Bonjour mes amis et bienvenue à la deuxième 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.
Last week was something of a challenge. Due to the bank holiday on the Monday I felt suitably lazy to kick off the week… which is never a good thing when you’re on a tight schedule! Then, on Saturday both Liz and I’s day was entirely taken up by a trip to London to see a couple of shows (Hamilton again which was fantastic as always and Betrayal which was surprisingly enjoyable!) so the entire day was spent driving to/from Milton Keynes, getting the train into Central London, watching two theatre productions, and then doing the same journey in reverse. It meant we didn’t get home until the early hours of Sunday and though I thoroughly enjoyed the day, it meant Sunday was a little bit skew-whiff too since I woke up later than I ordinarily would and was tired so didn’t really want to pick up Les Misérables as a relaxing Sunday afternoon read! All this is to say this post comes to you a day late for all these reasons, as I’ve only just caught up. But, still, caught up I have so let’s have a look at where Volume Two took us…
Recap of Volume Two: Cosette
We left the last volume on a suitably depressing note: on Fantine’s death. This volume, optimistically titled Cosette, suggests that her daughter may just fare a little better than her mother did. True to form though, the volume doesn’t open with what it says on the proverbial tin – instead, we’re treated to a 50+ page breakdown of the Battle of Waterloo. I kid you not. Now, I don’t know how, but Victor Hugo made me not care at all about a distinctly important battle. Throughout the entire thing I must have muttered ‘but why do I care? I don’t cARE’ so many times that I actually lost count. Genuinely. I was going to do a funny ‘number of times I muttered why do I care’ counter… and then the counter broke. Much like my experience with War and Peace, the war bits were distinctly less interesting that I thought they would be. There’s a reason why long epic battle scenes look so incredible on-screen but are difficult to pull off on the page. Victor Hugo proved that. The only bit I enjoyed hearing about was the (not so surprising) revelation that Thénardier skulked around battle scenes after the fact and stole from the corpses of dying soldiers. Classy af. Basically, he tries to steal a ring from a not-quite-dead corpse and Hugo bothers to have the dying character tell Thénardier his name so he will become Important I’m sure. (Ok, ok, I already know it’s Pontmercy, which is Marius’ surname so the revelatory family connection isn’t going to be so revelatory when I finally get to it.)
Otherwise though, I mostly just wanted to leave this section behind me. Quite ironically, salvation came in the form of Jean Valjean being recaptured and he goes from the very sing-able 24601 to prisoner number 9430 – they didn’t bother to show this rebranding exercise in the musical adaptation. The important plot point is that a struggling ship called the Orion ends up in a port in Toulon. It’s properly huge so people crowd around it etc. etc. and one day there’s an accident when a crew-member gets tangled up in the rigging and ends up dangling precariously. Who should burst out of a crowd and come to his rescue? Prisoner
24601 9430. He climbs up with the speed of a much younger man… or a man who has seen his opportunity. (Remember: Valjean is very good at the escaping, not so good at the not getting caught again business.) Valjean helps rescue the unfortunate seaman but, in doing so, slips from the sea wall and falls into the depths of the water, as observed by many an eye in the crowd.
Meanwhile, as Valjean is using a heroic deed and subsequent tragic fall as his escape route, the volume turns to its namesake: Cosette. Following Fantine’s death, she is still living with the Thénardiers who, unsurprisingly, aren’t the nicest of foster parents. Treated as a servant by them, her upbringing is far from that of their actual children: Azelma, Eponine (yes, that one), and an unnamed baby boy who I thought was Gavroche but now maybe I’m just confusing musicals and adaptations with unsubstantiated fan theories. One of Cosette’s tasks is to go fetch water form the well in the wood – a daunting task to any small child having to carry hugely heavy buckets, but especially so when she’s alone and the wood is dark and scary. However, out of the darkness springs a helping hand, quite literally. Who does that hand belong to? Well, who else does every random stranger turn out to be? That’s right: Valjean has returned from his dip in the sea vanishing act and returns, with Cosette, to the Thénardiers where he proceeds to, essentially, buy her from them. Because a stranger turning up in their inn to buy their adopted child isn’t at all suspicious. The Thénardiers are mainly focused on seeing how many sous they can rinse out of this stranger, so it’s understandable if the morals of the situation don’t exactly factor into their calculations at that pivotal moment.
Nevertheless, the deal is struck and, later, the Thénardiers’ non-existent concerns assuaged when Valjean reveals a letter from Fantine saying they should give Cosette to this letter-bearer and he will settle all debts and take her away. And take her away he does, having to manoeuvre into the shadows and build a new life. Their life might be basic and spent mostly in solitude but Valjean makes sure she has a doll (something she never had with the Thénardiers but longed for) and that is a happy child. After the pitiful treatment she has received from her previous foster home, it’s not exactly a difficult ask, but Valjean applies himself to the noble task indeed and finds that this fathering role is one he has always wanted and has now been granted.
This is Les Misérables so the moment of happiness doesn’t last long as Javert reliably comes creeping back into the narrative. Valjean becomes quite (rightfully) paranoid that he can see the police inspector out of the corner of his eye on random street corners, and once in a beggar’s eyes as he stooped to give him alms. He only turns out to be actually right about the beggar rather than just paranoid – this is Javert in a (clever?) disguise. Javert also pays a visit to Valjean’s lodgings one night and creeps on him and Cosette, trying to discover what he can about the mysterious man and his alleged granddaughter. Spooked by this unsettling feeling of being followed, Valjean flees his lodgings with Cosette in tow and we head into the backstreets of Paris as he tries to shake off their tail and outmanoeuvre Javert who has brought backup this time. In a desperate attempt not to be found cowering down a shady backstreet, Valjean and Cosette scale a wall and land, unbeknownst to them, in a convent, the Convent of Petit-Picpus in the Quartier Saint-Antoine. Valjean approaches the gardener he sees there and the man recoils in surprise – he recognises this stranger in the night, as Monsieur Madeleine! Yes, that’s right, in the biggest coincidence to ever occur, the gardener turns out to be none other than Fauchelevent, the man whom Valjean saved from underneath an upturned cart when he performed his feat of strength. Providence, or perhaps divine intervention, has lead Valjean back to the very place to whom he recommended the crippled Fauchelevent – something tells me the narrative is now likely to make Fauchelevent save Valjean’s skin in a lovely reciprocal gesture.
Meanwhile, Hugo decides to backtrack and switch focaliser to show not how Valjean escaped Javert but, rather, how Javert lost Valjean’s trail. It’s truly the stuff of a police procedural, or maybe a cop drama, but the fun of the chase is somewhat lost when it’s explained in minute detail. However, it’s preferable to what follows: Victor Hugo’s detailing of the particulars of the convent. The convent is not exactly a thrilling place and Hugo treats readers to a long consideration of the Bernardines vs. the Benedictines as well as showing those praying are expecting to fall, prostrate, in the church for hours at a time, until relieved by a fellow worshipper. Frankly, the picture Hugo paints of the Order does nothing to inspire me to get thee to a nunnery, and the all too aptly titled ‘A Parenthesis’ chapter does nothing to inspire to me to continue reading Les Misérables.
Once Hugo has explicated to his readers the idea of the convent as, variously, an abstract idea, an historic fact, and through its values, Valjean asks Fauchelevent for his help to arrange for sanctuary for himself and Cosette in the convent. Of course, Valjean being a man, this is very unlikely to go down well with the community, so they put their heads together and concoct a convoluted plan to sneak both Valjean and Cosette out of the grounds of the convent, and then… have them invited back in by the Mother Superior because that makes sense rather than just continue to hide on its grounds as they have semi-successfully been doing thus far.
Conveniently, the order has recently suffered a death and the nun in question wanted to be buried under the alter, but the French authorities have a Thing that says no to that plan. Fauchelevent sidles over to the Mother Superior to suggest a way that both of these things can happen – he will take care of making sure an appropriate amount of dirt is put inside the coffin, so that it’s weighed down, and the authorities won’t suspect a thing, meanwhile the late nun can be buried as she wished. Sounds like a flawless plan. Of course, this is all a ruse to allow Valjean to be sneaked out of the convent, Fauchelevent will be the gravedigger and make sure he gets out before the coffin is covered with dirt and buried in the graveyard. Meanwhile, Cosette is a small child so her means of escape is much easier – she squishes inside a basket and Fauchelevent carries her out – simples!
Obviously, because no plan in Les Misérables is without its fair shot at being a potentially traumatising experience, the Escape By Grave-digging plan doesn’t completely work, as a pesky official gravedigger is diligent about his job and wants to get that coffin buried asap, without the offered distraction of alcohol from Fauchelevent. Eventually the cunning gardener snags the other man’s ID and sends him into a panic trying to locate it because if you’re in the graveyard after it’s closed, you need to show your ID at the exit or you will face a fine. (Is this to stop grave robbers being tempted to break in? It just seems a strangely specific rule.) With the officious gravedigger out of the way for now, Fauchelevent sets to work breaking Valjean out of the coffin and, after a brief moment of panic where Fauchelevent thinks he’s suffocated and died, Valjean breathes in a dramatic gasping breath again and is judged to be doing a-ok. The men, and a retrieved Cosette, return to the convent where they relay their cover story of Valjean being Fauchelevent’s brother looking for work and shelter/education for his granddaughter. I don’t think the Reverend Mother necessarily believes their story completely but Cosette is judged to be quiet and homely and Fauchelevent needs an assistant gardener so why not his alleged brother? All seems rosy and Cosette grows up – this is where the volume leaves its readers.
My reading experience of Volume Two: Cosette
You know when I said last week that I’d realised the key to getting through Les Misérables might be the tactical not-quite-skim read? Yeah, I was flat-out skimming parts of the Waterloo section, with little to no guilt felt about that. I’m sorry, but I didn’t sign up for entire swathes of battlefield description which prove no narrative or thematic background to the actual story. There were some admittedly nice sections here, particularly takes on the French Revolution being all the revolutions of Europe since 1792 and France exemplifying this revolutionary/liberty-seeking spirit. As someone who wrote an undergraduate dissertation on the imaginative legacy of Revolutionary France, it’s safe to say this kind of discourse is My Jam. But the descriptions of battlefields and troop movements? Yeah, not so much.
I was also much less interested in the parenthesis section. I knew going into this novel properly this time that Victor Hugo is known for being partial to the odd digression or two but this just felt meandering without reason. Any editor nowadays would probably tell you to cut that shit from the draft but, if that were the case, Les Misérables may very well be half the size it is. (See also: Moby Dick, War and Peace, etc. etc.)
Aside from that, I enjoyed seeing the truly despicable Thénardiers and it’s unsurprising that with these characters are where the brief moment of levity is focused in the musical adaptation. The truly dark humour of the entire situation is that they’re the ones who swindle and cheat and generally lead unsavoury lives, but they’re the ones who may very well come out “on top” in comparison to some of the more virtuous characters – if the song is to be believed, that is. Only time, and the rest of the book, will actually confirm if this is the case so onwards we read…
Are you taking part in the readalong? How did you find Volume Two? Are you enjoying reading the book? Let’s chat in the comments below!