Victor Hugo and Guernsey: Léon Daudet: Hauteville-House just after Hugo’s death

8th May 2019

From Léon Daudet's Ghosts and the Living, chapter 6. Léon Daudet was the son of the celebrated author, Alphonse Daudet. His father was a friend of Victor Hugo, especially in Hugo's later years. Léon was an intimate of the Hugo family; he was the same age as Hugo's grandchildren, Georges and Jeanne. Handsome and brilliant, he was Georges' best friend and married Jeanne when they were both just of age, but he was ever aware of his (comparative) poverty and his irascible and vicious character was such that the marriage did not last long. He began as a young devotee of Victor Hugo, but as he grew older his opinion as expressed in his writing changed to implacable hatred.

I have stayed for long periods several times at Hauteville-House, the grey and sad house that Victor Hugo lived in during his exile in Guernsey. The first of these visits was in the summer of 1885, a few weeks after the poet’s death. I can remember the smallest details, and I can see us now, Georges Hugo, Payelle and myself, flicking through the randomly-shelved and annotated books of the small library on the top floor, or lookout. A great presence still drifted amongst these illustrious remnants. The voice of the wind, loud and lugubrious, seemed full of moaning, mingled with a glorious tumult. The ghosts of pain and sorrow, of furious work and of anger, of love and mistrust, moved furtively up and down the stairs, which were muffled and hidden by heavy and tattered carpets. The old fellow with the dry heart and sparkling language, his hypocrisy grandiloquent and refined, his desire never flagging, haunted these places that had heard his secrets, his yawning like a caged lion, his roaring. Around him, the morose servitude of his entourage was obvious: his wife, who was at first so upset having Juliette Drouet around, but who gradually got used to it – for Hugo relied on wearing people down;  his daughter Adèle, who through genetic disposition and unrequited love, became mad when young and has never recovered. The poor woman is now 84 years old and has been shut up in a home for over 50 years! His two sons Charles and François, very different from each other, both good and intelligent and subject to the desires and the avarice of their terrible and mealy-mouthed father. …

Loose papers were scattered everywhere, between the low bookshelves and the walls, under tables, in the wall cupboards, pages torn out of books, old envelopes, covered in all directions with maxims, notes, observations, in his large and sensual hand, rather like naked fauns racing off ahead, capering unrestrainedly; a profligacy of the imagination. We gathered up as much as we could, but there was always more. Every morning Georges and I would find some new stash, full of documents tied up with string, ‘To Toto …To Dédele … For Vacquerie.’ … Sometimes, behind the books, under the ashes of time, we would find a cane, a slipper or a hat, with inscriptions: ‘Cane with which,’ (on a particular day) ‘I went to see Monsieur Dupin.’ ‘Slipper from my first trip to Belgium.’ ‘Hat I was wearing when I came back from Cobo with Pelleport.’ He attached to his smallest deeds and doings an importance which even extended to parts of his wardrobe. Even counting Châteaubriand, Hugo was the biggest Me of the 19th century.