The Convent of Petit Picpus
Volume II/Book Sixth and Volume II/Book Seventh
Place in the narrative
This is where Jean Valjean and Cosette find themselves having narrowly escaped from Javert and his police accomplices. Valjean discovers that Javert is lodging in the Gorbeau Hovel to spy on them so they leave in the middle of night to escape. Javert follows them in their flight and a chase ensues in the winding alleys of Old Paris. Valjean lifts himself and Cosette over a wall of a dead-end alley to safety, and Javert and his accomplices lose track of them. Valjean goes to look for help as Cosette is freezing, and discovers they are in the garden of a convent. He encounters the gardener, who happens to be an old friend of his, Fauchelevent, who is indebted to him for saving his life many years ago. Fauchelevent agrees to help them to stay at the convent, as a return favour for saving his life. This enables Cosette to be educated and Valjean to work there as under gardener, under the pretence that Valjean is Fauchelevent’s brother, Ultime Fauchelevent. Cosette and Valjean live happily in the security of the convent for five years before moving to the Rue Plumet.
Hugo takes the opportunity of describing Old Paris to explain that many of the places he is describing have either been demolished or have changed significantly since he was last there. He looks back nostalgically at the Paris he knew so well, recreating it for people who might have known it or for a new generation of people to fall in love with it as he did.
He also uses the setting as a backdrop to views he has on the state of the church at this time. He dedicates a whole book, Parenthesis, to the historical facts and his opinion. Among other subjects, he describes the rigid routines of day to day life in the convent and discusses the way the monastery has evolved in Europe throughout history.
‘Nothing, half a century ago, more resembled every other carriage gate than the carriage gate of Number 62 Rue Petit-Picpus. This entrance, which usually stood ajar in the most inviting fashion, permitted a view of two things, neither of which have anything very funereal about the, - a courtyard surrounded by walls hung with vines, and the face of a lounging porter. Above the wall, at the bottom of the court, tall trees were visible. When a ray of sunlight enlivened the courtyard, when a glass of wine cheered up the porter, it was difficult to pass Number 62 Little Picpus Street without carrying away a smiling impression of it. Nevertheless, it was a sombre place of which one had had a glimpse.’
‘This book is a drama, whose leading personage is the Infinite. Man is the second. Such being the case, and a convent having happened to be on our road, it has been our duty to enter it.’
‘…severe and gloomy edifice which was called the Convent of the Bernardines of the Perpetual Adoration.’
‘This convent, which in 1824 had already existed for many a long year in the Rue Petit-Picpus, was a community of Bernadines of the obedience of Martin Verga.’
‘The large building of the Rue Droit-Mur, which had a wing on the Rue Petit Picpus, turned two facades, at right angles, towards this garden. These interior facades were even more tragic than the exterior. All the windows were grated. Not a gleam of light was visible in any of them. The upper story had scuttles like prisons. One of those facades cast its shadow on the other, which fell over the garden like an immense black pall.’
‘At each hour of the day three supplementary strokes sound from the church bell of the convent. At this signal prioress, vocal mothers, professed nuns, lay-sisters, novices, postulants interrupt what they are saying, what they are doing, or what they are thinking, and all say in unison if is five o’clock, for instance, “At five o’clock and at all hours praised and adored be the most Holy Sacrament of the altar!” If it is eight o’clock, “At eight o’clock and at all hours!” and so on according to the hour.’
What I wrote in Paris
It is difficult to tell where Hugo placed this location and I’m not sure that it ever existed. However, the Rue de Picpus (the nearest thing that is to the name) is a long road, heavily built up with two possible stand in locations. The first is the cemetery for people who have been guillotined with a vast gate and cross inside. And the other is a rather official looking building with the French flag outside. It was interesting how different it is outside the centre of Paris with less people and more space!
This location is quite mysterious and difficult to discover where exactly it is as many of my sources don’t know where it is. Hugo even has a joke about it as he says ambiguously that it might not have existed at all. One of my internet sources, Reformed BlogSpot, said that it was in the Quartier Saint-Antoine but the only street name that remotely refers to anything to do with it, is the Rue Picpus which is where we went. It was another out of town area with virtually no tourists, only residents and locals to the area. Rue Picpus is a long and large road with lots of residential building. There are no mentions of a convent anywhere but I have two buildings that are there now that look slightly like the buildings Hugo describes. The first is a cemetery where people who died on the guillotine were buried. This has a vast gate, not unlike the one Hugo describes, and obviously a sort of chapel on the inside as there is an iron cross on top of a building that you can see over the gate. This isn’t a perfect way for looking for locations but I’m only looking for the location that looks most like what Hugo describes and evokes the atmosphere he describes. The second, and less promising, candidate is an official looking building with the French flag outside. I think I would go with number one as it has the most convincing exterior. It was interesting to see another out of town location with less people and more space compared to the centre of Paris.