Victor Hugo and Guernsey: M Victor Hugo and George Metivier

6th June 2017

In an interesting article in this week’s Academy, says the Pall Mall Gazette of the 21st inst. (1876), M Jules Andrieu discloses certain curious discoveries made by him as to Victor Hugo’s method of procedure in composing his last romance. From this it would appear that even a great genius, and one also who has of late affected encyclopaedic learning, may be reduced to the necessity of ‘cramming’ for the purposes of a particular work;  and that, like others who cram, he is not over-fastidious either as to the field of his investigations or to the accuracy of their results. 

In 1870, when M Hugo was writing his last romance, Quatre-vingt-treize, M Métivier published a Dictionary of this Guernsey dialect—a book which, if it had only appeared four years before, would have  no doubt been found most useful be the poet in the composition of Les Travailleurs de la Mer, the scene of which is laid, as everyone knows, in the Channel Islands. Still, the book was to be utilized somehow; and as the real dialect of Brittany, in which the scene of Quatre-ving-treize was laid, would have been difficult to get at, the poet, ‘probably reflecting that between the Channel Islands and the scene of the romance the distance was but a stone’s throw,’ calmly laid M Métivier dictionary under contribution.  The consequence, of course, is that M Hugo’s dialogue and descriptions abound in words which are capital Guernsey but very bad Bas-Breton, and some of which appear to have been wrested even from the meaning which they possess in the Guernsey dialect. Perhaps, however, the most amusing of M Hugo’s slips [is] in the passage in which, after using the suppose Breton word, imânus, he quotes ‘an ancient manuscrit’ which says, ‘de mes daeux yers j’vis l’imânus.’ Now, it happens that the ‘ancient manuscript’ is neither more nor less than some unpublished verses of M Métivier in the Guernsey dialect, which he quotes from occasionally to illustrate the use of a word. Such a quotation is made by him under the word ‘imânus’ in his dictionary, and hence M Hugo’s blunder.  M Andrieu is of opinion that the poet should have acknowledged his obligations to the ‘aged, noble, and neglected worker George Métivier,’ though he admits the awkwardness which might be felt by the writer of a Breton story in thanking the compiler of a Guernsey dictionary for the assistance derived from his work.  What is most curious in the whole matter is to find a man of M Hugo’s eminence going to work in a fashion which would only be paralleled by an English romancer seeking ‘local colour’ for an Irish novel in a study of a Welsh dictionary.


The Star, October 28 1876

Mr George Métivier’s dictionary

Few dialects offer a more fruitful, or, it may be added, a knottier study than the Norman French of Guernsey. This genuine and ancient popular patois is a variety of Norman French presenting many curious elements—especially Celtic elements—and many curious analogies, and retaining a power of agglutination which might well disconcert a student accustomed only to the structure of languages fastidiously formed and sifted in Court and town. The Dictionary of M Métivier is not only a masterly contribution to the study of this dialect, but one of the most remarkable works of contemporary philology.

For the first half of his life (he is now eight-six) the literary labours of M Métivier were rather in the direction of poetry than philology. He wrote much and admirably in his native dialect. To a collection of Rimes Guernesiaises published by him more than forty years ago was appended a glossary of words; and this glossary was the germ of the Dictionary, which appeared in 1870. In the interval the author, having been from early years a practical linguist of unusual range in several groups of languages, had developed himself by incessant study into a powerful and thorough philologer. His book, with the one fault, perhaps, of a tendency to over-allusiveness in style, is a magazine of profitable and attractive reading. It reads, not like a lexicon compiled article by article, disconnectedly, but rather like an organic and well-digested treatise broken up into articles for convenience of alphabetical reference.  That old art of making a dictionary good reading has been going out. […] If M Métivier also is in this an old-fashioned lexicographer, he is in science and method amongst the foremost of the moderns. The only work in which a popular patois has been investigated, not, indeed, with equal soundness, but with something like equal affection, industry, and abundance of resource, is the Dictionnaire Rouchi-français of M Hécart, of which the second edition was published in 1830.

What is of most general interest, perhaps, in a work like the present, is the light which a study of M Métivier’s philological labours throws upon the literary procedure of no less a master than Victor Hugo. Imaginative writers have too often failed to bend their genius to the demands of the scientific spirit, and to reconcile the noble impatience of inspiration with the drudgery of faithful research. The scenery and accessories of a romance have too often been painted, even in works of real genius, with the touch either of Custine, who in his Vocation de Romuald gives a picture of the Isle of Man more slight and fanciful than the merest operatic background, or else with that of Edgar Allan Poe, whose description of Paris, in pieces like The Purloined Letter and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, are minute and punctilious indeed, but perfectly imaginary. Now, I think all good fairies were present at the cradle of M Victor Hugo –and the fairy of Science, the surest friend of all, among the rest. At least, in Notre Dame de Paris the scientific spirit is genuine and indisputable, and seemed almost to promise a French Goethe. But unfortunately in NDP the author’s faculties for exact knowledge reached their highest point, and have been notably on the decline ever since. And, as in general one evil is counterbalanced by another, and not evil by good, so, in proportion as the master has lost his power of conscientiously grasping real facts, he has acquired the passion for making a display of spurious facts. All readers are familiar with those masses of positive and precise technical and detail that overload his later writings with the appearance of an erudition of which the quality is general ly doubtful and sometimes absurd. Thus, after living eleven years in Guernsey,  the author published the Travailleurs de la Mer, a romance which might be made a masterpiece by reducing it to the proportions of a tale – for it is, indeed, a tale enlarged to the proportions of a romance by the help of those fervid, interminable, and often almost unintelligible, technical descriptions which are introduced by turns in telling of the stars of heaven, the bolts of a steam-boiler, the waves, the rocks, and such vague gleams of thought as may cross a man’s brain in dreams. In all this it seems to be an established principle with the author that the visions of Inspiration bestow a more plenary knowledge than the enquiries of Science. Without questioning the principle, the reader at any rate expects to find in a book like this a tolerably faithful reflection of the manners and language of Guernsey fifty or sixty years ago. And as to the manners, he is not disappointed; in all that concerns direct, familiar human observation, the imagination of M Victor Hugo has retained a force, freshness and sanity which many a so-called realist might envy him. But, as to the language, that which he gives us by way of the Norman French of Guernsey is by no means genuine─ the writer has no real command of that picturesque dialect which might have served him in such good stead. Pour l’amour du prospect, for instance, is not a dialect-phrase at all, but only a piece of the townsfolk’s Anglo-French instead of pour le plaisir du coup d’oeil. The same may be said for maison visionnee for maison hantee. The following almost exhausts the list of real, or approximately real, Guernsey words which are to be found in the TDLM; with the help  of M Métivier, let us study them. 1. Vere dia, This is a form of French Oiu da; vere (vrai) being employed by the Normans, both of the mainland and the island, instead of oui. The people of the Pays du Caux have indeed invented for the people of Lower Normandy a name barbarously spelt Houivets, i.e. folk who say oui ve rather than saying either oui or ve (for vere) separately. 2. Veuvier (or, as the less educated peasants say shortly, veuvi); this is formed in imitation of the English widower, German wittwer. [Philological explanation follows.] 3. Elle est de charme: there is an error here; what the Guernsey peasants say is, elle va d’charme – that is to say, she is very well, as if protected by a charm or spell, since spells in the popular imagination are both  for good and evil. 4. Le pid d’une cauche: M Victor Hugo is quite right in giving this for le pied d’un bas, the foot of a stocking; from the Latin calceus is formed the Norman-French cauce, equivalent to chausette. 5. Patates temprunes is, again, good Guernsey for early potatoes: temprun coming from tempus through the late Latin temporarius, cf. OF tempre. 6. Cambion is a form of M Victor Hugo’s own for the Guernsey cangeon, which means, not as he explains it, the child of a succubus, but a spoiled, naughty child; because, when a child is more than its mother can manage, she consoles herself with the belief that it is a changeling. 7. Rang is no  genuine word; M Victor Hugo probably means rum, run, place or room, meaning old French the hold of a ship, and now, at Alderney, bearing both the sense of the English room; whence the verb arrumer, in modern French arrimer, to arrange.

So much for M Victor Hugo’s knowledge of the Guernsey dialect when he wrote Les Travailleurs de la Mer. What follows is more curious. The Travailleurs de la Mer was written in 1865, when M Métivier’s Dictionary did not yet exist. It appears in 1870, when M Victor Hugo was engaged in writing another romance – Quatre-vingt-treize. The scene of the new story, as all the world knows, is laid in Upper or French-speaking Brittany, in what the Breton-speaking people of Leon, Vannes, Quimper and Teguier call the gallots districts ( sc. gaulois […]) of the province. M Victor Hugo having distributed a few Celtic-sounding names among his personages, such as Tellmarch, Halmal, &c, had next to consider what language he should make them talk. The real dialect of upper Brittany was remote, and would have cost trouble. But the new Guernsey Dictionary of M Métivier was at hand; and the poet, probably reflecting that between the Channel Islands and the scene of his romance the distance was just a stone’s throw, calmly laid this under contribution. Let us scout a few excerpts from the romance side-by-side with others from the Dictionary:

QVT I, p. 8: ‘La houiche-bas, chasse aux oiseaux pendant la nuit.’ Dict. F-N: ‘Houiche-ba, s.m., chasse aux oiseaux pendant la nuit.’ M Victor Hugo has thought to transplant the word by altering its gender. In French the word would be hoche-bas; cf. the bird name hochequeue;  and the Norman houiche-pot for the French hochepote.

QVT I, 35: ‘La Claymore etait d’un gabarit massif et trapu’ Dict. F-N, 111 : ‘Capari, s.m., débris d’un vaisseau, gabarit ou gabari.’ Selon Jean Holtrop, Dict. franc.-holl. 1786, gabarit est la forme d’un vaisseau.’ Here, it is the note in italics which seems to have caught M Victor Hugo’s eye.

QVT I, 133: ‘Tu trouveras bien quelque part un carapousse. ‘Oh, un tapabor, cela se trouve partout.’ Dict. F-M, 112 : Carapousse, s.f., tabapor, vieux chapeau.’ The form of the word in Bas-Breton is caraboussen, in Norman carapon. M Victor Hugo has curiously inverted parts in putting this provincialism into the mouth of his prince, and making his peasant use the real old French word tapabor.

QVT I, 175: ‘Cette espèce de logis sous terre, moins rare en Bretagne qu’on ne croit, s’appelle en langue paysanne carnichot. Ce nom s’applique aussi à des cachettes pratiquées dans l’intérieur d’un mur.’ Dict. F-N 114 : Carnichot, s.m., chambrette ménagée dans un mur. Bas-breton carnic, petit coin, diminutif de carn, coin.’

Here M Victor Hugo has transferred the chamber, on his own authority, for purposes of picturesqueness, underground.

QVT I, 177: ‘Je m’appelle Tellmach, et on m’appelle le Caimand. ‘Je sais ; Caimand est un mot de pays- qui veut dire mendiant.’ Dict. F-N : sub voce. ‘Caimand ou quemand, s.m., mendiant.’

This is the way to cut up a dictionary article into dialogue. [Philological discussion.]

QYT I, 150-151: ‘Imanus, derive de immanis, est un vieux mot bas-npormand qui exprime la laideur surhumaine et quasi divine dans l’epouvante, le demon, le satyre, l’ogre; un ancient manuscript dit ; de mes daeux yers j’vis l’imanus.’

Dict.-F-M, sub voce : Imanus, s.m. et adj., homme d’une laideur extreme. Ce mot suppose une forme latine, immanus pour immanis, comme sterilus pour sterilis, forme indiquée par Lucrèce. ‘D’mes daeux yers j’vis l’imanus/ A la qu’minee et les bras nus/  Tapair de sen fllais [taper de son fléau]/Pus dur que l’Sanue de la fage.’ MS.

Now the fact that M Métivier, in addition to his published Rimes Guernesiaises and Fantaisies Guernesiaises, has in his portfolios a quantity of published verses composed by himself in his native dialect, from which he sometimes quotes to illustrate the use of a word.  Such is the quotation above given, and the ‘ancient MS’ imagined by M Victor Hugo from reading M Metivier’s article is nothing more or less than a MS of M Métivier own! For the rest,  this strictly Channel Island word which the poet has used for his grim conception of the monster George-le-Bruant- alias Brise-bleu, alias ;’imanus—this word is a very singular one, and I am not disposed to accept Métivier’s conjecture as to its origin. In e original glossary to the Rimes Guernesiaises he had simply given its signification—epouvantail. The Jersey form of the word, imanue, s.f., quasi omage nue – seems to give us the clue. In a contemporary poem, by a write who calls himself 'St Luorenchais,' I read:

Ouell est morte, je l’ai perdue,
La fille que j’aimias ;
Ouelle est la comme une imanue,
Je ne la r’verrai jamais.

Now we know that the images of Catholic devotion, covered up on ordinary days, were exposed on festival and ceremonial occasions. Catholicism has fallen in these islands, in Guernsey the most completely; with the change of creeds the images of Catholicism will have become things of horror instead of worship; and, according to the law that the gods of one faith are the demons of the next it is, I thinks at least a possible hypothesis that the image nue of ancient religion may have passed into the imanue of Jersey and the imanu of Guernsey.

Enough has been said to show how copiously, and in some instances how carelessly, the famous poet and romance-writer has borrowed from the unknown poet and lexicographer. The question naturally arises, has M Victor Hugo acknowledged his debt to M Métivier? No: he has quoted all sorts of recondite authorities: Durosel for the management of guns on board ship; Errand, Sardi, Pagan, for the details of mining operations; August le Prevost; the antiquarian of Bernay; but the philologist of Guernsey, never. It might, indeed, have been an awkward confession that, in order to compose conversation in the dialect of Dol and Rennes, he had taken up and ransacked a dictionary of the Guernsey dialect. But courage is not a virtue wanting to M Victor Hugo; and it would certainly have been no blot upon his fame had he chosen to let the world know that in the island of his  own exile their lived, and still lives, an aged, noble, and neglected worker named George Métivier.