From the street, Hauteville House is a plain, slate-grey building with little hint of the eccentricities within.
This Guernsey house was where Victor Hugo made his home-in-exile for 14 years. The politically outspoken French writer fled Napoleon III’s authoritarian rule over France to seek refuge on this quiet island in the English Channel, a dependency of the British crown. The house has just reopened to the public after conservationists spent 18 months restoring it to the state it was in during Hugo’s time. The restoration was largely funded by a €3m donation from François Pinault, the French luxury goods billionaire.
Hugo has long been celebrated for his literary oeuvre, but Hauteville House displays his ability as a designer and decorator. He bought the house in 1856 for £24,000 — equivalent to around £2.5m today — helped by his earnings from Les Contemplations, his poetry collection published in the same year. It was the only property the writer ever owned and was passed down through the family until his descendants donated it to the city of Paris in 1927.
Gerard Audinet, director of Maisons de Victor Hugo (comprising Hauteville House and Hugo’s Paris apartment), says a priority was to replace the 1950s white exterior with a brick façade painted grey with patina effect, in order to mimic the original sand-and-lime coating: “The grey is very austere, like a medieval castle, and I think it was an element which seduced Victor Hugo, who loved medieval castles.”
Step inside, and one enters an extraordinary world of symbolism and fantasy. Hugo used every inch of every room (as well as the landing and staircase) to create an ebullient collage of styles, a vibrant saturation of clashing patterns, textures and materials. “Not one spare centimetre is free,” says Audinet, “Nothing is made by chance; he really thought about everything.”
Jean Baptiste Hugo, a photographer and Hugo’s great-grandson, is alert to the potency of having “all Victor Hugo’s emotions and philosophies embodied in the house”. He recalls first visiting here in the 1970s when François Truffaut was there to shoot his film about Hugo’s daughter, The Story of Adele H.
He explains that the house was conceived as “a journey from dark to light”: visitors move from the oppressive lower levels, thick with tapestries and heavy oak, via the ornate mix of decorative styles on the first and second floors to dizzying brightness at the top.
First, Hugo transformed the dining room on the ground floor. Upon completion, he invited friends to see it, as though asking them to an exhibition opening, and he sent for Edmond Bacot, the respected French photographer, to document it. The room’s dark oak wall panels contrast with the brightness of the Delft tiles that fill a wall, shaped into an enormous double “H” — standing for Hauteville House, and for Hugo himself.
This Romantic interplay between light and dark is felt in every room. “It is very Victor Hugo,” says Audinet, who explains that the writer was “really fascinated” by this contrast, evident also in his 1840 collection of poetry Les Rayons et les Ombres (Beams and Shadows) and his drawings, “where he is really working with the darkness of the ink and the very strong impact of light”.
In the studio, flooded with light from the glass wall facing the garden, another wall is filled by a huge, dark, wooden cupboard, constructed from old sea-chests — some of which Hugo found in Guernsey, while others were sent from France and Britain. He hired local craftsmen, headed by carpenter Peter Mauger, to work from his detailed drawings, dismembering the chests and reforming them into this elaborate structure.
Audinet notes how “Hugo’s invention was dependent upon the materials he could find”, making his decorative work here a combination of originality and opportunity. The Latin words ad augusta per angusta — “to elevated goals through narrow paths” — are carved at the top.
Appropriately for a writer, inscriptions feature heavily in the house’s decor: initials, words and mottoes are carved in all manner of unexpected nooks, like the “exilium vita est” (“life is exile”) above the entrance to the dining room. House steward Odile Blanchette says drily “he engraved the walls as a prisoner engraves the walls”, but she notes optimism in Hugo’s choice of words. His time in exile was productive; here he completed Les Misérables as well as Les Travailleurs de la Mer, which he dedicated to Guernsey.
In a letter to his friend, the journalist Auguste Vacquerie, Hugo noted “A month’s work here is worth a year in Paris.” Intriguingly, the house’s uppermost level — where Hugo worked and slept — is noticeably devoid of words carved into its walls: here, the writing flowed from Hugo’s pen.
The top-floor “lookout”, as it came to be known, is the largest of the conservatory-like spaces that Hugo built on to the existing building. In the corner facing the sea is a modest square desk at standing height, hinged to fold away against the wall. Nearby is a carpeted piece of furniture, like a three-tiered sofa. Hugo would stand at his desk and write prolifically, flinging the finished pages across to this structure, where they would lie scattered as the ink dried.
His bedroom is next door — small, simple, flooded with light and dominated by windows overlooking the garden. Landscape architect Louis Benech, who oversaw its restoration, describes the garden as “another playground for Hugo”. At the heart of the two-hectare neat grassy space is an oak tree Hugo planted to represent his political hope for “The United States of Europe”. Benech points out that the tree is ailing, but he plans on taking cuttings from it to propagate it, “so that one day there will be children of Hugo’s oak in the garden”.
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In contrast to the diminutive bedroom is the imposing Oak Gallery a floor below, housing a magisterial bed on wheels. Although Hugo designed this room to be his apartment, with half of it for resting and half for writing, he rarely used it, apart from a period when he suffered from anthrax. He came to see this room as his place of final repose: the bed was to be his death bed, and he kept his will there, in a drawer.
For all his apparent optimism about “life in exile”, Hugo feared death in exile. In his dedication to Les Travailleurs de la Mer, he described Guernsey as “the rock of hospitality and liberty . . . my present asylum”, and also “perhaps my tomb”, words that reveal the tension between his gratitude for finding sanctuary versus his yearning for France.
Hugo would have looked down to see the words flowing irrepressibly from his pen, but when he looked up, out of the large surrounding windows, his gaze would have drifted across the sea — past Herm, Sark and Jersey — and settled on his longed-for France on the horizon.
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