Victor Hugo and Guernsey: Victor Hugo in exile6th December 2017
Observations and reminiscences from author Theodora Teeling, from The Star, May 4, 1880. Mrs. Bartle Teeling (née Theodora Louisa Lane Clarke) was born in Guernsey in 1851, the only child of the Rev. Thomas Clarke, Rector of Woodeaton, Oxford, and Louisa Lane, scientist and author of topographical and historical works on the Channel Islands, including contributions to MacCulloch's Guernsey Folk Lore. Theodora 'spent her childhood in Woodeaton, Oxford, where her father was rector. On his death his widow returned with their only child to Guernsey,' in 1865. They lived at L'Hyvreuse Lodge in St Peter Port. In Guernsey her mother Louisa 'became a centre of literary and scientific interest and mental activity as student and writer of natural history, etc., and author of several scientific manuals.'¹ In 1879 Theodora married Bartle Teeling (1848-1921), Captain in the Rifle Brigade, Secretary (1872) of the Catholic Union of Ireland, and Private Chamberlain to the Pope. She died in 1906. Theodora dates her reminiscences to 1867 ('12 years since'), when she would have been aged 16, and to 1878, only two years before she wrote this piece. She would have been 27 years old. The first scene, however, if she has not conflated two Christmases, must date to 1864 or before, as she includes Hugo’s son, François-Victor, in it: or it was indeed 1867, and she has misidentified the men she saw; or she has embellished the truth a little.
Some years ago—from 1856 down to the fatal time of Sedan and Bazeilles, of Strasbourg and Metz, of war, disaster, and failure, which has been called, only too truly, L’Année Terrible—a little rock-bound island off the coast of France, English in name, Norman by law and lineage, held, in impatient exile, one of this century’s greatest poets.
Visitors to the quiet spot, wandering along its narrow quays, or threading their way amongst a crowd of battered and dirty carriages, worn old vehicles, which jolted out their last days as omnibuses, plying between the microscopic township of St Peters-port and St Sampsons, were often called upon by their guides to look upwards a the quaint, irregular, foreign-looking hill-slope, covered with houses and terraced gardens, and crowned with waving trees, to where, among a row of tall, well-built mansions, one stood distinguished from the rest by a curious, square kind of glass-house or conservatory on its roof. ‘That is Victor Hugo’s house,’ their cicerone would tell them. And not unfrequently the poet himself might be seen, in that quaint ‘belvedere,’ or glass-room, where he always wrote, leaning from the open window, and looking straight before him out to sea, across the rippling, blue water, and the little boats dancing on it below, away beyond the long purple-cliffed island of Serk, to where a faint coast-line melted into sky in the far instance.
‘What is he looking at?’ said one form among a little group of tourists who stood watching the motionless dark figure as he gazed.
‘France,’ was the answer, ‘France. The land whence he is exiled, the land of his fathers, and of his people, and of his child’s grave.’ Then in lower tones, as though to himself, the speaker continued, in the poet’s own words:
‘Oh! N’exilons personne! Oh! L’exil est impie!
Cette grande figure dans sa cage accroupie,
Ployée, et les genoux aux dents !’
Years have passed since then. Paris has fallen, and the lonely figure which they saw that day, ‘watching for the dawn of liberty and home,’ no longer keeps sad vigil in a strange land, but has returned to the bustle of public life, and re-entered in triumph that Paris which, nineteen years ago, he quitted in secrecy and haste, as a proscribed exile.
His island home stands empty now; yet it is sometimes revisited by the poet during summer vacations, when, tired out by noisy debates and crowded salons, successions of dinner parties, and open house to all who seek him, he comes for rest and seclusion from the world. The house itself has been made a place of pilgrimage by many an ardent admirer from England to France, who tread with almost awe the tiny, carpeted study where Marius and Gilliatt, Jean Valjean and the saintly bishop, Josiane and Cosette, have come into being; and truly the place is worth a visit, so strong an impress of himself has the owner left upon it.
Let us climb the somewhat steep, uninteresting-looking street, the ‘Hauteville,’ or high town, which crowns the hill. Its houses command on one side a magnificent view, which was probably the poet’s reason for choosing so unromantic a spot wherein to dream out his exile.
You enter the dingy, green gates before the house, and passing in by the hall door, find yourself in what was once a mere ordinary house of no special beauty or antiquity, but which has been transformed into the quaintest of dwelling-places; thick, sombre, dusty-looking carpeting lines the stairs, balustrades, and walls; the light over the door is intercepted by the ingenious device of a quantity of green bottle-ends let in pane-wise, producing a unique and not unpleasing effect, while you turn to grope your way upstairs with uncertain and muffled tread, lighted only by an open door in the distance, leading out upon the green sward of the terraced garden.
‘Mais Monsieur veut voir la salle à manger, n’est-ce pas?’ said the neat-handed Phillis who acts as cicerone, flinging open another door opposite.
You follow her into a room, duly furnished with dining-table and chairs, the walls lined with blue-and-white tiles, plates, and rare bits of pottery well soldered in. They were so arranged long before the present mania for china display was known in London drawing-rooms, and caused a vast amount of astonishment among the aborigines when first exhibited some twenty years ago. The fireplace is also constructed of tiles, in the form of a double, raised letter H, making the initials of ‘Hauteville House.’ Round two sides of the room run long, covered oak sediliae, which serve as sideboards at dinner-time; and at the head of the table, between two windows, stands a high-backed, carved chair, with the Hugo arms inlaid, and their haughty motto: Ego Hugo. You notice a strong iron chain stretched across the seat, and ask the reason. ‘Monsieur, c’est la chaise des ancêtres.’ M Hugo ‘believes that the spirits of his ancestors occupy this chair, and thus are constantly present with him.’
We repress an involuntary smile, and turn away, noting, as we pass through the door, Exilium vita est. Above, a small coloured statuette of the Madonna, even the fancifully chained chair, which seems to embody a certain craving after some intercourse with the invisible world:
‘Is there never a chink in the world above
Where they listen for words from below?’
Bring a sense of sadness as one lingers there, so we pass out, through other rooms, all hung with tapestry, and fitted with valuable old oak carving, upstairs to the ‘grande salle,’ or drawing-room, on the first floor.
This is a double room, known as the ‘salle rouge,’ and the ‘salle bleue,’ from the respective colourings of its upholstery, both hung with gorgeous tapestries which once adorned the royal palace of Fontaine bleu, when Queen Christine of Sweden inhabited it, and saw Monaldeschi slain at her feet. On either side of the fireplace are four gigantic gilt statues for bearing torches; and they also are of historic interest, for they formed part of the state barge of the Doges of Venice, in medieval times, when they came forth in splendour, amid great rejoicing, and cast their ring in to the sea, and espouse with it Venice, Queen of the Adriatic. An inlaid table near, once belonged to Charles II of England, and beyond, in the further room, stands a small table, holding a gigantic and unwieldy-looking block of wood which, as you cicerone will tell you, is ‘of inestimable value.’ It is indeed a literary curiosity of no small interest. Some years ago the late Madame Hugo, being asked for a contribution to a local bazaar, promised ‘an inkstand’ as her donation. She wrote to the three great contemporary French writers, George Sand, Alexander Dumas, and Lamartine—and asked each to give her an old ink-bottle or pen which they had actually used during the composition of some of their works. All complied with her request, and the result is here. A solid, square block of dark-stained wood, with little drawers at each corner, inside which are framed, under glass, the autograph replies of each contributor. Lamartine sends a dainty little red and gold Venetian glass pot—‘Offert par Lamartine au ‘maître de la plume;’ and Madame George Sand, an old wooden travelling inkstand, significant of her many voyages, with the following letter:
‘Chère Madame,—J’ai cherché depuis deux jours un encrier qui ne m’eut pas été donne par quelque trop chère personne et je n’ai rien trouvé qu’un affreux petit morceau de bois qui me serve en voyage. Je le trouve si laid que j’y joins un briquet de poche, qui n’est pas plus beau, mais qui me sert habituellement, et comme c’est là ce que vous voulez, au moins votre véracité est bien à couvert.
J’ai été bien heureux de vous voir et de pouvoir, à présent, vous dire à vous-même que je vous aime. Soyez l’interprète de ma gratitude et de mon dévouement auprès de votre illustre compagnon. GEORGE SAND.
Bluff Alexandre Dumas characteristically contributes one of the ordinary penny stone inkbottles with a penny school-pen to match, saying of them that,
Je certifie que ceci est l’encrier avec lequel j’ai écrit mes quinze ou vingt derniers volumes. ALEXANDRE DUMAS, Paris, 10 Avril, 1860.
He counts his volumes as other men count chapters—by the dozen; and one might write on this ink-bottle what M Victor Hugo once wrote on one of his own, ‘Ce qu’il y a dans une bouteille d’encre!’ There is a certain air Gascon about the certificate, which is Dumas all over, and we venture to predict that in future years this corner will not be the least precious one of Mme Victor Hugo’s happy inspiration.
M Hugo himself gives an ordinary small leaden inkstand, with a pretty little note attached, very gracefully worded.
Je n’ai point choisi cet encrier, le hasard l’a mis dans ma main, et je m’en suis servi pendant plusieurs mois; puisqu’on me demande pour une bonne œuvre, je le donne volontiers. VICTOR HUGO
The whole fourfold inkstand thus arranged, was duly offered for sale at the bazaar at the price of 2,500 francs, (£100), but one cannot much wonder that it remained unsold. M Hugo therefore bought it in, and it remained in his possession. Perhaps some fifty years hence, it will be worth two or three times as much, and be a valuable heirloom in the family.
Other rooms on the same floor are private apartments, not usually shown to strangers; but we may without indiscretion mention one sad little corner of the late Mme Hugo’s apartment, where, in a glass-fronted cupboard, which the mother’s eyes often fell upon, perchance, in waking hours, are folded rich brocades and dainty laces, time-stained, and one discoloured with sea-water. These are the dresses worn by Léopoldine, M Hugo’s eldest and best beloved child—the one on her marriage with M Charles Vacquerie, the other in which, only six months later, her body was washed on shore by the smiling, sunny gardens of Caudebec. The young bride and bridegroom, then living at Villequier, on the banks of the Seine, hired a pleasure-boat one day to sail down to Caudebec and lunch with friends a the chateau. They went, and after some happy hours spent among trees and flowers by the river side, and sounds of gay laughter under the old grey walls of the château, they, with two others, set sail to return. Perhaps an uncautious movement overturned the tiny bark; or a treacherous gust of wind caught her sail; certain it is that before nightfall four bodies were washed ashore, with convulsed, clinging hands, which had tried in vain to catch the overturned boat, and then gone down together.
On the next floor a large, light room, handsomely furnished with light oak, is called ‘la galerie de chêne;’ and in the magnificent carved bedstead it was proposed that Garibaldi should sleep, when M Hugo invited him here as a guest after Mentana. He never came; but the room is still called by his name, and we believe no meaner (?) personage has been suffered to occupy it. Some exquisitely-carved sediliae, once belonging to Chartres cathedral, form part of the furniture, together with rare mirrors, old cabinets, and other treasures.
Then we climb up, higher and higher, even to the roof, and enter the poet’s sanctum. This is composed of two tiny rooms, lined all over with carpet to keep out the sound, and with long, low couches, usually piled with books and papers while the inner one is fitted with a narrow sofa-bed, which the poet used, in younger days, to occupy occasionally, when in need of absolute retirement. From thence he could, at any moment, step out upon the glass-enclosed roof, and revel in the splendid panorama unrolled before him. A steep sloe of houses over which you look down to the sea-shore; a long-armed double harbour, crowded with shipping of various kinds; mail steamers from England, Jersey, and France; colliers laden with coals from the north; dainty yachts from the Isle of Wight in plenty, putting in for provisions or shelter; graceful chasse-marées from French ports, bringing their weekly freight of poultry and eggs; great three-masted ships driven in, perchance, by stress of weather; and tiny sailing or rowing boats by the dozen, everywhere. Then, across a narrow, rock-strewn channel, lie two small hilly, barren islands—Herm and Jethou. Beyond them, again, the lovely island of Sark, whose purple cliffs stretch out in long, undulating lines, lit up in marvellous beauty by every setting sun. To the left, Alderney shows, a faint mound of blue in the distance, and by her side the white beacon of the Casket Rocks, where, long ago, ‘the bark that held a prince went down;’ and then, to the right, Jersey, with the long, low coast of France, visible on clear days, between.
And now let us suppose for a brief while that you are, as was the writer long ago, ‘un ami de la maison,’ with privileges to enter when these great dusty deserted salles were peopled with living, moving forms. Two glimpses we will take; one of Hauteville House some twelve years since—the other in later years.
It is four o’clock on a winter’s afternoon, somewhere near Christmas time. The long dining table in the ‘salle à manger’ is piled with cakes, mince-pies, and oranges, and surrounded by about twenty little children, varying in age from perhaps seven to twelve years, who, having eaten a grand Christmas dinner of roast beef and plum pudding in true English fashion, are now awaiting, round-eyed and solemn, for a grand postscript to the feast in the shape of ‘le dessert.’ They rise demurely, and bob little courtesies as the door opens, and a party of ladies and gentlemen enter, headed by the master of the house, a man of middle stature, with robust and well-knit form, slightly stooping shoulders as becomes a student, hair and beard alike whitening with age and thought, a noble forehead, and kindly dark eyes glancing under bushy brows. He returns their salutations with easy, courtly grace, moving slowly across the room; then standing with his back against the fireplace, some one brings him a glass of wine. Raising it, he speaks a few gracious, simple words to the children, wishing them happiness and health in the coming new year; and then each child receives a tiny glass of wine, and they proceed to attack the pile of cakes and oranges before them.
By-and-by the whole party proceed to the adjoining billiard-room, where the ‘board of green cloth’ is covered with piles of warm clothing, and in the midst a glorious, dazzling Christmas-tree! Here the ladies of the household are busy, detaching toys from the branches, handing warm clothing to the poorest-looking, and laughingly attempting a word or two in English to the little guests as they do so. There is Madame Hugo pushing back the still profuse ringlets of grey hair which hang down on either side of her face after the fashion of her youth, shading the somewhat highly-coloured cheeks and sallow, but broad and thoughtful forehead, the full, curved lips, and pleasant smile. ‘Women should always show their foreheads,’ M Hugo repeats; ‘it is the noblest part of their faces.’ And so his wife and daughters put back their hair, as now la petite Jeanne learns to toss away her sunny curls and stroke back the fashionable looks, ‘à la chien,’ when she most wants to please her grandfather.
Then there is an old gentleman, rather deformed and unwieldy in person, certainly not beautiful to look upon, always by the poet’s side. He is one of the exiles, faithful friend and follower of the master, singing his praises and doing him homage all day long; earning a scanty livelihood, like many another emigré of former days, by giving French lessons among the English families of the place, his whole text and lesson books the works of Victor Hugo in prose or verse. Just now he brings forward one of his pupils, a shy young lady of about fifteen, whose last bit of work has been shown to and criticised by the master himself.
‘Votre paraphrase était très bien, Mademoiselle, je l’ai lu avec attention.’ And the girl falls back, smiling and blushing, as M Hugo passes on to a younger child, one of his friend’s pet pupils, and smilingly brings her a present form the Christmas tree, in the shape of a piece of music with an inscription by his own hand. ‘Mademoiselle est musicienne, n’est-ce pas? You must sing this for me.’ A song of liberty.
Among the group of gentlemen in the background is another pale-faced, stooping, half-deformed looking man, talking eagerly in whispers to his tall, handsome, dark-bearded brother. They are M Hugo’s two sons, Charles and François; the elder, a violent Republican, editor of the Rappel, and friend to Rochefort and his kin, among the leading sprits of youth in Paris; the younger a translator of Shakespeare, content to move among quieter paths of literature; both destined ere long to have quitted their several lines and passed, the one in shuddering haste and dread loneliness, the other from a lingering sick bed, into another life than this.
For eight years, from 1862 until 1870, did these little gatherings take place year by year. Their origin was as follows: M Hugo, writing of ‘les gamins de Paris’ and the ‘misérables’ of the world, felt great pity for the children of the poor. His wife visited regularly amongst them, working clothes and distributing help in their houses; and it occurred to him that of by some means these hungry children could receive, regularly, a meat dinner twice a week, much disease, weakness, and suffering would be spared to the poor families; and that regular meals given to a few, were better than occasional charity offered to many. So he chose twenty children from among the very poorest, ascertained their need, and gave them a dinner twice a week throughout the year, with the Christmas fete over and above. His idea has since been carried out, in London and elsewhere, most successfully, under the title, we believe, of ‘dinners for poor children;’ but it should not be forgotten that he may fairly claim to be the originator of the charity.
Our second glimpse shall be in summer time, of the year 1878. The great windows of the Salle Rouge are open, leading out to a broad balcony overlooking the sea, and some of the dinner-guests, lately risen from the table, lean pensively over the iron balustrades to watch the rippling sea under the moonlight, and the twinkling harbour-lights shining below.
Within, a family group gather round the master as before – but what a change! Not one of the familiar faces of ten years since now remain. Wife, sons, friends, all passed into the silent grave! And in their stead two young, fresh faces, daintily beribboned forms, with parisienne in every line of them, sit working by the inlaid table. They are Charles Hugo’s widow, remarried to a Député of the Left, M Lockroy, who is chatting with M le Secrétaire in a corner; and her friend and guest, Madame Menard-Dorian. The two grandchildren, Georges and Jeanne, are playing cache-cache in the shadows of the salle bleue with Madame Ménard’s only child while ma tantine, as they call the late Madame Hugo’s sister, Madame Chenay, flits to and fro, pouring out tea for the whole party.
M Hugo himself sits a little apart, beside the fireplace, in a great gilded arm-chair, exchanging an occasional word or two with his neighbour, Madame Drouet, am old lady who may still almost be called beautiful, with her soft, gracious face and abundant gray hair piled high above the placid forehead. She is said to have saved the poet’s life, or, at the least, his liberty, when, after the coup d’état, she conveyed him, concealed in her carriage, safely through and out of Paris – into exile.
But the poet’s face is sad tonight, and his eyes wander wistfully into the shadows as if seeking for some memory of the past, while his daughter’s bright chatter fails to evoke interest or reply. She notices this, and called her children to her. ‘Georges, Jeanne, come and dance for grand father!’
They rush in laughing, little Jeanne springing upon her grandfather’s knees, and covering himn with kisses. Then in a second the table is pushed away, Madame Lockroy sits down ot the piano, the bright little aunt comes forward to act dancing mistress, and the three children waltz and pirouette, perform dainty little minuets with exquisite precision and solemnity; Georges always calm and grave, with his pale, immovable, chiselled features and large dark eyes fixed intently on the ground, hardly smiling, hardly even playing like a child, and so princely in his bearing that one hardly dares treat him as one; while his little sister, with her clear gray-blue dancing eyes, long golden-brown curls, and merry face, frisks about, shrieking with laughter and playing all manner of tricks – breaking off suddenly in the midst of a waltz to rush up to her grandfather and fling her arms about his neck, then whirl back crying to her mother to play on ‘Vite, vite, plus vite encore!’ Then pouncing upon the famous old grey-hound ‘Sénat,’ who, all conscious of his own immortality (for he, too, is a well-known character as ‘le chien de Victor Hugo’), is sleeping quietly under the table, she drags him into a dance by his collar, on which you may read the motto,
Je voudrais qu’au logis on me ramenât,
Mon état, chien, mon maître, Hugo, mon nom, ‘Sénat.’
To which name, by-the-by, one of the guests present gravely takes exception, as savouring of too little reverence towards the august body of which his master is a distinguished member!
But it is time to say good-night, and the music stops. The dreamers come in from their balcony, the ‘bonne’ knocks a the door, and with a sigh of childish regret for the happy moments passed, the three children go round to take their leave. ‘Bonsoir,’ little Mademoiselle Ménard who can answer you in your own tongue and say ‘Good-night’ in English; Georges could doubtless ‘give you good even’ in the Latin tongue, for he is studying it with his professor; but he will say nothing—only lay his tiny soft hand on yours, and look up with those great melancholy eyes, until his sister pushes him away, flinging her arms round you and holding up her face for a kiss. ‘Bonsoir, petite Jeanne! Good-night! Good-night!’
[This pleasant paper would interest us and our readers more deeply if the subject of it had made better use of his genius and had followed to the end in the higher inspiration of some of his early Odes et Ballades.- Ed. I.M.]
¹ Mrs. Lane Clarke was a strong Protestant, but her daughter ... after years of anxious thought and deep but solitary research, for she had not a single Catholic acquaintance, was received into the Church. Shortly after her conversion, while she was still under twenty-one, she made her first essay in literature, at the request of Father Lockhart, in the Lamp, of which he was editor.’ [The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 19, Number 1, 1902.]