Victor Hugo and Guernsey: miscellanea

9th October 2017

Snippets of the poet's life in Guernsey. This is part of the Victor Hugo and Guernsey project. [By Dinah Bott]

Out marketing in Guernsey, Temple Bar 1867 (Amias Andros?)

As we turn round Fermain Bay we come upon the author of the Travailleurs de la mer in his favourite seat, gazing in dreamy reverie on his native shores. Let us not disturb him─in thought no longer an exile; rather steal noiselessly away, mentally wishing him many happy Christmases, and that he may long continue to brighten the lives of the poor destitute children to whom he gives his annual Christmas fete.

Caroline R de Havilland, Recollections of Victor Hugo

It was my good fortune to see Victor Hugo in a moment of inspiration. He and Mme Drouet walked together every afternoon, generally to Fermain Bay, then a most wild and lovely spot, whence on a fine day, there is a good view of the French coast. One day I was alone on these cliffs, drinking in the marvellous beauty and colouring of rock and sea, when from the other side of a ruined cottage came a sort of chant. I crept gingerly around, and there were Mme Drouet and Victor Hugo, she with her head bent and her hands clasped as if in prayer, he with his hat off and a look I shall never forget of rhapsody, and longing, in his grand face. The chant went on, evidently an appeal to the beloved Patrie, rising and falling in a sort of rhythmic cadence. I stole quietly away, for I felt that it was holy ground; but this glimpse of him in his inspired moments, made me understand the marvellous fascination he exercised over his generation.

A Bourde de la Rogerie, Victor Hugo à Guernesey

In the afternoons, a driver, Luscombe, who had been hired on a yearly contract, would take him out for a drive in his victoria, with members of his family. But he liked to walk, long excursions alone on the high cliffs of the South coast.

There is a bench overlooking the Bay of Moulin Huet. ‘I often saw Victor Hugo, ’ Victor Carey, Bailiff of Guernsey, told me, ‘sitting on that bench. He would stay there for a long, long time, contemplating the ocean, gazing somewhere way out to sea, lost in the sea, in his dreams.’

Victor Hugo,’ Sir H … used to say, ‘was one of the most unprepossessing men I have ever set eyes on. He did not seem intelligent. I have often seen him on the cliffs in St Martin. He would be there, stock still, facing a rock, or the sea. Greet him: he wouldn’t answer. Call him by name: he wouldn’t hear. I used to come back the same way half-an-hour later. He would be in the exact same spot, his mind miles away, strange, absorbed in I have no idea what. As I said, that man did not seem intelligent.

Letter from Charles Hugo to his mother in London, Monday July 4, 1859. Guernsey.

Eighteen of us have just been for a picnic at Moulin Huet. The fare was prepared by a French pastry-cook; cold leg of lamb, cold beef à la mode, ham, vol-au-vent, pigeon pie, and six bottles of iced champagne. The doctor and Marquand got tipsy, but the rest of the company remained within the bounds of cheerfulness. Seven dogs were there. Our picnic cost 5 francs 50 each. [Victor Hugo en exil, catalogue of exhibition at Hauteville House, 1955, p. 67.]

Guernsey Weekly Press [7 April 1938], quoting an article in a new journal, The Doctor:

Hugo’s fantastic diet

Théophile Gautier tells how he saw Victor Hugo eating a dish of the most extraordinary concoction, consisting all at once of a cutlet, beans, oil, beef,  tomato sauce, omelette, ham, coffee, and milk; the whole flavoured with vinegar and mustard and cheese, and eaten very quickly. Yet, in spite of such treatment, his stomach never seemed to revolt. It was only towards the end of his life that the great poet consented to dilute his wine with a little mineral water. ‘Natural History,’ he was fond of saying, ‘knows only three stomachs: the shark’s, the duck’s, and Victor Hugo’s.’

The poet takes a bath

Dr Cabanes, in his book on Great Men suffering from Neuropathy, gives a detailed account of how Victor Hugo spent his time at Guernsey. He got up at six o’clock in the morning, and went to his study after gulping down three raw eggs and a large cup of black coffee. He always worked standing, saying that he preferred ‘to have his legs die first, rather than his head.’ Enormous windows, which made his study look like a hot-house, allowed the sun to pour in on his bare head. In winter a stove heated the room almost to boiling point.

At eleven o’clock, congested by the sun or the heat from the stove, perspiring form every pore, he undressed and bathed in ice-cold water which had been left outdoors overnight. After rubbing himself with a horsehair brush, Hugo would be ready for lunch.

The afternoon would be taken up by a sentimental walk with Madame Drouet. At seven he dined, and at nine, he was in bed. It was a very low bed, almost touching the floor. Rolled up in his blankets, using no pillow, but a red-and-gold wooden bolster curved in the middle, the poet would go right off to sleep.

He went sea-bathing at least three times a day. He had, Stapfer records, a remarkable theory on how to take sea-baths. One had to select a deserted part of the beach where there was a rock dominating the sea. After running about sufficiently to perspire profusely, one had to undress as quickly as possible and plunge into the sea. On swimming a few strokes, one climbed the rock, dried oneself in the sun and dressed in the twinkling of an eye. The shorter the bath (limited to one single dive) the warmer the body as it entered the water, and the more tonic, he believed, was the health-giving action of salt water.

Arsène Garnier, Victor Hugo dans sa vie privée

Des fenêtres, quand elles sont ouvertes, on voit la mer à perte de vue, la ville proprement dite avec son beau port et ses bateaux coquets, et bien loin à l’horizon, par les temps exceptionnellement clairs, une ligne blanchâtre : à peine visible, semblable à l’écume des vagues,  légère comme le brouillard du matin, mais qui dut peser d’un poids bien lourd sur le cœur de l’exilé ; c’est comme je l’ai dit plus haut, la côte de France.

Victor Hugo’s postman

Mr H D Ollivier, the President of the Central Poor Law Board, whose father was Victor Hugo’s postman, also has recollections of the poet and his fine dog named Sénat. [This dog had belonged to Charles Hugo, who had called it Marquis; despite the family’s objections, Hugo changed its name to the unprincely Sénat. Charles' elegant white Italian greyhound, Sénat, was eventually presented stuffed to the Guille-Allès Museum in Guernsey by Julie Chenay. He has long ago disappeared, but photographs remain.]