The Library of Virginia
Les Miserables

Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Les Miserables. (The Wretched.) A Novel. Richmond: West and Johnston, 1863-1864.

First published in France in 1862, Victor Hugo's famed novel, Les Miserables, attracted considerable attention throughout the Confederacy and eventually proved to be the most famous foreign title published during the war. The prolific Richmond firm of West and Johnston published an English translation in five parts over a two-year period. The book's publication in so many distinct parts met several needs: besides conforming to the work's logical divisions and also practically guaranteeing continuing and multiple sales, the phased schedule reduced the amount of paper, ink, and binding materials required at any one time--yet leaving the danger of supplies drying up altogether.

The "new translation, revised," quickly proved to be widely popular and also gave rise to a marvelous bit of dark humor applicable to the times and the particular spirit of the title. Supposedly, so the widespread story went, a woman in the summer of 1863 entered the Richmond bookshop of West and Johnston in search of "a copy of that book about Gen. Lee's poor miserable soldiers faintin'." The befuddled clerk, after struggling a bit to discern what she might mean, cautiously asked if she was, in fact, looking for a copy of Les Miserable: Fantine, the title of the novel's first part. No doubt flustered, she insisted that something so odd could not possibly be the book in question, refused to buy it, and left the shop.