“Life is an echo,
what you send out,
What you sow,
What you give, you get.
What you see in others,
exist in you.”
This post is about the inconquerable power of the human spirit. It comes to the fore in times of wars, civil unrest, or the unprecedented scourge in today’s world – the pandemic. The self-sacrifice of people in such times is transcending the most striking actions the famous books can offer. One of my favourite books was written by Victor Hugo, and it was and is one of the most loved ones; it is of course – Les Misérables, an epic tale of injustice and adversity, love and hope.
The spirit of Hope, the Himalayas
1802 – 1885
Victor Hugo was born in 1802 at Besançon, now the capital of the department of Doubs in eastern France.
His father, a career officer in Napoleon’s army, was at that time a major, but rose eventually to the rank of general and was created a count.
The parents of Victor Hugo
His various garrison appointments necessitated moving around a lot, and the education of the young Victor took place in Italy, Spain, and in Paris where the family settled at the Maison des Feuillantines. This was certainly good for him, and he received a very thorough grounding in humanities, even reading Tacitus at the age of 7.
Maison Feuillantines in Paris, France
Hugo had three elder brothers. His literary ability was obvious very early on; a poem written while he was still at school won a literary prize, and with his brother Abel, he launched the review magazine, the Conservateur Litteraire, which although, it survived for only two years, achieved some prominence as a mouthpiece of the Romantic movement.
Victor Hugo and his brothers Abel and Eugene
He was always deeply concerned with the social and political developments of his time. Hugo’s politics had changed in the light of events and as a reflection of his personal growth, but he was first and foremost, by nature as well as by conviction, a romantic.
Hauteville House, now a Hugo museum, St Peter Port, Guernsey
The Drawing Room at Hauteville House
Victor Hugo’s bedroom at Hauteville House
Hugo’s dissatisfaction with Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire was so great that he was forced to leave France. After staying for a time in Brussels, he moved to the Channel Islands, first to Jersey and then to Hauteville House in Guernsey, where he lived with his wife and family for fourteen years. It was here that he wrote and completed the novel which is generally considered his masterpiece, Les Misérables, published in 1862. Victor Hugo, anxious to learn how his new book had been received, is said to have cabled his publisher with a message which read simply “?” The publisher cabled back “!”
Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French
In his long life, Victor Hugo amassed glory on a scale we can scarcely imagine today. Upon his death at the age of eighty-three, his body was laid in state in Paris beneath the Arc de Triomphe, and two million people paid their respects to the revered poet, dramatist, and novelist before he was buried in a pauper’s coffin, as his will stipulated, in the Pantheon.
The funeral of Victor Hugo at The Pantheon
Lying in state at The Arc de Triomphe
Hugo’s epic funeral diminishes the early farewell of other writers the way Les Misérables – in its length, scope, and magnanimity – towers over all but a handful of novels. The product of two decades of literary labour, Les Misérables was begun while the author enjoyed political favour in Paris, and was finished during Hugo’s nineteen years political exile in the Channel Islands. Hugo’s fierce advocacy for the poor and oppressed (the book’s title could be translated as The Wretched) runs like an electric current through the intricate plot of the story he created.
St Peter Port, Guernsey
The English translation was made by Hugo’s friend Charles Edwin Wilbour; astonishingly, Wilbour translated the fifteen-hundred-page novel in time for it to be published in New York in 1862, the same year it appeared in France. It is a mark of Hugo’s popularity that translators working in several other tongues matched Wilbur’s achievement. A superb translation by Julie Rose, the most complete and textually reliable to date, appeared in 2008 and supersedes all previous versions.
You can see from the manuscript below why without the benefit of a laptop, it took twenty years to write this novel!
“You cannot change your past, but other
people’s opinions do not define reality.”
Barricades on the streets of Paris
At the core of this vast narrative is Jean Valjean, a peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. This act will haunt him through all the events that follow, for even though the noble Valjean can escape prison, he cannot escape his past, which relentlessly pursues him in the body of the implacable Inspector Javert, below.
The plot leads readers from the countryside to the urban underworld, from the Battle of Waterloo to the Parisian sewers through which Valjean flees in one of the most famous episodes in all of fiction. Teeming with unforgettable characters – including the saintly bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenue, the young and unfortunate seamstress Fantine, her orphaned daughter Cosette, the street urchin Gavroche, the villainous Thenardier, and the fiery revolutionary Marius – Les Misérables encompasses historical events, social injustice, personal suffering, and sacrifice, and love in all its hopes and heartache. As the author leads the reader down what seems to be every alleyway in Paris, he wears on his sleeve the human sympathy that animates the most unforgettable novels.
Valjean carrying Cosette
An extract from Les Misérables
“An elderly lady who came out of the cathedral at this moment saw him lying there and asked, ‘What are you doing?’
He answered roughly and angrily:
‘My good woman, you can see what I am doing. I’m sleeping here.’
‘On this bench?’, she asked.
‘I’ve slept for nineteens years on a wooden mattress’, the man said. ‘Now it’s stone.’
‘Were you a soldier?’
‘Yes, – a soldier.’
‘Why don’t you go to an inn?’
‘Because I haven’t any money.’
‘Alas,’ said Madame de R, ‘I have only four sous in my purse.’
‘That’s better than nothing.’
The man took the four sous and Madame de R – said:
‘It’s not enough to pay for lodging at an inn. But have you tried everything? You can’t possibly spend the night here. You must be cold and hungry. Someone would surely take you in out of charity.’
‘I’ve knocked at every door.’
‘You really mean?’
‘I’ve been turned away everywhere.’
The lady touched his arm and pointed across the square to a small house beside the bishop’s palace.
‘Have you really knocked at every door?’
‘Have you knocked at that one?’
At this moment there was a heavy knock at the door.
‘Come in,’ said the bishop.
The door opened. It was flung widely open, as though in response to a vigorous and determined thrust. The man entered. He stepped across the threshold and then stood motionless with the door still open behind him. His knapsack hung from his shoulder and his stick was in his hand. The firelight falling on his face disclosed an expression of exhaustion, desperation, and brutish defiance. He was an ugly and terrifying spectacle.
The bishop was calmly regarding the stranger. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could do so, the man, leaning on his stick with both hands and gazing around at the three elderly people, said in a harsh voice:
‘Look. My name is Jean Valjean. I am a convict on parole. I’ve done nineteen years in prison. They let me out four days ago and I’m on my way to Pontarlier. I’ve walked from Toulon in four days and today I have covered a dozen leagues (about thirty miles). When I reached this place I went to an inn and they turned me out because of my yellow ticket-of-leave which I’ve shown at the Mairie as I’m obliged to do. I tried another inn and they told me to clear out. Nobody wants me anywhere. I tried prison and the doorkeeper wouldn’t open. I crawled into a dog-kennel and the dog bit me and drove me out just as if he were a man and knew who I was. I thought that I’d sleep in a field under the stars, but there weren’t any stars and it looked as though it was going to rain, and no God to stop it raining, so I came back here hoping to find a doorway to sleep in. I lay down on a bench in the square outside and a good woman pointed to your door and told me to knock on it. So I have knocked. ‘What is this place? Is it an inn? I’ve got money. I’ve got one hundred and nine francs and fifteen sous, the money I earned by nineteen year’s work in prison. I’m ready to pay, I don’t care how much. I’ve got the money. I’m very tired, twelve leagues on foot, and I’m hungry. Will you let me stay?’
‘Mrs Magloir,’ said the bishop, ‘will you please lay another place.’
The man moved nearer to the light of the table lamp, seeming not to understand.
‘It’s not like that,’ he said. ‘Weren’t you listening? I’m a convict, a felon, I’ve served in the galleys.’ He pulled a sheet of yellow paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. ‘This is my ticket-to-leave, yellow, as you see. That’s why everybody turns me away. Will you take me in?’
‘Mrs Magloire,’ said the bishop, you must put clean sheets on the bed in the alcove.’ The bishop turned to the man.
‘Sit down and warm yourself, Monsieur. Supper will be very soon ready, and the bed can be made up while you’re having a meal.’
‘You really mean it? You’ll let me stay? A convict – and you aren’t turning me out! You called me ‘Monsieur’. I’m ready to pay. May I ask your name, Sir? You are an innkeeper, aren’t you?’
‘I’m a priest,’ said the bishop, ‘and this is where I live.’
At sunrise that morning Monsieur Bienvenue was in his garden. Mme Magloire came running out to him in great agitation.
‘Monseigneur, monseigneur, do you know where the silver basket is?’
‘Yes’, said the bishop.
‘Thank the Lord! I could not think what happened to it’.
The bishop had just retrieved the basket from one of the flower beds. ‘Here you are.’
‘But it is empty!’ she exclaimed. ‘Where is the silver?’
‘So it is the silver you are worrying about?’ said the bishop.
‘I cannot tell you where that is.’
‘Heaven save us, it has been stolen! That man who came last night!’
Mme Magloire stood dumbfounded. ‘What will Monseigneur eat with now?’
He looked at her with seeming astonishment, ‘There is always pewter.’
‘Well then, iron.’
‘Iron has a taste.’
‘Then,’ said the bishop, ‘wooden forks and spoon.’
A few minutes later he was breakfasting and remarked cheerfully that no spoon was needed for dipping bread into a bowl of milk when a knock sounded at the door.
The door opened to disclose a dramatic group. Three men were holding a fourth by the arms and neck. The three were gendarmes, the fourth was Jean Valjean. A sergeant of the gendarmes entered the room and saluted.
‘Monseigneur…’ Jean Valjean looked up. ‘Isn’t he curé?’
‘Silence’, said one of the gendarmes. ‘This is his Lordship the Bishop.’
The bishop was coming towards them rapidly.
‘So here you are!’ he cried to Jean Valjean. ‘I am delighted to see you. Have you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They are silver like the rest, and worth a good two hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?’
Jean Valjean’s eyes had widened. He was now staring at the old man with an expression no words can convey.
‘Monseigneur,’ said the sergeant, ‘do I understand that this man was telling the truth? We found this silver in his knapsack and -‘
‘And he told you,’ said bishop with a smile, ‘that it had been given to him by an old priest with whom he stopped the night. You felt bound to bring him here but you were mistaken.’
‘We must let him go?’
The gendarmes withdrew.
‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.’
“Success is going from failures to failures
without any loss of enthusiasm.”
1874 – 1965
Winston Churchill was born on 30 November 1874, in Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the son of a duke and had political ambitions: first entering Parliament in the year of Winston’s birth, he rose in eleven years to Cabinet rank, eventually serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Bleinheim Palace, near Oxford
His mother was American, born Jennie Jerome in Brooklyn.
Lady Randolph and her sons Jack (left) and Winston
From the age of two until the age of seven, Churchill was looked after by his nurse, Mrs Everest, who was devoted to him, and to whom he was in turn devoted.
Elizabeth Ann Everest, Churchill’s nanny, ‘the woman who made Churchill a great man’
His mother, he wrote in My Early Life, ‘shone for me like the Evening Star. I loved her dearly – but at a distance… My nurse was my confidante. Mrs. Everest it was who looked after me and tended all my wants. It was to her I poured out my many troubles.’ Mrs Everest remained a welcome source of support and advice to Churchill until his teens. Four weeks before his eighth birthday, Churchill’s parents sent him to a boarding school, St George’s, Ascot, outside London, shown below.
He recalled his time at that school in his book My Early Life:
“How I hated this school, and what a life of anxiety I lived – there for more than two years. I made very little progress at my lessons, and none at all at my games. I counted the days and the hours to the end of every term, when I should return home from this hateful servitude and arrange my soldiers in the line of battle on the nursery floor. The greatest pleasure I had in those days was reading. When I was nine and a half, my father gave me Treasure Island, and I devour it. My teachers saw me at once backward and precocious, reading books beyond my years and yet at the bottom of the Form. They were offended. They had large resources of compulsion at their disposal, but I was stubborn. Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn. In all the twelve years I was at school no one ever succeeded in making me write a Latin verse or learn any Greek except the alphabet. I do not at all excuse myself for this foolish neglect of opportunities procured at so much expense by my parents and brought so forcibly to my attention by my Preceptors. Perhaps if I had been introduced to the ancients through their history and customs, instead of through their grammar and syntax, I might have had a better record.”
After attending another school chosen for better air as he was a sickly child, situated in Brighton, and much more suitable to his interest, Winston, at thirteen was sent to Harrow. It was chosen by his parents, following their doctor’s advice, as it was set on the hill and thus considered healthier than Eton, by the River Thames. Churchill lived at Harrow as a boarder until he was eighteen, in 1892. There he excelled at History and English, and won both the Harrow School and Public School fencing championships.
While at Harrow, the sixteen-year-old Churchill would often speak about his future with other boys. One of them, Murland de Grasse Evans, who was Churchill’s age recalled one such conversation:
‘You do not seem at all clear about your intentions or desires,’
‘That may be, but I have a wonderful idea of where I shall be eventually. I dream about it.’
‘Where is that?’ I enquired.
‘Well, I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger – London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London.’
‘How can you talk like that?’ I said; ‘we are forever safe from invasion, since the days of Napoleon.’
‘I see further ahead than you do. I see into the future. This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defence of London and I shall save London and England from disaster.’
During his holidays, young Churchill had several narrow escapes from death. He was also very lucky, obviously destined for a great future. In this post, I am concentrating on his exceptional power of words, and not on his political career. Winston Churchill’s six-volume history,” The Second World War,” was the prime impetus for his being awarded The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953; in the years immediately after its publication, it provided the outlines for the standard narrative of the conflict from the Allied point of view.
The story of Churchill’s construction of the work with a team of researchers given, by special arrangement, unparalleled postwar access to government archives, is fascinating in itself, and well-told in David Reynold’s in “In Command of History”:
‘Churchill writes in describing his approach as the one in which the author hangs the chronicle and discussions of great military and political events upon the tread of the personal experience of an individual.’ The personal experiences are, of course, his own, and they add a unique immediacy to the sweeping columns of fact and fate he has marshalled as a historian, which are orchestrated with the rhetorical skill that was Churchill’s particular genius as a statesman. The second and the best book in the series, “Their Finest Hour,” covers the fall of France and the eight months of 1940 during which Britain stood alone against the Third Reich, with the author’s noble oratory often its first line of defence. This is history in a grand manner compelling, sobering, and stirring.
On Monday, January 24, 1965, Winston Churchill died and the manner of his going would be woven into the tapestry of the history he made with great solemnity and glowing colour. The Great Commoner was to have a State funeral, which implied the presence of the Sovereign. From the Wednesday his embalmed body lay in state in Westminster Hall, the historic, hammer-beamed “Hall of Kings” in the Palace of Westminster. For three days the Hall was open to the people of whom Churchill was the first to insist that theirs, not his, was the victory.
Sir Winston Churchill’s body was driven from Westminster Hall in a solemn procession to St Paul’s Cathedral; after the prayers Churchill’s remains were carried out to a train at Waterloo station, and from there a train would take the coffin and his family to Long Hadborough, close to Blenheim Palace. He was buried close to his father and mother.
Harold Wilson, then the Prime Minister, said: “He is now at peace after a life in which he created history and which will be remembered as long as history is read.”
A tribute crossed the Atlantic from President Lyndon Johnson. who said: “Let us give thanks that we knew him. When there’s darkness in the world and hope was low in the hearts of men, a generous providence gave us Winston Churchill. He is history’s child and what he said and what he did will never die.”
The BBC played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with its nostalgic, triumphant reiteration of the sound that came to mean ‘V for Victory’.
The morning emerged after the rain, the buses began to run. Nannies pushed onto the park, and as the opening time neared the Sunday morning, people began to converge on the public houses – pubs. The world around Churchill’s body was going serenely about its Sunday morning ways.
But only because he had been here.
A squadron of RAF fighter jets passed overhead, in formation to honour Sir Winston Churchill whose funeral was happening in London.
An estimated global audience of 350 million watched the live television broadcast of the funeral, 31.5 million in Britain alone.
As Churchill’s talents were surprisingly diverse, I thought I would include two extracts to give an idea of his abilities.
An extract from his writings:
“Some experiments one Sunday in the country with the children’s paint-box led me to procure the next morning a complete outfit for painting in oils. Having bought the colours, an easel, and canvas, the next step was to begin. But what a step to take! The palette gleamed with beads of colour; fair and white rose the canvas, the empty brush hung poised, heavy with destiny, irresolute in the air. My hand seemed arrested by a silent veto. But after all the sky on this occasion was unquestionably blue, and a pale blue at that. There could be no doubt that blue paint mixed with white should be put on the top part of the canvas. One really does not to have had an artist’s training to see that. It is a starting point open to all. So very gingerly I mixed a little blue paint on the palette with a very small brush, and then with infinite precaution made a mark about as big as a bean upon the affronted snow-white shield.
It was a challenge, a deliberate challenge, but so subdued, so halting, indeed so cataleptic, that it deserved no response. At that moment the loud approaching sound of a motorcar was heard in the drive. From this chariot there stepped swiftly and lightly none other than the gifted wife of Sir John Lavery.
‘Painting! But what are you hesitating about? Let me have a brush – the big one.’
Splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and the white, frantic flourish on the palette – clean no longer – and then several large, fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas. Anyone could see that it could not hit back, No evil fate avenged the jaunty violence. The canvas grinned in helplessness before me. The spell was broken. The sickly inhibitions rolled away. I seized the largest brush and fell upon my victim with Berserk fury. I have never felt any awe of a canvas since.”
La Dragonniere Cap Martin by Winston Churchill
One painting by Sir Winston Churchill sold for £1.8 million in 2014 – a record for a work of art by the former Prime Minister. The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell labelled ‘extremely personal’ by auctioneers, had been estimated to be worth around £600,000.
The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell by Winston Churchill
An extract from Winston Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons in May 1940:
“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.
You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word:
It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”
The historian, David Starkey summed up Churchill’s significance: “To me, the real lessons are the value of history itself. Today our politicians are schooled in the social sciences, with their pseudo-scientific generalisations about human behaviour. They would do better to be guided by history, which deals with people as they really are, not as we would like them to be. I fear that until we have politicians who are formed in the same way as Churchill, we will continue in our wilderness.”
“All the great things are simple,
and many can be expressed in a single word:
freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.”