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Today is a bit of an unusual day because I wanted to offer a muse that is actually…a man! Nineteenth century women writers often wrote about how the history of women in literature was one skewed so horribly it could not be believed for, no woman had herself written her own story. The stories of women had come from a man’s pen; a male viewpoint that either diminished the female to an object or elevated her to a unattainable goddess-like figure that no woman could, in real life, stand up against.  Women writers wanted a feminine perspective. What were women doing throughout history, or, often, what were women prevented from doing?

Victor Hugo, probably most famous for his novel Les Miserables, is, through no fault of his own, a male writer. However, though he wrote in a time where women did not have many rights, and rarely were able to speak for themselves, he points to an exceptional power women possessed simply by being innately feminine.

In 1862, when Les Miserables was written, women definitely were not allowed to have occupations. They could not vote, were rarely educated unless they were from the aristocracy, and, even then, were trained mainly in the arts. Their place was considered to be in the home as a wife and mother–a place modern society has spent centuries trying to expand. Yet, despite this very small world that women occupied, Victor Hugo has many interesting things to say about their power. He writes that “nobody knows like a woman how to say things that are both sweet and profound. Sweetness and depth, this is all of woman; this is Heaven.” If a woman was capable of all that with no rights, how much more should we be able to do with unlimited ones?

In 2012, mention a woman who desires to be the helpmate and support of one man, to lead a family instead of a corporation, or fill a house with her hours of devotion instead of an office and you will probably meet a frown, a nose-crinkle, or a remark about trying to “do more.” Victor Hugo seemed to believe that was quite alot though. In fact, in Les Miserables, the feminine power to love, to care for, and to be devoted to someone is showcased as one of the only pure things in all of 1862’s mire of political instability, war, poverty, and filth. Hugo writes that this power is “one of the most strangely exquisite forms of happiness. To have continually at your side a woman, a girl, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her, and because she cannot do without you, to know you are indispensable to someone necessary to you, to be able at all times to measure her affection by the degree of the presence that she gives you, and to say to yourself: She dedicates all her time to me, because I possess her whole love; to see the thought if not the face; to be sure of the fidelity of one being in a total eclipse of the world…few joys can equal that. The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves–say rather, loved in spite of ourselves; the conviction the blind have. In their calamity, to be served is to be caressed. Are they deprived of anything? No. Light is not lost where love enters. And what a love! A love wholly founded in purity. There is no blindness where there is certainty.”

Too often though, it seems that women believe to have their modern rights they must secede their traditional, innate power. I don’t think Victor Hugo would see it that way. Regardless of how large you have chosen your world to be, the female power “to say things that are both sweet and profound” is just as, if not more, powerful now than in 1862.

Vogue did this beautiful photo-spread of Les Miserables in anticipation of the upcoming film version and I had to share since I was writing about Mr. Hugo. 

Despite my personal dislike of Anne Hathaway, I most likely will be seeing this movie. If only because I was, and always will be, an English major and I have adopted it as my duty to ensure that classic novels are well adapted into film versions.

Hopefully Hugo’s view on feminine power isn’t lost in translation, and hopefully we haven’t forgotten it either.

source: Hugo, Les Miserables, Ballantine Books, 1982

– ❤ A. 

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