A Free Marketeer in Fiction

Print or PDF
Excerpted from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, translated by Norman Denny
The Folio Society Limited, 1976

“During the past two years there had occurred one of those industrial developments which are major events in the life of a small community… The traditional local industry of Montreul-sur-mer was the manufacture of imitation English jet beads and the “black glass” of Germany. Because of the cost of raw materials the industry had never been prosperous and its workers had been underpaid, but this situation had recently been transformed. Towards the end of 1815 a newcomer to the town had had the idea of substituting shellac for resin, and had also devised a simpler and less expensive form of clasp for such things as bracelets. These trifling changes amounted to a revolution. They greatly reduced costs, which in the first place enabled the trade to pay higher wages, and thus benefited the district. And they made it possible to reduce prices while increasing the manufacturer’s profit. Three beneficial results; and in less than three years the innovator had grown rich, which is good and had spread prosperity around him, which is better.

He was a stranger in the district. Nothing was known of his origins and little about how he started in life. He was said to have arrived in the town with very little money, a few hundred francs; and with this scanty capital, applied to the service of an ingenious idea and fostered with order and shrewdness, he had made a fortune for himself and for the community…He went by the name of Pere Madeleine. He was a man of about 50, reserved in manner but good-hearted, and, this was all that could be said about him.

Thanks to the rapid growth of the industry which he so admirably reorganized, Montreul-sur-mer became a place of some consequence. Large orders cam from Spain, which absorbs a great quantity of jet. Sales reached a Scale almost rivaling those of London and Berlin, and Pere Madelein’s profits were so great that in the second year he was able to build a new factory consisting of two large workshops, …The needy need only apply and they could be sure of finding employment and a living wage. …In general his coming had been providential for the whole region, once so stagnant, which now pulsed with the vigour of healthy industry. Unemployment and extreme poverty were forgotten. No pocket was so humble that it did not contain a little money; no dwelling so obsure that it did not shelter a little happiness.

Through the stir of activity of which he was the cause and centre, Pere Madeleine, as we have said had made a fortune for himself; but, strangely in a man of business, this did not seem to be his principal concern. He seemed to give far more thought to others than to himself. In 1820 he was known to have a credit of 635,000 francs at the banking-house of Laffitte; but, in addition to setting aside this sum, he had spent more than a million on the town and the poor.

The hospital was under-financed; he had endowed ten more beds. Montreuil was divided into an Upper and a Lower Town. The Lower Town, where he lived, had only one school, of which, the ancient building was crumbling in ruins. He built two new schools, one for girls and the other for boys, and out of his own income doubled the meager official salaries of the schoolmaster and mistress. To someone who expressed surprise at this he said, ‘The first two servants of the State are the nurse and the teacher.’ He established an old people’s home, a thing then almost unknown in France, and a fund for the assistance of old and infirm workpeople. With the building of the new factory, a new residential area had sprung up around it in which there were a good many poor families., so he installed a free apothecary’s shop.”