Tag Archives: Lark

Now Arriving at Rue Plumet

We finally do get back to Jean Valjean and Cosette, and in a strange turn of events, the narrator names them on the first page!

The Rue Plumet house has a secret entrance on the other side of the block. I’m trying to remember how this comes back later, other than by keeping them hidden along with the decoy apartments, one of which Valjean abandoned after Marius found it, and one of which he’ll go to later on after the robbery attempt here.

Cosette has finally grown into her childhood nickname, with the “voice of a lark.” Back then, in Montfermeil, the name was ironic, because “poor Alouette never sang.”

It’s not often that Les Misérables backtracks over the same scene from a new point of view, but it’s a good thing it does when showing Cosette’s side of her long distance flirting with Marius. It shows us that it really is two sided and not all in Marius’ head.

Here’s an odd POV case: When Theodule (Marius’ cousin) catches Cosette’s eye, the narrator doesn’t stick with what Cosette knows, he jumps over to Theodule, names him, then jumps over to Marius to clarify the timeline, then back to Cosette.

Some quick googling on the history of PTSD suggests it has long been observed in soldiers and veterans, though often attributed to either physical injury or character failings. It doesn’t seem to have been understood more broadly until the late 20th century, certainly not in 1862. Even so, Valjean clearly experiences a PTSD flashback when he and Cosette see a chain gang leaving Paris for years of hard labor in prison.

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The Lark

Little Cosette and the broomIt’s funny how “24601” is such a powerful refrain in the musical of Les Misérables, but is barely mentioned in the book. But there is another nickname* that does keep coming up over and over: The Lark, a name given to little Cosette by the people of Montfermeil.

She was known locally as l’Alouette, the Lark. The village people, with instinctive symbolism, had thought it a suitable name for the apprehensive, trembling little creature, scarcely more than a bird, who was always first up in that house and out of doors before dawn. But this was a lark that never sang.

Years later the Thénardiers mention it while Marius is listening in, which is how he learns something he can call her. In his despair over being unable to find her, Marius wanders into a field that catches his eye, and then discovers it’s called the Field of the Lark. Of course it must be a sign, so he starts spending all his time there.**

Hugo even compares her to a lark in the narrator’s voice when describing her sense of adventure, and why she doesn’t spook as much as one might expect when Marius starts creeping around the garden.

Cosette was not nervous by nature. There was gipsy blood in her veins, that of a barefooted adventuress. We may recall that she was more like a lark than a dove. She had a wild but courageous heart.

The fact that the book keeps coming back to it makes me wonder why the musical dropped it. It’s a great character hook, especially with the songbird angle. Though given the similar vocal profiles and isolated-damsel-in-the-city roles, maybe they wanted to distance her from Johanna in Sweeny Todd, whose signature song is actually about songbirds.

*Not counting the zillions of aliases, or the nicknames given to passers-by, or nicknames that characters actually go by. Like, for instance, Cosette, whose real name is Euphrasie.

**As it turns out, it’s a good thing he does, because that’s how Éponine finally finds him after she discovers where Cosette lives.

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Part 24: Creeping Around the Garden

I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about a failed mugging, or read on!

Variations of the HeartThe musical condenses an extremely long courtship between Marius and Cosette into the cliched (but much easier to stage when you’ve got other story to tell) love-at-first-sight moment. In the book, they have months of flirting across the park in summer, then lose sight of each other, then almost meet just before the attempted robbery in February, then nothing for several more months.

Cosette is actually starting to move on, having given up on ever seeing Marius again, and this handsome soldier in the nearby barracks starts spending his break time in view of the garden. This time it’s not so much love at first glance as “Hellooooo Nurse!” though when his fellow officers tell him he should flirt with her, he says with great modesty (or not) “Do you really think I’ve time to stare at all the girls who stare at me?”

Because this is Les Misérables, and coincidences abound, the soldier is Théodule Gillenormand. Yes, Marius’ cousin. Katie suggests that maybe Hugo got tired of introducing new characters. If so, it certainly took him a while.

Then things get spooky.

A chimney that beats a retreat when about to be found out.Cosette doesn’t scare easily. Years with Valjean and at the convent have counteracted the anxiety of her childhood, allowing the “gipsy blood in her veins” (I wonder if this was a standard phrase at the time, or if Hugo is adding a bit to her background) and her adventurous nature to reassert itself. Hugo compares her to a lark. For something I didn’t remember at all from the first read-through, that nickname keeps recurring an awful lot.

One night that spring, Cosette hears footsteps in the garden. She goes to the shutters to peek out, but no one’s there. Another night she’s out in the moonlit garden, and sees the shadow of a man wearing a hat, walking a few paces behind her. She looks around, but again no one’s there…and when she looks back, the shadow has vanished as well.

She figures she’s hallucinating, but twice in as many days? “Most disturbing, it could not have been a ghost. Ghosts do not wear round hats.”

The next night she awakens and hears footsteps in the garden. She looks out, and there’s a man with a cudgel! Oh, wait…it’s her father standing guard. *whew!*

After a couple of nights on patrol, Jean Valjean wakes her up to point out a chimney shadow that looks rather like that of a man wearing a round hat, and Cosette is so relieved that she doesn’t think about things like whether the shadow quite lined up with where she saw it, or the position of the moon three days later, or “singular behaviour of a chimney that beats a retreat when it is in danger of being caught.” (I just love that line.)

Their housekeeper Toussaint is somewhat less reassuring, remarking that “We could be murdered in our beds before you could say knife, especially with Monsieur not sleeping in the villa.” Gee, thanks. (On the plus side, Hugo notes that she has a stammer, but declines to write it in dialect. “We dislike the musical notation of an infirmity.”)

A few nights later, a stone appears while she’s walking around the garden, completely freaking her out. The next morning, convinced she’s imagined it, she goes out. The stone’s still there, but in the daylight she’s more curious than afraid, and finds the envelope with a notebook filled with musings of love. Pages and pages of it.

The Book of Love

“God is behind all things, but all things conceal God. Objects are black and human creatures are opaque. To love a person is to render them transparent.” I think this may have inspired the line, “To love another person is to see the face of God” from the musical.

“Lacking this, or lacking air, we suffocate.” So, I guess Marius is saying that love is like oxygen.

She finishes the letter just as Theodule wanders by again, and not only thinks him “odious,” but wishes she could throw something at him. All her feelings for Marius are rekindled fully. Interestingly, Hugo compares it to the bread messages tossed over the walls by prison inmates.

That night, Marius finally steps out of the shadows, and the two of them are reunited. Or, perhaps we should say, united, because they’ve never actually spoken until this moment. Marius starts babbling, going on for several minutes asking if she’s read the book, telling her that he’s been coming to watch her at night, but don’t worry, no one sees him, he just looks at her windows and walks very quietly to avoid disturbing her (stalker warning!), and oh no I’m rambling, “am I annoying you?” Yes, he’s afraid he’s doing everything all wrong…

At long last, nearly a year after they first noticed each other, they meet, speak, embrace, kiss…and learn each others’ names. Whoa!

Next up: Gavroche’s strange encounters with his family.

Pages covered: 797-811. Images by Jeanniot and Lynd Ward from two unidentified editions of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Part 21: Just a Lark

The Lark's FieldI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about the revolutionary mood of 1832 Paris, or read on!

Marius is utterly despondent after witnessing the attempted robbery. Cosette’s gone again, and he still doesn’t know her name — in fact, it’s worse, because he thought he knew it, but it turns out he doesn’t after all. He had to choose between his true love’s father and the man who saved his own father, and learn that the latter was vile and repulsive. Even now he can’t bring himself to testify against Thénardier, and actually sends him money in prison (even though he has to borrow it from Courfeyrac). He’s also stopped working and fallen into a vicious circle.

I love this scanning error in the Kindle edition: “It is her own thoughts that are reaching meh!”

Marius fails at telepathy.

At one point he wanders into a picturesque field that “because the place is worth seeing no one visits it.” But it’s called the Field of the Lark, and since he’s learned Cosette’s old nickname, he seizes on it as a sign. So from then on, whenever he gives up staring at the blank piece of paper he’s supposed to be writing on, he goes there.

Aftermath of a Robbery

You’d think Javert would be pleased at having captured most of the gang, but he’s troubled by one loss: “The prospective victim who escapes is even more suspect than the prospective murderer.” He’s already forgotten Marius except as “that little nincompoop of a lawyer who had probably been scared out of his wits.”

Montparnasse and Éponine apparently have…something going on. He escaped capture because he left early, “more in a mood to amuse himself with the daughter than play hired assassin for the father.” In a later chapter, he’s described as “perhaps [Thénardier’s] unofficial son-in-law.” It’s not clear how far it goes, though he’s more interested than she is. In any case, it’s odd that Hugo dances around this, considering how frank he is about, for instance, Fantine’s relationship with Tholomyes.

Remember how I joked that Claquesous was a vampire? He escapes on the way to prison, mystifying the police escort. “He had simply vanished like a puff of smoke, handcuffed though he was.” Yeah, vampire. Or maybe Batman. (Javert wonders if he’s a double agent, though of course he disapproves of the practice.)

Of course, they don’t let a “trifle” like being in prison keep them from running their criminal enterprise. They send messages back and forth between prison yards and out of the prison hidden inside lumps of bread, tossed over the wall. One of them gets wind of a likely house to rob in the Rue Plumet (sound familiar?), contacts Magnon (M. Gillenormand’s former servant from 200 pages ago!), who sends Éponine to check it out. Éponine takes one look at it, and sends back a coded message about a biscuit, meaning it’s not worth the effort. But she knows someone else very interested in the inhabitants of that house.

Lost and Found

It takes Éponine a while to track Marius down. First she locates his old friend Père Mabeuf, the gardener and book-lover who knew his father. He’s fallen on hard times, and gotten old besides. The girl helps the old man draw water from the well, an interesting reversal of Valjean and Cosette’s first meeting.

He calls her an angel. “‘I’m no angel,’ she replied. ‘I’m the devil, but it’s all the same to me.’” Her self-image needs some help.

After he answers her question about Marius, he turns around and she’s gone. Later that night as he’s drifting off to sleep, he wonders if she was a goblin. Or maybe she’s Batman. She’s certainly got the voice.

Though since she finds Marius at the Rivière des Gobelins, maybe Mabeuf was right.

Since Marius has last seen Éponine, she’s been worked over by both poverty and puberty. It’s a bit awkward, and it’s kind of surprising that Marius even notices. She starts rambling about this that and the other thing, while he answers her occasional questions with monosyllables.

She mentions that Mabeuf called him a baron. “You can’t be a baron. Barons are old. They go and sit in the Luxembourg, on the sunny side of the château, and read the Quotidienne at a sou a copy.” I guess this trope is older than I thought.

When she finally tells him “I’ve got the address,” he’s suddenly ecstatic. And Éponine? “She withdrew her hand and said in a tone of sadness that would have wrung the heart of any beholder, but of which Marius in his flurry was quite unconscious: ‘Oh, how excited you are!’”

Next: Catching up at the Rue Plumet

My commentaries seem to be covering smaller and smaller chunks of text. I don’t know how much is the story getting denser, how much is the greater presence of interesting characters, how much has to do with it being so much easier to highlight a passage and come back to it later instead of commenting as I read, and how much is just seeing more connections because I’ve read more of the story so far.

Pages covered: 739-755. Image by Lynd Ward from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Part 3: Sunday in the Park with Fantine

Les Misérables

Something interesting happened a hundred or so pages into Les Misérables: The first week was a slog, but now on week three, I find myself looking forward to it. Maybe it’s the fact that more of the cast is starting to show up.

After Valjean’s encounter with the Bishop, the book jumps forward two years to 1817. Hugo picks up after the time skip with a snapshot of Parisian society and French culture in that year. A lot of the names are lost on me, but the bit about changes in terminology for Revolution-related topics is interesting.

He later makes the point that it’s difficult for modern readers to imagine a country outing from Paris “45 years ago” because so much has changed. It’s easy to forget that Les Misérables was already a historical novel when it was new. The modern equivalent would be a story written today that starts in 1965 and runs through 1982.

Fantine’s Day Off

Fantine makes her first appearance on page 123 of “Part 1: Fantine.” Hugo talks about the group of Parisian students being Oscars rather than Arthurs (no idea why), and when he gets to naming them, he starts out with “The Oscars were named Felix…” That seemed a bit *ahem* odd.

“Gold and pearls were her dowry, but the gold was on her head and the pearls were in her mouth.” You know where this is going, don’t you?

There’s an extended story about a blissful country outing that Fantine goes on with her boyfriend and their circle of friends. As I recall, it’s the only time in the book when she’s happy.

They finish the afternoon in a tavern, drinking. Fantine’s boyfriend Felix Tholomyès is a buzzkill, windbag…and ringleader of the group. He’s that philosophy major who lets his studies go to his head, thinks he’s smarter than everyone and holds forth constantly. And now he’s giving the women diet advice. And telling the men to screw around, and the women to let them. Stay classy. (And really, what does she see in this guy? Excuse me, this Oscar?)

At the end of the day, Tholomyès’ “merry prank” is revealed: essentially, it’s “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we all dumped our girlfriends at once by ditching them?” #jerks

Fantine’s boyfriend wrote a letter when he wanted to leave, but at least he took her to a park that’s covered with trees and told her on a Sunday.

I think Hugo was trying to do a twist ending here, between Felix’s “surprise” and the fact that he first mentions Fantine’s child in the last sentence of the 20-page sequence. Or maybe he was trying to prevent prudish readers forming a negative first impression of Fantine. He spends a lot of time pointing out how virtuous and modest she is in all other respects, and that to her, Tholomyès is the love of her life.

Fantine is devastated, but the other women are more stoic. One even had another guy picked out already. Presumably none had children, but who knows? It’s not as if Hugo mentioned Cosette until then.

A Poor Choice of Guardians

Ten months later, traveling from Paris for her hometown to look for work, a much sadder Fantine stumbles on Mme. Thénardier and her children on the one day she looks respectable. Oops.

Cosette, Éponine and her sister Azelma (also known as miss not-appearing-in-this-show) all get along wonderfully when they first meet as toddlers. You know it won’t last.

Cosette turns out to be a nickname for Euphrasie.

Mme. Thénardier is humming as she and Fantine arrange for the innkeepers to care for Cosette. Guess what’s stuck in my head now?

Madame Thénardier is described as looking like a wrestler, who would have scared Fantine off if she’d been standing instead of sitting. M. Thénardier is described as “a Jack-of-all-trades who did everything badly,” and promotes himself heavily by his (greatly exaggerated) reputation as a solider. This explains the coat he wears in the stage version. The names Éponine and Azelma are attributed to the fact that Mme. Thénardier reads the trashy novels of the day, which Hugo uses as a springboard to comment on the spread and reversal of prestigious vs. plain names as inspired by pop culture and social mobility.

As sad as it is to see Cosette toward the end of her time being mistreated by the Thénardiers, it’s worse to read how they got to that point. Things start out fine for the first month, but then they sell her clothes and put her in rags. Next they’re feeding her scraps. Resenting her despite the extra revenue stream from Fantine, Mme Thénardier directs all her cruelty toward Cosette and all her kindness toward Éponine and Azelma…who follow her mother’s example in treating Cosette. By the time she’s five, they’ve put her to work as a drudge, all the while resenting her presence. Meanwhile, M. Thénardier demands more and more money from Fantine, telling her how wonderful Cosette is faring, even as they treat her worse and worse.

Villagers take to calling her the Lark. “But this was a lark that never sang.” When I first wrote this commentary, I didn’t even note it, because I’d forgotten that the name keeps coming up throughout the book.

The Stranger

Fantine’s hometown of Montreil-sur-Mer has recently experienced an economic revival. A stranger came to town and invented a new manufacturing method for their main industry, completely transforming the local economy. He doesn’t talk about his past, and arrived only with a small amount of money which he invested in the project. But since he rescued the police chief’s children from a fire his first day in town, no one even asked to see his papers.

Who could he be?

On top of revitalizing the industry, building a new factory and employing a bunch of the townspeople, Pere Madeleine endows hospitals and schools, inspires political rivals to do the same, and is always helping random people out. He’s known to sneak into houses to leave money on the table. Eventually they insist, over his objections, on making him Mayor.

Uh-oh, official policy in his factory includes “pure morals” for women (along with goodwill from men and honesty from everyone). That makes him partly responsible for Fantine’s firing later, and probably makes him feel more personally responsible for her fate.

Hmm, M. Madeleine is known as an excellent marksman on the rare occasions he shoots. I wonder if that’ll turn up later

Intrigued by rumors of skulls and crossbones, winged hourglasses and the like, young ladies of the town ask him, “M. le Maire, may we be allowed to see your bedroom? It is said to be like a cave.” (No, really.) They’re disappointed to only see his candlesticks.

I’m really not sure at what point Hugo expects us to figure out that M. Madeleine is Jean Valjean. But any reader who hasn’t figured it out by the time he goes into mourning for the Bishop of Digne hasn’t been paying attention.

Pages covered this week: 119-163. Continue on to part four, where we meet Javert for the first time.

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