What Authors did in Days of Yore – review of a Victor Hugo Exhibition


In conjunction with the play being on in Melbourne, Australia, the Victorian State Library is holding an exhibition of related material. My mother, my daughter, and I took ourselves along one day. We saw lithographs of Paris in the time the events are set, we saw the first published edition, the original musical score, were given the opportunity to dress in the stage costumes (we all declined and just watched the other people). We saw videos showing us the costumes being made and the finished products. One of the wardrobe people told us about how every actor gets ‘bespoken’ shoes made for them, because when you are on the stage, dancing and running around, for that long every night, you really need something comfortable and form fitting on your feet. In the obligatory post-exhibit shop we got the chance to buy lots of paraphernalia, a catalogue of the exhibition, and multiple versions of the story, including a very recent translation which also translates the title from ‘Les Misérables’ to ‘The Wretched’. Since my mother had originally read it in the French she dipped into that and pronounced it ‘faithful’, but declined to buy it.
But for me, the absolute highlight, the real wonder in the exhibit, was the chance of a lifetime to see Victor Hugo’s original handwritten novel.
Such minute writing. Even if it had been in English I would have struggled to read it, and some poor typesetter had to transfer it from the notebook to the printed page! And he knew, as he wrote, there would be corrections. Me, in the bad old days before I started using a word processor for the first draft – I would scribble over the old text and point to the new text on another page, or slip an extra page in, or sticky tape the corrected text over the top. Victor Hugo wrote really really tiny on the right hand side of every page, and used the left for inserts and corrections. I can’t find the words to describe how tremendous seeing that was. How magnificent to see the author at work – so to speak. I just ached to reach into the glass cover and turn a page and see more.