The Bishop of Digne is a key character of Les Miserables. He is the one who offers Jean Valjean refuge, who treats him as an “honoured guest” and a shelter from the rules which allows Valjean to change his mind to the question which echoes through the story: the question of “who am I?” Valjean, or, rather, Prisoner 24601 conforms to type when he abuses the hospitality. He runs off with the silver and is captured by the law enforcers. They deliver Prisoner 24601 to the Bishop. The Bishop seizes the moment (what had he done to be prepared to react with such imaginative compassion?) and lyingly claims he had given the silver to Valjean, dismisses the police, commending them for their duty, and gives Valjean his chance.
Digne is in south-eastern France. I don’t know whether the name Digne had significance for Victor Hugo, but surely some association with dignity was intended. The Bishop of Digne was a steward (another word for “bishop”) of dignity. The Bishop is only a marginal character but according to Theresa Malcolm “he is the soul of the novel, he who sowed love where there was hatred, light where there was darkness”. Bishop Myriel (as was the name of the then Bishop of Digne) was also known as “Monseigneur Bienvenu” for his spirit of generosity and welcome.
Victor Hugo dwells on the character of the Bishop of Digne at great length. He describes how he moved out of his episcopal palace so that it could be used as a hospital. He describes how he gave 90% of his stipend to charity, and how he simply lived for the poor. He spent his life for them matching deed to word. He spent time with prisoners. Hugo described how Myriel went with one prisoner, standing side by side with him on the scaffold, having spent the previous day with him, sharing with him “the best truths, which are also the most simple. He was father, brother, friend; he was bishop only to bless.” It was through such a lifestyle that people came to refer to the Bishop as “Monseigneur Bienvenu” – a bishop most welcome and welcoming.
This key character brings freedom. He unlocks Valjean’s soul and “gives him back his life”. Fourteenth century poet Hafiz comments on such great people who “drop keys all night long”:
The small person
builds cages for everyone
Instead, the sage,
who needs to duck his head,
when the moon is low
can be found dropping keys, all night long
for the beautiful
Valjean sums his situation up with these words:
For I had come to hate this world
This world which had always hated me
Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!
One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom,
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit came to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!
The engraving by Gustave Brion shows the Bishop of Digne prepared for the first edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in 1886.