It is something of a fashion for those of us who grew up going to Catholic schools to speak critically of the whole Catholic school experience, i. e. to tell horror stories about nuns with rulers and that sort of thing. Well, there is nothing new under the sun. Even Victor Hugo has critical words to say about the Catholic schools of his day:
Her education was finished; that is to say, she had been taught religion and also, and above all, devotion; then “history,” that is, the thing that goes by that name in the convent, geography, grammar, the participles, the kings of France, a little music, to draw profiles, etc., but beyond this she was ignorant of everything, which is a charm and a peril. The soul of a young girl should not be left in obscurity; in later life, all too sudden and vivid images spring up, as in a camera oscura. She should be gently and discreetly enlightened, rather by the reflection of realities than by their direct harsh light. A useful and graciously severe half-light that dissipates puerile fear and prevents a fall. Nothing but the maternal instinct, a wonderful intuition combining the memories of the maiden and the experience of the woman knows how this half-light should be applied, and of what it should be formed. Nothing can make up for this instinct. To form the mind of a young girl, all the nuns in the world are not equal to one mother.
Cosette had had no mother. She had only had many mothers.
…There is nothing like a convent to prepare a young girl for passions. The convent turns her thoughts in the direction of the unknown. Her heart, thrown back on itself, makes itself a channel, being unable to overflow, and deepens, being unable to expand. Thence visions, suppositions, conjectures, romances sketched out, longings for adventures, fantastic constructions, whole castles built in the interior obscurity of the mind, dark and secret dwellings where the passions find an immediate lodging as soon as the grating is crossed and they are permitted to enter. The convent is a repression which, in order to triumph over the human heart, must continue throughout life.
In this critique of the convent school, there is a connection with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Published in 1857, five years before Les Miserables came out, this is the story of a country woman who dissipates herself in sensuality and takes down the people who love her the most. One of the causes of Madame Bovary’s ruin was a Catholic convent education that was totally inappropriate to her station in life. She was exposed to romantic books and songs, and these created in her unrealistic ideas and expectations about romance that her husband could never meet. She then began to cheat on her husband and look to other men to fulfill these expectations, to her own eventual ruin. In describing the reading material that Madame Bovary was exposed to during her convent education:
It was always love, lovers, mistresses, persecuted women fainting in solitary little houses, postilions expiring at every relay, horses killed on every page, gloomy forests, romantic woes, oaths, sobs, tears and kisses, small boats in the moonlight, nightingales in the groves, gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, impossibly virtuous, always well dressed, who wept copiously. For six months, at the age of fifteen, Emma soiled her hands with these dusty remains of old reading rooms. Later, with Walter Scott, she grew enamored of historic events, dreamed of traveling chests, guardrooms, and minstrels. She wished that she had lived in some old manor, like those long-waisted ladies of the manor who spent their days under the trefoil of pointed arches, elbows on the rampart and chin in hand, watching a cavalier with a white feather emerge from the horizon on a galloping black charger. During that period she had a passion for Mary Stuart and adored unfortunate or celebrated women. Joan of Arc, Heloise, Agnes Sorel, La Belle Ferronniere, and Clemence Isaure blazed for her like comets over the murky immensity of history, on which, still standing out in relief, but more lost in the shadow and with no relationship to each other, were Saint Louis with his oak, the dying Bayard, a few vicious crimes of Louis XI, a bit of the Saint Bartholomew Massacre, Henri IV’s plume, and the continued memory of the painted plates praising Louis XIV.
Cosette fared a lot better than Madame Bovary, but it is clear that there were some areas in her life that were lacking, which would not have been lacking if she had had a proper mother. Instead, she had had to rely on the nuns of the convent, and on Jean Valjean. He did what he could, but being a man there was only so much he could do for her.
When Cosette came out of the convent, she was still a gawky pre-adolescent who wasn’t much to look at. But during that first year, all that changed overnight.