Victor Hugo is a monument of France. His works remain standard reading in French high schools; the Comedie Francaise regularly performs his plays. When the poet, novelist, painter and social activist died at 83 in 1885, his body was displayed beneath the Arc de Triomphe, and carried to its resting place in the Pantheon by a massive, weeping crowd.

Little wonder, then, that here in the stately mansion where Hugo wrote much of "Les Miserables," his three-volume opus about the 19th-century French underclass and its struggle for survival, there is little regard for The Sequel.

The Sequel? That would be "Cosette," a 650-page attempt to pick up where "Les Miserables" -- or, more precisely, where the musical -- left off, just published by HarperCollins. American author Laura Kalpakian has created a world in which the ladies' dresses are "frothy," the men's breath is "garlicky," where the characters shrug "in that Parisian way" and where love, of course, "unalloyed and gleaming, sterling and strong," triumphs over adversity. The good guys win, the bad guys get it in the end, and the stage is neatly set for, as the press packet says, "a major motion picture/TV mini-series."

The French are not amused. "Mon Dieu, the idea itself is simply ridiculous," sputtered Henri Cazaumayou, curator of the Victor Hugo House, now a museum, whose hallways are lined with paintings of the writer and his most famous characters -- Quasimodo and Esmeralda from "Notre Dame de Paris," or Jean Valjean, Gavroche and Javert from "Les Miserables." "Frankly, if Victor Hugo wrote a masterpiece, it is what it is. We don't need to continue it," Cazaumayou said. "Ridiculous. If a person wants to make money with the work of Hugo, it's -- ridiculous."

Guy Rosa, head of the Victor Hugo Inter-University Working Group, an academic club of 20-some Hugo experts, tended to agree. "The hero of Les Miserables' is not Cosette. It's Jean Valjean," he said. "If Hugo didn't write the continuation of Les Miserables,' there's probably a reason. It's because Cosette is not very interesting."

He added dryly, "Someone of great talent could probably do something very good {as a sequel}, but then usually people of great talent come up with their own characters."

To the descendants of the venerated author, the notion that someone would try to exploit his work is outrageous. Jean-Baptiste Hugo, the author's great-great-grandson, was too upset to talk about it and asked not to be quoted.

But his British-born mother, Loretta Hugo, the widow of Victor Hugo's great-grandson Jean, wanted her say. "A new novel? Rewriting Les Miserables'? I think it's too silly for words," she said from her home in southern France. "The point is to have the writer's language. I don't approve at all."

She continued: "How could it be up to scratch? Not only was Victor Hugo a great writer, but he was of his age. More than 100 years later, you don't read in the same way." And: "This is quite ghastly. I don't know what we can do about it."

In fact she can do nothing about it, since the copyright expired 70 years after the author's death. But for all the protests of indignation from Hugo purists, French academics say that historically speaking, the story of "Cosette" is not entirely implausible.

The novel begins a few chapters before Hugo's ending -- or, if you saw the musical (40 million people have so far, according to the publisher), somewhere in the middle of the last act -- as the convict-cum-tycoon-cum-social radical Jean Valjean and his adopted 17-year-old daughter, Cosette, are about to flee to England during the civil riots of 1832. Instead Valjean finds himself at the barricades with the insurgents and saves the life of a young law student, Marius, who is in love with Cosette. (The text neatly reproduces the memorable scene from the musical in which the streetwise waif Eponine sings a solo as she dies in the arms of Marius: "And with a raucous gurgle that sounded as if the life were being brutally sucked, not merely drained, from her body, her lips moved again, but wordlessly . . .")

In the aftermath, the two lovers -- Marius and Cosette -- marry and live in grand bourgeois style with the money from Jean Valjean's fortune. But Jean Valjean is banished by Marius when the lawyer learns that his father-in-law was a convict; Jean Valjean dies in poverty just as Marius -- too late -- learns the truth, that Jean Valjean was an honest man and had saved his life.

That's Hugo's ending. In Kalpakian's tale, the chastened Cosette and Marius then become republican radicals, forsaking their bourgeois lifestyles to found a newspaper called La Lumiere, which criticizes the restored monarchy for the lack of civil rights in France. They have two children, Jean Luc and Fantine, and Cosette takes in a Gavroche-like character, a street urchin named Gabriel, who works at the newspaper.

When Louis Napoleon Bonaparte seizes power in a coup d'etat in 1852, Marius and Cosette are among those who take to the streets to protest. Marius is shot and thought to die on the barricades, and Cosette goes to ground in Paris and publishes an illegal, anti-Napoleon newspaper while hiding among the rag-pickers. Much happens after that, but suffice it to say that Marius is not really dead, Cosette does not remain among the rag-pickers, and the evil Clerons, the sequel's answer to "Miserables" police spy Javert, gets his due.

One Hugo expert, Jacques Seebacher, rather liked this turn of events. "Why not?" he asked. "There's a big mystery in Les Miserables.' In the novel, Cosette becomes a bourgeoise, a white dove, and Marius becomes a strait-laced, rich lawyer. We don't know what they will become, and most of all we don't know what they could become." The idea that they might found a radical newspaper, he said, "does not seem to be scandalous at all."

The truth is that Hugo's work has inspired dozens of spinoffs and adaptations since it was published in 1862, including a French film this year called "Les Miserables" that set the classic story during World War II. One professor, Arnaud Laster, has counted 38 "Les Miserables" films to date.

Laster refused to find fault with "Cosette" without having read it. "I find this rather amusing," he said at his office at the New Sorbonne. "I've always defended Cosette -- who was never very popular. She's been considered a minor character. But she could evolve. Hugo himself evolved a lot."

Rosa disagreed emphatically, noting that Hugo explicitly says Marius forgot everything from the barricades, while Cosette -- a convent-educated teenager -- had no political leanings. "Historically, anything is possible. But literarily it doesn't hang together," he insisted. "The only heir of Jean Valjean is the reader. Cosette? Too bad for her -- the text works this way. It eliminates everyone, and asks the reader to continue the work of Jean Valjean, not someone else."

And what would Victor Hugo himself have thought of all this? Laster believes the writer might not disapprove. "I think he'd be more shocked if someone rewrote or adapted his own novel," he said. "But a sequel -- I don't see why he'd be shocked." CAPTION: Laura Kalpakian, author of "Cosette."