Les Halles, in the square just parallel to the Rue Rambeuteau where it is said it was placed. Hugo himself says that even before he had died, the area had changed beyond all recognition and I’m sure it has changed even more now! Rue Rambeuteau, as I said, runs parallel to this ‘canope’ shopping centre they are building and seems to be a short cut for shoppers to walk down. There is history of the area on the wall but no mention of the insurrection which is bizarre. The Rue Mondetour comes off the Rue Rambeuteau and makes a sort of corner but not what I expected. However, there are lots of scaffolding around that means that now more now than ever would be again the time to build another barricade! St Eustache, the church at the end of the road looks like the only relic that might have been there when the insurrection took place. However, down from there, the streets become more mudddled and small and narrow and you could imagine the barricade being built here more than around the corner. Obviously Hugo was bringing himself back to life his bit of town by writing as it seems to have been demolished and not at all like it was when all the action took place since 1843. Interesting to see the change though!
It was really challenging to imagine all the action Hugo wrote happening at the present moment in the location where he set it. This is where all that happens in the book is brought to a head in the winding streets of Saint Denis. However, in April 2014, they are in the process of the rebuilding a shopping centre in the shape of a canopy. I doubt this is what the people who fought on the barricade were fighting for – a great monument to commercialism. This square, as we were told by temporary plaques to hide the building site, has always been the site to various markets through history. However, there is no mention of the area being part of the history that Hugo brings to light in Les Miserables. Hugo himself tells his readers that the road that was once the Rue Chanvererie has disappeared ‘beneath the pavement of the Rue Rambeuteau.’ I doubt many of the shoppers who pass over it, realise how much history is beneath their feet as they walk down it on their way to shop. This is what it seems to have become – a passage for shoppers to connect them with Les Halles and St Denis and the tourist trap of the Pompidou Centre, Various internet sources say that the barricade was built in the intersecting parts of Rue Rambeutaeu and Rue Mondetour. This corner shows nothing of its past however the street signs are covered with graffiti which shows there is still a strong presence of youth in the area. On the corner where the barricade was built there is a shop in the process of being ‘done up’ which means it is covered in scaffolding that would make building a barricade not impossible today. At the end of the Rue Rambeuteau, is a church called St Eustache which one of the monuments of the time that still survives today. Down a couple of flights of stairs is an area which to me evokes more of the atmosphere of where I would expect students to build a barricade. The streets are more labyrinthine and narrow and have the feeling of the Old Paris Hugo was writing about. Even when Hugo is writing about the area where the barricade is he says it had disappeared even when he was writing the book on Jersey before 1860 when it was published. But I think he was parting re-living the streets himself as he wrote the book as they were no longer there, which is a theme you find throughout the book – his nostalgia for the Old Paris now long gone. It was fascinating to imagine what Hugo wrote about and compare it to what is here today. This was one of the most important places to visit to try and imagine myself in the midst of action Hugo describes so brilliantly.