In a nightmarish world, where films are in some capacity actually accurate to the historical events depicted within them, Les Miserables could actually reflect how miserable it would have been to subsist within the first half of the eighteenth century in Europe. In this alternate reality, moviegoers would then be able to see that women were in a position even more unfortunate than that of their male counterpart. Even in a time period where the large majority of people within Europe were impoverished, women of any class were in a position of clear subordinance. What many film viewers would perhaps now see in the marriage of Marius and Cosette is, not an embodiment of passion and young love, but rather just a transaction: the transfer of ownership from Jean Valjean to Marius.
Although the film and the musical were both based on Victor Hugo’s novel, which was based on his experiences in this time period, for those wishing to discover who exactly was oppressed and downtrodden, both the novel and the film refer to an ambiguous mass of people who seemingly represents everyone who wasn’t wealthy. The main issue with this representation is that it equates the experiences of men and women as equally miserable. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate depiction as it discounts the impact Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the almost theatrical role that he played in the early eighteenth century which is crucial to the narrative which is the tragedy that is women’s rights in post-Napoleonic Europe.
Napoleon and the Private Sphere
Why Napoleon? While it is true that the position of females in Europe prior to the Napoleonic Empire was still one disadvantage and subservience, women were conceptualised as belonging within the private sphere with no entitlements to participation in the public sphere, Napoleon went further than many rulers under the Ancien Regime. Discarding many of the advances made within the French Revolution in regards to women’s rights, Napoleon extended the reach of the state into the private sphere, an area where the state had usually refrained from involvement. This can be seen in both France, who would have been most receptive to Napoleonic rule, and conversely in the conquered German states, who would have strongly resisted the imposition of any French ideals upon their respective societies.
Instrumental in this intrusion by the state was the variety of codified laws produced at the behest of Napoleon, culminating in the Code Napoleon which governed civil interactions. This legislation, which was adopted throughout France and the German states, had an impact on the social order that long outlasted the Napoleonic Empire. Firstly, it empowered men over women within the setting of the household and family. Domestic violence and rape that was committed by the husband was impossible to prosecute under this statutory regime.
Secondly, Napoleonic legislation greatly affected marriage and divorce law. Under the French Revolution, divorce was far more accessible to women. However, Napoleon’s personal belief in the limited role of women as mothers and wives drove much of the imposition of new laws, which limited the grounds of divorce for women to only three: criminal sentences, adultery, and physical abuse. The Penal Code also ensured that adultery was far more serious an offence for women than men. While men had no punishment, women could be imprisoned for up to two years.
The Public Sphere?
In addition to the marked impact that Napoleon had upon the position of women in both France and greater Germany in the private sphere, the Napoleonic government also restricted women in the public sphere. Due to a strong dislike for intellectualism in women who ‘meddled’ in men’s affairs, Napoleon ensured that as a result of his empire, womanhood had been redefined as excluded from the public with a strong emphasis on the domestic.
The impact of this regime was particularly severe in France and the German states which retained the Code Napoleon after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. However, it can be said that in Prussia and the other German states that didn’t adopt the Code Napoleon, that the position of women was not as limited. The Prussian General Code provided for moral equality between male and female subjects, however the authority of the husband was still maintained.
The term ‘revolution’ has two commonly understood meanings. The first and arguable more used term, at least in the field of history, refers to an uprising from below to overthrow a government system or social order. This term places emphasis on the new, on the imposition of a new government system or social order. The second term refers to revolving, which implies a return to the beginning. The French Revolution, which the Napoleonic period is conceived to round out, is held to fall in the first definition of the word. However, it can be argued that the position of women had come full circle as a result of Napoleon’s rule. Although the conditions of females were not exactly the same as those under the Ancien Regime, their overall position in Europe was still one that downtrodden and miserable, far more than their male counterparts that we see in Les Miserables.