Victor Hugo didn’t create characters like Eponine out of thin air. There were plenty of real women who battled among the barricades of Paris during the tumultuous first half of 19th century France.
In 1830, two years before the June Rebellion of 1832 highlighted in Victor Hugo’s classic novel “Les Misérables,” a Schenectady County man documented the struggle of French revolutionaries, men and women, in a letter home to his sister in November. William North Duane, the grandson of Duanesburg founder James Duane, wrote to his sister Maria — Mrs. Samuel W. Jones — providing a vivid account of the three days of fighting, using much of his narrative to herald the exploits of women. According to Duane, the women were every bit as quick as the men to grab a musket and run up the ramparts to join the fight for liberation.
The women were in the “midst of the warmest engagements and no one was more active than they were in forming the barricades,” wrote Duane. He “saw one poor woman shot,” as she “was exciting the people to make them stand to their barrier while a body of the royal guards were coming down a little street opposite to it.”
Duane believed that his family in Schenectady had been informed that he was killed in the battle, and was happy to give them the good news.
“I was present at some warm work, it’s true, [but] was merely a spectator as relates fighting although I did lend a hand in making the barricades,” wrote Duane. “I have since the late struggle been a little bit frightened, I must confess, when I reflect upon some of the risks that I ran.”
Duane’s letter was discovered by Schenectady County Historical Society trustee John Gearing, a local attorney who is working on a book, “Schenectady Genesis, Volume II.” Gearing was going over transcripts from the society’s General Letters Collection a few months ago when he came across the Duane letter.
Like Arab Spring
“I saw it and read it, and realized it was somebody who was originally from this area writing back to Schenectady with eyewitness accounts of the street demonstrations and fighting in France,” said Gearing. “It was a rather harrowing story, and it struck me as being very similar to all the Arab Spring stuff we had going on. I knew a little something about ‘Les Mis,’ and I wasn’t sure if it was the same year, but it was still a very interesting letter. ”
In Hugo’s novel and the musical touring production set to begin Tuesday at Proctors, Eponine’s death comes during the 1832 revolt, not the one Duane writes about in his 1830 letter. Still, it’s quite an interesting bit of history with a strong Schenectady connection. Unfortunately, it’s the only letter the society has from the pen of William North Duane, according to Melissa Tacke, librarian/archivist at the society’s Grems-Doolittle Library.
“We have 673 letters in our historical manuscript collection, and much of it is just random correspondence from the 19th century,” said Tacke. “Sometimes you might find a few letters back and forth between particular family members, but it’s often just an individual letter, and that’s the case with this Duane letter. It’s the only one in our collection by William North Duane.”
Tacke said she has no idea what Duane was doing in France in 1830, or how the letter got into the society’s collections.
“There is some damage, but it’s in pretty good condition,” Tacke said of the actual letter. “It’s been here for quite a while, at least 40 or 50 years, and unfortunately they weren’t necessarily keeping records of where the material that was donated came from or how it got there, so we have no real idea when we got it and who donated it to us.”
Remarkably, Duanesburg’s other prominent family from the 19th century, the Featherstonhaughs, also played a role in French revolutionary history. In 1845, George William Featherstonhaugh, the first U.S. geologist and a key individual in the creation of the Albany to Schenectady railroad, had returned to England and become appointed consul to France by the British government. In 1848 he successfully helped Louis Philippe, King of France, and his queen escape the country after yet another revolution.
— Bill Buell