Hauteville House: Victor Hugo on the Island of Guernsey
L’homme est une prison où l’âme reste libre.
On 16 May 1856, thanks to the success of his ‘Contemplations’, Victor Hugo bought Hauteville House in Guernsey, a large white building with a garden overlooking the sea. An enthusiastic collector of secondhand furniture and bric-à-brac, he brought back a profusion of chests, sideboards, carpets, mirrors, crockery, figurines and other objects from his excursions around the island. He put his boundless imagination to work on the house, spending months overseeing a major conversion on a medieval pattern, which gave this unique building an inner force and mystery.
Hugo lived in Hauteville House until 1870, when he returned to France after the fall of the Second Empire, but he stayed here again for a year in 1872-73, for a week in 1875 and for four months in 1878.
In his mid-50s when he arrived in Guernsey, Hugo believed that his “present refuge” would eventually become his “probable tomb”. Fuelled by these morbid fears – amplified, no doubt, by his isolation – he embarked on a staggeringly prolific literary output.
During his fifteen years on the island he made a lasting impression and wrote some of his most famous works: La Légende des siècles (‘The Legend of the Centuries’), Les Misérables, Les chansons des rues et des bois (‘The Songs of the Streets and Woods’), Les Travailleurs de la mer (‘Toilers of the Sea’), etc.
He was led to express his gratitude in the dedication of this novel: I dedicate this book to the rock of hospitality, to this corner of old Norman land where resides the noble little people of the sea, to the Island of Guernsey, severe and yet gentle…’.
»Guernsey’s Official Victor Hugo Website
Stepping into the house, which brims with objets d’art and tapestry, is like entering Hugo’s imagination, filled with hidden symbolism, defiant declarations and winks of humour.
“The house is like a journey,” says Cedric Bail, a conservation assistant who leads the tour.
Hugo spent almost six years decorating the house, scouring the island’s junk shops for functional items that he re-purposed into decorative elements. Dozens of carved wooden sea chests were joined into a towering mantelpiece, and curved Regency chair backs became ornamental window frames. Small faces and words – “bits of propaganda”, Bail says, are carved into the wall panelling. A sign over the dining room door reads “Exilium vita est” (“Life is an exile”).
Suffused with a dark oppressiveness that Bail likens to that of a prison, the lower rooms give way to light as we ascend the stairs. At the top of the house, a glass conservatory, shockingly bright, which housed Hugo’s primary domain: a spartan bedroom – where the notorious philanderer slept flanked by maidservants’ beds – and an office with views across the Channel.
Perched here in the “lookout”, as he called it, Hugo wrote while standing at a foldout desk and gazing at the islands of Sark and Herm, and, in the hazy distance, his beloved France.
“A month’s work here is worth a year in Paris,” he confided in a letter to the writer Auguste Vacquerie. “This is why I sentence myself to exile.”
»Victor Hugo’s write of passage
- Getting to know Guernsey: Traveling Tips, Advice & Pictures (epicatravel.com)
- A Beautiful Poem by Victor Hugo 🙂 (shafiqah1.wordpress.com)
- Quotes from the Masters: Hugo (lynneayersbeyondthebrush.wordpress.com)