On a spring evening in 1818, in the village of Montfermeil, not far from Paris, two little girls were playing on a swing outside a small inn. Their mother — a big, red-haired woman with a plain face — sat on the doorstep of the inn, watching them.
‘You have two very pretty children, Madame,’ a voice said from close beside her.
The woman looked round and saw a young woman with a child sleeping peacefully in her arms. The mother was young and pretty, but she looked poor and unhappy. She did not smile, and lines of sadness ran down the side of her pale cheeks. Her clothes were old and dirty, and she wore a tight, plain cap over her beautiful blonde hair.
‘Thank you,’ said the woman. ‘Why don’t you sit down for a minute? You look tired. ‘When the young woman had sat down next to her, the red-haired woman introduced herself. ‘My name’s Thenardier. My husband and I manage this inn.’
‘My names Fantine,’ the young woman said. ‘I used to work in Paris, but my husband died and I lost my job.’ She could not tell Mme Thenardier the truth, which was that she had been made pregnant by a young man who had then abandoned her. ‘I left Paris this morning to look for work in Montreuil,’ she continued. ‘My little girl walked some of the way, but she’s very small. I had to carry her and she’s fallen asleep.’ As she spoke these words, she gave her daughter a loving kiss, which woke her up. The child’s eyes were as wide and blue as her mother’s. With a little laugh, she jumped off her mother’s lap and ran to play with the two girls on the swing.
‘What’s your little girl’s name?’ Mme Thenardier asked.
‘Euphrasie — but I call her Cosette. She’s nearly three.’
The two women watched the children playing together.
‘Children make friends very easily, don’t they?’ Mme Thenardier smiled. ‘Look at them. They could easily be sisters.’
At these words, Fantine did a very strange thing. She took Mme Thenardiers hand and said, ‘Will you look after my daughter for me?’
Mme Thenardier looked at Fantine thoughtfully, but said nothing.
‘I can’t take her with me,’ Fantine continued. ‘I have to find work, and that’s not easy with a child but no husband. As soon as I find a job, I’ll come and fetch her. Will you do that for me? I could pay six francs a month.’
Mme Thenardier still said nothing, but a man’s voice from inside the house called, ‘We’ll take seven francs a month, and six months in advance.’
‘And another fifteen francs for extras,’ called the man.
‘You will have them,’ said Fantine, assuming that she was talking to Mme Thenardiers husband. ‘I have eighty francs.’
‘Does the child have enough clothes?’ the man asked.
‘She has some beautiful clothes,’ Fantine replied. ‘Plenty of everything and silk dresses like a lady. They’re all in my bag.’
The man’s face finally appeared in the doorway.
‘Then we agree to look after her for you,’ he said.
The next morning, Fantine kissed her daughter goodbye and left for Montreuil, crying as if her heart would break.
‘This money will be useful,’Thenardier said to his wife. ‘Now I can pay off all my debts and stay out of prison. I’m proud of you. You set a very clever trap.’
‘Without even intending to,’ his wife replied.
One month later, Thenardier was short of money again, so he took Cosette’s beautiful silk clothes to Paris and sold them for sixty francs. The couple dressed Cosette in rags and gave her very little food, which they made her eat from a wooden bowl under the table. The dog and the cat, who ate with her, were her only companions.
Fantine, meanwhile, found work in Montreuil and asked for news of her daughter every month. The Thenardiers always replied that she was in good health and very happy. At the end of the year, however, Thenardier was not happy with just seven francs a month; he demanded twelve and Fantine paid without protest, happy that her daughter was being well cared for.
The Thenardiers, who were loving and gentle to their own daughters, Eponine and Azelma, treated Cosette like a slave.
They made her get up before dawn every day and do all the dirty jobs around the house, while Eponine and Azelma wore pretty clothes and played with dolls. By the age of five, Cosette had become a thin, pale-faced, silent child. Misery had made her ugly and only her beautiful blue eyes remained.
The Thenardiers did not feel guilty about treating Cosette badly because Fantine had stopped sending them regular payments.
‘The child is lucky to have a home at all,’ they told everybody.
‘Without us, she’d be living on the streets.’
When Fantine first arrived in Montreuil, she had immediately found work in a factory. She rented a small room, sent money regularly to the Thenardiers and, for a short time, was almost happy. She forgot many of her problems, and dreamt only of Cosette and her plans for the future. But her happiness did not last long. Although she was careful to say nothing about her daughter to anyone, other women at the factory soon discovered her secret. An unmarried woman with a child was a terrible thing in those days, and Fantine lost her job. She tried to find work as a servant, but no one would employ her. She finally managed to earn a little money sewing shirts, but she was unable to send money regularly to the Thenardiers.