Saturday, May 28, 2011

Les Miz Essay Contest

This past week has been Les Miserables week over at The Erratic Muse. As part of the fun, Miss Pickwickian hosted an essay contest, 400-2000 words on any Les Miz topic imaginable. Last night I received an e-mail telling me that I received first place in the contest. Thanks so much for the honor, Miss Pickwickian, and thanks for the chance to participate!

By Rosanne E. Lortz 

“Born a citizen of France, died a citizen of humanity…. Champion of the workers, apostle of world civilization and liberty.”[1] So reads one of the many obituaries that followed the death of Victor Hugo, a Frenchman as famous to his countrymen as Queen Victoria was to the English. Victor Hugo established his career as a poet, added to it as a playwright, and used his literary success to invade the world of politics; but for many people his fame rests most securely on the shoulders of his novels. Like many other authors of his time—Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Leo Tolstoy—Hugo used his novels to alert and accuse society about the plight of the poor. “The Wretched Ones” were on the minds and hearts of all the literati of the period, but it was Victor Hugo who turned their suffering into a masterpiece for the ages.
Les Miserables is a novel of well over a thousand pages with almost as many strands woven into its complex web of story. Even a brief summary would be too long for this essay and too short to do the book the justice that Javert would demand. Suffice it to say that the main plot centers around an ex-convict named Jean Valjean who, after being given a second chance by a compassionate old bishop, uses his life to extend that same mercy to an unfortunate prostitute named Fantine, to her innocent daughter Cosette, to an idealistic student named Marius, and even to the inexorable Inspector Javert (a policeman who has spent the entire novel trying to track down Jean Valjean).
Addison Hart, in an excellent article titled “Sentiments Abstractly Christian: Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, and the Catholic Imagination,” identifies three Christian themes in the book: redemption, laying down one’s life, and death and resurrection.[2] These themes can be seen repeatedly as Jean Valjean interacts with the other characters in the novel. He surrenders his comfortable new life to bring comfort to Fantine. He gives himself up to the law in place of Champmathieu, the man whom the court falsely accuses of being him. He redeems Cosette from the abusive Thernardiers and devotes his life to caring for her. He risks his own life to save Marius at the barricade, even though he knows that Marius will take his darling Cosette away from him.
Although the book was not initially well received by ecclesiastical critics (particularly those in the Roman Catholic Church), it has come to be embraced by many Christians as a beautiful narrative portraying the grace of the Gospel. Jean Valjean is seen as the stirring picture of Jesus’ words: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Yet—given the character and personal beliefs of the author—is this ringing Christian endorsement of Les Miserables appropriate? Is it even something that Victor Hugo would have wanted?
Victor Hugo’s religious views underwent several metamorphoses throughout the course of his life. In his youth he identified himself as a Roman Catholic, but he later became embittered toward the institution of the Church because of its perceived indifference to the sufferings of the poor. When interviewed by a census taker in the later years of his life, he claimed to be a “free-thinker.”[3] Addison Hart gives this succinct summary of Hugo’s religious views:

Hugo was not a Christian, and there is reason even to doubt that he was baptized. Religiously, as the foremost French Romantic figure of his age, he was a deist of sorts…. During his fifteen-year exile on Guernsey he developed an interest in the occult…. [H]e frequently made use of theosophical metaphors in his writings. He was a dabbler in heterodoxy, to say the very least.[4]

With Hugo’s antipathy toward orthodox Christianity, it seems peculiar to find the central tenets of that faith exemplified in the pages of Les Miserables.
Mark Brendle, in an essay titled “Morality and Law in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables,” questions whether we really do see Christianity in the novel. The story begins, he says, with Bishop Myriel, “the moral foundation of the entire book.” Myriel’s morality consists of charity, compassion, and courage; he acts out these tenets rather than preaching them and passes them on to Jean Valjean. Brendle goes on to say that:

Myriel is not a typical bishop, or even a typical Christian. He is not meant to represent the average Christian, because Hugo does not believe it is Christianity per se that provides morality. Myriel is drawn in such a way as to show that true morality is above and separate from any specific religion. This mirrors Hugo’s own views on the matter. He is known for having said, “Religions pass away, but God remains.” Thus, in the prologue, Hugo establishes a separation between morality and religion.[5]

If Brendle is correct, then the mercy that Bishop Myriel shows to Jean Valjean—the same mercy that Jean Valjean then extends to others throughout the novel—is a mercy that springs from an “innate” sense of morality within mankind. It is not rooted in Christianity, or in the commandment, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”  (John 15:12) Hugo intended Jean Valjean to help les miserables of France for the same humanistic reasons that caused Gandhi to devote his life to the oppressed people of India, the same humanistic reasons that prompt Bill and Melinda Gates to donate millions for cancer research.
If we concede the point that Hugo based Les Miserables on the bare principles of morality apart from their Biblical foundations, how then is it appropriate for Christians to laud the work and see their own faith mirrored in it? Apart from the grace of Christ, aren’t the good works of Jean Valjean nothing more than filthy rags? (Isaiah 64:6) The answer to these questions lies in how we perceive meaning in literature. Are the themes and scope of a work of literature confined and restricted by authorial intent? Or can a work of literature take on a life of its own outside of its author’s creative purpose?
Leo Tolstoy, a contemporary of Hugo’s, provides a parallel example in his work The Death of Ivan Ilyich. This novella tells a story that can be interpreted in a Christian light. It is filled with Christian imagery and brings us face to face with that great paradox of our faith: we die that we might live. Ivan’s realization at the end is consonant with the Scriptural truth that Christ, by his death, has removed the sting of death for us. The end of the story can be interpreted as a deathbed conversion, where Ivan finally puts his trust in the One who frees him from the fear of death.
But Tolstoy, like Hugo, was a “dabbler in heterodoxy.” He followed Rousseau in a belief that “the solution of the moral and religious problems that present themselves in this world is found by looking within.”[6] He denied the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and every other Scriptural truth that he was unable to reconcile with his notions of rationality. The gospel that Tolstoy knew was a different gospel than that which we have received. Like Les Miserables, the Russian novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich has a theme of redemption. But if Tolstoy’s perverted doctrine worked itself out into his writings, then is the redemption that Ivan Ilyich discovers a redemption wholly other than that which we discover in Christ?
In assessing the works of non-Christian writers like Hugo and Tolstoy, a Christian can only come to one of two conclusions. He can conclude that because the author intended to convey a humanistic gospel and a man-centered redemption, then the book is radically flawed and at odds with the truth of Scriptures; or he can conclude that some stories are like the monster Frankenstein—they deviate quite radically from the intent of their creator. This deviation is not always for the worse. Books as well as actions can be subject to the irony of Joseph’s comment: “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)
Victor Hugo, when he embedded the themes of redemption, laying down one’s life, and death and resurrection in Les Miserables, may have had a flawed understanding of what these themes really mean. But, fortunately for the reader, Hugo’s personal definitions of “goodness” and “redemption” are superseded, even in his own writings, by the real definitions created by God and demonstrated archetypically in Christ. By structuring his story around the fruits of Christianity (i.e. brotherly love, morality, sacrifice for another), Hugo opened the gate so that the resurrection of Christ could storm the castle. The story of Christ is a greedy thing. If you give it an inch, it will take a mile. It will be lord and master whether we will it to be or not.
Looked at in this way, it is entirely appropriate for Christians to appropriate Les Miserables as a story of Christ’s redemptive power. Victor Hugo looked above ground when he wrote, describing the limbs, leaves, and fruit of the Christian faith. In doing so he refused to acknowledge the root of the matter, but it is still there nonetheless, holding up the tree that Hugo planted and providing nourishment to every leaf of the story.

[1] Graham Robb, Victor Hugo: A Biography (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 534.

[2] Addison H. Hart, “Sentiments Abstractly Christian: Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, and the Catholic Imagination,” Touchstone: a Journal of Mere Christianity (May/June, 1998), available at (accessed April 2, 2011).

[3] Wikipedia, “Victor Hugo,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Victor_hugo (accessed April 2, 2011).

[4] Hart, “Sentiments Abstractly Christian.”

[5] Mark Brendle, “Morality and Law in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables,” Unabashedly Bookish: the BN Community Blog, (accessed April 2, 2011).

[6] E. B. Greenwood, “Tolstoy and Religion,” in New Essays on Tolstoy, ed. Malcolm Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 154.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Desultory Remarks II

Today we reached a landmark 5000 sales for I Serve. This includes Kindle sales (nearly 90%), other e-reader sales, and paperback sales. Thanks to all the readers who helped make this possible.

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This past Tuesday night was full of weeping and gnashing of teeth and the burning of the midnight oil. It was my self-imposed deadline for finishing the rough draft of Road from the West. It was also the day my laptop decided to go on the fritz. Despite technical difficulties of a most irritating nature, the manuscript came to a conclusion at around 110,000 words. It is now in the hands of three beta readers. We are looking forward to launching Road from the West on September 2.

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I recently obtained a Twitter account and have been enjoying the ability it gives me to network with other writers and book bloggers. Reading other people's tweets is fun. Writing my own tweets takes more brain power than writing a book chapter. I don't think I'm cut out for a 140-character limit kind of world.
Follow RosanneLortz on Twitter

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Starting today Miss Pickwickian at The Erratic Muse is hosting a week long Les Miserables Event. She will be posting essays submitted by readers and handing out some fabulous prizes such as the Les Miz 25th Anniversary Concert DVD and Les Miz themed jewelry, artwork, books, and posters. Let the miserableness begin! (Her joke, not mine.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Author vs. Mother

Trying to get writing done with two six-month-old boys can be challenging. Last week--with the twins being sick, exhausted, teething, traumatized, and generally ill-tempered--it was especially challenging. Saturday, my self-imposed deadline, has come and gone, and I'm still trying to finish the rough draft of Road from the West

While pondering all the infant-provoked adversities that have afflicted my writing schedule (pardon me as I pause this blog post to go clean vomit off the rug), I ran across an interview with Nichole Bernier about the challenges of being both a writer and a mother. Ms. Bernier is "a freelance writer based in Boston, and the author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, to be published by Crown/Random House in early 2012." She has five children ranging in age from 21 months to 10 years old and offers an excellent perspective on mixing authorship with motherhood.

When asked about the impact of children on her writing career, Ms. Bernier says:
Being a mother has made me a lot more disciplined, because you have to take advantage of writing time when it comes, and I can't procrastinate deadlines until the last minute, because you never know what might get in the way. All-nighters aren't a viable option anymore.
All-nighters aren't the only thing a mom/author has to give up. Ms. Bernier mentions a theory of hers called "Three Things," the idea that anyone who has kids can only successfully devote their time to three other activities. "If you work outside the home, that's one big thing. If you exercise regularly, that's another. If you knit or belong to a book club or hold a board position at the kids' school or adore reality TV, there you go."

So what exactly has it meant for Ms. Bernier to juggle the roles of mother and author?
In practical terms, it meant years of giving over babysitting time to something that may or may not pay off financially.... In mental terms, it means finding the discipline to work when you have the time. The faucet has to go on and off based on the family schedule, not the ebb and flow of your ideas or mood. Emotionally, it's meant sometimes curbing the inner toddler that wants to throw a foot-stomping tantrum about not being able to write as much as some other writers do. Spending all day on revisions, or traveling for conferences or retreats--those aren't things that happen easily with family life. That's when I have to go back to square one and remind myself how lucky I am to know what it is I love to do and pursue it, because many people never do.
In an effort to help other mothers pursue that love of writing and break into the publishing world, Ms. Bernier offers a list of advice: make your writing as good as it can be, learn about agents and the querying process, and have a thick skin to rejection. But my favorite piece of advice is this one:
Network on social media. Write essays, articles, blogs, clever email, anything that's a limbering-up exercise to keep your thinking process sharp and your creativity going. But don't let that become so time consuming that it usurps the actual writing you want to see published.
*Sigh* Better get back to that manuscript I was working on.... New self-imposed deadline: Tuesday.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Cover Inspirations

Siege of Antioch - Medieval Miniature

Lionheart, by Sharon Kay Penman (2011)

Baudolino, by Umberto Eco (2000) 
These are my book cover inspirations as I think about what cover I would like for Road from the West. This Tuesday we meet with our graphic designer. Will the finished product look like any of the pictures above? We shall see....

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Peasants are Revolting

I like reading books and articles that debunk historical myths--especially historical myths that paint the Middle Ages as dark and dumb as a fence post at night. Sharan Newman specializes in debunking popular but spurious versions of history. She has written books such as The Real History behind the Da Vinci Code and The Real History behind the Templars.

In a recent post on Ms. Newman's blog, she debunks the oft mentioned medieval horrors of chastity belts and "the lord's right." In case you're unsure what those are, the chastity belt is basically a metal belt (with lock and key) and a solid attachment between the legs that was supposed to prohibit a woman from having sexual intercourse. "The lord's right" is the infamous prima nocta of the movie Braveheart where the ruling noble gets to sleep with any peasant woman he desires on her wedding night.

Ms. Newman notes that both of these monstrosities are nineteenth century inventions regarding the Middle Ages that are rejected as fabrications by all serious historians. Nevertheless, they are still "fixed in the public imagination as prime examples of medieval cruelty and subjugation of women."

There is no manuscript or archaeological evidence for chastity belts or "the lord's right," but Ms. Newman builds an even more interesting case against them by showing that such things would be contrary to the very societal structure of Middle Ages.
But the real problem with the chastity belt and the lord's right, is that they presume women were property. In the nineteenth century, under law in many countries, women were treated as children, without reasoning capacity. Medieval women were not. Of course there were barriers in law. They couldn't be priests or war leaders (but don't tell Matilda of Tuscany) and, while women made most of the beer in Europe, they couldn't be official beer tasters. Go figure. But women could inherit, buy and sell property, and speak for themselves. And a lot of them did at all levels of society.
Now this First Night nonsense also assumes that peasants were slaves. Depending on the time and place, their lot wasn't great, but any lord saying that he would get to sleep with a bride from his village on the wedding night would not have lasted long. "The peasants are revolting" is not an idle phrase. A wonderful example is from the miracle stories of St. Cuthbert. It seems that a Scottish lord once decreed that all his female field hands work naked. In Scotland? According to the story, the next morning the lord was found dead "pecked to death by crows". Sure. It doesn't matter if the story is true; it makes clear what the twelfth century thought of high-handed noblemen and implies that peasants didn't take such things lying down (so to speak).
Prima nocta in the Middle Ages is clearly an invention of men like Mel Gibson--although to cut him some slack, it also features over and over again in the works of historical novelists. (Ken Follett comes to mind.) It not only didn't happen in the Middle Ages, it probably couldn't have happened in the Middle Ages. The sort of world where "the lord's right" could be exercised with impunity is the ancient Babylonian world of Gilgamesh--and even then men like Enkidu would stand up to say "This is wrong!"

Reading this blog post by Ms. Newman has made me curious to read more of her work. Her latest book is  titled The Real History of the End of the World where she "digs into end of the world theories and shows us that whether it's aliens, natural disaster, or the Rapture, our civilization has been there and done that." Sounds like a fun read!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shelve It

Last week was spring semester finals at George Fox University, which means that this week is the first week of my husband David's summer break! After he has been studying so hard for the last several months, it might surprise you to learn that the first thing he did for his summer vacation was hit the books.

Ever since our whirlwind move (and Adam's double surgery) in January, our books have been either shelved haphazardly or piled in disorganized heaps on the basement floor. But chaos reigns no longer.

We found a great place for our favorite bookshelf in the living room and filled it up with our ancient, medieval, and early modern history titles. Coincidentally, these also happen to be our favorite books. My husband and I frequently congratulate ourselves on how well the history libraries we acquired during our single years now complement each other--an added benefit to married life.

The basement bookshelves got a complete makeover with the sections sorted out into theology, language books, reference books, poetry, fiction, political science/economics, and photo albums. Notice our handmade   Turkish rug brightening up the floor--a Craigslist find from a few months ago.

Books weren't the only thing on the agenda. A quick trip to Ikea gave us this floor length mirror. I don't know which was the harder feat--fitting it into the car or bolting it into the wall.

Another project needing attention is pictures! Our walls have been sadly bare, but that is on the mend. Above is a collection of framed art I put together by cutting the spine off a Dover book, Great Medieval Churches and Cathedrals of Europe.

This morning we made a paint run to Home Depot, so hopefully I will soon have pictures of a "cotton fluff" white kitchen (instead of one with seven different psychotically applied colors) and a green "geranium leaf" master bedroom with white trim (instead of curry yellow).

The twins have been troopers through all of our renovating and running around, enjoying their time on the front porch whenever the weather's nice enough to go outside.

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