Victor Hugo and Guernsey: Hennett de Kesler

16th June 2017
Hennett de Kesler from the Marquand album @ Priaulx Library

When the French government declared an amnesty in August 1859, the majority of political exiles returned to France. Victor Hugo announced that he would return to his homeland only when liberty returned there; he would not accept the amnesty. His friend Kesler pursued the same policy and remained in Guernsey until his death in 1870. This is part of the Victor Hugo and Guernsey project.

Hennett de Kesler was a member of an aristocratic intelligentsia. He had spent time in the Antilles, Africa and Portugal, where he was decorated by Queen Doña Maria for his services. On his return to Paris he made lifelong friends of a similar mind, Maxime du Camp,¹ Gérard de Nerval, and Charles Baudelaire amongst them. He became Portugal correspondent of the Portefeuille Diplomatique. He met Hugo in December 1851 at an illegal protest meeting led by the poet; the next day Kesler manned the barricades, was arrested, and sentenced to transportation. The sentence was commuted to banishment, and so began the nineteen years Kesler was to spend in exile with Hugo.

Kesler arrived in London from Le Havre on 26th March, 1852; he is listed in the Register of Alien Arrivals in the National Archives as a 'man of letters' and a 'refugee.' He lived under an assumed name in London; a letter in the Library collection is addressed to him under the pseudonym 'William Crawford.'

La Gazette de Guernesey, 19 July 1856, reported that Kesler had only 20 sous per day to live on. He sent 5 francs to the Siècle in Paris for the victims of a flood. For five days Kesler lived off dry bread. Hugo wanted Kesler to dine with him during those five days but Kesler declined the invitation, on the grounds that there would be no merit in it.

To give away surplus is a good deed but to offer up necessary things to the unfortunate is quite simply heroic.

Kesler experienced constant financial difficulties in Guernsey and eked out a living giving French lessons. He lodged in Pedvin Street in St Peter Port with the Matthews family, very close to Victor Hugo.

Hennett de Kesler Barbaet's Almanac 1862 Priaulx Library collection

[From Barbet's Guernsey Almanac, 1862.]

Kesler taught French at: English and French Boarding and Day School, No.7, Union-Street [The Star 28 March 1863]; Guernsey Grammar School [La Gazette de Guernesey 16 January 1864];
Hauteville Boarding School for Ladies [The Star 2 April 1868, ]

his whole text and lesson books the works of Victor Hugo in prose or verse [as reported by Theodora Teeling, who may well have been his pupil, Victor Hugo in exile, 1880]

Hugo took him in.

I wrote to him: It’s what I would offer to my brother.  In this way his debts will be paid off, his life made calm, his dignity protected. When he is tired and wants to rest he’ll be able. He can grow old and die peacefully at my house, being at home there.

Kesler wrote about Les Travailleurs de la mer for La Gazette de Guernesey [17, 24 March 1866.]

Kesler found Guernsey worthy of Hugo’s dedication to ‘le noble petit peuple’ and appreciated the respect paid to Hugo as he walked along the streets and roads of the island, a respect that came particularly from children and the poor. Kesler concluded his essay by expressing his thanks to the Islanders: ‘Non, Guernesey n’est pas pour nous un Golgotha!'

Victor Hugo and François-Victor Hugo inscribed volumes of their work to him, including in a set of Francois-Victor's translation of Shakespeare, held at the Library. In these dedications Hugo refers to Kesler as ‘my companion’ and François-Victor as ‘my companion in arms and ideas,’ and as his ‘ami.’

When the French government declared an amnesty in August 1859, the majority of the exiles returned to France. Victor Hugo announced that he would return to his homeland only when liberty returned there; he would not accept the amnesty. His friend Hennet de Kesler pursued the same policy and remained in Guernsey until his death in 1870 (see Gazette de Guernesey 27 August 1859 for Kesler’s rejection of the amnesty).

In 1868 Kesler was listed among the guests invited to the grand Military Ball given at Fort George by Lieutenant-Colonel Freeth and the officers of the Royal Artillery in garrison. [The Star 30 July 1868].

When he died in April 1870, Hugo delivered his funeral oration at the Foulon Cemetery, declaring that Kesler had wanted to protest right to the end; that he had remained in exile out of love for his country; and that he was still angry, and suffered.

There he rests, at peace at last.

Kesler's effects were sold; there were 34 drawings and photographs, one of which, Landscape with two ruined castles, 1847, was bought by Peter Nicholas Le Ber and inscribed for a second time by Hugo.

Who was Kesler? La Gazette de Guernesey of 16 April 1870, edited by Le Ber, carried a lengthy obituary which is here translated, slightly abridged.

Kesler’s father was an émigré in 1793 and brought his son up to believe in old legitimist ideas. Throughout his youth Hennet frequented aristocratic salons. He then set out for the Antilles in the hope of finding a young woman whom he loved and would marry. On his return he was struck down by a fever that kept him bed-bound and suffering for several months. In 1830, resolved to embark on a career, he secured quite an important post in the army logistics department. He set out for Africa with French troops and was present at conquests there. He did not stay long, family affairs summoned him to Portugal. He went there and remained in Lisbon for five years, on friendly terms with the ministers, ambassadors, and government aristocrats of the country. Services rendered to the queen, Dona Maria, saw him decorated and he was accorded her personal appreciation. He was invited to stay permanently in Lisbon but he declined and, his business completed, he returned to Paris. At this stage he linked himself to a group of intelligent and active youths with whom he made friends and never abandoned. His new friends were poets, journalists, artists – Maxime du Camp, Gérard de Nerval, Chenavard, Charles Baudelaire, the marquis de Belloy, Nadar, and others. They got him involved in a serious occupation. As he had a good understanding of Portuguese politics, thanks to his time in Lisbon, he was introduced to the director of Portefeuille Diplomatique who asked him to become a correspondent. Kesler accepted and soon became a well appreciated journalist. 

When the Republic was proclaimed in 1848 some timid souls, who would not have dared to see this form of government as a practical way to realize their liberal ideas, gained confidence. Others, indifferent or of contrary opinion, had their eyes opened by the abruptness of the change and they experienced a Damascus-road conversion. All became republicans. Kesler belonged to the latter group apparently. In 1851 he was working for La Révolution, attacking the President of the Republic who was on the verge of betraying his constitutional oath.

It was in 1851, following the coup d’état, that Kesler first saw Hugo. When the National Assembly was dissolved by Bonaparte, Hugo responded with a proclamation that la Révolution would publish; this proclamation outlawed the President. On the evening of 3 December 1851 several representatives of the people, gathered together at the house of one of them and under the chairmanship of Hugo, were consulting about how to mount resistance and cancel the results of the coup. The door opened. Kesler entered, announced himself, and addressing Hugo handed him the proofs of his proclamation. That was the first time that he found himself in the presence of the master. He experienced a great emotion as he recounted later. How much greater that emotion would have been had he foreseen that he would share exile with Hugo for some nineteen years.

The next day Kesler was at the barricade where the representative Baudin was killed. Two hours after leaving it he was arrested and thrown into prison. From there he was taken to Brest with a large number of citizens arrested like him. An order had been given to transport them to Cayenne on the ship the Duguesclin. Fortunately it was realized that the Duguesclin was in too poor a condition to make the passage. The departure was delayed for some days and then a second order arrived from Paris commuting the punishment of transportation to one of exile. There was more – freedom would be granted to those who submitted to Bonaparte. The majority proudly refused, Kesler was one of them. They went into exile.

[Hugo] recevait à Hauteville trois ou quatre français.

C'était d'abord [Hennet de] Kesler, un exilé du 2 decembre. Quelques vieilles gens à Guernesey se rappellent Kesler. On se rappelle surtout sa bosse. Il etait bossue, hargneux, rageur; fâcheux défauts qu'il rachetait par de solides qualités. Entre Victor Hugo et lui il y avait parfois des fâcheries: mais que Hugo avait la sagesse de ne pas laisser durer. Kesler se disait athée et matérialiste. Hugo était croyant, spiritualiste, pontife du Tout-Puissant. Il se comparait modestement à Moïse et à Saint Jean de Patmos. C'est dire le désaccord latent des deux hommes. Mais l'un et l'autre avaient contre Louis Bonaparte «conçu une effroyable haine.» Ce point commun les reconciliait. 

Kesler mourut en 1869 [1870.] Il ne laissait pas de quoi se faire enterrer. Victor Hugo prononca un discours à ses funerailles et lui paya un tombeau.

Sa sépulture se trouve au cimitière du Foulon (même elle n'est pas facile à découvrir.) Elle est dans la partie haute du cimitière, tournée vers l'Est, c'est-à-dire vers la France. De la on aperçoit la France. Cet emplacement avait été choisi par Victor Hugo.

C'est une dalle de granit de 1m86 sur 1m72, avec ces mots:

son compagnon d'exil

Les lettres sont profondément gravées en creux, sans fioritures, ni enjolivements. La dalle est unie. Point de festons ni d'astragales. On devine que cette simplicité voulue l'a été par Victor Hugo, surtout lorsqu'on se rappelle ces paroles qui sont presque les dernières des Misérables:

«Ces tombeaux de fantaisie qui étalent en présence de l'éternité les hideuses modes de la mort.»

Anselm Bourde de la Rogerie, Victor Hugo à Guernesey: Jean Seguin, Avranches.

A short road led to St. Peter's Port from our fort on the hill. Half-way down the slope one passed a rather gloomy-looking, solid, square house, standing on the right of the road. This was Hauteville House, in which Victor Hugo had lived for several years. He was absent from Guernsey at this time, on a visit to Belgium. I had but recently finished reading his Les Misérables. I thought his description of Waterloo the finest piece of writing I had ever read. It had been constantly in my mind during the recent visit to Waterloo, and I had felt all that time the want of a practical acquaintance with the French language. The first thing I now thought of doing in this French-speaking island was to learn it.

A chance inquiry about a tutor gave me the name of a M Hennett de Kesler, who lived in a small house at a little distance below Hauteville. It was thus that I made the acquaintance of one of the most delightful human beings I have met in life.

He lived in very straitened circumstances with only an old woman servant to keep house for him. He had had a remarkable career. Editor of a Republican newspaper in Paris in 1848, he had all the courage of his convictions, and had stood beside Baudin on the barricade in the Faubourg St. Antoine on the memorable morning in December 1851. Then he had gone into exile with Victor Hugo and others. When an amnesty was offered later he refused to accept it. 'Never,' said Victor Hugo, at poor Kesler's grave two years after the time I am writing of — 'Never was there been more profound and tenacious devotion than his. He was a champion and a sufferer. He possessed all forms of courage, from the lively courage of combat to the slow courage of endurance, from the bravery which faces the cannon, to the heroism which accepts the loss of home.'

He was a deep and sincere Republican, and his love and devotion to Victor Hugo were an extraordinary thing to see. He literally worshipped the poet. But above all that anybody could say of him, stood his honesty and his simplicity of life. I look upon the hours spent in the society of this dear old man with unalloyed pleasure. He was broken in health, and was already showing symptoms of the slow form of paralysis of which he died two years later.

He wrote poetry, simple and touching little verses, inspired, I think, by the antics of a minx of some sixteen summers who lived opposite, and who used to make eyes at him across the street. He used to read these verses to me. I remember one that began

'Elle a le charme, elle a la grace.'

He was, as I have said, in very straitened circumstances; but he kept it all to himself, and would not even let Victor Hugo know of his wants.

A month or two after I had begun to take lessons from him, in August I think it was, I had to go away for a few weeks. I was settling his modest fee for tuition, and I wanted to pay in advance up to the end of the year. I put the gold pieces on the table, but he would only take what was due to him at the moment, and insisted upon returning the rest of the money to me. It was some time after my return that I discovered the cause of this refusal. He had determined to go on board the Jersey steamer, and drop quietly overboard in front of the paddle-box on the voyage. He did not want to be a burden upon anybody. That was the reason he had returned the few sovereigns I had wished to give him in advance! Meanwhile, somebody told Victor Hugo of the pecuniary straits of his devoted follower, and provision was at once made to meet his simple wants.

Sir W F Butler, An Autobiography (1911). p. 85.

¹ The Library has in its collection a letter written by Maxime du Camp to Kesler when the latter was an exile in London. Kesler is living under the pseudonym, 'William Crawford.' This is one of a group of five letters to which Kesler has added bibliographical annotations and that seem to have once formed part of his own private collection. We also have in our rare book collection a full set of first editions of François-Victor Hugo's Works of Shakespeare, some of which feature dedications to Kesler in François-Victor's hand.