Chez Vic­tor on the is­land of Guernsey

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - ANN REN­NIE

It is per­haps the most fa­mous set of nu­mer­als in lit­er­a­ture and mu­si­cal theatre — 24601, the num­ber as­signed to pris­oner Jean Val­jean, the hero of Les Mis­er­ables.

What is less well known is that this epic was com­pleted by Vic­tor Hugo while in po­lit­i­cal ex­ile on the Chan­nel Is­land of Guernsey. The house in which Les Mis­er­ables was com­pleted in 1862 is now ad­min­is­tered by the City of Paris and small pre-booked group tours tak­ing one hour are con­ducted be­tween April and Septem­ber. So on a bright blue day in the mid­dle of sum­mer, my daugh­ter and I as­cend a steep hill out­side pretty St Peter Port to visit Hauteville House. As well as re­lo­cat­ing his fam­ily — wife Adele and three of his five chil­dren — he in­stalled Juli­ette Drouet, his mis­tress-sec­re­tary-trav­el­ling-com­pan­ion (of 50 years, no less), down the road. The Hugo fam­ily lived at No. 38 and Madame Drouet at No. 20.

Our guide tells us Hugo was an ar­dent and idio­syn­cratic in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor and it took him six years to fur­nish and re­fur­bish the house to his sat­is­fac­tion. Hugo’s son Charles said Hauteville House was “a true three-storey au­to­graph, a poem in sev­eral rooms”. The res­i­dence was also an of­fice for pen­ning his great works, and a place to en­ter­tain and im­press vis­it­ing friends and ad­mir­ers. Th­ese in­cluded Alexan­der Du­mas, Hun­gar­ian politi­cians, Bri­tish army of­fi­cers, Uruguayan writ­ers — a ver­i­ta­ble melt­ing pot of peo­ple with se­crets and agen­das and in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal gos­sip to ex­change. It was also the place where Hugo presided over a weekly din­ner for 40 lo­cal or­phans so they could have a de­cent meal.

At the top of the house, ac­cessed through a li­brary stacked with books, is the Crys­tal Room, a large glass­roofed conservatory with spec­tac­u­lar views of Herm and Sark and, on a clear day, the coast of Nor­mandy. Here Hugo worked stand­ing up, writ­ing by hand. It is light and dec­o­rated with Delft tiles, a con­trast to the dark, rich in­te­ri­ors of most of the house. Any writer would be in­spired with this view — a me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal crys­tal palace for ob­serv­ing the chang­ing play of sea and sky.

The bil­liard room on the ground floor is wall­pa­pered in a rich red. My daugh­ter and I note a small por­trait of Hugo’s el­dest daugh­ter, Leopol­dine, who drowned in the Seine at 19. This small por­trait of his beloved child as a tod­dler was one of Hugo’s great trea­sures; it’s said he never truly got over her un­timely death. Next to this is a ta­pes­try-clad draw­ing room with a tiny pho­to­graphic dark room ad­join­ing. A hall­way ceil­ing is dec­o­rated with car­pet and china plates.

On the first floor are two re­cep­tion rooms. The red draw­ing room looks over the gar­den, and its walls are cov­ered with pearl-en­crusted em­broi­dery and mir­rors and ob­jets d’art from China. The yel­low room next to it is sim­i­larly os­ten­ta­tious. On the sec­ond floor the wood­pan­elled bed­room has carv­ings of trees and re­li­gious scenes, al­though Hugo’s po­si­tion on re­li­gion changed over the course of his life. On the third floor, op­po­site the writ­ing room, is a belvedere where Hugo kept a bed and wash basin. Through­out the house the VH mono­gram is seen in var­i­ous dec­o­ra­tive mo­tifs.

For Hugo, the Chan­nel Is­lands were “frag­ments of France that fell into the sea and were gath­ered up by Eng­land”. To visit re­splen­dent Hauteville House is to cap­ture a lit­tle some­thing of this great French­man who fi­nally re­turned to Paris, af­ter 15 years on Guernsey, as a na­tional hero. • vis­

Vic­tor Hugo’s Hauteville House

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