When curators from the State Library of Victoria visited the National Library of France in 2013, they submitted a wish list of 100 items they wanted to borrow from the institution's Victor Hugo collection. When their list was returned, permission was granted for all but one item: the one they wanted most.
Written in Hugo's hand between 1845 and 1862, the original manuscript of Les Miserables is considered a national treasure of France, a cultural and historical statement so precious it is rarely even displayed in its homeland. The Australian delegation wasn't even allowed to see it.
But following a lengthy negotiation, the team, including curator Anais Lellouche, eventually secured the book, and the State Library's upcoming Victor Hugo: Les Miserables – From Page to Stage exhibition had its centerpiece.
"For French people, the manuscript of Les Miserables is almost a myth," Ms Lellouche said. "For the other side of the world to be able to have a look at this very special object is quite an extraordinary thing."
Bound in white parchment and written on 17 different types of paper, the full text is contained in two manuscripts of 945 and 828 pages, though only the first volume has made the trip to Melbourne.
It is a truly graphic novel. Barely a page passes without a jumble of notes scribbled into margins, sections crossed out and new details added. Hugo typically wrote down the right-hand side of the right page, leaving the left margin free for his extensive revisions.
"It's pictorial because Hugo's handwriting is very lyrical," Ms Lellouche said. "It's hard to decode so you really have to work at distinguishing character names, which helps point to the parts of the story.
"You get the sense of the impossibility of the task. The manuscript really tells the story of his long and mature reflection to craft this masterpiece."
Traveling in its own business class seat, the manuscript arrived on Tuesday accompanied by the National Library of France's head of manuscripts, Guillaume Fau, who calls the project "quite an adventure".
"It's the first time out of Europe and only the second time out of France since 1886," he said, "so it's quite strange and funny at the same time to be here with the manuscript in Melbourne."
As a snapshot of mid 19th-century Paris, the exhibition also features rare photographs, letters and paintings of and by Hugo, while an adjoining multimedia room celebrates the beloved musical stage production (a revival of which is now running at Melbourne's Her Majesty's Theatre).
Mr Fau sees the ongoing global fascination with Les Miserables as a testament to the timelessness of its core message.
"It's a novel about social injustice, the fight against social injustice, the quest for a better world," he said. "It's also a novel about redemption. Jean Valjean redeems himself through an act of kindness, helping a little girl, Cosette.
"I think this is a universal story and a universal theme that everyone can relate to."
Victor Hugo: Les Miserables – From Page to Stage is at the State Library of Victoria from Friday, July 18 until November 9.