Margaret Bernadine Hall, Fantine (1886, Walker Gallery)

This image depicts Fantine, a character in the Victor Hugo novel Les Misérables (1862). Fantine is the mother who stares directly out at us. Her expression, more easily witnessed in the enlargement below, is not as weary as it, by rights, should be. Her eyebrows are raised slightly but her brow, from what we can see under her pale illuminated blonde hair, does not appear furrowed. Her skin, whilst pale, is smooth and not pock marked, and we could be forgiven for thinking Fantine’s life was not as tragic as readers of Les Misérables will know it to be. This is not to suggest we should read her expression as restful, calm, or satisfied, it could never be any of those things. Instead her gaze seems pensive, and resigned at what she knows is her future; resignation is surely a more desperate state of affairs. Without passion and fight what hope is left? But how does that reading fit with Hugo’s narrative? What is Fantine’s story?

Fantine was born in Paris and is an orphaned grisette (a name given to a working class woman from the late seventeenth century and was indicative of the cheap, colourless clothes these women wore. Gris being the French for grey.  Hugo introduces her thus:

Fantine was one of those beings who blossom, so to speak, from the dregs of the people. Though she had emerged from the most unfathomable depths of social shadow, she bore on her brow the sign of the anonymous and the unknown. She was born at M. sur M. Of what parents? Who can say? She had never known father or mother. She was called Fantine. Why Fantine? She had never borne any other name. At the epoch of her birth the Directory still existed. She had no family name; she had no family; no baptismal name; the Church no longer existed. She bore the name which pleased the first random passer-by, who had encountered her, when a very small child, running bare-legged in the street. She received the name as she received the water from the clouds upon her brow when it rained. She was called little Fantine. No one knew more than that. This human creature had entered life in just this way.

Fantine is one of four beautiful girls who have formed attachments to young, wealthy students. The four students invite their four lovers on an outing and finish the day at a restaurant, only for the girls to be abandoned by a goodbye note. However, Fantine cannot laugh it off like the other girls as she is pregnant by Félix Tholomyès, one of the quartet of students. Hugo does not judge Fantine though, for he writes: ‘We will confine ourselves to saying that the love of Fantine was a first love, a sole love, a faithful love’.

So in a crude way, Fantine’s familiar story is that she fell in love and became pregnant, and like many before her and many still to come, she was then abandoned by her lover.  Of course, as mother to an illegitimate child, life was never going to be easy during post-Revolutionary France.

Fantine’s struggle is in her fight to keep herself and her daughter, Cosette, safe and fed. Her life had always been hard: ‘At fifteen she came to Paris “to seek her fortune.” Fantine was beautiful, and remained pure as long as she could. She was a lovely blonde, with fine teeth. She had gold and pearls for her dowry; but her gold was on her head, and her pearls were in her mouth’.

Hugo tells us that ‘Fantine was beautiful, without being too conscious of it’ and yet she was conscious enough that she knew she could sell her hair and that is precisely what she does. Fantine sells her hair, her bright glowing halo which in this painting she still has. But when this proves not to be enough to keep her and Cosette, Fantine then sells her own front teeth – let us not forget Hugo’s description of her ‘fine teeth’. Finally, despite her seventeen hour sewing shifts a day, Fantine sells her body. ‘She worked for her living; then, still for the sake of her living,—for the heart, also, has its hunger,—she loved’.

The painting depicts the full-face of Fantine, and with context and knowledge of the novel we suddenly see this work as transitory, momentary, decisive, a cross roads between the now and the future. Fantine’s beauty remains but it is momentary, it will soon disappear, as will that glowing head of hair, and those teeth. Her expression is worried, but not crucified for she does not yet know all that she will endure. Instead, she looks at us and perhaps asks us for assurance, if not for her then perhaps for Cossette, whose cot her hands rests upon (or maybe gently rocks?) A doll in a red dress lays upon the floor and is perhaps emblematic of Fantine’s self-abnegation. Her mothering instincts are strong, but her fate is tragic. Tholomyès cast her aside, just as society will and despite her best efforts, what will happen to Cosette? This is the cycle of abandonment is what Hall asks us to consider when we look at this painting.

It is evident that Hall knew the characters of Hugo’s novel well, and her training in Paris no doubt gave her exposure to this text. Her reading is tender and sad but I remain sure it includes a desire for optimism, a desire for the outcome of history to be different this time, for this woman. Fantine remains uncertain and we are permitted by Hall to remain hopeful, albeit our hope like hers is futile.

Sadly we know that Fantine’s prostitution and general ill-health and life result in hospitalisation, not least because of tuberculosis. She dies not knowing where Cosette is, despite her best efforts to protect her daughter throughout her life. Cosette’s own story is less tortured and she inhabits the role of innocent, pure child, and is often criticised for being a somewhat empty character.

In a 1916 essay, Fantine was described by Eugene Victor Debs thus:

The very name of Fantine, the gay, guileless, trusting girl, the innocent, betrayed, self-immolating young mother, the despoiled, bedraggled, hunted and holy martyr to motherhood, to the infinite love of her child, touches to tears and haunts the memory like a melancholy dream….Fantine — child of poverty and starvation — the ruined girl, the abandoned mother, the hounded prostitute, remained to the very hour of her tragic death chaste as a virgin, spotless as a saint in the holy sanctuary of her own pure and undefiled soul. The brief, bitter, blasted life of Fantine epitomizes the ghastly story of the persecuted, perishing Fantines of modern society in every land in Christendom.

It is this Fantine who existed back then and still exists now. It is this Fantine that Hall presents in her wonderfully lit, tender yet unsentimental well-drawn characterisation. Please, let this woman keep her hair, her teeth, and her body for it is hers.