Victor Hugo and Guernsey: A visit to Hauteville House, 1883

28th June 2017

From an American publication which lasted all of five years: The Continent, published by Albion Tourgee, Vol 4, 1883, p. 135. An extract from an article, 'The Normandy of the Sea.'

A few steps from our lodging is Victor Hugo's house, one of the great objects of curiosity of the place. Louise having informed us that it would soon be closed to the public, the family being shortly expected on a visit, we concluded to lose no time in seeing the interior. We had often passed it on our way to town, and always with a feeling of wonder that so emotional a writer should have selected so unsympathetic a home. Its cold, meaningless facade, looking upon that narrow street, had nothing inspiring. The name stands in big letters over the door—Hauteville House. We soon had occasion, however, to reverse our judgment. The house was undoubtedly selected for its rear view—the finest in the island. The first impression one gets on entering is one of gloom. Sombre hangings, sombre furniture of the severest order, dark oak carvings, fill the hall. The dining-room at the end is a spacious apartment, well lighted from the back windows, but painfully odd in its appointments. It bears the undeniable mark of its owner's peculiarity of character—his love for stage effects. The ceiling is covered with ancient tapestry; the walls, all the way up to the ceiling, are covered with blue tiles, as is also the chimney, the style of which we are unable to define. It projects into the room with a faint endeavor to imitate the antique, but fails altogether to produce a pleasing effect. A plain dining-table, with chairs to match, occupies the centre of the room. The chief object of interest is the ancestral chair of the Hugo family—a weather-beaten, grim-looking, old oak-carved seat, frowning with age and feudal pride. Its arms are chained, and it stands between the two windows, a sacred seat to be no longer desecrated by vulgar use. It bears the date of 1534, and the name of Joseph Leopold Sigisbert Hugo, with a Latin inscription.

The stairs leading to the drawing-room on the second story are, along with the banisters, all covered with carpet. The effect of these carpeted banisters is not pleasing; it looks musty, dusty, clumsy. The carpet, moreover, seemed common and more threadbare than antique. A friend and admirer of the poet assured us that it was precious old Persian carpet. We will not dispute the fact, but this novel stairway ornamentation looked to us more like a painful effort after oddity than a genuine feeling of the beautiful. We had, moreover, a lingering suspicion that it was the unartistic plainness of the banisters that suggested to the poet the idea of covering them up. But if he meant to give them thereby an oriental touch, he missed the mark. The East drapes and never stretches.

The walls of the drawing-room are covered with a sort of tapestry worked with gold and glass beads. The furniture consists of antique cabinets and stands, eccentric-looking seats covered with yellow leather, and a few rare bahuts.

Conspicuous amid all this antique and antiquated furniture is a writing-desk, presented to Madame Hugo on one of her birthdays by the four most celebrated litterateurs of the time—Alexandre Dumas, Lamartine, Georges Sand and Victor Hugo. It is of a peculiar shape—square, each crescent corner forming a little drawer. These drawers contain autograph letters to the lady by the donors.

The gem-room is in the third story. It is called the Oak Gallery, and is truly a superb apartment. Six windows distribute the light on a perfect gallery of sculptured oak. whilst the broad balcony outside affords a view unrivaled for its rare combinations of sea and woodland scenery. This magnificent state-room had been fitted up for Garibaldi, whom Mr. Hugo had invited to share his exile home. Would the simple-minded, simple-hearted, honest soldier have really felt at home in so unhomely a place, amidst such oppressive quaintness and untimely luxury? we asked ourselves. The cumbrous bedstead, never occupied, called to mind the state couch of some feudal castle. The high-backed chairs, heavily ornamented with carving and inscriptions, seemed, with their odd devices, to challenge each other to single combat. One of them has, Sum, non sequor; another, Sto, sed fugio; a third, A deo, ad deum. Around a large centre-table stand three others, also very high-backed, but diminishing in size according to their titles. The tallest has on its back in large brass nails, Pater; the next, Mater; the third, Filius. They called insensibly to mind the captious bear story of our childhood—the big bear, the middle-sized bear and the wee little bear with their respective beds and chairs.

But we must not look too critically into the eccentricities of genius. The topmost room on the roof makes up for all these oddities; it is the poet's own retreat, his private study, and reverently do we tread its floor. It is a small attic opening into a still smaller glass chamber. This, like a ship-cabin, contains everything in the smallest possible compass—a small iron bedstead of monastic simplicity; a small writing-table with its writing material; a common chair. From here what a view! The whole archipelago of islands and rocks scintillating in the sunlight, moonlight, star-light, and far in the distance that dear French coast!

What a store-house for the imagination! How nature and fancy work here into each other's hands! Here was written the "Travailleurs de la Mer." We fancied we could see the intrepid romancer pick out from this glass eyrie the scenes of the novel—the snow-covered street that leads to St. Sampson, the three solitary travelers, Deruchette stopping in the road to write in the snow the name of her unfortunate lover. It was like taking a look into the machinery of the story.

A few discreet questions to the pretty Guernsey maid who took us around, brought out the information that Mr. Hugo paid occasional visits to his island home; that he was expected that very summer; that he was hale and hearty, though over seventy. Summer and winter, she said, the industrious writer rose with the day. He worked till nine, then took an hour for breakfast and a short walk; resumed work again, and, with but the luncheon intermission, worked on till five. Dinner, half-past six; bed-time, ten. Such systematic living scarcely chimes with so Bohemian an imagination!

The visit to the Hauteville House put us in mind to read The Toilers of the Sea, and we went in quest of a circulating library. There are two at St. Peter Port. We procured the volumes, and they became for a time our daily companions in our excursions. The chief seat of action in the story is St. Sampson's Harbor, and as a convenient little steam-car runs every half-hour between St. Peter Port and the said harbor, we lost no time in paying it a visit. Louise opened big eyes in hearing us talk, in connection with St. Sampson, about the Bue de la Rue, Deruchette and the mysterious rock that plays so ominous a part in the romance.

"A 'Bue de la Rue' at St. Sampson's? No such place there! Deruchette? Never heard of the woman! Why, there is nothing to be seen at St. Sampson's but quarries and quarrymen!"