Victor Hugo in Guernsey, by Henri Boland
From Boland's Les Iles de la Manche, 1904, pp. 145-6, including a note attached to the pages by Edith Carey. [By Dinah Bott]
Victor Hugo arrived in Guernsey in awful conditions. The prospects were dreadful; his expulsion from Jersey rendered him suspect, before he had even set foot in the island, to a Guernsey population who had always been extremely loyal to the British crown, and whose veneration of the sovereign was such that it could truly be classed as a cult. Even in Jersey people had kept their distance, pretending to be unaware of the political events that had brought him there; people only wanted to see him as a noble emigré, and a Jersey newspaper had announced his arrival there in these mischievous terms: 'Today Mr Victor Hugo arrived in Jersey; he is a highly regarded follower of the muses.'
What, then, would the welcome be like in Guernsey, a smaller, more narrow-minded place? Their new guest was a great poet, it went without saying, but he was a revolutionary as well, and what is more a free thinker, a terrible crime in the minds of a population of religious near-fanatics, severe and presbyterian. Some people pointed out that Victor Hugo believed in God, that he said his prayers and praised the Supreme Being, but to little avail; the poet's God was not that of clergymen and churches, and the only Bible he had was the great book of nature. Thus Guernsey society proved cold and extremely reserved towards this illustrious outlaw. A few generous souls, however, the leader amongst whom was Etienne Martin, the Queen's Prevost, dared to brave public rancour and extended a friendly hand to the exiled Hugo; others followed their example, such as the Corbins, the De Putrons, the De Jerseys, and the Marquands.1 Relations were getting more friendly, people were dropping their hostility, society was opening up, a little Guernsey coterie was even forming around the poet, when, one night at the theatre, he had the unfortunate idea of refusing to get up for the National Anthem. It did him little good to maintain that as a man of principle, he could not take off his hat for a crowned head of state; the people held it against him, his best friends left him and implacable enemies arose against him, who attacked him even after his death, for even as in Paris they were according the poet a grand funeral worthy of a classical hero, an Anglican minister in Guernsey proclaimed in a sermon that he was astonished that such homage should be paid to a man 'who could not even write French!' Such hyperbole demonstrated just how much the outraged public felt exasperated, and how even those Guernsey people who admitted his poetical genius were highly unimpressed with his public and private character. [From the French.]
¹ Edith Carey noted: 'Of these 'esprits généreux', the Corbins, who were 'forties' and not in society in those days, were the only family with the slightest pretence to gentility. The other were all tradesmen, for the gentle De Jerseys had nothing to do with Victor Hugo, only the ironmonger's branch associated with him.' In the Quarterly Review of the Guernsey Society XX (3), Autumn 1964, p. 58, Revd J E Bazille Corbin wrote, as part of his long history of the Corbin family: 'Two of Marc-Anthony [Bazille Corbin's] daughters died unmarried—Margaret Lukis and Rosalie Marie (Rose) Corbin. Rose became a very well-known and popular figure in Guernsey society; her 'at homes' on Saturdays were always crowded and her tea-parties quite famous. In the 1890s she used to receive visitors wearing a large hat and gloves reaching to her elbows in the French fashion. She was a great friend of the Victor Hugo family, as was also her brother Edward and her sister Mrs Kinnersly. The writer remembers quite well seeing among her music a poem of Hugo's set to music and dedicated to her—Le voici!
'Il resterait peu de choses
A l'homme qui vit un jour
Si Dieu ôtait les roses,
Si Dieu ôtait l'amour.'
('Life would have very little left,
To him who lived one day,
When love from him by God was reft,
and roses ta'en away.') [This is from Hugo's 'Je sais bien qu'il est d'usage,' one of Les Contemplations.]
At Rose's salons at 9 Saumarez Street and later at Ryde Lodge, one met such well-known persons as the elderly Mme Hettier of Caen, her son and her daughter the Marquise de Bonneville, 'Caran d'Ache' the cartoonist, the Hugo family and other French people. She died in 1922, aged 72.'
Rose is described in Mme Richard Lesclide's Victor Hugo intime, Paris: Juven, 1902, p. 81, as singing 'comme une fauvette,' which is presumably why Hugo dedicated a song to her; Lesclide explains how, after Hugo's friend and doctor Allix left the island, Dr Corbin replaced him, with the result that Rose, although older than Jeanne Hugo, soon became Jeanne's grande amie.
The Library has a delightful children's home-produced magazine in a bound volume, The Royal Guernsey Frogga Club Magazine, Vol III, 2nd Series, which is the work of members of the Corbin and Collings families 1904-1905, donated to the Library in 1989 by Mary Robilliard.