The Convention is usually represented as a heartless government that, incapable of steering the new nation to peace, ushered in the Terror and committed unspeakable acts of evil against legions of hapless, innocent people. Victor Hugo’s novels—Les Misérables and Quatrevingt-treize—hover anxiously around the Terror and the Convention and seek to understand what went wrong in 1793. In an essay under way, I aim to show how a forgotten episode of Les Misérables (Msgr Bienvenu and the Conventionnel) holds the key to the redemption story not only of Jean Valjean, but also of the French people. This chapter is virtually invisible today, due to its omission from the stage play, the cinematic adaptations, and all abridged versions in French and English that are used for teaching. Yet it is crucial to understanding Hugo’s project. By showing Bishop Bienvenu embracing the Conventionalist G— and asking for his blessing, Hugo reveals the bishop’s respect for his erstwhile enemy and underscores their shared humanity and sense of awe in front of the Infinite. Does Bishop Bienvenu receive the conventionalist’s blessing in the split second before G— dies ? Can Hugo’s writing help heal the wounds of the Terror ?
On this day, 219 years after Thermidor,* let us consider the quotes below as food for thought.
« Si, la Révolution finie, nous avons encore des malheureux parmi nous, nos travaux révolutionnaires auront été vains. »
If, when the Revolution ends, there are still miserable people amongst us, our revolutionary efforts will have been in vain.
— Barère, 23 messidor An II (July 1794)
« Tant qu’il y aura sur la terre ignorance et misère, des livres de la nature de celui-ci pourront ne pas être inutiles. »
So long as ignorance and wretchedness exist on the earth, books like this cannot be useless.
–Hugo, 1862. Preface to Les Misérables
*Thermidor designates the two days—July 27 and 28, 1794—when the reign of Terror came to an end with the execution of Robespierre and 200 or so of his « confederates ».