I am in part two of Les Miserables. The section is called Cosette. Cosette is the daughter of Fantine, whose story was told in part one. I am about fifty pages into part two, and there has been no mention of Cosette. There has, instead, been a long history of the Battle of Waterloo.
Is this frustrating? I don’t know. The ending of part one leaves the reader anxious to learn the fate of Cosette, for reasons it would too much of a spoiler to enumerate here. But you start reading part two, and work your way through this history. I am a huge fan of military history, and I found Hugo’s description of one of the most important battles ever to be compelling and exciting. But is it part of this story?
Long ago I read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Tolstoy also finds occasion to write at length about the history of the siege of Moscow, about military strategy in general, and about his theory of leadership in war. Does this add to or drag down his story? It depends on one’s perspective. It seems that in large novels of the 19th century, lengthy non-fiction asides were considered normal: whether you enjoy that or not is a matter of personal taste.
Another classic example is Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. One can learn an awful lot about whales and whaling from the book. There are long sections that describe the whale hunt, processing of the carcass, even how perfume is made from ambergris, a by-product of whale processing. Do these drag down the story of Ahab’s maniacal quest to kill the great white whale? Suffice it to say, these parts were not included in the movie.
It’s interesting to note that both War and Peace and Les Miserables are set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which loomed massively over early 19th century Europe. How much more I need to learn about these wars while trying to find out what happens to Cosette and Jean Valjean is a question that time will answer.