It was only when I got about two-third of the way through this section of the book that I began to question my decision to read the unabridged version. In fact, if our usual library run had not been preempted for a trip to our favorite Italian eatery for lunch after Bible study last Wednesday, I would probably now be reading the abridged version. Alas, it was not to be, and I am still persevering through all 1400 pages. Actually, what I’m doing is abridging the novel myself, which I’m pretty sure is not as good of an idea as reading one that someone abridged who actually knew what he was doing.
I did finally make it through the second section of the book, and I enjoyed most of it immensely. I skipped the first book, “Waterloo,” because my interest in the Battle of Waterloo peaked back in an undergraduate history class on the French Revolution and Napoleonic period. To tell the truth, I really wasn’t too interested in battles, even then. I abridged the book myself again when I got to book six, “Petit-Picpus.” I actually read the first few sections of this book, but I got pretty bogged down (not to mention depressed) by all the details of convent life, so I skipped to the next book to read more of Jean Valjean and poor little Cosette. That’s the real story, after all. (I hope I haven’t missed anything dreadfully important by skipping these two books. If I did, please clue me in.)
Those two books notwithstanding, I have thoroughly enjoyed this section. In my first Reflections in Progress post about the first section of the novel, I wrote that I was really impressed by Hugo’s ability to create suspense. After reading “Cosette,” I see that he is also a master at both descriptive characterization and comedy. I love the description he gives of Cosette’s “benefactress,” Mme. Thenardier:
tall, blond, red, fat, brawny, square, enormous, and agile; she belonged, as we have said, to the race of those colossal wild women who pose at fairs with paving-stones hung in their hair. She did everything around the house, the beds, the rooms, the washing, the cooking; and generally did just as she pleased. Cosette was her only servant–a mouse in the service of an elephant. Everything trembled at the sound of her voice, windows and furniture as well as people. Her broad face was covered with freckles, like the holes in a skimming ladle. She had a beard. She had the look of a market porter dressed in petticoats. She swore splendidly; she prided herself on being able to crack a nut with her fist. Apart from the novels she had read, which at times produced odd glimpses of the affected lady under the ogress, it would never have occurred to anyone to say: That’s a woman. This Thenardiess was a cross between a whore and a fishwife. To her her speak, you would say this was a policeman; to see her drink, you would say this was a cartman; if you saw her handle Cosette, you would say this was the hangman. When at rest, a tooth protruded from her lips. (377-78)
This description is priceless. Although it reminds me of some cartoon villainess, dimwitted and slow, I still would not want to be Cosette’s shoes.
My favorite part of this section, though, is at the very end when Jean Valjean is smuggled out of the convent in a coffin and is then readmitted as Fauchelevent’s brother. The scene in the cemetery with the new gravedigger is the perfect blend of suspense and comedy!
I might be reading this slowly, and I might barely finish it by the time Steady Eddie and I see it on stage this summer, but at least I am enjoying it!