On Hugo’s poissarde: what’s with Mme T?

Jeffrey Tambour from Transparent

In my new class on Les Misérables, I am rediscovering Hugo in a new light, or several. Hugo’s poissarde never loomed so large over my imagination as today, when the passage below left me speechless. For a writer who claims, like Michelet, to sympathetically write the history of the people, Hugo’s portrait of Mme Thénardier strikes the modern reader as a testosterone-driven oddity. Could he have been alluding to a transgendered person? What the heck does the description mean (despite contempt for the working woman)?

That is one area where Hugo is weak: women’s history. His description of Fantine’s time at M. Madeleine’s factory in Montreuil-sur-mer is flimsy. It is dashed off in a line or two, similarly to the description of the factory which concludes in “la vie saine du travail” and an invocation to workers “soyez honnête homme! Soyez honnête fille!” (228-229). Fantine’s entire career at the factory is summed up in four pages, after which she hits the bottom quickly.

This is a pity, because the lives of women in 19th-c France were complicated and fascinating. Luckily, we now have great works of women’s history to fill in the gaps, such as the article by Bonnie Anderson & Judith Zinsser on “Earning Income” in A History of their Own, 1988. There we learn all about factory work, destitution, abuse, and the many dire sorts suffered by our foremothers in the nineteenth century.

Woman always worked, women always suffered: that much Hugo got right.

Helena Bonham Carter as Mme Thernardier

Not to belabor my distaste for the Hopper 2012 version, but really, what was he thinking in casting Helena Bonham Carter (5’2″) as Mme Thénardier? The star of Transparent Jeffrey Tambour (in one of his less flattering outfits on a grumpy day) would have been better. Check out Hugo’s description of Mme T:

Grande, blonde, rouge, grasse, charnue, carrée, énorme et agile ; elle tenait, nous l’avons dit, de la race de ces sauvagesses colosses qui se cambrent dans les foires avec des pavés pendus à leur chevelure. […] Elle avait de la barbe. C’était l’idéal d’un fort de la halle habillé en fille. Elle jurait splendidement ; elle se vantait de casser une noix d’un coup de poing. Sans les romans qu’elle avait lus, et qui, par moments, faisaient bizarrement reparaître la mijaurée sous l’ogresse, jamais l’idée ne fût venue à personne de dire d’elle : c’est une femme. Cette Thénardier était comme le produit de la greffe d’une donzelle sur une poissarde.*

“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 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 Thénardiess was a cross between a whore and a fishwife.”**


*Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, IIe Partie, Cosette. Livre 3, « Accomplissement de la promesse faite à une morte », II, « Deux portraits complétés ».  Ed. Yves Gohin, Vol. 1, p. 494.

**Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Trans. Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, after C.E. Wilbur. New York: Signet, 377-378.


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