Chez Victor on the island of Guernsey
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. • visitguernsey.com
Victor Hugo’s Hauteville House