Emma Jacobs | Longreads | September 2019 | 8 minutes (2,229 words)
Like a cabin in the woods, an island sounds like a writer’s dream: inspiring scenery and a remove from distractions. Here, the mythology creeps in, the writer can achieve an internal calm to match external tranquility, and of course will not suffer in the least from the isolation.
Give the writer a desk at a window with a view. Victor Hugo’s would do nicely. In the late 19th century, the French author lived for 14 years as a political exile on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. He wrote overlooking the sea and, on a clear day, he could see all the way to the hazy coastline of his beloved France.
Engaged with the outside world but removed from it, he produced an outpouring of words — including poems, essays, and books — and most famously completed his five-volume novel, Les Misérables.
I wanted to visit Hugo’s home on Guernsey, called Hauteville House, for a mix of intangible reasons we visit writers’ houses, but mainly out of curiosity about how someone so iconic lived and worked, and for some better understanding of the mind at work here. The house also has a reputation as worth seeing in and of itself, a masterpiece of Hugo the decorator. Hugo scholars, known as Hugoliens, consider it another one of his great works, alongside his books. His son Charles described it as an “autograph of three stories,” and “a poem in many rooms.” I had avoided looking too closely at photos of the house that became synonymous with his time abroad, which might muddy first impressions.
Before my visit, I had imagined Hauteville House standing apart, alone on a hilltop, like the writer-in-exile in a moody series of portraits taken on the neighboring island of Jersey. Seen from various distances and angles, Hugo, sepia-toned, poses on a coastal outcrop known as “The Rock of the Exiles.” In the most arresting portrait, he appears in profile, gazing over the water.
As it turns out, Hugo’s Hauteville House is near the top of a steep, curved street. From the rear, with its spacious garden and an airy facade full of windows, it could pass for a country mansion. But it is hemmed into a row of Georgian-style townhouses.
During recent renovations, the street-facing side, previously painted in a light shade like its neighbors, was restored to the severe dark gray of Hugo’s era. It has a forest-green fence and three flagpoles, flying the standards of France, Guernsey, and the city of Paris.
It took four years for Hugo to pinball from Paris, which he left in 1851, to Guernsey. After opposing the coup by which Napoleon III replaced France’s nascent democracy with its Second Empire, he had first fled to Belgium, wearing a fake beard to avoid being recognized on the journey.
Hugo was already famous from his works for theater and his wildly successful novel Notre-Dame de Paris, known to English speakers as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The book’s success had literally transformed its namesake, prompting the first extensive renovation of the neglected cathedral in the 1840s. (In a modern twist, the recent 4.5 million euro restoration of Hauteville House was largely funded by French billionaire François Pinault, who has also pledged 100 million euros toward the restoration of fire-damaged Notre-Dame.)
In Belgium, Hugo continued to write scathing tracts about Napoleon III, eventually making himself an unwelcome guest. Next, he and his wife and children joined other European exiles on the Channel Island of Jersey. Expelled again for his political involvement, he finally boarded a steamer named Dispatch for the town of Saint Peter Port on a rainy day in October, 1855.
The island of Guernsey, a semi-independent British Crown dependency, is 24 square miles of craggy coastline. Once Hugo bought the (reputedly haunted) Hauteville House in 1856, under the island’s laws, he could not be expelled.
“No longer having a fatherland, I would have a roof,” he wrote in a letter to fellow French writer Jules Janin. Driven from place to place, “I rebuilt [my household] with the patience of an ant. This time, they won’t chase me off again. … From now on, I will be chez moi, the walls, the floorboards and the ceilings will be mine.”
His continued residence assured, Hugo went about redecorating to his own particular tastes.
He collected sea chests from Guernsey’s antique and junk shops, which he had reconfigured into furniture. He covered walls and ceilings with tapestries and oriental rugs and even china plates.
Today, Hauteville House is a tiny French outpost on the island, owned and run by the city of Paris. A painted plaster frieze of scenes from Notre-Dame de Paris greets visitors in the entryway. Guided tours take place in small groups, beginning in the billiard room where the family socialized, and circling upward through the large, three-story townhouse.
Hugo mixed and matched to create eccentric, eclectic rooms. In one ground-floor salon, he united a wall of carved wooden chests, Flemish tapestry, a 19th-century Japanese lantern, Dutch stained glass, a Persian rug, and Chinese paintings on paper.
He incorporated his signature, literally, throughout the house, including the Notre-Dame frieze above the entryway. His initials appear in some cases carved into wood paneling, and as a tile relief over the dining room fireplace. The writer characteristically included words and phrases into the decor. In the dining room, a Latin maxim reads: Exilium vita est (“life is exile”).
“It is necessary to work or die of boredom,” Hugo wrote during his period overseas.
His productivity at Hauteville House was grounded in a strict routine, according to assistant curator, Stéphanie Duluc.
“He rose very early in the morning,” she said, and wrote until lunch, which he took with his family. “Then he would go walking in the afternoon,” most often along the coast to Fermain Bay, where today you’ll find a beach café with picnic tables. Evenings were for revisions.
In 1860, he returned to a manuscript he had begun 15 years before. It revolved around events on a Paris barricade in 1832, and the lives of the characters who converged there.
The tour of Hauteville House continues up to Hugo’s dark wood-and-glass library, dim and densely packed with novels and reference works, and then up one more flight of stairs to the glass-walled “lookout” Hugo had extended from a rooftop window. Roped off to preserve the Delft tiles and a glass window in the floor that serves as a skylight to the stairs below, the remove adds to the aura of Hugo’s sacred, impenetrable workspace. Hugo wrote here, moving between two simple desks that fold out from the wall.
But even standing before Hugo’s inspiring view, it was still strange to imagine Hugo writing Les Misérables from Guernsey, literally facing — masochistically, almost — a country he would not set foot in until political tides turned, if he lived that long.
Hugo wrote another novel he set on Guernsey, called Toilers of the Sea. Its somber dedication reads: “To the rock of hospitality and freedom … where live this noble, little people of the sea, the Island of Guernsey, severe and kind/soft, my present exile and probable tomb.”
In Toilers of the Sea, Hugo paints a peculiar island subject to enveloping fogs and superstitions. Guernsey, in the book, is not isolated per se — the plot is regularly propelled by international travelers arriving on various ships. But the novel’s central drama takes place on a group of barren rocks offshore, where the protagonist, Gilliatt, spends many grueling weeks alone, salvaging the engine of a wrecked steamer — and fights off a monstrous sea creature.
The Guernsey of Toilers of the Sea feels worlds away from the crowded streets of Paris. It also doesn’t sound much like the island of today, which receives over 100,000 cruise passengers a year.
In fact, during my brief visit, I had a nagging sense that Hugo would not have liked what the island has become. Retellings of the writer’s life on Guernsey give prominent place to weekly dinners he hosted for impoverished children on the island near the end of his work on Les Misérables, which comments on income inequality, among other subjects.
Saint Peter Port is still picturesque. My time on the island seemed to disappear as I walked up and down its streets and staircases, encountering wildflowers growing out of crumbling stone walls and pretty Georgian-style houses with names like Magnolia House and Fairsea. But a number of these townhouses now bear the names of asset management firms, a sign of the financial clout of the island, which is known today as a tax haven. Residents drive small but clearly very expensive cars “because they can,” explains a tourist brochure taken from the ferry terminal.
Then again, Hugo himself lived a life full of contradictions and contrasts. He lived in a grand house in which he created a monumental wood-paneled bedroom for himself, incorporating pews from the Chartres Cathedral, a prime example of French Gothic architecture, and an imposingly huge desk. But Hugo actually slept in a small, simple bedroom above it. It is brightly lit, with cheerful yellow walls and a modest bed almost level with the floor.
Under scrutiny, even Hugo’s exile breaks down a little. He received hundreds of visitors in Hauteville House’s richly decorated salons, including pilgrims from all over the world and his French peers, including Alexandre Dumas. Though, Duluc notes, some days Hugo refused to see anyone.
But the most preoccupying contradiction is Hugo’s assembling of a masterpiece of the French literary canon and social commentary from a British island.
While dreaming up the colorful cast of Les Mis would be impressive anywhere, Hugo at least had resources to draw on beyond his own memories. He sent journalist Théophile Guérin on fact-checking missions to verify geographic details of Paris and consulted Juliette Drouet, a French actress who became his mistress and joined him on Guernsey, about the memories of her childhood in convent school for another section of the book. After nine years, he made his first return trip to the Continent to visit the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium, with his manuscript packed in a waterproof bag. The publishing process sounds maddening: In his biography about Hugo’s masterpiece, The Novel of a Century, scholar and translator David Bellos describes how batches of typeset pages were sent by mail from Brussels to Guernsey for corrections via boat and train, a circuit which could take up to 10 days.
But, despite these obstacles, the book was published, and Les Misérables became an international bestseller.
Was this the silver lining of Hugo’s exile?
While not working on the great American novel, I have found living outside the U.S. in recent years to be helpful for a sense of distance, granting me permission to disengage just enough from the relentless daily news cycle.
Hugo was a mail boat away from the French coast, a safe distance from the thrumming of Paris. While he loved his country with a patriotic fervor that would raise eyebrows today, leaving it ultimately gave him the room to complete his complex ode to France.
Hugo returned to Paris as soon as Napoleon III fell in 1870. As the long-exiled patriarch of French democracy, he now reached a status at home that Michael Garval, an American professor who studies 19th-century celebrity, told me is hard to translate: “part-Mark Twain, part-Ernest Hemingway, part-I don’t know, Abraham Lincoln.”
Hugo was swept into the social and political worlds of Paris once again. He would have to return for an extended stay in Guernsey later that decade to finish his last novel, Ninety-Three.
“He plays this role of wise grandfather of the Third Republic,” said Garval, manifestly enjoying the adulation that came his way.
“At the end of his life you have this sort of extensive anticipation of his passing and of his eventual glorious afterlife,” he noted. “Typically, for example, streets would not be named after someone until after they’re dead,” but the last street that Hugo lived on was given his name in anticipation of his 80th birthday, celebrated with a parade below his final apartment’s balcony. Somewhere between 2 and 3 million people reportedly turned out for his six-hour funeral procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Pantheon, a crowd roughly equivalent to the entire population of Paris at the time.
This is the continuing paradox of Hugo today.
To massively compress the story of Les Misérables’ legacy, there have since been hundreds of translations and so many adaptations as to have “a depressing effect on attitudes towards his book,” writes Bellos, so that “serious readers have often turned up their noses at a work they assume to fall below the level of great art.”
Hauteville House still draws 20,000 visitors a year, roughly half English and half French speakers. A retired French couple I met after the tour admit — while they knew some of Hugo’s life’s story — they had never read one of his massive novels in full. But after tracing the narrative told by his fantastical house, they left wanting to try.
“I think one can have never read Hugo and understand this house ultimately as one of his great, great works,” said Duluc. “And I find the visit has been a success when people leave with the desire to read.”
* * *
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands