Victor Hugo's Christmas fete, 18652nd December 2016
Two accounts of Victor Hugo's Christmas party for the poor children, from 1865, one from The Star, edited by John Talbot, and the other by E L Samuel, from the Daily Post. The illustration is an engraving (with suspiciously well-dressed children!) from Alfred Barbou's biography of Hugo, here in English translation, Victor Hugo and his time, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1883; we also have the original French version in the Library.
The Star, Thursday December 21 1865
M Victor Hugo’s Bounty
M Victor Hugo’s annual distribution of clothing and toys to the poor children to whom he furnishes a dinner every week, took place this day at Hauteville House, in the presence of a numerous company. We shall give the particulars of this interesting fête in our next number.
The Star, Saturday December 28 1865
M Victor Hugo’s bounty
We stated in our number of Thursday that M VICTOR HUGO had on that day made his annual distribution of clothing and toys to the poor children to whom he furnishes a dinner every week. The distribution was, according to custom, made at Hauteville House, the residence of the illustrious poet, and was witnessed by a numerous company of ladies and gentlemen. The bounty of which forty poor children have been for several years the object is, on the part of M VICTOR HUGO, not a mere indulgence in the luxury of mitigating misery, but it aims at the exemplification of a theory which has for its object the permanent benefit –moral and material—of the poorer classes of society, and which this large-hearted philanthropist desires to test by experiments conducted at his own expense. M VICTOR HUGO has on more than one occasion, but especially at Christmas, 1863, explained the theory which he seeks to bring into practice. From this explanation of the object which M VICTOR HUGO proposes to himself in giving effect to his benevolent inspiration, the real character and end of the annual fetes which are held at Hauteville House will be better understood and more correctly estimated.
In 1848 a commission of medical and other scientific men had been appointed by the French Government to inquire into the causes of diseases such as scrofula, rickets, and impoverishment of the blood (angine couenneuse) to which the children of the poor were exposed, and which produced so much mortality amongst them. The committee reported it as their opinion that these diseases were caused by the children being almost totally strangers to animal food, and that they might be checked by their having a meal of fresh meat once a month. Owing to political events, this report remained without effect, but it made a strong impression on his (M HUGO’s) mind, and he determined that when circumstances should permit he would test the soundness of the theory propounded. He had, therefore, about two years ago, commenced the humble little work of which the present meeting was a part. He had selected forty young children from the most necessitous classes of Guernsey, and to these he had given—not once a month, but once a fortnight, a sound meal composed of fresh meat and a small glass of wine. And he had the satisfaction of finding that his humble experiment had been undoubtedly successful. Many of his poor little children who had been suffering from one or other of the diseases he had mentioned had been cured, and the physical constitution of nearly the whole of them sensibly improved. He wished it to be clearly understood that he assumed no merit for what he had done, for it was part of his creed that it was the positive duty of the rich to care for the poor—a duty imposed alike by Christianity and common sense—and that the rich had no right to spend their superfluity on their own enjoyments, when they saw their fellow-beings suffering around them. He had, he repeated, called these poor children together, with the view of carrying out an important experiment, but he had also done it for the purpose of giving an example. He had the gratification of assisting forty children: if twenty persons would do the same, eight hundred children would be cared for, and it was impossible to say what amount of good might thus be done for the population of the island. He repeated that he wished it to be distinctly understood that he took not to himself the slightest merit for what he was doing, and sincerely trusted that he should not be suspected of any feeling of ostentation. For the children themselves, he would tell them for any good they might receive, their thanks were due, not to him, but to GOD, the giver of all good. He was gratified in seeing around him the ladies and gentlemen who had done him the honour of assisting at his little fête. He should at all times be happy to see whoever might be pleased to come to him. He invited no-one, but his doors were ever open to all.
AT noon on Thursday the infant recipients of M VICTOR HUGO’s bounty—about forty in number with many of their parents—were collected in his dining-room, where also were assembled a large number of ladies and gentlemen. Here the guests of both classes took partook of an ample and elegant collation, the honours of which were gracefully performed by Madame CHENAY, the sister-in-law of the host. At the conclusion of the repast M HUGO spoke to the following effect: He said he scarcely knew how to commence with the simplicity which was necessary to convey to all those who heard him a clear understanding of the motive by which he was actuated. Met as they were at that children’s festival they were merely doing what it was the duty of those who possessed towards those who possessed not. There was no merit in what they were doing—it was the performance of a simple duty. And when a duty is performed it should be done in the light of day, that it may be seen and imitated. If the small act which was now witnessed were all that was to be considered, that would be doing little. But he hoped that there would be found in it something that would lead to imitation. He learnt with pleasure that in England the Rev. Mr WOOD had already moved in the same direction, and two institutions similar to that before them had been created. Another motive which inspired M HUGO was that of obedience to a divine command. Had not the LORD JESUS CHRIST said:—‘Suffer little children to come unto Me?’ His (M HUGO’s) desire was that this command should be universally obeyed in bringing poor children to the rich—to those at least who were conventionally termed rich; for he maintained that there were none who had a strict right to that title. GOD lent everything, but He gave nothing. If fortune had made him the possessor of certain wealth he felt that it was his duty to share it with those who by a similar accident were poor, and in this way there was absolute equality and fraternity. This was the true interpretation of the mind of CHRIST. This was the sublime injunction of the MASTER’s word, and he humbly endeavoured to obey it.
There were two kinds of wealth, the exterior and the interior. External wealth was gold and silver; internal wealth was health and morality. We could not give much of gold and silver to the poor, but we could give them a certain degree of health and morality. It was under this conviction that he was acting .He was endeavouring to render the poor children there assembled more healthy, and he believed he should thereby make them more moral. The poor did not generally suffer justly. The child could do nothing to deserve misery, and it was our duty, as far as possible, to make it partake of the joys which belong to youth; and the child of the poor, as well as the rich, should have its shares of Christmas pleasures. He again repudiated the idea of deserving any merit for what he was doing, as it was merely a simple and positive duty.
‘We are now going,’ said M HUGO, ‘to plant a Christmas tree for the children: let us hope that we shall some time plant a tree for men─the noble tree of liberty.’─(Loud cheers.)
Mr TUPPER, jurat of the Royal Court, in compliance with a wish expressed by the company, addressed M HUGO. He said it was to him an agreeable duty to thank their illustrious host of the pleasure he had afforded to them. Since M VICTOR HUGO had honoured Guernsey with his presence, he had not ceased to devote himself to the amelioration of the poor, and when a man whose genius was acknowledged and honoured by the whole world, devoted himself, as he had done and still did, to the cause of the poor, he was entitled to our highest admiration and most cordial thanks─a debt which he, (Mr TUPPER) now begged permission to pay on behalf of all those assembled.─(Cheers.)
The company then adjourned to the billiard room, where, spread upon the table, was a large quantity of useful clothing for girls and boys, to whom it was distributed.
The scene was now shifted to the drawing room, which was brilliantly illuminated, and in the midst whereof was a large Christmas tree with boughs laden with toys, fruits, &c, which the happy children were allowed to gather. This was the termination of the fête. In concluding our report we will only express our wish that M VICTOR HUGO may see many returns of a season which his enlightened benevolence renders so honourable to himself, so happy, and so useful to the poor objects of his bounty and so gratifying and instructive to those who have the happiness of witnessing the manner in which he observes the great Christmas festival.
Daily Post, December 25, 1865
Victor Hugo’s Christmas Fête
To the Editor of the Daily Post
Sir. Two years since you favoured me by inserting in your journal an account I transmitted to you of a Christmas fête, at M Victor Hugo’s house, at Guernsey. M Hugo has personally assured me that account you were kind enough to publish of his Christmas party has been productive of great benefit to certain classes in the midland districts of England, as he has received personal communications from many persons in the midland counties, informing him they have adopted his noble example, and instituted similar organisations for the relief and succour of juvenile afflicted humanity. I therefore confidently appeal to you to find space in your next issue for the subjoined communication.
The details of M Hugo’s bounty are by this time probably as well known to our readers as yourself. Not spasmodically, or without investigation is his charity bestowed, but it is rendered to those who are in greatest need of it. The children of the poorest, and of the most indigent and most wretched of the inhabitants, are sought out—the pale, delicate little bantling, perhaps the poor orphan, or the widow’s only joy and comfort, the hectic bloom on whose cheek, but for this salvation, would blossom the poison flower of consumption and decline – the poor unfortunate, whose childhood, but for this benevolence, would be without joy, as it has been without hope—the wretched, on whose person is apparent abcesses and symptoms of skin diseases, the consequences of low diet and insufficient ventilation—all these and others similarly situated are sought out by M Hugo and his family, and receive every fourteen days a good dinner, as would be provided for his own household; consisting of good soup, well-dressed meat, beer, cake, fruit, and a glass of claret. At Christmas there is a special fête for the objects of M Hugo’s bounty, ‘La Fête des Pauvres.’ All the innocent living objects of his charity assemble at his house (a noble mansion, which internally presents, in every respect, the appearance of a poet’s domicile), probably escorted to the doors by their mothers, who appear, as it were, to bless the exile’s house and the very ground on which hit stands; and the children enter the great democrat’s abode as if it were their home, without shyness, or diffidence, or timidity, but with happiness beaming in their faces and joy in their movements and gestures. The children first partake of dinner, and are then ushered into a room where dessert is laid for them. Here M Hugo and his family receive them, and there are also present several influential and well-known residents of the island, who are anxious to witness the interesting proceedings.
After dessert, the children and company pass to the billiard room, and on the table are laid out various articles of clothing, the ladies of M Hugo’s household having previously ascertained what these poor children most urgently required. The children severally receive there most welcome gifts and then, amidst a silence that is astonishing considering the audience includes forty children, for two to fourteen years of age, the great champion of man’s rights and liberties thus addresses his attentive listeners:—He observes that he can only characterise the occasion of their present gathering as a most simple and ordinary circumstance. Several English and foreign journals had honoured him by inserting in the columns an account of this his annual holiday, and describing it as a most noble action and good conduct on his part. For himself, he must emphatically declared that this was not the case; it was not even a good action; it was but the performance of a duty—the duty of those who possessed towards those who did not possess. Silence was a primary law of a good action. Why should it be published? A good action should be done secretly. But it was different with a duty. It was public property. Its publication was occasionally calculated to be of the most infinite service to humanity. To publish simply as the performance of a good action, the fact of M Hugo’s bestowing every fourteen days a good healthy meal to forty poor children of the island was erroneous and unnecessary, but on being the means of causing an infinite amount of benefit to accrue to thousands of other poor children, whose claims to the sympathy and charity of the well-to-do and affluent were equally urgent as those of his own protégés, he desired the fact to be made known as much as possible, and that his conduct and example in this respect should everywhere be adopted by those who had the means to carry it out. M Hugo referred to the fact of his plan having been most successfully adopted in different parts of England and America, and referred to two institutions in London where his plan had met with great success. ‘I adopt and practise the noble precept of Jesus Christ, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me.’ I now display to you the child’s tree of Christmas; let us hope the day may come when I may assist in planting for humanity the great tree of liberty.’
The doors are then opened, and in an adjoining room the children behold a Christmas tree most tastefully decked with different toys suitable for the enjoyment of both sexes. Adèle receives her doll with raptures, and Johnny his ship or transparent slate with delight. A lottery takes place for the juvenile guests, consisting of all prizes of equal value, and no blanks, and the children depart well fed, well clothed, and happy with their toy treasures.
Glorious scene! Grand reminiscence! Subject for artist’s pencil and painter’s canvas! Also, for each man whose means afford it, as an example to follow, conduct to emulate.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
E L SAMUEL
Victoria Hotel, Guernsey, December 21, 1865