Friday 9 March 2018

Les Misérables The Descent/La Descent V1B5

At long last we really get to the meat and bones of Fantine's story- after all this first book is named after her. We've met her before and know some of her story- that she was orphaned, or possibly just abandoned, that she is beautiful, that she has been taken advantage of and then deserted by the bounder Tholomyès. That she has made some other bad choices, and that she has left her young daughter Cosette with the Thénadiers at their inn in a remote town.

In Book Five we encounter Fantine's story full on, but not before a little chapter "Story of an Advance in the Manufacture of Black Glass Jewellery", where we learn that Père Madeleine has built his wealth and influence from his ingenuity and innovation in the process of black glass by substituting shellac for resin, and so dramatically reducing the cost of manufacture. The whole town of Montreuil-sur-Mer benefited from this idea and his tremendous generosity and within five years Père Madeleine has been appointed mayor. 
Père Madeleine expected willingness of the men, respectability of the women, and honesty of everybody. 
In The Descent we begin to see some real differences emerging here between the musical versions and Hugo's original story. It seemed from the movie that the women in the workroom were sewing (although perhaps I just assumed that), I will have to pay more attention next time I watch it. Certainly, the way that Fantine loses her job in the factory is different. Here, the meddlesome Madame Victurnien seeks out to find Fantine's secret, and we are treated to some wonderful descriptions of her. 
The busybody who did this was a gorgon named Madame Victurnien, guardian and doorkeeper of everyone's virtue. Madame Victurnien was fifty-six and her mask of ugliness was overlaid with the mask of old age. Quavering voice, crotchety mind.
Hugo is not a big fan of idle, or  malicious gossip.
Certain individuals are malicious solely because of their need to talk. Their conversation, drawing-room chatter, boudoir gossip, is like those chimneys that burn wood fast. They need a great deal of fuel, and their fuel is their fellow human being. 
The Thénadiers greed grows exponentially and they ask Fantine for more and more money- allegedly for an ailing Cosette. I was interested in the use of the term miliary fever, as it's not one I'd come across before. There is a miliary form of TB (miliary meaning seed form as the chest X-ray appearance looks like millet seeds), but it does not seem to be this. Mozart apparently died of miliary fever, which William Osler described in 1892 as "an infectious disease of dubious nature... characterized by fever, profuse sweats and an eruption of miliary vesicles. The severe cases present the symptoms of intense infection: delirium, high fever, profound prostration and haemorrhage."

Fantine's descent becomes complete when she is forced into prostitution after her sacking from Monsieur Madeleine's factory.  I was most intrigued by the sentence: "The poor girl became registered as a common prositutue." In 1804, Napoleon (he's never far away) had ordered that prostitutes need to be registered and have twice weekly health inspections. This strict regulation continued until the 20th century. 

Fantine's fall is considered in the very next paragraph. 
What is the story of Fantine about? It is about society buying a slave. From whom? From wretchedness. From hunger, cold, isolation, neglect, destitution. A hard bargain. A soul for a morsel of bread. Society accepts what wretchedness offers. 
Quite a lot happens in this chapter, and there is a lot less philosophising than has gone previously. Although I enjoyed his considerations surrounding prostitution, curiosity and idleness. I think of curiosity as an asset, almost a virtue in our modern life. Hugo feels differently it seems. 
Curiosity is a form of gluttony. To see is to devour. 
In Chapter 5 we also encounter Javert once again and are shown much more of his background, and nature, and his growing suspicion for Monsieur Madeleine. Hugo compares Javert to a wolf pup that would need to be killed by it's own mother lest it eat all of his own litter mates. 
Javert was born in a prison of a fortune-teller whose husband was a convicted felon. As he grew up, he believed he was on the outside of society and had no hope of ever being let in. 
Yet Javert joins the police and by the age of 40 he has achieved the rank of Inspector, and has arrived in Montreuil-sur-Mer after Monsieur Madeleine had already become mayor. 
Javert was like an eye constantly fixed on Monsieur Madeleine. An eye full of suspicion and conjecture. 
At the end of the chapter Javert and Monsieur Madeleine clash over the fate of Fantine after she is arrested. Monsieur Madeleine wins this confrontation and becomes Fantine's benefactor. 
... I'll pay your debts, I'll send for your childe, or you shall go to her. You shall live here, in Paris, wherever you like. I'll take care of you and your child. I'll give you all the money you need. In regaining your happiness you'll regain your respectability. 


Brona said...

All the human drama in this chapter had me hooked - my favourite so far, I'd have to say.

NancyElin said...

Love your updates....!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

You are such a careful reader. Careful attention draws so much pleasure from the story.

Esme said...

I have never read this book-I have seen the musical. I now want to pick it up.

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