Monday, 22 July 2013

Victor Hugo’s Home Improvements

Writers’ houses make good holiday destinations. The Brontë Parsonage, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Jane Austen’s home at Chawton, Henry James at Lamb House, Rye: been there, done that. Best of all are those places where I think I get a sense of how the writer liked to work. Small rooms usually: Dylan Thomas’s writing shed at Laugharne, for instance, or the little bedroom added on to Monk’s House in Sussex for Virginia Woolf.

Now, though, I have visited the most extraordinary writer’s house I have ever seen. In Guernsey last week I was lucky enough to be one of a small party given a private tour of Victor Hugo’s home, Hauteville House. Our guide was Odile Blanchette, custodian and curator, keeper of the Hugo flame, fund-raiser for urgently-needed conservation work to the property and (in case all this was not enough) French Consul in St. Peter Port.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) went into exile in 1852. Already the leading French Romantic writer of his time, he had protested against the coup d’état staged by Louis-Napoleon, and after taking to the barricades ‘in defence of liberalism and democracy’*, had fled first to Belgium and then, for three years, to Jersey. “But he didn’t stay long on Jersey,” explained Trev, the Yorkshire-born Tantivy coach driver who took us around that island in May. “ ’E wor a bit gobby, so we kicked ’im out.” Well, that was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory, but just about accurate enough to explain how Hugo came to find himself on Guernsey. He loved the island; for him it became ‘ce rocher d'hospitalité et de liberté’. And here in 1856 he bought 38, Hauteville Street, a substantial house with a good garden and a distant view of the St. Peter Port harbour and Castle Cornet.

The house today stands almost exactly as he left it. It’s in part a shrine to himself:  the initials VH crop up everywhere – even in the trellis work on the white wall of the conservatory. In part, though, it’s also a shrine to his extraordinary imagination, an imagination constantly reworking history. Apart from the family room on the ground floor, with traditional family portraits, carom billiards table and divans around the walls, every other room is eccentrically or exotically furnished - or both. The furniture, the wall hangings, the assemblages of Delft tiles everywhere you look, compose a kind of grand bricolage: old chests, ancient linen-fold panelling, church woodwork, and then more domestic objects, flat-iron trivets, chair backs – all of this dismantled, recycled and reassembled into a wonderfully bizarre yet imposing décor.

But that’s only the ground floor. The reception rooms upstairs – the Red Room and the Blue Room – are sumptuously furnished with silks, damask hangings, chinoiserie and genuine Chinese artwork.  ‘Rococo’ hardly does them justice. And then, to the floor above: Hugo’s library is housed in glass-fronted bookcases on the landing – located there rather than in his study, we were told, so that his servants could also read and enjoy the books. They certainly look to have been well thumbed.

And thence into the strangest room of all, sometimes known as the Garibaldi Room. It’s a magnificent bedchamber, but one to die in, not to die for. Really, it’s two rooms in one: a bedroom with a formidable bed that looks out apparently onto a thicket of carved wooden columns and candelabra. The other half of this chamber unnervingly resembles a courtroom.  Behind a large table three high-backed chairs confront the bed and any unfortunate occupant, alive or dead. Hugo, so Odile tells us, may have designed this room for his own death, but evidently only passed one night in it. I’m not surprised.

What did surprise me was what came next. From the library landing, a small and almost hidden staircase leads up to Hugo’s ‘lookout’. This is a once-tiny attic room (no doubt originally servants’ quarters) he had extended by creating a conservatory built into the roof, a loft conversion avant la lettre, with wonderful views out to sea. Here, in this sparsely furnished eyrie, Hugo wrote. He did not sit at a desk, but had a writing surface fixed up against the sea-facing windows, and at this he stood to write, finishing his longest, finest book of all, Les Misérables. The story of the reformed convict, Jean Valjean, and of his nemesis, Javert, was completed at this table, from which its author could look out on a clear day and just discern the French coast. Here’s his own description of the view:

Et cependant, pensif, j’écris à ma fenêtre,
Je regarde le flot naître, expirer, renaître,
                                    Et les goëlands fendre l’air.
Les navires au vent ouvrent leurs envergures,
Et ressemblent au loin à de grandes figures
                                    Qui se promènent sur la mer.

And still, deep in thought, I write at my window,
I watch the tide come in, go out, come in again.
                                    And the gulls slice though the air.
Ships unfurl their sails before the wind:
Seen far off they remind me of giants
                                    Who stroll up and down on the sea.

But even now, just when we think we have seen everything, we have not done: there is yet more. Out through French windows, the pantiles and decorated chimneys of St Peter Port suddenly at eye level, we climb a last few steps to the topmost balcony, the highest point of Hauteville, and stand literally on the rooftop. It’s almost dusk, and the harbour lights are shining. We can’t quite believe we are where we are. It is surely something to have shared this spectacular view with one of the most famous writers Europe ever produced, a viewpoint he himself fashioned, the final, simplest room of the house: Victor Hugo’s belvedere.

As sunset gives way to twilight, we descend. I remember that over the doorway of the ground-floor dining room, one of the first rooms Odile showed us, Hugo had carved the words EXILIUM VITA EST. When I’d first read this I assumed he had meant, ‘Life is exile’. But now, after standing where Hugo stood, first by his writing surface in the look-out and then with my hand on the same rooftop railing he used to hold, I think his motto meant something much more positive: ‘Exile is life’.

Adrian Barlow

* This phrase comes from Gregory Stevens Cox’s excellent book, Victor Hugo aux Iles de la Manche (Guernsey: Toucan Press 2010) which contains some remarkable contemporary photographs of the rooms in Hauteville House as decorated by Victor Hugo. By coincidence, coming home from Guernsey having just written this blog, I read in the TLS a review of a new book, Photojournalism and the Origins of the French Writer House Museum (London: Ashgate 2012) in which the author, Elizabeth Emery, explains how the rise of psychology in the late 19th century turned the writer's home into "an agent of the unconscious, a privileged window into the working of the fallible literary mind". This sums up perfectly my experience of visiting Hauteville House.

[illustrations: (i) sunset view from the Belvedere, Hauteville House, Guernsey (photo copyright Ed Barlow) (ii) Statue of Victor Hugo in Candie Gardens, Guernsey (photo copyright Adrian Barlow)

I have blogged before about the Channel Islands:

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