Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, Limited Editions Club (1938) and The Folio Society Limited Edition (2008)

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862, is considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. The story follows the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean on his lifetime journey to attain redemption; mostly a personal forgiveness for a life of hardness thrust upon him by an unforgiving society. Les Misérables focuses a microscope on those at the bottom of the social and economic order, highlighting their struggles with poverty, crime, ignorance and injustice. The story takes place across nearly two decades in the early part of the nineteenth century, ending with the June Rebellion of 1832. The novel falls within the genre of historical fiction, and explores a wide variety of themes and topics, including love, forgiveness, justice, religion and politics. It remains a favorite of many, and is often considered one of the most important novels ever written.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) is considered by some to be the greatest French poet in history, with  Les Contemplations and La Légende des siècles being the most critically recognized. However, today his fame largely comes from his great novels Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). Hugo’s influence is substantial even in the musical world, with over one thousand musical compositions having been inspired by his works. When Hugo died at the age of 83, on 22 May 1885, there was a huge outpouring of grief across France. His funeral procession in Paris was witnessed by over two million people on the route from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon, where he was buried. He shares a crypt within the Panthéon with Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola.

Having just re-read Les Misérables for the first time in twenty-five years, I now again recall the loquaciousness of Hugo on any topic that happens to cross his fancy! The diversions he takes while weaving an already detailed panorama of setting and plot are amazing in their sheer audacity of expectation on the reader (in The Folio Society Limited Edition version shown below, translator Norman Denny removes two of Hugo’s longer digressions and puts them in the back of the book, with no detriment to the story at all). Hugo expects that the reader immerse themselves into the time and place of his story with knowledge of the entire universe of what may hold the slightest degree of relevance to understanding the portrait he paints. This is not a complaint. In fact, I enjoy most of the diversions, and taken in totality, they do contribute to one feeling as if a substantial portion of your own life has past, once you close this book for the last time. You become one within the story itself. A side character, certainly; yet, a character who perceives, if not understands, the world of Jean Valjean and Cosette, just as a neighbor would. 

The main challenge of publishing a fine edition of Les Misérables is the size. The Limited Editions Club (LEC) decided to go with five volumes as Hugo himself intended and published as. This is certainly the right choice when bearing the reader in mind, as the main issue with The Folio Society (FS) LE, as one volume, is that it is heavy to hold in reading position for any substantial length of time. Another downside of going with one edition is having to go with super thin paper, so to keep the book half way manageable. Despite the thinness of the FS paper, I do have to say they pull it off quite well. Well the paper is not as nice or sturdy as in the LEC edition, it does work rather well, and the whiteness of it really helps show off the wondrous, classic illustrations that really make the FS edition special. With drawings by de Neuville, Morin, Volnay and Emile Bayard (including the well-known and stunning illustration of Cosette shown below), the FS edition is spot on for those who enjoy classic illustrations. The LEC is chock full of illustrations (500+) by the great Lynd Ward. The Monthly Letter describes his work here:

 All of the drawings are spirited. But all of the drawings are saturated with social conscience, all of them are drawn by a competent draughtsman who read Victor Hugo’s preface to his book, and who set out to build power on power, to add to  the searing immortality of Victor Hugo’s words the burning immortality of unforgettable pictures.

I do not disagree with this (especially see Ward’s ‘Fantine’ below, with such sadness emanating from the page). However, I will say that here Ward’s illustrations do not capture me as do the more classic illustrations in the FS edition. The LEC binding is rather plain, though dignified, in an Irish linen dyed black. The FS is nicely bound in Wassa Goatskin. The  imprinted design by Jeff Clements, while nice, does not readily convey to me its meaning. As mentioned, the LEC used a tough, soft, creamy paper from Worthy Paper Corporation and an easy to read typeface, Linotype Granjon. Designed by George W. Jones, imitative of Garamond, Granjon is a quiet, dignified letter design. It is elegant, unobtrusive and simple. The FS edition uses Garamond, though is not done letterpress. The translations are both excellent.  The LEC uses the approved by Hugo translation by Lascelles Wraxall, whereas the FS LE uses that of Norman Denny.

Both editions shown below are very worthy of recommendation. True fine press aficionados will want the LEC edition due to the methods used in creating the book.  Fans of the more well known classic illustrations in the FS edition, or those wanting a more recent edition, may want to consider the FS LE edition. It, however, is sold out at The Folio Society, so like the LEC edition, you will need to find it on the secondary market.

About the Edition (Limited Editions Club)

  • Edition planned by Peter Beilenson of The Walpole Printing Office
  • Five volumes as intended and issued by Hugo
  • Hugo approved translation by Lascelles Wraxall 
  • More than five hundred illustrations by Lynd Ward, all one color (though a different color for each of the five volumes)
  • Type is Linotype Granjon
  • Thin yet tough, soft, creamy paper from Worthy Paper Corporation
  • Bound in Irish linen dyed a dull black, spine with an oblong label of the color of ink used to print the illustrations in that volume; with the title and symbolic design by the artist stamped in gold upon the label
  • Volumes housed in a black slipcase (below shows custom slipcase)
  • 7″ x 10.5″, 1, 475 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Lynd Ward

About the Edition (The Folio Society Limited Edition)

  • Translation by Norman Denny originally commissioned by The Folio Society in 1976 and now the accepted English text
  • Illustrated with engravings from original 19th-century editions, including drawings by de Neuville, Morin, Volnay and the great Emile Bayard
  • Set in Garamond
  • Printed at Memminger MedienCentrum AG, Memmingen, Germany on Cordier Wove paper
  • Bound in Wassa Goatskin, blocked with a design by Jeff Clements, by Real Lachenmaier, Reutlingen, Germany
  • The Divine Stenographer, an essay on Les Misérables by the great Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, is included as a companion essay to this edition
  • Footnotes by Marius-Francois Guyard
  • Limited to 1750 copies

Pictures of the Editions (Limited Editions Club, The Folio Society LE to follow)

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Les Miserables, Side by Side Slipcases, Limited Editions Club (custom case) and The Folio Society Limited Edition
Les Miserables, Side by Side Slipcases, Limited Editions Club (custom case) and The Folio Society Limited Edition
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Books in Slipcase
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Books in Slipcase
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Side View of a volume
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Side View of a volume
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Title Page of Volume One
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Title Page of Volume One
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page of Volume One
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page of Volume One
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page Illustration of Volume One
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page Illustration of Volume One
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 - Introduction
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 – Introduction
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #6 (Frontispiece Vol 2)
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 (Frontispiece Vol 2)
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #8 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #10 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #16 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Title Page Volume 5
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Title Page Volume 5
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page Volume 5
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page Volume 5
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #17 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #6 with Text
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 (Macro)
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 (Macro)
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #19 (Macro)
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #7 (Macro)
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
Les Miserables, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

Pictures of the Editions (The Folio Society LE)

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Spine and Covers
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Spine and Covers
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Spine
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Spine
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Front Cover
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Front Cover
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Front Cover
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Front Cover
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Side View
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Side View
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Companion Introduction
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Companion Introduction
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, End Papers
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, End Papers
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Limitation Page
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Limitation Page
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Frontispiece and Title Page
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Frontispiece and Title Page
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Frontispiece
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Frontispiece
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Title Page
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Title Page
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, List of Illustrations
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Partial List of Illustrations
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Text #1
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Text #2
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Text #2
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Sample Text #2
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Sample Text #2
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #1
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #1
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #2
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #2
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #3
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #3
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #4
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #4
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Sample Illustration #4
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Macro of Sample Illustration #4
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #5
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #5
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #6
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #6
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #7
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #7
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #8
Les Miserables, The Folio Society LE, Sample Illustration #8

2 thoughts on “Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, Limited Editions Club (1938) and The Folio Society Limited Edition (2008)

  1. The illustrations in the Folio Society Limited Edition win hands down – they are superb. I, too, find the whiter Cordier Wove paper in the FS edition pleasing. Regarding Jeff Clements’ designs on the goatskin binding – I just don’t get it. Lynd Ward’s illustrations for the LEC 5-volume set have a monotonous, tired look and this LEC publication has an inherent dreariness that (inadvertently) may be appropriate to this work. Finally, I greatly prefer the directness and clarity of Norman Denny’s excellent translation for the Folio Society, far better suited to modern reading tastes (mine, at any rate).

    For me, I will find a study book support and opt for the Folio Society Limited Edition.

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