Victor Hugo and Guernsey: childhood reminiscences

8th November 2017

Part of the Victor Hugo and Guernsey project.

A well-known society woman contributes to the Pall Mall Magazine the following delightful reminiscence:

It was through the good old man, Monsieur de Kesler, who taught me French in Guernsey and who had followed his master into exile, that I first became acquainted with the great French poet. There was a link between us, too, for he was a child-worshipper while I was a poet-worshipper.

And the little room in which he worked at he top of his great sombre house, and from which in faint outline could be seen his own beloved France, was to me sublime. Yet it was carpeted and bare, the chairs and tables were of unpainted wood, and in the centre stood a wooden stepladder, on the steps of which lay open great works of reference. Downstairs were far grander rooms, rich in works of art and hung with tapisseries, but it was the little attic that I loved.

Every Thursday the poet would gather the children of the poor round him and feast them, saying, ‘Donnez riches, l’aumône est soeur de la prière.’ When it was dusk, the poet would come and stand at the gate of the house in which I lived with my mother.

‘Tell me about when you were young,’ was ever my petition.

And the poet would answer with a smile, ‘One should always be young, my child—the fathers, the mothers, and the children.'

‘No., no, I would protest, ‘for who would tell us any stories?’

But he would answer, ‘The young can also tell stories.’

Then I would say, ‘But not beautiful stories, like your stories.’

To me the most beautiful story in all the world was a ‘L’Homme qui rit, ‘ the story he was writing, bits of which he would sometimes read to me. And sometimes he would ask me to find him the word he wanted out of one of the great reference books, that lay open on the steps of the ladder. Then I was filled with a great joy, for it seemed to me that I was helping him write the most beautiful story in the world.

The story of how the child and the poet fell out and made friends again is told with much charm; and the reconciliation is worth telling.

Presently I saw an old man coming slowly up the street, his hands clasped behind him, his head bent, his eyes fixed on the ground.

‘He will pass! – he will pass!,’ I sobbed. ‘He will never want me any more!’

But he did not pass; he came and stood at the little gate, and though I thought I was hidden he saw me through the leaves of the ilex shrub.

‘Come hither my child,’ he said, ‘and let us go for our evening walk.’ [The Guernsey Press, January 14 1907.]

A poet’s love for little folks

During the days of the poet Victor Hugo’s exile in Guernsey, an English lady who had for some time been living with her family at St Saviour, near the centre of the island, missed her youngest son, an intelligent child of about five years old. The boy, it appeared afterward, had strayed from his nurse, and, wandering about aimlessly, had grown weary, and quite contentedly gone to sleep in the open air. Victor Hugo, on one of his rambles, found the child just awaking, and recognising him as the son of a lady whom he knew by sight, he hoisted him on to his back, and greatly delighted, cantered with him across the country to his own house. A storm came on, and it was decided that the youngster could not be sent back that night. A message, however, allayed the mother’s anxieties; and next morning the boy was returned, together with profuse apologies, many thanks, and a huge basket of fruit and flowers.

Upon being asked how he had enjoyed his unpremeditated visit, the child said,

‘Very much indeed! M Hugo played at lions with me all the evening. He was the lion─under the table. And do you know, once, when he came out of his den and growled, he pulled over the tablecloth and broke ever so many glasses. It was such fun!’

Some months later the little daughter of the same English lady fell sick of the scarlet fever. The poet heard of it; and after bringing several offerings of grapes, he one day, although he was still a comparative stranger, begged a great favour to be allowed to see the patient, who was by this time beginning to mend. He laughed at the idea of infection; and upon being led to the sick-room, sat down by the bedside, and, taking one of the child’s hands in his, was soon inventing for her a most enchanting fairy tale. He came again the next day, and on several subsequent days, always with a new story, always in the best of spirits. When the child was well, he came no more. [The Cornubian and Redruth Times, April 1, 1887]