Still from the 1939 movie adaptation.
Disney lied to us.
Let me specify.
You probably guessed that Victor Hugo’s novel does not have dancing gargoyles or Wizard of Oz references, but it goes much deeper than that. In fact, we can trace its primary misdirection back to whoever first decided on the English translation of the title of the book: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. This implies that the main character of the story is Quasimodo, the misformed outcast with a heart of gold who longs to spend oooone daaay ooouuut theeeeere. However, Hugo’s original French title is much more accurate: Notre-Dame de Paris. The focus of the novel is on its setting rather than its protagonists – we follow a cast of characters, but in the end, all roads lead to the cathedral.
“La Miseria” (1886) by Cristobal Rojas.
Remember how Victorians thought tuberculosis was the ultimate Romantic disease?
In the 1800s, TB (or “consumption” as it was known then) was considered to be a desirable way to die because it was the sign of a delicate, sophisticated soul. Looking like a TB patient even became the height of Victorian fashion; women would paint little veins on the side of their face and drink vinegar in an attempt to bleach their skin and become as pale as possible (as immortalised in this Horrible Histories sketch). In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that our current obsession with skinny models is a trend rooted in this consumption craze.
TB was a particularly popular way to kill off characters in nineteenth-century literature. Authors delighted in glorified descriptions of trembling men and women with gigantic dark eyes who had somehow become wiser and even saint-like through their condition (usually glossing over the less attractive aspects like the excruciating pain and the smell).
A tribute to two of my favourite art forms: literature and musical theatre! If you’ve ever watched Les Mis and found yourself thinking, “you know what this needs? A monologue on the history of the Parisian sewer system”, this is the list for you.