Remarkable literary incident

21st March 2016

From the Star, March 10 and March 17, 1866.

Our readers are aware that a new work by VICTOR HUGO, bearing the title of Les Travailleurs de la mer, is on the eve of appearing. This last production of the great author will, no doubt, be as remarkable an emanation of genius as any of those that have preceded it, but there can be about it nothing so remarkable, in a literary and moral point of view, as the circumstances which are connected with its publication—circumstances which speak more highly even for the honourable principles of the writer than for his exalted talent.

M VICTOR HUGO had, we understand, sold his work to a publisher for 120,000 francs, or about £5,000, on the condition that it should appear in three volumes; subsequently, however, the publisher of the work thought that the sale of the work would be vastly increased if it appeared in daily portions in the feuilleton of a newspaper, and thereupon offered the author 500,000 francs,—£20,000!—if he would consent to this mode of publication.

This offer of a price unprecedented in the history of literature was replied to by Mr VICTOR HUGO in the following terms:

Hauteville House, 27 Fevrier, 1866

Mon honorable et cher ancien ami, je suis bien sensible à votre letter excellente. C’est une joie pour moi de renouer avec vous nos bonnes relations d’autrefois. Vos offres sont les plus splendides qui aient jamais été faites à un écrivain. Je vous donne acte de votre magnificence; mais la raison d’art pour moi, passe avant tout, et le demi-million que vous m’offres ne peut lui-même vaincre mon scrupule d’artiste. J’ai la conviction que Les Travailleurs de la mer ne sauraient se découper en feuilletons.

Ce mode de publication, excellente du reste et que je suis loin de répudier, conviendra peut-être au roman Quatre-vingt-treize, qui est le livre auquel je travaille maintenant.

Votre lettre et la dépêche télégraphique ne me sont arrives qu’hier. Notre cher ami commun, Mr Paul Meurice, vous expliquera cet isolement de Guernesey.

Je suis ici dans une solitude sérieuse.

Mes raisons pour résister à vos offres si superbes et si noblement faites, vous les comprendrez et vous m’en saurez gré. Elles sont tout puisées dans ma conscience. C’est elle, quelque regret que j’en puisse avoir, qui me force à baisser pudiquement les yeux devant un demi-million. C’est sous la forme Livre que Les Travailleurs de la mer doivent paraître. Quand ils seront publiés, vous seront certainement de mon avis.

Je vous remercie avec effusion de votre ouverture si cordiale. Laissez-me mettre un peu d’avenir dans le serrement de main que je vous envoie. VICTOR HUGO.

It is impossible to transfuse the graces of this composition into an English version, but the following translation may suffice to give an idea of the original:

My dear and honourable old friend, I feel deeply your valued letter. It is a joy to me to renew with you the happy relations of other days. Your offer is the most splendid that was ever made to a writer. I record your munificence, but with me professional principle goes before everything, and even the half million that you tender to me cannot overcome my scruples as an artist. I am convinced that the Travailleurs de la mer cannot be cut up into fragments.

This method of publication, excellent as it may be in itself, and which I am far from repudiating, may perhaps suit the novel  Quatre-vingt-treize that I am now engaged on.

Your letter and the telegraphic despatch did not reach me till yesterday. Our dear mutual friend, Mr Paul Meurice, will explain to you our isolation in Guernsey. I am here in a real solitude. You will understand and appreciate my reasons for considering your offer—an offer so splendid and so nobly made. These reasons are drawn entirely from my conscience.  It is that conscience which, whatever regret I may feel, forces me modestly to close my eyes to the half million. It is in the form of a book that Les Travailleurs de la Mer must appear. When it is published I am sure that you will be of my opinion. I thank you from my heart for your cordial overture. Allow me to put a little of the future in the grasp of the hand which I offer to you. VICTOR HUGO.

We apprehend that this is the first time that an author has refused or has had an opportunity of refusing £20,000 as the price of a single work. Les Travailleurs de la Mer, it is expected, will be published in all the principal cities of Europe, in about a week from the present time. The work, as already stated, will be in three volumes—one dedicated to France, one to England, and one to Guernsey. The scene is laid chiefly in the islands of Guernsey and Sark, and there can be little doubt but that the world-wide notoriety which this work will give them will endow them with an attraction infinitely greater than they have ever yet possessed.

We take this opportunity of stating, by M. VICTOR HUGO’s request, that he is daily receiving letters written in English, which from his not knowing that language remain unacknowledged and he therefore begs that his numerous correspondents will write to him in French.

The Star, March 17 1866

Mr Victor Hugo’s new work

Les Travailleurs de la Mer is now published. No copy of the work has, that we are aware of, yet reached Guernsey, but we find the following notice of it in a London paper.

In the preface M Hugo tells us that religion, society, and nature are the three great difficulties of mankind. In Notre Dame he described the contest between religion and superstition. Les Miserables was a picture of strife against the selfish prejudices of society. In this present work he exhibits man in his struggle with the elements. The scene is laid in Guernsey and its neighbourhood, to the people of which the book is dedicated. The rough, hearty, daring manners of the seafaring population are stretched with vigorous picturesqueness. The story turns on the loves of GILLIATT, a fisherman, one of those hermit martyrs Victor Hugo is so fond of painting, and Déruchette, the neice of an old shipbuilder, who grows rich by starting the first steamer between Guernsey and St Malo, and is suddenly ruined by the wreck of the vessel.

The work is dedicated to Guernsey in the following short and touching lines:

Je dédie ce livre au rocher d’hospitalité et de liberté, à ce coin de vieille terre Normande ou vit le noble petit peuple de Guernesey, sévère et douce, mon asile actuel, mon tombeau probable. « V.H. »

I dedicate this book to that rock of hospitality and liberty, to that corner of the old Norman land, where reside the noble little people of the sea, to the isale of Guernsey—stern and genial, my present shelter, and my probable grave. V.H.