muslin; a gayety cooled by dreaminess; sculptured and exquisite -- such was Fantine."
Into the dark
In Paris, Fantine falls in love and moves in with a young aristocratic college student. For a while she enjoys the good life. Money is not an object, she wears silk gowns and satin ribbons in her hair provided by her wealthy paramour. The inevitable happens and Fantine bears his child -- Cosette, a girl. After three years, her lover returns to his aristocratic family, jilting Fantine and abandoning his daughter -- treating the affair as nothing more than a youthful amusement -- leaving her to care for their daughter alone and without any financial support.
She moves back to her small rural village in Northern France and finds work in a local factory. She is forced to leave Cosette in the care of an unscrupulous couple who run an inn in a nearby village to hide her bastard child. Single motherhood at the time was considered sinful and inappropriate moral behavior. Unaware the couple is corrupt and evil, she agrees to pay them a monthly stipend. The couple abuse Cosette, using her as slave labor to clean their inn. The innkeepers are, Hugo wrote, "beings belonging to that bastard class composed of coarse people."
Illiterate, Fantine is forced to use a public letter writer twice a month to send the agreed stipend to the innkeepers. This leads to the discovery of her illegitimate child by a meddlesome supervisor who is "jealous of her golden hair and her white teeth." Fantine had been working in the factory for a little more than a year when the discovery occurred and she is summarily fired. She is fired in the name of the factory's owner -- the kindly village mayor played by Hugh Jackman in the current film. The mayor, himself a wanted criminal who is leading a double life, is totally unaware of the incident.
Fantine's termination occurs at the same time that the unscrupulous innkeepers increase their monthly demands to take care of Cosette. She takes up sewing, making shirts for soldiers at the local garrison -- earning substantially less than at the factory -- working up to 17 hours a day to make enough money to pay the innkeepers' extortion demands. Eighty-five percent of her income goes to pay Cosette's keep. Deeply in debt, "her creditors harassed her," threatening jail if she moved from the village before her debts to them were paid. At the same time, the innkeepers make up stories about her daughter that stressed her beyond despair.
"One day they wrote that little Cosette was entirely naked in the cold weather" and needed a wool skirt and demanded money, Hugo wrote. "She went into a barber's shop and sold her hair." The length of her beautiful golden hair "fell to her knees."
Fantine "took on a lover." But he is, Hugo wrote, "a miserable scamp, a sort of mendicant musician, a lazy beggar, who beat her" and finally abandoned her.
The stress becomes unbearable and the overworked Fantine becomes sick. "Her cough did not leave her, and she had sweats on her back," Hugo wrote. Then another letter arrives from the innkeepers falsely claiming Cosette is suffering a fever requiring expensive drugs. "If you do not send us forty francs before the week is out, the little one will be dead," they wrote. By now Fantine has moved to a tiny attic room with a ceiling so low it "knocked her in the head" at every turn.
Her beautiful teeth
What to do? She notices a crowd in the village square surrounding a carriage "upon which stood a man dressed in red. ... He was a quack dentist on his rounds, who was offering to the public full sets of teeth, opiates, powders and elixirs," Hugo explained. "The tooth-puller spied the lovely ... [Fantine] and suddenly exclaimed: 'You have beautiful teeth.' " The dentist offers her a sizeable sum for her two incisors. A toothless old woman in the crowd tells her she is a "lucky woman." She runs from the square, thinking "how horrible!" Still, it is exactly the sum needed to buy Cosette's medicine.
"I would have pulled out my teeth to play Fantine."