Miserable Scholarship (January 2024)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the greatest film of all time is The Princess Bride. When I say “universally acknowledged” here, what I mean is that I’ve claimed it in assembly at least once before. I realise that this might not be the standard definition, but it’s one I’m running with, and running is the correct verb because I actually want to reference part of William Goldman’s original book (which he credits to S Morgenstern, an author who is either entirely fictitious or a pen-name for Goldman himself – the distinction is beyond me). In this book, which is not the greatest book of all time, the action is set in an imagined past where the author allows you to identify the time period by telling you whether it came before or after certain events. Before Europe but after Paris, before glamour but after arguments, after ulcers but before they were known as that, after stew, but everything is after stew, and after taxes but everything is after taxes, taxes were here before even stew.

I tell you this as an introduction to a film I half watched in the dim and distant past – a date I’m unable to locate more accurately than after films but before you-tube, after universities but before any of you. It told of a man driving a bus full of people across France to safety from the Nazis. I forget nearly all the details but remember that the driver called himself Jean Valjean and modelled himself on the hero of Les Miserables – I apologise for my egregious accent, I’d normally not attempt it but the alternative is Les Miserables which sounds like the name of an old Yorkshireman I once knew.

Some time later I was watching an episode of Dawson’s Creek (this was after creeks but before streaming and since I can sense some of you rolling your eyes, I’m going to put a stop to this method of dating things) and a character called Joey Potter, named after Jo March from Little Women, a book set in a period after women but before TV. Joey was singing “On my Own” and gazing meaningfully at her love interest who, as far as I can tell was only named after the creek.

Later still, I half-watched the film version of the musical Les Miserables – I promise that The Princess Bride isn’t judged the best film ever on the grounds that it’s the only one I’ve watched all of, but confess that there are a number of movies I’ve only seen parts of – some of which I can put down to the way television was organised back in the high and far off days of my youth, but some of which is my own deliberate fault. I was particularly struck that the song I’d loved, “On my own”, was not talking about a mournful teenager’s second place in a beauty pageant, but in fact the tragic life of a young woman abandoned by her lover and left poor and pregnant in an unfriendly world.

Fast forward to the beginning of last year when I started to read Victor Hugo’s book and to the end of December when I finished it. It’s quite a long book – and it’s one of those that I don’t know whether or not to recommend. It’s a pretty amazing story, and some of the writing is beautiful, even in translation (I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn that I haven’t read this in French). The characters leap off the page, the tragic Fantine (singer of the song) selling her teeth to provide for her daughter; indefatigable Javert, the policeman chasing his target across the years; little Gavroche, the incorrigibly cheerful urchin; beautiful Cosette; earnest Marius; the bestial Thenardiess and her awful husband. I should really read it again before I try to criticise one of the great pillars of European literature, but it seems unlikely that I’ll do so soon, so I’ll say that it’s sometimes a bit slow – the thirty pages on the battle of Waterloo are the most often cited as unnecessary, but I have great misgivings about the twenty on the Parisian sewer system – although, to be fair, I do know now more than I did on that subject. Not enough to be fascinating, unfortunately. I’d also say that apart from Jean Valjean and maybe Marius the characters seldom escape from their caricatures, they’re vibrant but I’m not sure they have much depth.

I tell you about my adventures in Les Miserables as an illustration of scholarship. We talk a lot about our desire as a community to be scholarly and so we should talk about what we mean by that, be precise, communicate accurately. This is particularly important because some students in year groups gone by have described each other’s hairstyles as unscholarly and so I’ll make it clear now that it matters not whether you wear your hair in a huge afro, or dyed bright pink, or badly trimmed and greying – scholarship is not to be found in such things. So, where do we look?

Scholarship is about knowing things and thinking about them. When it comes to knowing things we aspire to being extensive and exact. I say aspire because I don’t think scholarship is a state that you reach so much as a journey we’re on together. My Les Miserables scholarship started with the film I watched last century and has reached a significant point with the book I finished last month, but I wouldn’t say it was over, that I didn’t have more to learn. Those two words, though, extensive and exact – what am I driving at with those. Extensive means knowing a lot about a lot of things, studying both broadly and deeply – being interested in 19th century literature as well as Group Theory and comedy adventure films of the 1980s and exploring at least some of these areas beyond the surface knowledge. Exact means knowing the details, being able to quote, or give names and dates – it’s this kind of thing that means I’d definitely benefit from a second read of Victor Hugo – my recollection of some of the chapters is a bit hazy. One interesting piece of exactness of Les Miserables is that the adventure finishes with the June revolution of 1832 (there is an epilogue, which delights me, to nobody’s surprise – although being written by Victory Hugo, this one is a hundred pages long). The June revolution came between the July revolution of 1830 and the February revolution of 1848 and was the only one of the three to be a massive failure. The July revolution got rid of the monarchy that had been set up at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and replaced the king, Charles X with his cousin Louis Phillipe. Understandably this didn’t satisfy the republicans who tried again in 1832 and lasted two days before being defeated and rounded up – if it wasn’t for Les Miserables we’d probably not even know about this. Then sixteen years later Louis Phillipe was overthrown. He escaped to England whilst France became a republic ruled by president, then president for life, then emperor Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. So that went exactly as plan then.

Moving on to thinking about things, we say our thinking should be scrupulous and critical. By critical we mean not taking things at face value, wondering how somebody knows what they are telling us, examining sources to decide how reliable they are both generally and in this specific. I, for instance, am extremely reliable on elementary group theory because I studied it for three years at university, reasonably so on Les Miserables having read it, and not at all on Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, and when I say I have a vague idea that he eventually retired to Chislehurst you should definitely check up on me rather than insisting on the veracity of the statement in conversation with a resident of that delightful outskirt of Bromley. Being scrupulous means being aware of your own limitations, and admitting to them (as I’ve tried to do today – had I come to you as an expert in 19th century French literature that would definitely have been unscrupulous) – it also means academic honesty, not trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own – ensuring that if you are going to quote great works of cinematic genius that you acknowledge the fact. Being scrupulous and critical also means appraising arguments, works of art, writing, identifying its strengths and limitations.

And so we come to the end, slightly more scholarly than we were, having gained a smattering of knowledge as we went through, and needing only to note that the truth universally acknowledged that I started with is both an opinion based on very little scholarship and a misquotation from the first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that Europe is named after Europa, a figure from Greek myth that predates the founding of Paris, whose earliest mention comes from Julius Caesar, which makes before Europe but after Paris a nonsense, and that, despite significant provocation, I think I’ve managed to get through the entire assembly without quoting the film of The Princess Bride.


1. A more extensive examination of The Princess Bride can be found in Life, Death, Love.

2. The abuse of Jane Austen's universally acknowledged truth can also be found in Look Street.

3. Musical theatre and scholarship are ubiquitous among the assemblies, but for more links you could do worse than Musical Inspirations

4. My adventures in Les Miserables are introduced in It's Unfair