Les Miserables de Guernesey: Servants

21st April 2017

In the early 1860s Hugo completed and revised his novel Les Misérables, a work that he had started in the 1840s. As he wrote about Cosette, Eponine, Fantine, Gavroche, Javert… he could not help but observe the poor, the suffering, and the wretched all around him in Guernsey. He had an active compassion and tried to help. Part of the Victor Hugo and Guernsey project.

Hugo was aware of the trials and tribulations of such girls. Poverty, illness, and death were recurrent rhythms in the lives of their familes. There were regularly three females in service at Hauteville House—the cook and two others. In Victorian Guernsey employers often complained about servants, who were characterized as idle, dishonest, immoral. Hugo, however, seems to have been well served by most of his employées and they, in turn, generally found him a good master. He regularly helped them financially during their times of problem and crisis. In 1859 and 1866 Hugo listed the servants that he had employed. Some remain just as names, but notes in the Agenda and census details help us to build up a picture of others.

Marie Sixty. Hugo's cook. Marie was hired in 1858 and remained until 1870. Her surname is variously given as Comot, Comeaux, and Commiaux. The name ‘Sixty’ was, I think, a laudatory nickname given to her by Hugo and was a reference to the aristocracy of Guernsey, the leading families being known as ‘the sixties’. She was of Breton origin and the 1861 census gave her age as 42. A devout Catholic, she wanted to give a medal of the Virgin Mary to Hugo. Marie was central to Hugo’s philanthropic works. In 1863 he gave her a list of instructions about feeding the poor, the elderly, and the infirm. During the summer months of 1867, when Hugo was absent from Hauteville House, Marie showed tourists around the house and made 200 fr. (‘it seems’ says Hugo). At times she could be difficult. Eventually it was agreed that she would leave Hugo’s service [Massin xii/1335, 1411; xiii/ 1048; xiv/1423, 1474,1486].

Rosalie Philippe. According to the census of 1861, Rosalie was a lady’s maid aged 35. She was paid at the rate of 60 fr for 3 months’ service. When she fell ill she was attended by Dr Corbin for ‘ulcération squirreuse du col de l’uterus’. VH paid her wages for the months when she was ill, observing in his Agenda that it was not her fault that she was ill. She left Hauteville House, to go to Cherbourg. Hugo commented that she was dying, her son would return to Guernsey. On 15 October 1863 Hugo noted the death of ‘la pauvre Rosalie’ in Cherbourg on 12 October. [Massin xii/1380, 1412-13, 1424, 1434.]

Coelina/Céline Henri. She was hired on 3 May 1858 and came from Alderney. She fell ill at the end of 1859. In June 1860 VH bought a tableau brodé par Coelina for 6fr at a bazar. ‘eheu! da laetitiam moriturae’ [Alas! Give happiness to the girl about to die’]. She was attended by Dr Corbin. 30 Sept 1860 was her last day at Hauteville House. VH gave her his portrait, a book, and 24 francs. She travelled to Alderney and onward to Cherbourg where there were members of her family. She wrote from Cherbourg, and VH forwarded money to her. By 23 Jan 1861 she was in Alderney and keeping to her bed. VH raised a subscription for her and Rosalie visited her on 9 Feb 1861, taking her money, ‘de la toile’, and a basket of apples sent by her former employers in the Câtel parish. On 3 March VH heard that she had received the last rites. On 17 March Hugo received the news that Coelina had died on 7 March. Her mother wrote a letter to Hugo explaining that it was ‘une mort très douce’. She thanked Hugo for all the services that he had rendered to Coelina. She expressed the hope that Coelina was in heaven ‘où nous espérons tous aller la rejoindre un jour,’ 'where we all hope to go and join her one day.' [Massin xii/1334, 1343, 1344, 1350, 1352, 1356, 1357, 1359, 1361.]

Virginie Henri. Coelina’s sister. She arrived at Hauteville House on 26 November 1861, aged about sixteen (the 1861 census indicates that she was born around 1844.) When her mother was dying in Alderney, Virginie visited her. Shortly afterwards she went to Cherbourg to see her sick brothers. She returned to Guernsey and soon received news of their death. Altogether Virginie had lost twelve siblings through tuberculosis. On 31 Oct 1865 Hugo recorded that Virginie was pregnant and was going to marry a ship's carpenter [Edouard Macé/Macey] from de Putron’s yard. She left on 27 November and married the next day. Subsequently she moved to St Malo and was very poor. Hugo gave her some assistance. [Massin xii/1367, 1374, 1391,1394,1424, 1429, 1451, 1487, xiii/928, 975; xiv/1447, 1453].

Hugo wrote a dedication to 'Virginie' in a nicely bound two-volume first edition of Les Quatre vents de l'esprit, 1881: 'A Virginie. Victor Hugo.'

Marie-Louise Petit presented herself on 12 November 1865 to replace Virginie. She was 19 years old and came from St Malo, the daughter of a harbour worker. She had been a servant in Alderney for three years, in Guernsey for one year (three months with a farmer called Mansell in St Andrew’s, three months with Olivier in St Peter-in-the-Wood). She was currently lodging with [Beau] Philippe in Cornet Street, opposite no 34. She knew no English, was good for scrubbing and cleaning, could sew a little and read, but she could not write. She had a stubby little nose, Hugo observed. [Massin xiii/930].

Elisa Goupillot applied for a post on 16 November 1865 and was engaged. She thought that she was French. She was the daughter of the Alderney grave-digger and had lived on that island since childhood. She had worked as a servant there and had been in service for two months in Guernsey, working for a Methodist family. They had forced her to attend chapel and she was leaving for that reason. She was twenty-two years old and understood English better than French. She left Hauteville House in December 1866. (Massin xiii/930).

Mariette Leclanche came from St Brieuc. She was an orphan, with no family. She entered Hugo’s service on 15 February 1868. She was aged twenty-eight. Hugo gave her writing lessons. When she suffered from rheumatism, Hugo was kindly and told her to rest until she had recovered. (Massin xiv/1342, 1345, 1368, 1400).

Victoire Gay/Jeay (née Étasse). Victoire, also sometimes known as Victorine, came from Querqueville near Cherbourg. She was not a servant but a copyist. She was engaged by Hugo on 5 October 1861 to copy les Misérables at the rate of 2 fr per diem. She later worked on les Chansons des rues et des bois and la Légende des siècles. Hugo took good care of Victoire. When she fell ill with rougeole he carried on paying her and sent her meat and soup. On other occasions he gave money for shoes and clothes for her children. Her children attended Hugo’s dinners for poor children.

On 6 August 1863 Hugo wrote in his Agenda: 

cette pauvre Victoire Et., ma copiste, est grosse. elle m’a confié sa mésaventure en pleurant. elle est grosse de six mois. le père est un français, un marchand. il paraît qu’il a promis de la secourir; et d’élever l’enfant. elle ne veut pas dire son nom et dit ne l’avoir vu que cette fois, et le connaître à peine. je lui donnerai de la copie à faire pour qu’ elle puisse vivre sans se fatiguer, c’est un bon travail de femme grosse. que de misères!—son mari l’a abandonnée, trois enfants.

(This poor Victoire Etasse, my copyist, is pregnant. Weeping, she told me her misadventure. She is six months pregnant, the father is French, a merchant. It seems that he promised to help her and bring up the child. She does not want to give his name and says she saw him only that time and hardly knows him. I’ll give her copying to do so that she can live without tiring herself. It’s good work for a pregnant woman. What miseries! Her husband abandoned her. Three children.)

Bourde de la Rogerie visited her in her old age and recorded some of her memories. Hugo said to her «Vous allez à l’église, Madame Jeay, priez pour moi. Donnez-moi vos prières, J’ai besoin de prières.» (‘You go to church, Madame Jeay, pray for me. Give me your prayers. I need prayers.’). [Massin xii/1370,1379-80, 1386, 1408,1417, 1430; Bourde de la Rogerie, p.13.]

Margaret Edwards of the Priaulx Library has further researched Victoire/Victorine. Her first child by Jean Joseph Jeay was a daughter, Clémentine Louise, born 15 September 1852, shortly followed by Clément Auguste, born 23 September1853. They were both baptised at St Joseph's church, under the surname Jay. In 1855 she had twins, Victoire Françoise and Eugène Louis, born on 24th June. Their younger brother Emile, born 1864, was the child Victoire was so upset about. Emile was a sailor, and when he died aged only 21 his father was given as Jean Jeay. Victorine died on 25th May 1912 aged 83, 'the widow of Jean Jay,' and was buried in Candie Cemetery in St Peter Port, in the Paupers' Vault. Her daughter Victoria Jeay married Francis Salter from Devon, a salt merchant, and became a Salvationist.