Les Miserables 68: The Battle Commences

The change in Cosette’s life that we read about last time happened between the time Marius first saw her at the Luxembourg and the time he saw her again six months later.

Recall that when Marius first saw Cosette at the Luxembourg, he was relatively unimpressed with her.  Here is Victor Hugo’s description of what Marius saw that day:

The first time the young girl that accompanied him [Valjean] sat down on the seat they seemed to have adopted, she looked like a girl of about thirteen or fourteen, puny to the point of being almost ugly, awkward, insignificant, yet promising, perhaps, to have rather fine eyes.  But they were always looking about with a sort of unpleasant assurance.  She wore the uniform, both aged and childish, peculiar to the convent boarders, an ill-fitting garment of coarse black merino.  They appeared to be father and daughter.

…He found the man very much to his liking, but the girl rather depressing.

Then Marius inexplicably stopped going to the Luxembourg.  Six months later, on a fine summer day, he went back and saw Valjean and Cosette once again.  Here is what he saw that day:

When he drew closer, however, he saw that it was indeed the same man, but it seemed to him that it was no longer the same girl!  The woman whom he now saw was a noble, beautiful creature, with all the most bewitching feminine outlines at the precise moment when they are still combined with all the most charming graces of childhood–that pure and fleeting moment that can only be translated by these two words:  sweet fifteen.  Beautiful chestnut hair shaded with veins of gold, a brow that seemed marble, cheeks like roses, a pale bloom, a flushed whiteness, an exquisite mouth that gave off a smile like a gleam of sunshine and a voice like music, a head that Raphael would have given to Mary, on a neck that Jean Goujon would have given to Venus.  And so nothing be lacking to this ravishing form, the nose was not beautiful, it was pretty; neither straight nor curved, neither Italian nor Greek; it was the Parisian nose; that is, something sprightly, fine, irregular, and pure, the despair of painters and the charm of poets.

…In six months the little girl had become a young woman; that was all.  Nothing is more common than this phenomenon.  There is a moment when girls bloom in a twinkling, and become roses all at once.  Yesterday we left them children, today we find them disturbing.

She had not only grown; she had become idealized.  As three April days are enough for certain trees to put on a covering of flowers, six months had been enough for her to put on a mantle of beauty.  Her April had come.

So now we return to the point where Marius fell in love with Cosette.  But this time around we see the whole thing from Cosette’s point of view.  One day when Marius walked past, Cosette looked at him and it was all over for him.  But this glance had a profound effect on her as well:

The power of a glance has been so much abused in love stories that it has come to be disbelieved.  Few people dare say nowadays that two beings have fallen in love just because they have looked at each other.  Yet that is the way love begins, and only that way.  The rest is only the rest, and comes afterwards.  Nothing is more real than the great shocks that two souls give each other in exchanging this spark.

At that particular moment when Cosette unconsciously turned with a glance that so affected Marius, Marius had no suspicion that he also had a glance that affected Cosette.

She received from him the same harm and the same blessing.

For a long time she had seen and scrutinized him as younger girls scrutinize and see, while looking the other way.  Marius still thought Cosette ugly, while Cosette already began to think Marius beautiful.  But as he paid no attention to her, that young man meant nothing to her.

But Cosette did not understand what was happening to her.  Marius had ignored her for so long, and now at last he was paying attention to her.  To her, this attention looked like condescension.  She found it intimidating, and it made her a little angry.  Then there was the day that Marius did not go looking for her but she and Valjean walked by him instead.  They exchanged glances, and it was all over.  They were in love.

Cosette’s education up to that point had not given her any language to describe what she was feeling.  All the songs from the outside world that filtered their way into the convent had had the words changed, so that all occurrences of the word amour (romantic/sexual love) were replaced with tambour or Pandour (brotherly love or godly love–not sure which is which but you get the idea).  Victor Hugo describes her state as follows:

She did not know, therefore, a name to give to what she was feeling.  Is one the less sick for not knowing the name of the disease?

Loving in ignorance, she loved with all the more passion.  She did not know whether it was good or evil, beneficent or dangerous, necessary or accidental, eternal or transitory, permitted or prohibited:  She loved.  She would have been astonished if anyone had said, “You can’t sleep?  But that’s forbidden!  You can’t eat?  That’s wrong!  You have sinking spells and palpitations!  That’s not right.  You blush and turn pale when a certain being dressed in black appears at the end of a certain green walk!  Why, that’s abominable!”  She would not have understood and would have answered:  “How can I be blamed for something I can’t help and about which I know nothing?”

Hugo concludes the chapter by describing the character of her love for Marius as similar to remote worship of an unknown deity.  This sort of love was best suited for Cosette at this point in her life.  Anything more real than this would have terrified her; the convent was just too fresh in her mind and heart at this point.

But this development in Cosette’s life did not bode well at all for Valjean.  Next time we will look at what Cosette’s falling in love meant to Valjean, and how he responded to it.

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