"She fled from the garden, ran up to her room, flew to the looking-glass,—it was three months since she had looked at herself,—and gave vent to a cry. She had just dazzled herself.
She was beautiful and lovely; she could not help agreeing with Toussaint and her mirror. Her figure was formed, her skin had grown white, her hair was lustrous, an unaccustomed splendor had been lighted in her blue eyes. The consciousness of her beauty burst upon her in an instant, like the sudden advent of daylight; other people noticed it also, Toussaint had said so, it was evidently she of whom the passer-by had spoken, there could no longer be any doubt of that; she descended to the garden again, thinking herself a queen, imagining that she heard the birds singing, though it was winter, seeing the sky gilded, the sun among the trees, flowers in the thickets, distracted, wild, in inexpressible delight."
The moment Cosette realises she's beautiful. It really isn't perfect, especially as it assumes beauty is objective and something that some people just possess and others do not - and is immediately followed by Hugo going on about the "feminine soul" and being as headdesky as I've come to expect when he starts with his theories on women and their ways.
But that moment itself is one of my favourite passages in the whole Brick (so far), and the thing that made me properly fall in love with Cosette as a character. A girl on the cusp of womanhood being suddenly delighted and uplifted by her own loveliness. God. I'm trying to write a scene that is basically Cosette getting off on her own beauty (narcissism kink who me naaaah) (it's a step closer to writing actual sex!) but I'm having such trouble finding language doesn't tap into stupid bollocks about girls being vain and vapid (even the sentence I just typed annoys me because what the fuck is actually wrong with vanity). Turns out it's really hard to write about a woman witnessing and enjoying her own attractiveness without playing into that, because even AWARENESS of her beauty is usually used as a shorthand for being either shallow or evil or both. The flipside of that attitude being that not believing herself attractive is in itself an attractive quality, as Hugo explains a few paragraphs down: "An exquisite grace, for beauty enhanced by ingenuousness is ineffable, and nothing is so adorable as a dazzling and innocent creature who walks along, holding in her hand the key to paradise without being conscious of it." (you're being creepy Hugo stop it). Even if I try to avoid putting those assumptions into the scene, it feels like they'd still be all to easy to read into it; vanity is just too loaded a concept.
And yet, if I look at the passage quoted above in isolation, a nineteenth century dude pulls off what I'm grinding my teeth over trying to do? (although Hugo is not writing porn here so I guess that makes it easier, heh). It's so brimming with light and loveliness, and breathless syntax, and obviously there is male gaze going on on the author's part but as far as Cosette herself is concerned, it is for herself (I think it's important that the 'other people noticed' is placed as an afterthought to the self-awareness). And sure, Hugo says that this awareness is dangerous, but he doesn't portray Cosette as shallow, or a bad person, because of it. In fact, I love that the most about her: that she is a good person, capable of loving others with all her heart, while also loving and admiring herself.
Tl;dr patriarchy is the matrix, writing is hard, Cosette is a magical creature of goodness and gorgeousness and fabulous self-image and I love her.