Bonjour mes amis et bienvenue à la première semaine de #MiserablesMay! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, long story short: I decided reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in the space of the month of May would be a good idea. (I was wrong.) If you’re curious about the intended weekly schedule and organisation of this, be sure to check out my announcement post or the post of my co-host Liz.
Now, week one was always going to be a challenge; my desire to basically separate the book via May’s Monday-Sunday chunks meant that I had to read an entire volume of the book’s five-volume story in the space of five days. When that volume amounts to some 300 pages, that’s no easy feat, but I hoped the excitement of starting the book would encourage me to read. Reader, I won’t lie to you, it didn’t quite work out that way but I knew I had a long weekend (thank you, UK bank holiday) to catch up if needs be. And that’s exactly what I did. But now, let’s talk about the story of volume one, shall we?
Recap of Volume One: Fantine
Volume One: Fantine does not start with the eponymous woman; instead, Victor Hugo’s epic novel starts with the figure of Monsieur Myriel, known as the Bishop of Digne by 1806, and situates this first section in the year 1815. From the very outset the author takes time and (many) words to tell us that even someone as upright and pious as a bishop may have rumours following them, whether true or not. But, very quickly, these rumours fall away as Monsieur Myriel quickly proves himself worthy of the nickname Monsieur Bienvenu. It may seem overkill to start listing the good bishop’s household expenses but Victor Hugo goes out of his (and the readers’) way to have it be known, in no uncertain terms, just how Truly Good the Bishop of Digne is. He has a wobbly moment when he talks to an old, dying man, an ex-member of the National Convention (someone the rest of the countryside deems a monster, obviously), but within the space of a chapter the bishop comes to understand the old man’s point of view and admonishes himself for his previous ill-natured thoughts, asking only for his blessing before the man dies before him.
Enter Valjean, another spanner in the works who disrupts the ordinary rhythms of Digne. An ex-convict, he has been released from his chain gang at Toulon, but Hugo makes sure we known of his provenance – primarily that he broke a windowpane of his town’s bakery and stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her children because he could no longer afford to provide for them and was sinking further into poverty. Now, released, some nineteen years later (he tried to escape a few times, earning him more years on top of his original sentence), he has no idea where his family is (or if they’re even still alive), and is simply glad to have his freedom. He’s summarily chased away from every inn and town by its inhabitants (mean children included) and denied the chance to even pay for food or shelter for the night, so he ends up throwing himself at the mercy of the bishop in Digne. Anyone familiar with the musical which was inspired by Hugo’s novel will know what’s coming.
Whilst at dinner, Valjean sees the bishop’s only luxury amongst his household of scarcity (he focuses on giving any wealth ‘due’ to him as a religious authority to the poor of his diocese) – a pair of candlesticks and the silverware with which they eat their meal. Waiting until all are in bed, Valjean steals the silverware and runs off into the proverbial night. By this time in his life, he has internalised the hatred of all eyes on him and, having tried to prove himself good after being released from prison, then basically concludes ‘well if they hate me and despise me anyway, I might as well do things worthy of being hated and despised and be in a better position for it’ – e.g. steal some silver from a pious man. However, when the police catch the fleeing Valjean with some suspicious silver and bring him back to the bishop, Myriel does not confirm the police’s suspicions but instead tells Valjean that, in his haste, he forget that he had gifted him the silver candlesticks also. Valjean is agog, aghast, and doesn’t understand why the bishop is showing him mercy but, as Myriel tells him: with the silver he has “bought” his soul for God. Valjean, having had his worldview shaken and shown mercy, reacts by leaving promptly and then stealing money from a child on a countryside lane, as you do. He immediately regrets it and realises how low he is trying to sink by lashing out in such a way. He weeps and the section ends with him on his knees in prayer before the door of the bishop. Although the narrative turns aside from him at that point, we can assume he’ll now turn his attention to being Good.
Alongside this story of redemption we have a story of a “fall” – enter Fantine. Described as young, innocent, beautiful without knowing it (a trope I kinda hate, to be honest), she is swept away by the highs of first love and spends a summer season frolicking with the best of them – or, it turns out, the worst of them. A quartet of men court a quartet of girls, Fantine included, and then suddenly up and leave them one day, but, hey, they paid for the meal before they disappeared, cackling, having dumped the girls so… you know… fair enough? Hardly. Then Hugo drops the bomb: Fantine is pregnant. She has a child, Cosette, but knows that her being unmarried with child trailing along after her could cause questions to be asked, so she decides to leave Cosette to the care of an innkeeper’s wife, Madame Thénardier, who seems maternal because her kids playing in the street seem fine. (Questionable logic, but ok.) She promises to send the Thénardiers the wages she earns to pay for Cosette’s upkeep and she secures a position in Montreuil-sur-mer, a town which is now thriving due to the arrival of an ingenious man who revolutionised the industry of the town and ended up becoming the major of the town at the urging of the townsfolk – Monsieur Madeleine. Again, anyone familiar with the musical, will find their ears prick up at the mention of the name.
Just as Hugo spent chapters telling us how Good the Bishop of Digne was, we are treated to the same treatise on Madeleine. Everyone in Montreuil-sur-mer adores him, with one dramatic exception – a police inspector named Javert. (AND I’M JAVERT! Sorry, had to be done.) We are told he is so exacting and forthright in his duty and respect for authority that he deems criminality of any sort and criminals themselves to be disgusting stains to society etc. etc. Once this character is established, along with his strange suspicion of the innocent Mayor of the town (that will become Very Important), we have a brief interlude where a cart falls on its owner and Madeleine leaps to the man’s rescue (only after failing to persuade anyone else to do so with the promised reward of money), showing inhuman strength as he pushes the cart up long enough for the townsfolk to drag the gravely injured man out from underneath it. Javert is convinced that this feat of strength is only possible by one person, a convict named Jean Valjean who is on the run from the law. (Might I just say: “No, not the face. Not the voice. It’s the lifting by which you remember a man.”) Hugo lets us stew on this for a while, so I presume Javert is just constantly lurking with a suspicious squint at Madeleine whenever the mayor does anything.
Meanwhile Fantine is doing good, she has a position at the mayor’s factory, but one of the other workers is a busybody (we all know one) who can’t just let a girl have a secret child without outing her so when she digs and finds out about Fantine’s Cosette being looked after by the Thénardiers she tells everyone and Fantine ends up being dismissed from her job by the factory’s overseer on behalf of the mayor (allegedly). Desperately Fantine tries to keep up with the payments the Thénardiers are due for Cosette but they keep upping the allowance they ask for and it doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that, very quickly, Fantine isn’t able to send enough money to them. She sinks further and further into poverty and despair (she ends up selling her hair and her teeth to earn a few sous) and reading it certainly does not make for a fun time. Fantine comes to the realisation that she has nothing else left to sell aside from herself, so she becomes a prostitute.
One day she is teased and mocked on the street by a drunk “gentleman”, so Fantine lashes out when he shoves cold snow down the back of her dress and hits him in retaliation – naturally, sensing a “crime” from afar, Javert swoops in from god know’s where to arrest her and drag her off to prison. Obviously, Inspector Javert doesn’t think much of prostitutes either. But the good mayor pops up and pipes up that he believes Fantine’s defence that she was provoked and is innocent of wrongdoing. Fantine, recognising the mayor and still thinking it his decision to sack her (leading to her spiral into poverty and prostitution), spits in his face. Javert is convinced of her evilness with this action but Madeleine insists that she be released, throws his weight around as granted by his position as the town’s mayor, and tells Javert he can leave now (shut the door on your way out, Inspector). Fantine, astonished by Madeleine’s goodness and forgiveness, faints clean away in his arms – he takes her to an infirmary to be nursed back to health (hopefully). Spoiler alert: she won’t get better and, incensed, Javert goes away and writes a strongly worded letter, setting in motion what will be the eventual inner turmoil of the mayor that will take up the remaining 100 pages of this volume.
Javert appears at the mayor’s house and asks Madeleine to dismiss him because he has done wrong. Madeleine is as shocked as you and I and asks what crime Javert has committed. The crime, it transpires, is accusing the mayor of being that infamous Jean Valjean, something he is deeply sorry for as it turns out to be impossible – Valjean has been recently caught and is awaiting trial elsewhere. As you can imagine, the mayor is shooketh by this revelation because, well, he is Jean Valjean. *loud gasp of surprise* He keeps this to himself, obviously, and says Javert has done no wrong in his duty and asks him to return to business as usual. Then Madeleine aka Valjean proceeds to have an internal breakdown because that’s kind of his brand. He spends many, many pages agonising over this innocent man (although not that innocent since he was caught allegedly stealing apples) who people have mistaken for Valjean – indeed, convicts who served with Valjean have confirmed his identity is true. It would be so very easy for Madeleine to say nothing and let this innocent-ish person be sent down as him. But, obviously, he’s sworn to be Good for Bishop and for God and so he’s put in a difficult position – to come clean or not to come clean, that is the question. It’s the question that takes up nearly a hundred pages in the book but which they condensed down to a song or two for the musical adaptation which I think we can all agree was a wise decision.
Even as Madeleine is renting horses and carriages to get him to the trial of “Valjean” in time, readers are left in the dark about whether he will ultimately actually denounce himself or not. A few mishaps along the way of his journey make Valjean’s conviction waver as he suddenly thinks perhaps fate is trying to get him to miss his chance at the trial and so save him from justice. Eventually, after much to-ing and fro-ing (pages upon pages of it), he proclaims himself as such in the courtroom, he is Jean Valjean, the convict, the wanted man, 24601. Before the stunned audience can do anything, he disappears back to his town in a swish of his cloak, telling them they can come and arrest him in a few days, they know where to find him etc. etc., which, frankly, displays an extraordinary amount of gall considering he’s, you know, a wanted criminal to be arrested and thrown back in jail.
Valjean rushes back to the town to check on Fantine and she’s, unsurprisingly, not feeling too good. He tries to comfort her and she’s clearly hallucinating she can see Cosette and keeps asking for her daughter. Valjean sends letters to the Thénardiers and money, asking them to bring Cosette to them so that her mother can see her as she is gravely ill. Unsurprisingly, they don’t come and make excuses for why Cosette can’t travel. Meanwhile, Javert is doing what he does best – lurking authoritatively. He comes to arrest Valjean, as promised, by a dying woman’s bedside (classy, Inspector). Fantine dies. Valjean tries to talk his way out of being arrested so that he can go and retrieve Cosette from her “caretakers”, the Thénardiers, but Javert is having none of it and arrests him. Somehow Valjean manages to slip out of the city prison – if I’ve learnt anything from this book so far it’s that he’s very good at escaping, not so much the not being caught again part – and goes to his room to grab his stuff, presumably to leave town but not before making a nun lie to an official (Javert) to conceal Valjean’s presence and make sure he can slip away into the night. Hugo ends this volume on a suitably depressing note by telling us its eponymous woman, Fantine, is buried in a public grave.
My reading experience of Volume One: Fantine
As you can tell from the recap above, this was a volume in which SO MUCH happened – ALL THE THINGS, in fact. We’re introduced to so many characters which are vitally important – the Bishop, Valjean, Javert, the Thénardiers, Fantine, and Cosette. Looking at how much of the book we still have left to go, it seems surprising that there’s still plot left because volume one was… a lot.
I’m not going to lie, I experienced lulls in this first volume; there were large portions of this text in which my main takeaway was ‘I GET IT, HE’S A GOOD GUY™, please can we move on now?’. It’s also a volume which likes to pause a time or two for a little philosophical reflection and I know this recurs in later volumes so I’m not counting on these getting any easier to stomach. It was, however, a good introduction to the correct way to skim read something such as Les Misérables – it’s not a true skim read in that you’re looking for the next bit of action, but it’s a skim read in which you take all the words in but almost immediately discard from your memory anything that doesn’t feel like it’s vitally important to the plot, for now. Similarly, I just have to let go not getting the puns – they’re hilarious in French, I’m sure, but translation means the jokes have to be explained and everyone knows that explaining a joke is the sure-fire way to render it unfunny.
All in all, though, I’m pleasantly surprised that the actual experience of reading the text isn’t all that difficult in itself. Sure, the size of the book and the volume of pages I need to read each day to stay on-track might be off-putting but there’s nothing majorly difficult in the writing style or narrative itself. I’m optimistic for what will follow in the next volume though I am also nervously side-eyeing my copy with trepidation right now because I know the 50+ page digression on the battle of Waterloo is looming strong in Volume Two. Once more unto the breach, mes amis!
Are you taking part in the readalong? How did you find Volume One? Are you enjoying reading the book? Let’s chat in the comments below!