L'Harmattan, Paris, 2006
While in her 80s, my husband’s great aunt wrote this book about surviving and surpassing a strict religious education for girls growing up between the World Wars.
My mother-in-law (niece of the writer) lent it to me following a conversation about our mutual interest in family histories, and before a recent family visit, I took it off the shelf. Family histories aren’t always fascinating and well-written, and I was expecting to skim for the main details.
I had misjudged. Well written, humorous, full of Post-it-able reflections, Un jour j’irai là turned out to be a personal page-turner!
Jacqueline was born in 1919 to a large family of girls, and attended convent boarding schools from a young age. At the time, this was the typical education for girls of the Catholic bourgeoisie, and any other type of education was unthinkable to her mother. Meanwhile, the family business had failed due to an accident, and this had resulted in financial ruin, forced reliance on others (i.e. free school tuition), and for Jacqueline, subjection to the cruelty of teachers and peers.
The first chapter is a detailed and beautifully written description of Jacqueline’s earliest memories as a young child who has only recently learned to walk. I was amazed that at 84, she could remember the past so convincingly. As the chapters unfold, she recounts her experiences with candor, not hesitating to point out hypocrisy and the irony of religious teaching.
An example is when Jacqueline’s mother, Antoinette, is first in line to meet with the head nun at the convent school, but the nun meets with each of the other mothers first, saying: Antoinette, now that you are ruined, you have lost your social rank. These women have important husbands, so I naturally gave them precedence over you. You have to get used to it, my child.
Jacqueline is disppointed and angry, and writes: For so long I’ve been told that Jesus loves the poor and prefers them to the rich, so I naïvely thought the Sisters would follow his example and put us first. But instead of showing us love, they humiliate us, reminding us of our poverty and our duty to be grateful to our superiors.
In another instance, she views the eucharist with a child’s logic: ...there are two miracles: the first is the transformation of the bread and the wine, the second is the fact that we should see Christ, even though we still see bread and wine. But I think: “So, if I take communion, am I a cannibal? No, because it’s bread. Try and make sense of that!
Another time, Jaqueline’s high school is invited to participate in a French competition with other Catholic schools. Jacqueline is especially good at writing, and her teacher says that she is the only student who would have a chance at winning. Jacqueline is ecstatic. But her teacher continues: Yes, you’re the only one, but for that, we’d have to give you private lessons so you’d be prepared. That’s out of the question, we don’t have time and, at any rate, you lack intelligence. You have a gift, that’s certain, but, I repeat, this gift doesn’t mean that you don’t lack intelligence. Sit down.
In response Jacqueline thinks: …I don’t understand at all; one can be gifted but at the same time be a complete idiot? For a fraction of a second, my impossible dream was almost coming true! ...My hoping for even a fleeting moment that I would be able to participate in the contest is the proof that I’m a hopeless moron!
However, later there is proof that she is anything but a moron, when another student, in love with a boy she’s not allowed to see, asks Jacqueline to ghost write a love letter for her, saying: You’re good at writing, you should be able to handle it. Jacqueline accepts, thinking: Writing a letter to a guy I’ve never seen is a bet, I’ll take it…I throw myself wholeheartedly into devising eloquent, sentimental declarations of love, vanting his charms, his virtues and the lofty love I feel for him. I close with a grand finale borrowed from Molière: How your beautiful eyes do of love make me die! (Que, beaux vos yeux, d’amour mourir me fon!) To Jacqueline’s amused horror, the student copies the letter over without reading it and gives it to the young man in question.
In 1935 Jacqueline attends an English boarding school and finally finds some contentment. She says, I am shocked by the difference in mentality between English and French boarding schools. It’s a different civilisation where I feel instantly at ease… To add to her sense of well-being, the teacher in charge tells Jacqueline that she respects her: …I’ve been watching you since your arrival. I think you were misunderstood at (your school in France). As far as I’m concerned, I hold you in great esteem.
Jacqueline writes: …a wave of happiness comes over me. This woman whom I admire deeply gave me back my dignity…Her profound intelligence, loyalty and generosity are evident and her actions help repair many past injustices… Now I’m ready to go forward and meet life head on.