Sunday, June 10, 2018

George Sand and the English Augustinians

So my husband and I were eating pizza at a nearby restaurant and I found a review in the Wall Street Journal of a newly-translated biography of George Sand, Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin. It highlighted the detail that Aurore was raised by her grandmother and sent to the convent school of the English Augustinians in Paris. This convent, Notre-Dame-de-Sion on the rue des Fossés-Saint-Victor (now rue de Cardinal Lemoine) was founded by English Catholic exiles. In her memoirs, Aurore described the experience:

THIS convent was one of the three or four British communities established in Paris during Cromwell’s ascendency…. It is the only one now in existence, its house having endured the various revolutions without suffering greatly. Its traditions say that Henriette of France, the daughter of our Henry IV. and wife of the unfortunate Charles I. of England, had often come to pray in our chapel with her son James II. All our nuns were English, Scotch, or Irish. Two-thirds of the boarding pupils and lodgers, as well as some of the priests who came to officiate, belonged to these nations. During certain hours of the day the whole school was forbidden to speak a word of French, which was the best means for learning English rapidly. Naturally our nuns hardly ever spoke anything else to us. They retained the habits of their country; drank tea three times a day allowing those among us who were good to take it with them.

The cloister and the church were paved with long tombstones, beneath which were the venerated bones of those Catholics of Old England who had died in exile, and been buried by favor in this inviolable sanctuary. There were English epitaphs and pious inscriptions everywhere on tombs and walls. Large old portraits of English princes and prelates hung in the Superior’s room and in her private parlor. The beautiful and amorous Mary Stuart, reputed a saint by our chaste nuns, shone there like a star. In short, everything in that house was English, both of the past and of the present; and when within its gates, one seemed to have crossed the Channel. All this was a “nine days’ wonder” to me, the Berri peasant.

Aurore was incorrect about the date of its founding. King Charles I was on the throne in 1634 when it was founded. She was there from 1817 to 1820 and her memoirs reflect some loneliness and restlessness in the cloister:

We were cloistered in the full sense of the word. We went out twice a month only, and never spent a night out except at New-Year’s. There were vacations, but I had none; as my grandmother said she preferred not to interrupt my studies, so as to have me at the convent a shorter time. She left Paris a few weeks after our separation, and did not come back for a year; then went away for another year. She had demanded that my mother was not to ask to take me out. My cousins the Villeneuves offered me their home for all holidays, and wrote to my grandmother for her permission. I wrote too, and begged her not to grant it; and had the courage to tell her, that not going out with mother, I ought not and did not wish to go out with any one. I trembled lest she should not listen to me; and though I felt the need and the wish to enjoy these outings, I made up my mind to pretend illness if my cousins came to fetch me armed with a permit. This time my grandmother approved my action; and instead of finding fault, praised my feeling in a way I found rather exaggerated. I had done nothing but my duty; yet it made me spend two whole years behind bars. 

We had mass in our chapel, received visits in the parlor, took our private lessons there; the professor being on one side of the grating while we were on the other. All the convent windows towards the street had not only gratings, but immovable linen screens besides. It was really a prison, but a prison with a large garden and plenty of company. I must confess that I never felt the rigors of captivity for an instant; and that the minute precautions taken to keep us locked up and prevent us from getting a glimpse of the outer world, often made me laugh. This care was the only stimulant we had to long for freedom; for there was not one of us who would ever have dreamt of crossing her mother’s threshold unattended: yet almost every girl at the convent watched for the opening of the cloister door, or peeped furtively through the slits in the linen screens. To outwit supervision, go down into the court three or four steps, see a cab pass by, was the dream and the ambition of forty or fifty wild and mischievous girls, who the very next day would go about Paris without in the least enjoying it; because once outside the convent inclosure, stepping on the pavement and looking at people were no longer forbidden fruit.


According to her latest biographer, Martine Reid, Aurore became "very devout" while with the English exiles, and even thought of a religious vocation for a time. St. Augustine's Priory in Ealing has this brief note about Notre-Dame-du-Sion in Paris:

Our history dates back to 1631 when an English woman, Lettice Mary Tredway, an English nun at the convent of Notre Dame de Beaulieu at Douai, together with Father Thomas Carre, a priest at the English College at Douai, conceived the idea of founding an order in France for those English women who wished to pursue their religious vocation but were prevented from doing so in England due to religious persecution.

In 1634 the Augustinian convent of the Canonesses Regular of the Lateran opened in Paris. Six English women were selected to start this new community, among them a thirteen year old girl, Margaret Dormer. She was too young to become a nun and so the school began, with Margaret Dormer the first pupil.

Over the next 250 years the community and school on the Rue des Fosses St Victor found itself at the heart of European events. The French Revolution saw the nuns enduring the terror of those years, their convent even being used as a prison for women. In the following years under Napoleon the community often played host as the Emperor enjoyed walking in the quiet of the convent gardens. Following Napoleon’s defeat, the Duke of Wellington visited the community. Revolution in 1848 saw the nuns remain at their posts, but in 1862 new premises had to be found when the property on the Rue des Fosses St Victor was demolished, and the convent and school moved to Neuilly, on the outskirts of the city.

In 1911, after nearly three hundred years, the anti-clerical laws of France saw the community compelled to leave France for England, a country where nuns were now welcome, to practise their vocation and run their school.

Image of the cloister of the convent (by Hubert Robert); Image credit for the location of the convent on rue des Fossés-Saint-Victor.

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