The internet research hub for Victor Hugo enthusiasts
BY AN AMERICAN NAVAL OFFICER.
Appletons' journal: a magazine of general literature./ vol. 3, iss. 60
May 21, 1870
IN the latter part of September, 1865, our steamer was cruising among the islands of the English Channel, and, on reaching Guernsey, I made one of a party of " toilers of the sea" from our wardroom, who landed at St.-Pierre Port, for the purpose of hunting up novelties near the scene of the loves and trials of the gentle Deru chette and the sturdy Gilliatt, whose wooing is so beautifully told by Victor Hugo.
Thinking that the eminent author might be at home, and, per chance, might extend a welcome to us, whose homes were so far away, we ventured a visit to Hauteville House, his residence, but found that he was at that time absent from the island.
Our disappointment was great indeed, but was somewhat diminished by the courtesy of M. de Kessler, one of Hugo's most intimate friends-his next neighbor and fellow-exile-who kindly volunteered to show us the interior of his friend's home.
The exterior of the mansion is not at all pretentious in appearance, and, we found on entering, not at all in keeping with the interior where one is struck by the air of comfort, nay, even of luxury, that every thing presents; and it is easily to be seen that the proprietor appreciates his home.
The walls of the hall through which we passed were covered from the ceiling to the floor with Chinese matting, fancifully woven, covering and hiding whitewash and paint-work. The dining-room, into which we were first shown, drew from us exclamations of admiration. Its four walls are covered with porcelain, adorned with quaint and cu rious devices, and the chimney-place and mantel are so designed as to form a large double H, the one upon the other, presenting the initials of the name of the house and of its proprietor.
The furniture was plain and substantial, such as may be found in the dining-room of any person in easy circumstances, but our attention was particularly directed to a large, high-backed, curiously-carved arm-chair which was against the wall, near the head of the table; and, upon inquiry, we learned that it was reserved for the sole use and occupation of the spirits of the deceased ancestors of Hugo, which were supposed-or I should say, believed-by the present head of the house, to indulge in the pleasant pastime of watching the material good things disappear at meal-times, before the appetites of their healthy descendants; and a locked chain, which extended from arm to arm, is intended to, and quite effectually does, keep all material bodies from profaning the venerable seat of the spirits.
From this we were shown into the smoking-room. The walls here were covered with heavy Brussels tapestry, and around the room ran a broad transom, cushioned with the same, for the convenience of such of the guests as indulged in the weed, while, for those who did not, there was entertainment to be found in looking through the large albums on the centre-table, which contain photographs of the original of the admirably-painted characters who figure in "Les Miserables," and "Les Travailleurs de la Mer."
Leaving this, we ascended a winding staircase, the wall on one side of which was hung with tapestry, as in the smoking-room, and we entered the parlor, which was full of relics of inestimable value.
Four gilded statues in wood-obtained by Hugo's father from the palace of the doges in Venice, when he was a peer of France -- uphold a rich canopy over the cheminee, in front of which is an elaborately-embroidered screen, the handiwork of Madame de Pompadour and her attendants. The walls and the ceiling of this, the blueroom, are covered with heavy tapestry-work, in beads of jet, and silver, and gold, thus making a material as impenetrable as a coat of mail. These valuable pieces were the property formerly of Queen Christina of Sweden, and a romantic history is attached to them, in perfect keeping with the character given by historians to that eccentric personage.
In the adjoining room (separated from this by folding-doors), the hangings of which are red, is a mantel-piece made from the bedposts and ornaments belonging to the royal couch of Francis I. of France. On the table, in the centre of the room, is a desk to which are secured the inkstands and pens of Lamartine, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas, and of Hugo himself, and-in a little drawer under each inkstand is a letter from each of these celebrated authors, sent with the articles at the request of Madame Hugo, attesting that they were formerly used by them. This reliquary-as the desk may be, and not inappropriately called-was designed by Madame Hugo, and raffled by her for the benefit of the poor, ragged children of the island. A large sum of money was realized, and the fortunate winner, appreciating the benevolent intention of the lady, very courteously and properly gave it back to her, as most deserving of it, and we were informed that she values it as much as any of the relics she possesses.
Opening out from this was a glass door leading to a pretty little grapery, built over the sitting-room, a cosy place for a quiet smoke, commanding a fine view over the island.
In the third story is the bed-chamber, arranged by Hugo in anticipation of a promised visit from Garibaldi. The ornamentation of the room was very rich, and the carving and painting were all designed by Hugo himself, and, of course, carried out under his superintendence, and they show an undoubted taste for the fine arts. The Italian hero, however, has never paid his promised visit, much to the author's regret, and the chamber still stands unoccupied, awaiting his pleasure and convenience.
All these rooms were in the rear portion of the building, that in the front portion being fitted up in accordance with the latest modern style, and used by the family of the author. We had imagined that we had been shown every thing worth noting, and were thus far perfectly well satisfied with our visit, when we were asked if it would give us pleasure to look at the study of the author. We, of course, replied in the affirmative, and pictured to our mind's eye a luxurious library, with cases of rare and valuable works lining the walls, capacious arm-chairs at hand, and every comfort imaginable. But nothing of the sort met our astonished gaze, as we were shown into the attic. Cinderella's corner of the hearth could not have appeared more bare and cheerless to her, on her return from the court-ball, than this study did to us, in contrast with what we had imagined.
Up in this attic were the library, the study, and even the bedroom of Hugo, each as small and as comfortless as the cell of any anchorite and our guide gave us a description of the habits and mode of living adopted by the hard-working author, from which it was evident that he cares little for personal luxury.
On all sides in the study and bedroom are conveniences for writing. In the latter room was a hard, leather-covered couch, raised about a foot and a half from the carpetless floor, which, we could scarcely believe, was the most comfortable used by Hugo. Such a bed was enough to give one the nightmare, and we were not astonished when M. de Kessler explained to us how, for the delectation of his readers, even what was beautiful or grotesque or strange in Hugo's dreams was saved-such, for instance, as we see in the descriptions given of the characters and the persons, the speeches and the actions of Gwynplaine and the Duchess Josiane, in that latest production of his pen, "L'Homme Qui Rit "-the conceptions of a heavily-taxed brain, shaped and clothed in dreams whose horrors have been caused by the tortures of indigestion and the hardness of his couch. When he retires, after hours spent in earnest brain-work, should any thing worthy of note occur to his mind, or should he awake from a dream which has been particularly horrible, before the impression fades, he, by reaching out his hand, can bring into place a desk which is hinged to the wall at the foot of the couch, with pens, ink, and paper, ready at hand, and which works with an ease showing plainly that there had been frequent occasion for its use. Doubtless, we are indebted to some nightmare for that description of the struggle between Gilliatt and the devil-fish which is so vividly given in the "Toilers of the Sea."
Opening the glass door through which alone light entered this room, we walked out upon a balcony which leads around the eaves of the house, and from this mounted a ladder to a lookout-tower, some ten or twelve feet higher, whence a beautiful view was had of the whole of Guernsey, together with the islets of Herm and Sark, opposite the harbor of St.-Pierre.
We were told that often at night the indefatigable author could be seen, rapt in thought, passing the round of the balcony, or standing in silent study on the tower above, evidently unravelling the thread of the strange narratives which have flowed from his pen. In such moments no one dreams of approaching him, to break in upon the current of his thoughts, and he studies on in utter obliviousness of every thing but the work that engages his attention. I concluded, from what I had seen of the home and heard of the life of this distinguished author, that his devotion to the world of letters must, indeed, be greater than that of any living writer; for I have never heard of one whose self-denial and industry were so great and untiring, even when not surrounded by the comforts, the luxury, and the magnificence, which are found everywhere throughout the Hauteville mansion, save and except that portion devoted to the use of its proprietor.