Historical musicals and resistant readings, or, do we need to talk about Eponine?

Like everyone else with half an interest in history or revolution, I seem to have been at the cinema this weekend watching Les Miserables. I have to say one incentive to get there early was to join in the conversations that the virtual communities I’m part of were having, while they were still going on: yes, with high-speed broadband we can access almost anything any time we want to, but there’s still an appealing simultaneity in discussing the same new and interesting thing at the same time, which social media amplifies.

Alongside the incisive reviews of Les Miserables and historical representation that I’ve been able to read, I originally wanted to write about it from the point of view of ways to incorporate music into teaching about history on film (my department has a module called Representing the Past in Film that I teach seminars for, so this is often in the forefront of my mind). When I started trying to interpret it, on the other hand, I found I couldn’t begin making sense of it except in relation to another historical musical, the 1996 version of Evita that came out when I was at school.

Evita made a huge impression on me when I was 14, and even this far on I find that I can still remember a shocking amount of the words. I didn’t even see Les Mis or have much of an idea what went on in it until I was 28 (maybe the problem was that it wasn’t about the French Revolution, which I studied in exhaustive and enjoyable detail at A level), but in many ways I suppose it could be described as the anti-Evita: two historical epics in stage musical form, written and produced at around the same time in different European countries, but structured very differently in terms of how they present power and justice, social action, and the function of the individual in history.

The film versions of both musicals contain significant public funeral scenes. The opening of Evita segues from the funeral of Eva Perón’s father in 1926, where her father’s wife throws Eva, her mother and siblings out of the ceremony, to her own state funeral in Buenos Aires in 1952. The funeral theme, which recurs as the film’s inevitable end, is a requiem of collective mourning and grandeur, accompanying images of a well-drilled, orderly parade and leading to a musical climax. As critical as other sections of the musical can be of Eva Perón’s power (expressed through the character of Ché, an abstraction originally supposed to have been based on Ché Guevara), the requiem asks the viewer to take pleasure in power and the acquisition of it, and in the taking of revenge against those who had previously excluded you.

Les Miserables‘ funeral is the funeral in Paris of General Lamarque, the leading critic of the re-installed French monarchy. In the musical, the group of revolutionary students led by Enjolras have chosen Lamarque’s death as the signal to begin their insurrection. The funeral parade and military march in this film is disrupted, when the students jump into the crowd; the climax is not delivered, and the funeral is instead a transition to raising the barricades, where the climax of the story arcs for several characters will come. Here, the viewer is being invited to feel their emotions about a struggle that is collective rather than individual, and that aims to cause change through challenging power rather than to take power in order to hold personally on to it. (As poorly-supported as the students’ insurrection may be, and as simplistic a depiction of revolution as it is.)

On a personal level, the two songs that appeal to me most from each musical – Another Suitcase In Another Hall from Evita, and On My Own from Les Miserables – are also, or rather can be made into, counterpoints of each other. Another Suitcase In Another Hall, sung by the young Evita on first moving to Buenos Aires, expresses temporary despair but with the hope, which becomes the expectation, of fulfilment. On My Own, sung by Eponine after she has seen proof that the person she loves is promised to another woman, is also about despair, but a statement of fantasy and denial without any chance of hopeful resolution. (Its arrangement works against its lyrics in an interesting way. If in the show-tune genre there’s triumph in the soaring climax, Eponine receives hers at the moment of acknowledging ‘All my life I’ve only been pretending […] The world is full of happiness that I have never known’.)

As a viewer, I want Les Mis to be the anti-Evita, but of course that’s not all it is. What seems to me to be an incredible amount of time is taken up on stage and screen by Valjean’s ward and the female romantic lead, Cosette. The two characters who interest me most, Enjolras and Eponine, don’t even get to interact with each other. (I’m always drawn to narratives like Eponine’s, while Enjolras reminds me of the figures I spent so much time reading about when I studied the French and Russian Revolutions; in the novel, Hugo explicitly compares Enjolras with Saint-Just.) My frustration that the text isn’t about Enjolras and Eponine ends up as an annoyance with Cosette. (I later learned I wasn’t alone in this. I’m sure that with time somebody will remix a Cosette-less version of the musical in the same way that YouTube has or had a remix of Breakfast at Tiffany’s including only the scenes that have the cat.) I respond very differently to the musical than to the novel, which I read some months after seeing the show. In the novel I want to read about Valjean’s redemption through saving Marius and Cosette, to which France’s early 19th-century history can happily (or less happily) be a backdrop; on screen I find their plotline the least interesting.

A few days before I went to see Les Mis, I’d been reading a blog post by Jem Bloomfield on ‘resistant readings’, an important idea in the study of texts and their fans, and obviously what I’m bringing to Les Miserables when I’m drumming my fingers and waiting for Cosette to go away. As Bloomfield explains:

This process, codified most famously by Judith Fetterley’s work The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, involves deliberately reading a text against the grain.  The resistant reader recognises what the text claims to be saying, and then rereads it through their own agenda, opposing the ideology of the text itself.  It’s not simply reinterpreting a work, but directly confronting it: identifying the surface meaning and proposing an alternative (using the text’s own words and images) which runs against the grain.  Though we don’t necessarily call it resistant reading, it’s a process many of us are very familiar with.

If the types of narratives you enjoy are incredibly well represented in the texts available to you, resistant readings might not be such a big part of your experience (though of course they may). If they’re not – for instance, if you want to see queer desire on screen but are in a predominantly straight (or ‘heteronormative’) media space – they’re likely to be more important to you than they might be otherwise, perhaps even the only way to bring about a reading/listening/viewing experience that somebody who doesn’t face that obstacle is likely to take for granted that they can access wherever they want. If convention says that Ripley always lives but Vasquez Always Dies, it takes a lot more imagination on the part of the viewer to imagine the potential of Vasquez alive.

Yet the original text never, or hardly ever, provides enough material to make a resistant reading truly satisfying. Enjolras in Les Miserables manifests fully-formed with no personal history. Eponine’s entire narrative function is to save Marius so that he can be available to serve his own narrative functions in later scenes (although the character as we see her would probably be quite happy with that description of her life’s purpose), and it really isn’t clear how her spoiled seven-year-old self as the daughter of the gruesome Thenardiers changes into the woman we see by 1832. This is the sort of material that fan fiction, as studied by Henry Jenkins for more than twenty years, and including but not limited to the ‘shipping’ of alternative romantic relationships between characters, tries to supply. The Les Mis fandom is so well established, and growing in size now that the movie has expanded the audience for the story, that I’m sure I could find all this somewhere if I wanted to. There must surely be queer readings of Eponine – who after her big solo dresses as a man (and in the movie is seen binding her chest) and joins the otherwise all-male group of revolutionaries on the front line of the barricades – out there as well.

(What space was there for resistant readings in Evita? Probably far less. At the time I saw it I didn’t even know that wanting to identify with both Ché and Eva could be a thing.)

For most of my life, readings that were at least somewhat resistant were the only way to find fictional narratives that would be maximally meaningful. I wish that novels like Malinda Lo’s Ash – a young-adult queer retelling of Cinderella, where the kitchen maid ends up with the king’s huntress instead – had existed when I was 14; maybe they might have stopped me making the misinterpretations of who I was and what I wanted that I went on to make for some time after that. Instead, it took until my mid-twenties for me to start encountering narratives that felt as if they were meant to be about people like me and the ways that they could relate to others, and that were written by people who in that dimension of identity at least were positioned in a similar way to me. Would Ash have been published twenty years ago, or stocked in British school libraries that were still subject to the ‘Section 28’ prohibition on ‘promoting homosexuality in schools’? I’m not sure it would. But I also know that for a long time I didn’t even think to demand better than the possibility of making resistant readings from texts that weren’t designed to contain them. Which is why when I first read about them during the cultural studies reading for my PhD the idea of them made so much sense, and why I notice them so much in my responses to popular culture even now.

Apologies, Cosette. It isn’t really your fault.