Friday 9 February 2018

Les Misérables Entrusting Sometimes Means Giving Away/Confier, c'est quelquefois livrer V1B4

Book 4 is a tiny morsel in a giant tome. Three short chapters, a mere eleven pages. I inhaled it in one gulp one afternoon. Book 4 introduces us to both Cosette and the Thénadiers.

From the reading of Book 3 it seemed that Tholomyès wasn't aware of Cosette when he left, but we quickly realise that Cosette is a toddler now, just ten months later, so he was well aware that he was walking out on his partner and child with his "surprise".

Fantine is 22 as she leaves Paris on foot to return to her home town of Montreal-sur-Mer to look for work. She has had no work since Tholomyès has abandoned her and fallen on very hard times indeed.
As for the mother, she was a poor and sorry sight. She was dressed like a seamstress reverting to peasant again. She was young. Was she beautiful? Maybe, but the way she was dressed it was hard to tell. Her hair looked very thick but was austerely hidden under an ugly, thick-woven, close fitting coif tied under the chin, with one blond lock escaping. Laughter shows off beautiful teeth if you have them, but she did not laugh. Her eyes looked as if they had not been dry for a very long time. She was pale. She seemed weary and a little unwell. 
Fantine makes the hasty decision to leave Cosette with the Thénadiers, strangers to her, after a very brief interaction, being transfixed by the two Thénadier daughters laughing on a swing fashioned on a chain under a logging trailer. Victor Hugo is not at all subtle in telling us what to think of the Thénadiers. A chapter entitled First Sketch of Two Shady Characters is a big clue, and then just in case we had any doubts, he takes particular glee in describing them. 
They were of that stunted nature that easily turns monstrous if some dark passion is by chance kindled in them. There was in the woman the essence of a bully and in the man the makings of a scoundrel. Both were most highly susceptible to the sort of hideous progress that occurs in the development of evil. There are souls like lobsters, continually retreating into the shadows, retrogressing rather than advancing through life, using experience to add to their monstrosity, becoming ever more wicked and ever more imbued with an intensifying foulness. This man and this woman were such souls. 
And Madame Thénadier has a fondness for the romance novels of the time. 
Madame Thénadier was just intelligent enough to read books of this kind. They were her staple diet. She steeped in them what brain she possessed.
Once again there is mention of the naming of children. "Now, nonsense cannot be read with impunity", and so the Thénadier girls are Éponine and Azelma, who "the poor little thing was very nearly named Gulnare".
It is not uncommon nowadays for the young cowherd to be called Arthur, Alfred or Alphonse, and for the vicomte- if there are any vicomtes left- to be called Thomas, Pierre or Jacques. This displacement whereby the 'distinguished' name is given to the common man and the rustic name to the aristocrat is nothing other than the stirrings of egalitarianism. The irresistible penetration of the new spirit is in this as in everything else. Behind this apparent discrepancy there is something great and profound: the French Revolution. 
I believe that the Thènadiers play a bigger part in the book than is apparent from the movie or stage adaptations. But they play a particularly important role in the musical adaptations, being a comedic foil to the drama and tension. I do so love the rousing Master of the House. 

We also quickly learn what happens to Cosette at The Sergeant of Waterloo, the Thénadier's inn. They sell off her fashionable clothes, and dress her in "the little Thénadier girls' cast-off petticoats and chemises, that is to say, in rags."
They fed her on everyone's scraps - a little better than the dog, a little worse than the cat. In fact the cat and the dog were her habitual dining companions. Colette ate with them under the table, from a wooden bowl like theirs. 
Cosette essentially becomes a slave.
It was a heart-breaking thing to see in winter, this poor child, not yet six years old, shivering in her tattered old rags of coarse cloth, sweeping the street before daylight with an enormous broom in her tiny red hands and a teardrop in those big eyes. 
 Which of course is one of the most iconic of the still images of Les Miserables, by Emil Bayard. 

Injustice had made her resentful and misery had made her ugly. 
All quotes are from the 2013 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, translated by Christine Donougher. 


Brona said...

I'm not sure whether to watch the little snippets of the movie/musical as they become relevant or whether to wait and experience the movie in one pure, untarnished sitting? Much like I'm reading the book....some days my problems are just so first world!

Louise said...

I've been thinking about this on your behalf! Did you watch Master of the House yet? I only included it because it's non-spoiler-y and gives a fabulous taste of the movie. I think the occasional snippet would be good to whet your appetite but it would be too annoying and difficult to watch a few minutes of the movie at a time.