I dreamed a dream in time gone by,
When hope was high and life worth living.
I dreamed that love would never die.
I dreamed that god would be forgiving.
He slept a summer by my side.
He filled my days with endless wonder.
He took my childhood in his stride.
But he was gone when autumn came.
And still I dream he’ll come to me.
That we will live the years together.
But there are dreams that cannot be.
And there are storms we cannot weather.
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living.
So different now from what is seemed.
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.
So sings Fantine in Les Miserables, a musical staging of Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name that is widely considered one of the most beautiful plays of all time. In it, Fantine has had a child with a man she loved dearly but never wed. She works in a factory to provide for her child, keeping to herself as much as possible. But judgment against her as an unmarried mother and her refusal of her foreman’s advances lead her to lose her job. She is spiritual, modest, and a loving mother. But after selling her jewelry and then her long, beautiful hair, she turns to the only job she can find: prostitution.
Though her life seems dire, her honesty and integrity so win over the mayor, Jean Valjean, (a former convict himself) that he takes her child, Cosette, into his keeping upon her death. Cosette grows up wealthy, educated, and much loved by her father.
Yes, Fantine’s is not the most uplifting story, and indeed she is one of The Miserable Ones that Hugo draws in this epic drama. But Fantine’s story sets the stage for the entire piece: sometimes life comes down harshly on good people, and sometimes those who have done wrong should have the chance to repent and then make good for others. She guides characters throughout the play. She is practically idolized, remembered for her virtue and her huge heart, not the fact that she prostituted herself.
Escorting has, in general, found darker avenues in fiction and drama than they have in film. Maybe because films are created to breach a wider audience producers want to make sure that the subject matter appeals to those of varying sensitivities. American sweethearts Julia Roberts, Barbara Streisand and Nicole Kidman have all played such women — striking, practically squeaky-clean actresses who give their roles a sense of fun and empowerment.
But fiction and drama are, well, dramatic. And the environment that brought about Fantine’s desperation was exactly that — desperate. Set in and around Paris between 1815 and 1832, Les Miserables tracks a dark period in France where food shortages and increases in the cost of living set wider gaps between the classes, creating extreme poverty in the lower class. Then a cholera outbreak killed over 18,000 people. Politically, there was an extremely anti-monarchial energy building, erupting in secret societies of young Republican students that took part in violent protests. Meanwhile, the wealthy lived in typical French excess, with art and gaiety being the social center of their lives.
All of these characters are represented in the book:
- The eager young students rally with “do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men? It is the music of the people who will not be slaves again”. They have education, they have the ability to work, but they are restricted by an old order of politics that they feel cannot last and have a huge sympathy for the uneducated who are struggling beneath them, and therefore fight to claim any power that they possible can (sound familiar?)
- Eponine is the daughter of two street-cons who use her to aid in their thefts. She is in love with Marius, one of the students, explaining to him “I could have been a student too. Don’t judge a girl on how she looks — I know a lot of things I do”. She is stuck in a cycle of poverty and lack of education, and has no way to help herself out of it.
- Eponine’s parents find no shame in taking from anyone they can through whatever deceitful means necessary. They steal coins and jewelry from fallen soldiers, pickpocket those who work for charities, and break into the houses of the wealthy at night. Their skill is their understanding that all people deserve something, and since others have so much, they’ll take what they can with a clear conscience.
- The mob sings, “at the end of the day you’re another day older, and that’s nothing to say in the life of the poor. It’s a struggle, it’s a war. And there’s nothing that anyone’s giving. One more day standing about, what is it for? One day less to be living… At the end of the day you get nothing for nothing — sitting flat on your butt doesn’t buy any bread. There are children back at home and the children have got to be fed. And you’re lucky to be in a job and in a bed. And we’re counting our blessings.” They are hopeful, but desperate. Fantine comes from this lot.
Then there is the mayor, Jean Valjean. The hero of the story. Imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread for his sister’s starving child, he is taken in by a priest upon his release, only to steal from the priest upon nightfall. Yet the holy man does not turn him in but rather tells the police he gave the silver as a gift; “You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, god has raised you out of darkness — I have bought your soul for god”. Valjean, in turn, feels so guilty that he repents horribly, promising to turn his life around completely. Years later he takes Cosette after Fantine’s death to repay the promise he’s made to himself and god; to be a better man and do good.
In the end of the play, Cosette and the spirits of Eponine and Fantine come to Valjean’s side as he lay dying, an old man having lived an honorable, full life. Valjean explains to Cosette, for the first time, that her mother gave her life for her, literally working herself to death to raise up her daughter. Fantine, a specter in white, sings, “Monsieur I bless your name, Monsieur lay down your burden. You’ve raised my child in love, and you will live with God…”
So what opinion can we draw about escorting in France during this time from Les Mis? Hugo focuses on prostitutes who are not registered nor regulated by the government, as was legal at the time. Why not? Because of the regulation and politics that, in some way, kept the poorer classes poor.
The character painted in the most unkind light in the book is, naturally, the policeman Javert. He hunts Valjean throughout the play, believing him to be nothing more than a con on the run. He plans to arrest Fantine for being an escort. He calls Eponine’s people “vermin”, singing “look upon this fine collection crawled from underneath a stone, this swarm of worms and maggots…” As was seen politically with the revolutions of the time, leading up to the real-life June Rebellion in 1832 that closes out the story, politicians and policemen were not looked to kindly on by those suffering.
Yes, prostitution was legal, but only barely so. And the process was so unkind towards actually legitimizing the prostitution business that few women in their right mind would attempt to sign up. From a 1857 report from William Acton:
…after declaring her name, age, quality, birth-place, occupation, and domicile, is submitted to a searching examination, as follows. Is she married or single? Has she a father and mother living, and what are their pursuits? Does she reside with them; if not, why not, and when did she leave them? Has she children? How long has she inhabited Paris, and can she be owned there? Has she ever been arrested, and if so, the particulars? Has she previously been a prostitute; if so, the details? Has she had any, and what, education? Has she had any venereal infection? Her motives for the step? She next proceeds to the Bureau Sanitaire, is medically examined, and enrolled in that department. If found diseased, she is consigned to the Saint-Lazare Hospital forthwith. Steps are meanwhile taken to … an appeal for the woman’s redemption to her parents… Should the relatives of the girl be willing to receive her, she is remitted to them at the public cost… it rarely occurs that they reclaim her. If, as has happened, she be a virgin or a minor, she is consigned to a religious establishment.
The law basically made it impossible for a woman to sign up legitimately as a escort, and created the legally sanctioned profession to basically be for the almost lowest of the low — you had to have no family to take you in, but not have a venereal disease or be a virgin. So basically a destitute woman of age who had already had sex and had no family to turn to.
The rules for those who actually passed and received verification were similarly rigid: they had to undergo physical examinations every 15 days, were unable to practice their trade during daylight hours, had to always keep their registration card on them, were not allowed to address men directly on the street, had to dress simply with nothing calling attention to their profession, had to keep to certain parts of town, and windows had to be closed and shaded and women were not allowed to even lean their heads out… and dozens of other rules to keep this regulated business out of site.
Women who actually practiced with a license were no doubt very intriguing — but unfortunately their stories have been lost in time.
Hugo also doesn’t include courtesans, the escorts to the wealthy, who were educated and artistic and were paid for their time spent with the Parisian elite. They were musicians, dancers, writers and philosophers, not prostitutes, and most likely not miserable.
Instead of these two aspects of the profession Hugo shows a sisterhood of woman who have nothing else to turn to, who lure Fantine in with the recognition of their position in life and how Fantine might use hers to her advantage:
Come on dearie, why all the fuss? You’re no grander than the rest of us. Life has dropped you in the bottom of the heap. Join your sisters — make money in your sleep… Easy money laying on a bed, just as well they never see the hate that’s in your head. Don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead?
Hugo is sympathetic to these women, not so to their johns. The clients are rough, hypocritical, and cruel. He gives each escort a deep and troubled soul.
Hugo is equally sympathetic to the student protestors, showing them to be very intelligent, full of life and willing and ready to die for their beliefs. While he does show the hotheadedness of youth (the boys are a bit too eager to enter into a war they are unequipped for), he admires their fire, and their good intentions.
We live under the illusion that the law protects us and makes our society the best it can be. Hugo inadvertently doesn’t give us much of this in Les Mis. Valjean becomes successful and does so much good for others because he runs from his parole and creates a new name for himself. Fantine is also under the thumb of regulation through her factory work and then given no sympathy from Javert. Eponine cannot escape from her struggles. And even Javert — when his life is spared by Valjean through a twisted plot line — eventually sees the light and repents for his lack of sympathy and close-mindedness.
In the marriage of Cosette and Marius at the end of the drama there is hope, however. They are the perfect combination of wealth, education, morality and sympathy. They take care of those they love, and have the respect for others that was instilled in them from the good works of Fantine and Valjean. They carry the memories of all those they lost as inspiration for how to live in the new days of politics in Paris. And all the miserable characters are shown walking in a beautiful light in the afterlife.
Take my hand, I’ll lead you to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember, the truth that once was spoken — to love another person is to see the face of god.
- The Complete Symphonic Recording of Les Miserables by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil