Victor Hugo and Guernsey: Victor Hugo and the Lookout

25th April 2019

Paul Stapfer, from his memoirs of his time in Guernsey with Victor Hugo, as reported in TP's Weekly, February 22, 1906.

‘I get up’ he said to Stapfer, ‘very early.’ ‘I then swallow two raw eggs and a cup of cold coffee, after which until 11 o’clock I work in my belvedere.’ This belvedere, or English ‘look-out’ was made entirely of glass, and reminded one of a hothouse, or the studio of a photographer. I have never seen a study more worthy of a poet, opening out as it did upon the immensities of the sky, while at the same time its practical arrangements were perfect.

Victor Hugo, who adored sumptuosity, but who also adored ease, always judiciously separated these two things – magnificence and comfort. There was on the second floor of the house a really superb bedroom, but it was never used, though it was always kept ready in case Garibaldi should come and pay a visit. The poet himself slept in his workroom on a little low bed, at the side of which pencils and paper were always kept handy, in case he should wish to make notes in the night. During the daytime the bed was covered with an Oriental rug, and was always ready for him behind the desk at which he wrote standing. The belvedere was reached by a spiral staircase. This smithy where the giant forged his masterpieces had neither furniture, hangings, ornaments, or luxuries of any sort. Its only beauty was its view of the sea and the sky, for untidiness reigned supreme in this little high-set chamber, where Vulcan could let fly the sparks form his anvil, or in plainer language, where Victor Hugo could splash his pen as he liked without fear of spoiling anything.

One of his ideas was to work standing. ‘Since I must die, he said to me once, ‘I would rather it were through my legs than through my head, consequently I endeavour to be always using my legs, and to sit very little.’

And here is a curious and quaint little item in the life of the poet:

‘By eleven o’clock, partly owing to the exhaustion of his work, and partly through the stove which heated the room in winter, he would be in a profuse perspiration. He would then strip, and, following the English custom, sponge himself with cold water, which had been left out of doors all night. Anyone passing Hauteville Street at this moment, and raising their eyes to the glass-house above, would have seen this naked apparition. The second, and indispensable, item of the performance was an energetic rubbing with a horse-hair glove.’