Story and photos by Diane Slawych
If he hadn’t found work as a successful author, Victor Hugo might have carved out a career for himself as an interior designer.
It seems the 19th century French novelist, who penned such celebrated works as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, had a passion for decorating – at least judging by his former home in Guernsey in the Channel Islands. Here he created an abode with a wildly contrasting mix of styles, colours, patterns and fabrics, sometimes even incorporating recycled materials.
Hugo settled on the island after being forced into exile in 1851 for opposing the regime of Napoleon III. Searching for another place to live, he headed first to Belgium in 1852, then the island of Jersey a few years later, but was expelled from both places. By 1855 he settled on the island of Guernsey, a self-governing British crown dependency off the coast of France, where he remained for 15 years.
With proceeds from the sale of his collection of poems, Les Contemplations, Hugo purchased Hauteville House in 1856 and set about furnishing and decorating every nook and cranny.
To say the final result is eclectic would be an understatement. In one room, the walls are covered in Delft tiles. Another room is decorated with several large tapestries. There are golden statues, oriental curios and a bedroom containing furnishings and woodwork that are reminiscent of something you might find in Notre Dame Cathedral.
Hauteville House was first opened to visitors nearly a century ago and as with any old house, it needed an overhaul. In the fall of 2017, the property underwent a major renovation and was faithfully restored, both inside and out, to its authentic glory. It reopened to the public again last spring.
The large townhouse has five floors topped with a belvedere and overlooks the old town of Saint Peter Port, Havelet Bay, the harbour and neighbouring islands.
The house, which in the words of Hugo’s son Charles is an “autograph on three floors and a poem in several rooms,” could be described as a work of art in its own right.
Symbolic references to Hugo’s writing, philosophy and life, can be found throughout the home. In the Oak Gallery, for example, a concealed door near the bed recalls Hugo’s theatrical world and stage directions in Hernani or Ruy Blas. A gilded inscription in Latin across the chimney breast alludes to the author’s moral views. It translates as, “I am but I do not follow.”
A guided tour begins on the main floor. Visitors are ushered through the billiards room where family portraits adorn the walls along with drawings from the famous collection of “souvenirs” from Hugo’s travels. There’s a workshop that opens onto the garden, and a tiled hallway with walls and ceiling covered with porcelain.
The ambiance is entirely different on the first floor. In the red room and the blue room, both sumptuously decorated, Hugo and his family received their guests. There are statues in gilded wood, several mirrors above a fireplace to reflect the light and make the space appear larger, and plenty of chinoiseries – including a figurine of Buddha that sits on a writing desk, a bronze scent burner donated by Alexandre Dumas and a Taoist god of longevity depicted on Chinese rice paper.
A dimly lit landing on the second floor preserves several bookcases containing books the author chose to leave behind in his exile home. From here you’re ushered into the Oak Gallery, initially referred to as Hugo’s “apartment” composed of his bedroom and his study, where he would have kept his manuscripts and property deeds. Richly carved woods predominate the Renaissance- and Gothic-inspired space that is peppered with Biblical references.
Though designed as a bedroom, Hugo preferred to sleep in a much simpler and smaller, almost pauper-like room on an upper floor, one of the last stops on the tour. A few of Hugo’s paintings can be seen just above the floorboards here. Opposite is the light-filled Crystal Room, with many windows and views of the sea and the French coastline. From here, Hugo, while standing at the desk in the right corner, penned many of his masterpieces such as Les Misérables, Toilers of the Sea, The Man Who Laughs, The Legend of the Ages, and Le Théâtre en Liberté.
“A month’s work here is worth a year in Paris,” the author reportedly once said.
Behind the house is a beautiful sprawling garden. It too bears the author’s imprint. Hugo had long supported the ideals of a united Europe. And in 1870, in a testament to his prophetic vision, he planted an oak tree here and stated that by the time it was mature, Europe would be a united country with a single currency. That tree is now known as the United States of Europe Oak.
Hugo eventually returned to France at the end of Napoleon III’s reign. Following his death in 1885, at age 83, his Guernsey home was bequeathed to the city of Paris. Hauteville House was first opened to the public in 1927 and has been a popular tourist attraction that continues to receive a steady stream of visitors to this day.