So wrote Victor Hugo, who was born on this day in 1802. His novel, one of the longest ever written, resulted from over thirty years reflecting on the issues of poverty and injustice he observed around him. Within hours of publication of the first instalment, it had sold out; the social issues he highlighted became matters of public concern and the French Government was compelled to consider them.
In the Preface he wrote, 'So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.'
Perhaps his current popularity - and that of his near-contemporary across the Channel, Charles Dickens - can be attributed to the unease today about the divisions in society and the impact this has upon the poorest. William Beveridge, then Director of the London School of Economics, produced a report in 1942 at the request of the Government. He identified five social evils which the Welfare State would seek to address: want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness. In 2010, Professor Danny Dorling of Sheffield University Department of Human Geography identified five new social evils which perpetuate injustice and inequality: elitism, exclusion, prejudice, greed and despair (Injustice: why social inequality persists, Policy Press). His research indicates that our society is more unequal today than at any time since 1854, when Dickens wrote Hard Times; and that 25% of educational spending goes on the most privileged 7% of children.
Hugo lost his Catholic faith (and his Royalist leanings) in the face of a corrupt and worldly Church which was keen to perpetuate the status quo. Nevertheless he served humanity well, putting his own self-interest to one side in the pursuit of the best for all the people of his country.
The challenge before us today is to look afresh to the interests of others, resonating with the concerns raised by writers in the area of social justice, and doing whatever lies within our power to bring equality, inclusion, acceptance, generosity and hope. Such things lie at the very heart of the Gospel - and of God.