Sima Godfrey’s research has her looking for the invisible Crimean war in 19th-century French literature and wondering why, despite the deaths of 100,000 Frenchmen, despite inescapable coverage in the French press at the time, despite the fact that this was the only war the French won in the 19thcentury, it does not figure in French cultural memory.
There has been much work done in recent years on collective memory; the status of the Crimean War, however, raises important questions about collective forgetting. Not the calculated repression of events in the past, but “l’oubli,” that is, forgetting. Beyond identifying the peripheral activities in France that brought the war to public attention, this project asks a number of large questions. What does it mean that a war can disappear from cultural memory? What does it mean that this particular war disappeared from French cultural memory? Given the prominence of the Crimean War in British national mythology, what does it mean that in France this war is nothing more than a dusty footnote? In his novel, Les Misérables, Victor Hugo made a minor uprising in Paris in June 1832 so memorable that it went to Broadway. Hugo also wrote an angry poem condemning the French general who led the French into Crimea but it produced hardly a blip on the cultural radar. Did the Crimean war need its own novel? In Britain it took only one poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Tennyson, to inscribe it indelibly. What role does literature play in the commemoration of a war?