Les Miserables: A Historical Source?


The Paris, Look Down and the Robbery Scene from the musical version of Les Miserables.

Published in 1862, Les Miserables is perhaps one of the most famous and iconic French novels and today is perhaps best known by the general public in its musical form. Victor Hugo’s epic spans from 1815 to 1832, across the lives of a number of characters, principally Jean Valjean who is convicted for stealing a loaf of bread. Contrary to public perception, the novel is not set during the French Revolution but instead in the events following the end of the revolution; the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the French monarchy, detailing the events of the June Rebellion. I will be looking at Les Miserables as a historical source. I believe that it has its worth as more than just a novel, Hugo intended Les Miserables not just as entertainment but as a damning record of the degradation of France’s poor as Hugo sets out in the preface:

So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.

Without Les Miserables, the June Rebellion would be likely an unknown event outside of France, due to failure and lack of significant impact. Hugo rescued the rebellion from its future obscurity due to witnessing the rebellion first hand. Caught up in the rebellion, Hugo was forced to shelter from gunfire, unable to return home due to the barricades. A significant portion of the novel focuses on the lead up to the rebellion as well as the rebellion itself. While elements are obviously fictional, such as the Friends of the ABC, the group of students who the novel follows, even the fictional elements on based on fact. The death of General Lamarque was indeed the rallying point for the rebellion, groups of republicans set up barricades in the streets of Paris, and ultimately they were not joined, as they believed they would be, by the people of Paris and slaughtered by National Guard and army. Hugo’s first-hand account of the rebellion, even with its combined fictional elements in the novel, probably makes the portrayal of the June Rebellion as Les Miserables’ greatest strength as a historical source.

One of the most famous aspects of Hugo’s writing is his habit of digressions from the story on other issues. This is apparent clearly in Les Miserables, where around of the quarter of the novel is made up of these, some more relevant than others. One of these digressions is Hugo’s account of the Battle of Waterloo. Hugo had visited the battlefield in 1861, and was inspired to give an account of the battle to help link characters in the novel together. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this part of the novel is Hugo’s thoughts about the battle. Hugo believed that God determined that Napoleon had to be removed to allow the “tide of the nineteenth century” and that Waterloo was the beginning of liberty in Europe. This links the events of Waterloo to the events that follow, whereas in Britain at least, Waterloo is often perceived in isolation solely as a British victory. Les Miserables helps place Waterloo back into history, at least for British readers.

Next I will look briefly at three significant characters of the novel. While all these characters are fictional, Hugo uses them as representations of the degradation of people under poverty and repression. Therefore they are a valuable source, partly due to the limited sources on French poor in the 19th century compared to their richer countrymen, Hugo also presents another perspective, a more sympathetic perspective than many at the time would. Rather than portraying them as immoral and causing their own fates, Hugo argues against this showing the circumstances and injustice that the poor faced, that lead to their horrific circumstances. From a social history perspective, Les Miserables is an invaluable source.

Jean Valjean, the central character of the novel, represents everything that Hugo attempted to do with the novel. Arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family when they were starving, he spends nineteen years in prison for his ‘crime’ and attempting to escape. Bitter and angry for this injustice, and forced to carry a passport identifying him as an ex-convert which limits his ability to pursue legitimate work, when given shelter from a bishop he steals from him but is caught. Instead of sending him back to prison the bishop allows him to keep the stolen goods to start a new life for himself, on the promise that he will lead a moral life. From this point onwards Valjean dedicates his life to God and the pursuit of charity. Not only does Valjean represent Hugo’s belief in forgiveness and redemption, he also represents what Hugo believes people should aspire to be: Kind, charitable, and striving to lift people out of poverty. He is unpolitical, the only reason he goes to the barricades is to save Marius. Having suffered under poverty, and becoming a criminal due to this poverty, he strives to help others in unfortunate circumstances. Valjean is the novel’s moral centre, and Hugo’s ideal.

Fantine as a character illustrates Hugo’s purpose in the novel. Cruelly abandoned by the father of her daughter, Cosette, she is forced to place Cosette with the Thernadiers who exploit her for money, under the pretence of caring for Cosette. Fired from her factory job due to her ‘immorality’ of having a secret child, she struggles to provide for herself, and enough to satisfy the demands of the Thernadiers, when ‘respectable’ work runs out she is forced to sell her hair and teeth. Finally she turns to prostitution. For Hugo, Fantine symbolises the treatment of women living in poverty, the father of her child is a wealthy student who values her as nothing other than a game, she is treated with contempt for stepping outside the rigid accepted morality of French society and suffers horrifically due to lack of support and charity. Fantine is a victim of society and dies to sacrifice her life for her daughter. Without Valjean, Cosette probably would have suffered a similar fate.

Eponine is a fascinating character who undergoes perhaps the most change from novel to musical. This in some regards is a shame as in the book she is probably more realistic for her conditions in contrast to the somewhat romanticised version in the musical. In both mediums she retains her role as young woman living in poverty, the daughter and accomplice of the cruel criminal Thernadiers. Hugo describes her in pitiful terms, ravaged by living in poverty, prematurely aged and malnourished. Her voice is described as hoarse, damaged by alcohol abuse. On stage Eponine is generally played by an exceptionally pretty actress with some make up masquerading as dirt with a beautiful voice, unsurprisingly for a musical! Eponine, like Fantine, represents the limited circumstances that poor women in 19th century France found themselves in. Lack of opportunity gave Eponine little chance to escape her circumstances; she would have great difficulty finding respectable employability. Hugo elevates her by her morality within the novel. Many would have seen those living in Eponine’s circumstances as godless and immoral, however Hugo presents her as a woman saved by her love and sacrifice for Marius. Marius is arguably the only person to have shown her kindness after her childhood.

So can Les Miserables be used as a historical source? Certainly, I would argue it is a very important historical source. It echoes the sentiment that is espoused by many in the twenty-first century, making it relevant, and is a useful source for those studying from below. While at its heart it is a story of morality and redemption, it is also an account of the injustice and poverty that ruins a society. Just remember, it is not about the French Revolution.

American Vampire: 19th Century reality transcribed to comic

2010 saw the release of what, in my personal opinion, was one of the coolest comics of that year. American Vampire, created by Scott Snyder, draw by Rafael Albuquerque- and scripted for 5 volumes by Stephen King- tells an old tale in a new fashion. The comic series explores a new breed of vampires and their evolution in the United States from the 1880s up to current times. Under the label of Vertigo, which is the mature/adult section of DC Comic, the blood and violence feast is guaranteed, yet alongside a wonderful storyline, some fantastic art work- and a great historical setting through the modern history of North America. The premise is simple, like Pearl Jam’s famous song: “It’s Evolution, babe”, and vampires, as all things on this planet, “do the evolution”. Here is the first-born of this breed, Skinner Sweet, a gunslinger outlaw who wakes up after being transform in this better un-dead who is immune to sunlight. The rest of the story follows him through the pass of time, in his fight with the European vampires of old.

American Vampire presents in a nutshell, the struggle of a country with a history of around 300 years, new but yet owing much to the different features that created this pastiche, all combined with the fascination of all times for these mythological creatures. American Vampire is 21st century Americas young generations in paper and colour. But, what if I told you this story is actually related to real life events, prominent in the area of New England at the end of the 19th Century? Well, then let me tell you a little story about a man called Edwin Brown and his family from Exeter (Rhode Island).

The year is 1892, and a brutal outbreak of tuberculosis affects New England. Young Edwin died in march that year as a result of this diseased, commonly known back then as “consumption”. His family had been affected by this malady for quite some time. Since 1883, consumption had taken the lives of his mother and his 2 sisters. Mercy Brown, his younger sibling had only died earlier on January that same year. However, back then this illness, as many others, was still very poorly understood by both practitioners and victims. The doctors were unable to provide the answers the populace was requesting of them, so in an act of what can only be presumed to be good faith, the Edwin’s community decided to exhume the bodies of his deceased relatives. Why? Because they were under the assumption that the young man may have being leached by the undead!

His elderly father, George Brown, reluctantly allowed this otherwise disrespectful even to happen. Anxiety came around when the corpses of Edwin’s mother and older sister were found in their caskets as it would have been expect, but young Mercy would turn the tables. Her body was still in good state of conservation, as her death had only been recent, and reminiscences of blood could be found in her arteries and heart. Superstition then took over science; her heart and lungs were cremated and used for a remedy which was meant to heal Edwin…Nevertheless, he joined his sister only a few weeks later…

Academic Diana Ross Mclain has actually reported in her research at least 18 other instances similar to the tragedy suffered by the Brown family in other towns and villages of New England, between the 18th and 19th century…Perhaps there is more to Snyder’s comic than new media creative ideas and social context. Perhaps American Vampire is a reflection of the never-ending paranoia of a nation that, for only having a few centuries of history, has burnt and persecuted witches, werewolves, Big Foot and even vampires. A nation of outsiders made anew and where outsiders are equally disliked…Just like Skinner Sweet…

The adventures of good soldier Svejk. Hasek’s travel to the absurdities of war.

When talking about WWI we usually mean the Western Front: trenches, gas, tanks, Verdun, Somme, Passchendaele…However, it is also commonly assumed that the country which fared the worse in the war was Austria, quite away from the French and Flemish trenches.

The Dual Monarchy, the Austria-Hungary Empire, was populated by more than fifty million people of diverse origins and languages, and extended through vast extensions of Central-East Europe, covering at least in part the nowadays countries of Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and Romania…even Italy. That was at the beginning of the conflict. At the end, it was decimated to a little republic of six and a half million inhabitants, mostly of German origin and language, so centered in the old capital Vienna that it alone had over a third of the whole population. No more Empires, no more Kingdoms, no more grandeur. Just a landlocked tiny remnant of what once was the dominant throne in Europe.

It is in this context that we must set “The adventures of the good soldier Svejk”, by Jaroslav Hasek. Hasek himself was a Bohemian, a Czech Nationalist and a soldier in the Emperor’s Army during the war. He was taken prisoner in Galitzia by the Russian army and after been released became a communist. Considering that the literary adventures of Svejk are but a reflection of the real life adventures of Hasek himself, we should give the book some credit as a faithful recreation of the era.

Cover of the book, Spanish edition.
Cover of the book, Spanish edition.

And, oh yes, the depiction is appalling. What we find inside this book is a crumbling building so proud of itself that it is absolutely unable to do the simplest thing to put and end to its decay. That building, of course, is the Austria-Hungary Empire, and its Army as a token. An army inconceivably outdated which reflects an Empire whose better times are long past. An Army full of rules, absurd or simply annoying; full of papier-mâché units and operetta officers, worried about medals and wearing the proper uniform, about attending the opera in fashion. A tinsel Army for a tinsel empire, pretending still to be almighty under the rule of a decrepit tyrant and dragging first, after the assassination of Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand half of Europe to war. Then because its own flaws, dragging its German allies to an unsustainable war effort.

Every possible mistake is reflected in the novel: poor leadership, bad tactics, inefficient logistics, exaggerated sense of self-importance, lack of initiative…the characteristics of the Army served as those of the entire Empire, fossilized in the old glorious times, vain, arrogant, obsolete…no surprise, then that the Army was so incapable of achieving victory over Serbs, Russians, Italians, despite the outstanding efforts and achievements of a small cadre of aware officers and most of the anonymous privates who were at the front, pulling the triggers. Hasek loses no time in niceties: from beginning to end, what he tells is the story of a well-deserved defeat.

The other great merit in this book, apart from showing us a reality often concealed by the horrors of the Western Front and the high culture and beauty of Vienna, is the creation of one of the most enjoyable characters of the European literature: Svejk.

Svejk, the star of the show, is a brother of those great characters of the Spanish Golden Age: Sancho Panza, Lazaro de Tormes, el Buscón. We cannot call him a scoundrel, nor a rogue, and we will possibly end up the reading without really known whether he is a genius or a complete idiot. Maybe both. He is good, or at least he thinks he is good (the good soldier Svejk) and tries to comply, usually to no avail. He is a man who loves peace albeit he is always amidst the most unbelievable troubles. He is even declared officially idiot by the army, yet serves as an officer valet. In the end Svejk represents, seems to me, the common man, dumbfounded and deceived by the higher classes (remember Hasek has declared for Bolshevism prior to his writing of “Svejk”) and the Government, and not knowingly (or fully aware, that’s probably the trick: get the others confused about the real intentions of oneself) taking little revenges in the petty affairs of everyday life.

Svejk is a good-humoured man yet quite ill-tempered and prone to fighting, even in civilian robes. He seems to be a unwitty lad but, somehow he is able to extricate himself of every new embroil with what, watched from the outside looks a lot like wit. In one occasion, Svejk is accused of looting, having stolen a hen from some local impoverished farmer whom he also has hurt in the eye. So he is arrested and sent to his unit where Lieutenant Lukas, the sufferer of some of Svejk’s “adventures” has to deal with it (and with the farmer and his wife, claiming for justice). So Svejk proposes a payment for the hen, other for the eye “ten florin is enough”, grabs again the hen and wrings its neck to Lukas puzzlement. That’s Svejk for you, a man quite obsessed with food in an Army that is constantly underfeeding its soldiers (yet asking of them supreme feats of endurance when in combat). Lukas gets quite mad at him asking what he deserves for his crimes. Svejk answer is brilliant: “an honourable death with bullets and gunpowder”

On goes the row, with Lukas, desperate, yelling abuse and proposing to hang the looter “you, scoundrel, have forgotten your oath” he says. At this point, Svejk begins to recite the oath, in standing position, thus provoking a new outburst from Lukas who threatens him with death again. So Svejk explains that is all a mistake: he, Svejk, was ordered by Lukas to go get some food, and not having found but bad meat (and that from horse, and hard donkey) so he went to next village and try to find something good for the Lieutenant in order to nurture him before combat. Found the hen, tried to paid (after grabbing it and being so questioned), quarrel with the owners, arrested…he’s been trying to explain the under-Lieutenant who arrested him all this, and that the hen was for Lieutenant Lukas, but…to Lukas amazement (and fear, so it was clear that seemingly Svejk was a looter acting on his orders), Svejk has an explanation for everything.

In the end, Lukas threatens again with hanging and pointing to the fact that Svejk is always entangled in affairs of that kind, suggests to do tie him “firmly, by the neck, in front of the cadre with all due Military honour”. Brilliantly, Svejk starts to recite the exact composition of the cadre, down to the level of companies, and is ousted by an exhausted Lukas who, at this point, all that wants is get rid of this pestering idiot who, somehow, always fare well.

And that is the soldier’s life: recruitment, even if you are an official idiot; instruction, often violent or lacking any real military purpose; bad food if any; long marches, trains delayed in every station; difficulties to have any kind of understanding with the locals, given the numerous languages and nationalities the Empire is made of. And, at the end of the line, a battlefield. And there, they are beaten, mauled and happy to scape with life. That, the ones who could do it. All along the way Svejk and his adventures and hilarious stories have shown the disastrous conducting of the war and that this could only lead to utter defeat. Yet again, all along officers and authorities have been so sure of victory and the superiority of the Empire forces that nothing has changed.

So, albeit not pretending to be a first person account of the war, Hasek summarises very well how was the war for the humble soldier, a long road with poor food, no leadership, and forlorn hopes. Yet Svejk was able to survive. Maybe Hasek, who suffered not only the pains of war but also the pains of being a prisoner of war and, as a Czech Nationalist, probably loathed every minute of it because it was risking life and limb for what he saw as a oppressive regime, was trying to say that war is such and absurdity that only the absurd, random behavior, is sure to get you out of it. So Svejk, the king of the absurd, reigns over a court of the most miserable, desperate and unpleasant characters.

If you want to understand how Empires crumble from the “micro” point of view, this would be a good reading. If you just want to laugh with the uncanny adventures of a fool, again a good reading. But behind the lines, sadness, suffering and the selfishness and stupidity of Mankind also await you. So beware, you who trespass the threshold of Svejk’s life. You could end up learning something transcendent…or an honourable death with bullets and gunpowder.

Review – The Guns of August by Barbara W.Tuchman

If there is a History books canon, this book must be in it. If there is a WWI books canon, it surely is in the top ranks of it. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the Essay category given the restrictive specifications that Mr. Pulitzer himself gave to the History category (awarded only to American- in the US meaning- related themes: it seems that USA share in WWI was not big enough or that, after all the bloodshed, after Sargent York and “Over there”, the conflict was still considered mainly an European event in the time of the publication) it sold as if written by Ken Follet and gave her author, Barbara W. Tuchman, a well deserved prestige as both Historian and writer. The book is called The guns of August.

Front book cover, Spanish edition.
Front book cover, Spanish edition.

And, yes, its time span is short. A month or so. A little more in fact. But it was just between that precious time when war could had been avoided, and that horrible time when everyone realised that this war in particular was not going to be as they thought it would.. Sometimes a very little time is needed to create conditions for tragedy.

Two things stand out of this book: first, the close approach Tuchman gives to the main figures such as prominent generals and politicians. Or Emperors. We can learn about Moltke’s inexhaustible doubts, about the Santa Claus-like looks and bearing of “Papa” Joffre (the soubriquet is very appealing here), about some weasel politicians and some haughty generals. We can breath with them, feel their humanity and fallibility, been awed by their heroism or annoyed by their stubbornness and, sometimes, sheer stupidity. We can see they are like us. They could have been us. And that is a very important thing to have in mind, specially when reviewing past events with the usual criticism and detachment that time freely gives. This is fundamental to the understanding of why war was somewhat unavoidable.

The other outstanding point is the depiction of events as a chain of not so unavoidable acts. While telling us that war was probably unavoidable, Tuchman explains how could it have been avoided. Or better: war itself was possibly unavoidable, but the way war was fought, the ongoing carnage, the ever-growing conflict that we all know, that could have been avoided.

There were clear misapprehensions on either side of the fence. There were unwise moves. There was a flagrant unsteadiness in the Triple Entente armies alike (Tuchman makes a point of stressing the folly of going to war in the flamboyant uniforms of the French Army, or the inadequacy of Russian troops and matériel, not talking about the size of British forces). Why assuming that Britain was not going to honour its promise to defend Belgium? Why attacking was the one and only view among French high ranks and military books? Why, if promise was to be honoured, were the British top brass so reluctant to engage? There is a feeling, pervading the whole work, that war was, in the end, the result of human failure not in the sense of Mankind, but of human being. Individuals, and their actions, appear as responsible for the waging and sustaining of war more than political conditions or economic circumstances.

So, as individuals are depicted here with great accuracy and vividness, their actions are shown in a somewhat new perspective, and the start of the conflict appears in a way that helps to explain the long, exhausting years still to come. Somme and Passchendaele are prefigured in the Battle of the Nations: all the not useful killing, the primacy of the new weapons, the absurd tactics, the lack of insight about how much war had evolved from the technical point of view and how much that would influence the outcome of combats. WWI could have not been as it actually was, providing some specific individuals would have behave in a different way. Or at least that is a shadow I can see all along the reading. Maybe it is just me. But then there is this last paragraph when she writes : once concluded this (the Marne battle), there was no going back. Nations fell in a trap, an elaborated trap set during the first thirty days of battles which were not decisive, a trap from there was not- and never had been- a possible escape.

From a literary point of view, the book is really delightful, the prose is smart and runs smoothly for more than five hundred pages (in the Spanish edition), without getting tiresome and, in quite a fair amount of sections, becoming a thriller. The attention to detail is overwhelming and, as expressed by Robert K. Massie in his 1994 preface, her biggest merit is to coat the August 1914 events with such an extent of suspense as experienced by the actual participants.

You will end up agonizing about the extents of hesitation in the British Government, claiming for action. You will loath and despise some characters because of their decisions or their lack of decisiveness, both costing thousands of lives, and you will love some others, gallant, brilliant leaders overwhelmed by the tide of stubbornness, nationalism and militarism. As in a novel, you will suffer with the sad fate of the murdered, even when described with the utmost sensitivity and discretion, running away from sensationalism, and smile with the witty comments that, splashed here and there, with some aristocratic detachment (but the kind of enlightened, ironic, elegant detachment one expects to find in the Academic, which she was not) or maybe just with a quite skeptical approach bring light on the personalities of the individuals involved. All the while, she would not let herself leaving a point of view which is not fueled by moral judgement but by the need of bringing light to events.

In the end, if you are looking to understand WWI, this is your book. More than four gruesome, grueling years of a world deprived of reason condensed in a month or so. Or in little more than five hundred pages. We could have spared ourselves the grief if dear Mrs. Tuchman would have been there, writing with all her insight and wits about what everyone seemed to have expected would be a brief, almost festive war. Unfortunately, she was still too young. In fact, she was traveling with her family to Constantinople and was a regrettably unconscious witness of the chase of the Goeben, one of those hidden details that lately she will wonderfully unveil in her book. A pity.

At least she was there, fifty years later, to expose in her writing the madness and futility of war, although her admitted aim was to express her view that 1914 was the expiring date of 19th Century and the beginning of a new, terrible era. Target accomplished, Madam.

Wuthering Heights review- Understanding the origins of Heathcliff

Wuthering Heights. A classic gothic novel that many would remember studying at secondary school (I included). What’s more I revisited the novel this summer after coming across it whilst clearing out of halls! Within minutes I found myself flicking through a few pages to completing chapter after chapter on the long journey home. What struck me after reading this novel other than the love triangle and gothic imagery was the heritage of the central character, Heathcliff and how the other characters of the novel help shape the many possibilities of where he originated from. It is a topic that I believe fits very well for a WU History review and that sparks much lively debate.

Firstly it is important to establish the evidence from the novel and what certain characters have guessed about Heathcliff’s past. This is conveyed through the narrator of the story Nelly and suggested by Heathcliff’s guardian Mr Earnshaw. Nelly mentions about the ‘gibberish’ that Heathcliff spoke on arrival at Wuthering Heights, her speech suggested Heathcliff possibly came from as far afield as India and Mr Earnshaw himself stated that he ‘found’ Heathcliff wandering the streets of Liverpool.

Looking back at what the narrator, Nelly mentions, the ‘gibberish’ is sound evidence to provide an explanation about the possibility of Heathcliff being a Roma gypsy. A valid reason for this claim could be to do with how he attempted to communicate upon he’s arrival to Wuthering Heights. He’s speech was described as ‘gibberish’ and somewhat ‘foreign’. The Romani language itself deviates from the English language. The English language is from the Germanic groups of languages that include; German and Norwegian, whilst the Romani language comes from the Indo-Aryan language groups that include Hindi and Gujarati. This provides readers with some evidence about Heathcliff’s supposed Roma upbringing because it indicates why Nelly and the Earnshaws could not understand what he was saying.

Throughout the novel there is more evidence to suggest that Heathcliff was descended from Roma gypsies and this reason allows readers to make a connection to the later piece of evidence. It is clear that because of his foreign language the characters at Wuthering Heights shunned him, including Cathy initially. Gypsies faced much persecution throughout history and this occurred during the late Eighteenth century when the novel was set. In Western Europe the Romani people faced much persecution. For instance in 1749 Roma gypsies were rounded up in Spain and forced to remain in labour camps. Further persecution of the Romani community occurred in the English-speaking world too, where they were often distrusted and despised, including in England. This makes a valid argument, as in the novel many of the characters loathed him. In particular Heathcliff’s foster brother Hindley often abused him and referred to him as a ‘dirty, rotten gypsy’ frequently. This provides an adequate explanation as to why certain characters did not take too kindly to Heathcliff as many people in England at the time were distrusting of gypsies, indicating that Heathcliff himself was one as only a few characters accepted him into their society.

However, there are some flaws to this more common assertion, regarding Heathcliff as a Roma gypsy. Firstly the ‘gibberish’ that Nelly described did not directly state that Heathcliff was of Roma origin. It can be argued that readers should treat Nelly’s comment as a potentially flippant remark as Heathcliff could have spoken any unrecognisable language, not merely Romani. What’s more Nelly later in the novel provides further flippant comments about Heathcliff’s origins and suggests he could have been an ‘Indian prince’. It is comments similar to that which appeared to make Nelly’s account of Heathcliff unfeasible to readers. Nevertheless there was some truth in how he could have come from India, yet it was not probable to suggest he was a Roma gypsy who travelled to England from India. This is because recent genetic evidence suggests the Roma peoples of India travelled to Europe across the Middle East years before the Eighteenth century. However, Heathcliff could have travelled to England as a Lascar Indian. There is a valid argument for this point of view as Mrs Linton makes a reference that Heathcliff might have been a ‘Lascar stowaway’. This point of view seems likely as Lascars were seamen that came from India and were employed on British ships from the sixteenth century. The time frame of Wuthering Heights fits in nicely with this explanation as many Lascars entered Britain in the Eighteenth century and many remained in the county, circa 10, 000. Also, the significance of Mr Earnshaw finding Heathcliff on the streets of Liverpool indicated that there was a high probability that he was a Lascar Indian as Lascars sailed to ports and Liverpool was and still is a port city.

Having said that in spite of using this evidence to suggest Heathcliff was a Lascar Indian, some readers could interpret the evidence differently and I myself because of the city of Liverpool. Liverpool was a place synonymous with the slave trade and the slave trade was not abolished in Britain and its empire at the time when the novel was set, allowing some readers to make the connection that Heathcliff could have been a freed or an escaped slave that arrived in Liverpool. This is a probable alternative to other explanations in regards to Heathcliff’s origins. Likewise, Mrs Linton exclaims that Heathcliff could have been an ‘American castaway’. From Mrs Linton’s account it is likely he could have been an African-American or perhaps mixed race as it would indicate again reasons as to why many characters ill-treated him and perhaps more so then the other explanations to his origin.

To conclude in spite Emily Bronte neglecting Heathcliff’s exact origins of he’s past, she had only given readers hints about the possibilities of where he had come from. After reading the novel I came to the conclusion that he was likely to have either been a Romani gypsy, a Lascar or an African-American and wanted to explore the three possibilities. Although after careful reading the most likely of the three, (a Romani gypsy) was Heathcliff’s likely upbringing as unlike much of evidence suggesting he was black or a Lascar it only seemed to be from a snapshot in time within the novel. The evidence suggesting Heathcliff was a Roma gypsy was consistent as there was frequent references to him being a gypsy, a term in Eighteenth century England for Romani peoples. I hope this review was an enjoyable read and that it will inspire you to come to your own conclusions based on what Emily Bronte had written and for you all- to delve through a classic of English Literature again and again…

‘Oh Dear, I Think I’m Becoming A God’: Vespasian and the Divine

Throughout his decade-long reign from AD 69 to 79, Vespasian actively refuted any claims of divinity and moves toward an imperial cult within the borders of Rome, but made little attempt to dispel divine worship of himself in the provinces in a bid to reinforce the central focus on Rome and the emperor as an individual to barbarian outsiders. Despite this lack of faith in his divine rule, Vespasian encouraged the existence of the imperial cult in the provinces, mirroring the moves of Augustus to solidify his reign following his controversial ascendency to imperial power through desperate civil war and affirmation by the army. Vespasian’s last words, rumoured to be ‘Vae, puto deus fio’ – ‘oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god’ – proved the emperor’s humility towards his assumed divine rule even at the brink of death, despite all outside endeavours to prove otherwise.

The first emperor to hail from the equestrian Flavian dynasty, Vespasian could not adhere himself to the well-reported divine rule of the preceding Julio-Claudian dynasty, as his family were significantly obscure and possessed little acclaim. Worse still, his family originated from Gaul and the emperor spoke with a peasant’s accent, undeniably a provincial emperor with even less claim to Romanitas than his predecessors in need of divine ancestry. In attempts to attest to Vespasian’s divinity through other means, Tacitus claimed the prosperous affairs and ‘chance happenings’ of his life were omens sent to prove his divine right to rule. Vespasian was said to have possessed numen, which can be received by animals and inanimate objects, through Suetonius’ account of an ox which broke free of its yoke to burst into Vespasian’s dining room and bow its head at his feet, implying the process of freeing Rome from tyranny and submitting to a new welcome ruler. This sign of change heralded by supernatural events emerged frequently during Vespasian’s rule, such as the miraculous regrowth of a cypress tree on his grandfather’s estate after being entirely uprooted by no evident storm. Furthermore, Suetonius, however unreliably, also spoke of a stray dog which burst into Vespasian’s dining quarters and placed a severed hand at his feet, a sign to Roman society of divinity and inherent power. Vespasian himself, as quoted by Suetonius, reported of a dream before his succession that his family would come into good fortune when Nero has a tooth extracted, which happened the very next day. Having kept the personal astrologer Seleucus despite banishing astrologers from Rome, Tacitus suggests Vespasian was gradually influenced by these strange happenings surrounding his life and reign.

Regardless of the emperor’s resistance to imperial worship in the capital, the provincials sought to competitively recreate the centre of the Roman Empire to display their deference to Rome and its solitary figure of power. In an attempt to maintain his auctoritas within the empire’s provinces, which Tacitus claimed he was lacking, Vespasian’s visit to Alexandria in AD 69 witnessed his public performance of miracles in apparent collaboration with the god Serapis to maintain provincial loyalty, healing two Alexandrians, one blind and one lame, despite his own doubt in his divine power. Further to this, Vespasian reportedly had visions of an ethereal Alexandrian man Basildes proffering symbols of royalty such as crowns and loaves, miraculously affirmed through a mirage. Less questionable sources include ancient pottery discovered by the locals of the Peloponnese bearing a striking likeness to Vespasian, cementing local belief in the divine interventions that led to his ascendency to imperial power. Further to this, a wax tablet discovered in Herculaneum described the tutelary deities of Vespasian’s offspring, cementing provincial belief in Vespasian’s dynastical divinity.

Vespasian’s curiosity in the rumours that the gods were on his side during his lifetime led to the action of his son and heir Titus to pursue immediate posthumous deification of Vespasian. Titus established a cult institution in the name of his father through the construction of the Temple of Vespasian near the Tabularium at Pompeii purely out of homage to his father and his efforts during his reign, a move devoid of political intentions but likely not devoid of political interpretation.

Despite a personal aversion to deification, appeals to godly ancestry and the apparent slew of omens following him throughout his lifetime, Vespasian utilised provincial interests in his divine right to rule to maintain loyalty to the imperial centre in his living years, and spent less than a year in mortal death before his successor placed his name among the deified Julio-Claudian emperors.

Bibliography

Henderson, Bernard William, Five Roman Emperors: Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, A.D. 69-117 (Cambridge, 1927).

Levick, Barbara, Vespasian (London, 1999).

Suetonius, Life of Vespasian.

Tacitus, Vespasian.

Scott, K., The Imperial Cult Under the Flavians (New York, 1975).

Review: The White War by Mark Thompson

There are not so many opportunities to find, in the same book, knowledge, literary prowess and entertainment. Historical research, moreover, is prone to lack at least one of the former (not wanting to stir polemics, though, I would not mention which one). But in this particular case you can find all of them, plus accuracy, clear analysing and an overwhelming command of the data. If an ever write a book, I would like it to be as easy reading and well-informed as this one is. And the name of this jewel is “The white war”, the goldsmith being Mark Thompson.

The issue could not be very sympathetic: the Italian front during World War I, but if the tale is told in the way Thompson does, every matter could turn into a fascinating story. This one, in particular, is not only about politics, war, and the usual madness about both. There is more to it, there is life, as a developing creature whose growth is deeply affected by the environment, both social and political, and which is trampled underfoot men’s ambition and ethnical dreams of purity and supremacy.
This is a story about war. No surprise in that. The Italian front is better known thanks to Hemingway’s contribution in “Farewell to arms”, but all the same is probably the perfect stranger in World War I records. Not as huge but yet as brutal as the Western front, not as epic as Suvla Bay as a whole but with all the epicism that mountain warfare has, without the wider and deeper political implications that the Eastern front was ready to provide but with connections that extend till the Balkan Wars in the nineties, it is, in fact, a perfect example of the “niceties” of war, and its uselessness.
What Thompson, to my discomfort, achieves better, is transporting you there, to the center of a nonsensical war theatre, but without cruelty, without all the blood and guts so usually found in books of the sort. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of blood when needed, this was, after all, a bloodletting conflict if ever there was one; but the sense of fear, hatred, unawareness, feebleness, despairing solitude is transported on the back of more solid arguments tan the mere bloodshed. There is analysis here, both of the men’s souls before, during and after the war, and of the circumstances that lead the world to an era of chaos, hatred and destruction which probably has not yet finished as we see in everyday news. In the end you will find that after all, the whim of so few was the damnation of so many. So History goes.

Now then, if you are to read but one book this year, you will probably would like to try either Kate Morton or The Hobbit or maybe one of those popular Scandinavian detective stories . But, if you want to be enlightened by a book, if you want your conscience awaken, if you want a deeper understanding of what makes mankind as it is, I would keep an eye on “The white war”.

The Icelandic Sagas

“There was a man named Ulf, the son of Bjalfi and of Hallbera, the daughter of Ulf the Fearless. She was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-troll from Hrafniste, father of Ketil Haeng.” These two sentences are the opening lines in Egils saga, maybe the most famous of all independent sagas, and clearly a masterpiece of the style. The Sagas, or more precisely the Icelandic sagas, are a collection of early medieval text that are based on a storytelling tradition that lived on Iceland from centuries before the stories were written down in the 13th or 14th century.

For me personally the first encounter with the sagas were not the famous Egils saga or Njåls saga, but Heimskringla, which is for those of you who do not know it the saga about the Early Norwegian Kings, my first encounter with the style of the sagas was as mentioned taken from this text, it was the part in King Harald fair-haired’s saga where it tells about the battle of Hafrsfjord which happened in 872 where King Harald became king over all of Norway. Later scientists have debated this claim, and suggested that Harald could not possibly have made himself King over all of Norway, but that is not a debate we should look into here. Like with other Sagas, Heimskringla, have parts which not necessarily was the exact thing that happened or was said, and very few historians now days believe that the entire content of the sagas are true from beginning to end, however, it has been suggested that the sagas through their lives as oral stories have changed and been adapted to the audience over the years. This possibility makes it harder for both historians and ordinary people to read the sagas as historical records, for one may never be 100% sure on what is the truth and are the original story.

Many of the Sagas that have survived until today are not original documents, most of them are early modern copies of, either and late medieval copy or the original manuscript. This would mean that the text you and I read today in English have been re-written about 4 times which then increases the possibility of loosing information and meaning on the way. For one that want to read the Sagas a source for historical research, not only is there a possible problem with the translations and new copies, but also with the authorship of the text. As mentioned above are the majority of the sagas not first and foremost a written text in itself, they are texts that are based on oral traditions and stories that have been handed down through generations, some stories may have existed about 300 years before anyone wrote them down.

But who were these persons that wrote them down? The answer to this question is not simple, cause some of the texts have names connected to them, while other again do not. The truth is that scholars have so far not been able to exactly say that a certain person is the author, what is certain is that the author must have been among the educated elite of the Island, either through the being a part of the clergy or the civil elite. More than that is not possible to say certain, however, there are texts that have strong indications on who may have written them, like for example Heimskringla. This uncertainty makes the assessment of whether the author have been taking sides, or having  personal interests in the saga, very hard.

No matter how hard it is to assess or to get a grip on the truth in the Sagas, or how complicated they are as sources for history, they are still text that makes a good read, either you do it for the joy of it, or if you read them to get insight into a society that is so different from the one we live in today. So my suggestion will be, go to your local library and ask if they have either one or several of the Icelandic sagas and borrow it. For i would claim that reading them may need a bit of an effort, but it is worth it, after all they are seen as one of the masterpieces of European literature.

Source.

Thorsson, Ø.,(ed.) The Saga of Icelanders; a selection, 2000.