Les Miserables 25: Sister Simplice

Last time we saw that Father Madeleine was in the process of trying to wrap things up so that he could shake loose for a couple of days and head to Montfermeil to fetch Cosette and bring her back to Fantine.  In walked Javert, who dropped it on him that Jean Valjean has been found and is awaiting trial at Arras; this trial was to be held the next day.  Of course we know that this prisoner at Arras, Champmathieu, is not Jean Valjean; Father Madeleine is Jean Valjean.  This bombshell sets off a crazy tempest in Madeleine’s world.

The first thing Madeleine did was visit the hospital and commend Fantine to the care of a certain Sister Simplice.  He stayed for an hour, twice the usual length of his visits with Fantine, giving explicit instructions to all who are involved in her care because he had no idea when he would be back.

Victor Hugo introduces Sister Simplice, noting that she possesses the trait of not being able to bring herself to tell a lie.  He passes over this at first, but then he comes back and camps out on it:

Let us emphasize one circumstance.  Never to have lied, never to have spoken for any purpose whatever, even carelessly, a single word that was not the truth, the sacred truth, was the distinctive trait of Sister Simplice; it was the mark of her virtue.  She was almost celebrated in the Community for this imperturbable veracity.  The Abbe Sicard speaks of Sister Simplice in a letter to the deaf-mute Massieu.  Sincere and pure as we may be, we all have the mark of some little lie on our truthfulness.  She had none.  A little lie, an innocent lie, can such a thing exist?  To lie is the absolute of evil.  To lie a little is not possible; whoever lies, lies a whole lie; lying is the very face of the Devil.  Satan has two names:  He is called Satan, and he is called the Liar.  That is what she thought.  And as she thought, she practiced.  The result was that whiteness we have mentioned, a whiteness whose radiance covered even her lips and eyes.  Her smile was white, her look was white.  There was not a spider’s web, not a speck of dust on the glass of that conscience.  When she took the vows of Saint Vincent de Paul she had taken the name of Simplice by special choice.  Simplice of Sicily, it is well known, is that saint who preferred to have both her breasts torn off rather than answer, having been born at Syracuse, that she was born at Segesta, a lie that would have saved her.  That patron saint was fitting for this soul.

Make a note of this, because this trait will come into play a few chapters down the road.  Notice how Victor Hugo camps out on it; he obviously wants this to stick in your mind.

Victor Hugo also takes the opportunity to introduce us to Sister Perpetue, who serves as something of a foil to Sister Simplice.

Sister Perpetue was an ordinary village girl who had become in general terms a Sister of Charity; she entered the service of God as she would have entered service anywhere.  She was a nun as others are cooks.  This type is not very rare.  The monastic orders gladly accept this heavy peasant clay, easily shaped into a Capuchine or an Ursuline.  Such country people are useful for the coarser duties of devotion.  There is no shock in the transition from shepherd to Carmelite; the one becomes the other without any huge effort; the common basis of ignorance of a village and a cloister is a ready-made preparation and puts the peasant on an even footing with the monk.  Enlarge the smock a little and you have the frock.  Sister Perpetue was a stout nun from Marines, near Pontoise, fond of her dialect, psalm singing, and muttering, sugaring a nostrum according to the bigotry or hypocrisy of the patient, treating invalids harshly, rough with the dying, almost dashing God in their faces, belaboring the death agony with angry prayers, bold, honest, and florid.

Contrast this with Sister Simplice:

In contrast to Sister Perpetue she was a sacramental taper by the side of a tallow candle.  Saint Vincent de Paul has spiritually portrayed the figure of a Sister of Charity in these admirable words in which he unites so much freedom with so much servitude, “Her only convent shall be the house of sickness; her only cell, a rented room; her chapel the parish church; her cloister the streets of the city, or the wards of the hospital; her only wall obedience; her cloister bars the fear of God; her veil modesty.”  This ideal was embodied in Sister Simplice.  No one could have guessed her age; she had never been young and seemed as if she would never have to be old.  As a person–we dare not say a woman–she was gentle, austere, companionable, cold, and she had never told a lie.  She was so gentle as to appear fragile; though in fact she was stronger than granite.  She touched the unfortunate with charming fingers, delicate and pure.  There was, so to speak, silence in her speech; she said just what was necessary, and she had a tone of voice that would have both edified a confessional and enchanted a drawing room.

After visiting the hospital, the next thing Madeleine did was pay a visit to Master Scaufflaire on the edge of town, to arrange for the rental of a horse and carriage to take him to Arras and back; his plan was to leave out bright and early the next morning.  At Master Scaufflaire’s, he took great pains to avoid telling him where he was going–even to the point of changing the subject when asked point blank where he was going.  But he left behind a sheet on which he had written some figures for the distances he would be traveling; Master Scaufflaire deduced that these were distances to relay stations en route, and from this was able to deduce that Madeleine must have been going to Arras.

Next, Madeleine went home, and his neighbors observed some rather unusual goings-on in his place during the night.  This was because Madeleine was in fact Jean Valjean–this is the point at which Victor Hugo finally lets the cat out of the bag (though many readers are probably able to figure it out long before this)–and he was in the middle of a fierce deliberation with himself as to whether or not he would go to Arras and denounce himself to save Champmathieu.  We will look at this deliberation next time.

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