Every time we plan a trip to Paris, we have a list of things we want to do there. And every time we get to Paris, we end up doing fewer than half of those things. After all, opportunities arise and it would be foolish not to take advantage of them.
Our latest list did not include a visit to an exclusive girls’ boarding school, but that was before we fell into conversation with a stranger in front of Stylos Marbeuf, a pen shop near the Champs-Elysées. The discussion moved from the merits of various pens to the role and function of pens in the age of iPhones, and from there to the question of writing and the effects of technology more generally.
After a while, introductions were in order. And we found that we had been talking with a teacher at the Maison d’Education de la Légion d’Honneur, founded by Napoleon. The third? No, the first. Would we be interested in seeing the school? Indeed we would. We fixed a rendezvous for the following day.
We took the Metro to St-Denis, a suburb to the north of the city. The tourists who go there usually want to see the tombs of the kings of France in the ancient basilica. Not all tourists realize that the basilica was part of a huge abbey, founded in the 7th century, and substantially rebuilt in the early 18th century.
The abbey buildings are still there – the cloister, the refectory, the chapter house, the dormitories – but they are now part of a lycée for girls. Not just any girls – the school is reserved strictly for the daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters of members of the Legion of Honour, those who have received French military honours, or recipients of the more recently created Order of Merit.
In the aerial view shown above, the basilica is the church with the green roof; the buildings in the foreground are those of the abbey.
Our host showed us around, explaining that the senior students were in the middle of writing the exams for the baccalauréat, and that morning had faced the four-hour philosophy exam. (The study of philosophy is compulsory for students in French lycées, and the exam requires them to expound on weighty questions such as “Do technological developments threaten our liberty?”) As we toured the school, our host asked students coming from the exam room, “Did you survive?” Some sounded cheerful; others were less confident.
Because of the exams, we did not see the modern classrooms, which are equipped with computers and the more mundane elements of a 21st-century education. Our tour was largely confined to the former abbey buildings.
We saw the cloister (the largest in all of France), the old library, and the music room, which is also used for end-of-term ceremonies. Instead of the usual “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” on the wall, we saw “Honneur et Patrie” (Honour and Country).
We looked out towards the huge park behind the main buildings.
We peeked into the art room, which was once the monks’ chapter house.
We walked through the refectory, with its marble-topped tables dating from the time of Napoleon I.
Our host mentioned that when he arrived at the school, the girls still slept in iron beds of the same vintage, but that these had since been replaced by modern bunkbeds.
The students wear a navy blue uniform with a white blouse and coloured ribbons that indicate their level in the school (seconde, première, or terminale). They are a group set apart – the ultimate authority for the school is not the Ministry of Education, but the Chancery of the Legion of Honour and the Ministry of Justice. Students participate in various Legion of Honour ceremonies during the year.
The foundation of the school dates to 1805. After victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon announced that the orphans of the soldiers who had been killed would be his responsibility, and he would educate them, girls included. The school at St-Denis was one of three girls’ schools he founded (one has since closed, but the other school, for younger students, continues at St-Germain-en-Laye).
Napoleon chose Henriette Campan, a former lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, to head up this enterprise. Madame Campan was, I suspect, made of exceedingly stern stuff not only to have survived the Revolution in spite of her associations with royalty, but also to have prospered during the Empire. I imagine she was much like the headmistress of my old school, who had the fitting name of Miss Steele (we referred to her as Stainless, and she was).
Napoleon’s presence lingers in the motto “Honneur et Patrie” and in the many portraits of him that adorn the school’s main rooms. Of course, his intention was not to form independent-minded young women, but to train accomplished and competent wives and mothers for France (women’s rights took several steps backwards during the First Empire). I doubt that he expected his “demoiselles” to take a four-hour philosophy exam, although the baccalauréat was another of his inventions.
An oddity that struck me was a long line of elderly pianos, side by side, in one of the corridors of the cloister. The school has a flourishing music program, but these relics had been left behind. They are not used or maintained. Evidently these now-silent witnesses of days past are a feature of the school – they appear on the postcards sold in the school office and in images on the school website. But why are they there? Why were they abandoned? Why have they been kept? I suppose I will never know.
We left the school through a side door, and found ourselves back in the main street of St-Denis, a suburb with a rough reputation and a recent history of strife. The school, only a few metres from that main street, is a world away.
Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball