Victor Hugo wrote the better part of Les Misérables standing up and sometimes naked in a kind of glassed-in crow’s nest on the top floor of his house on the English Channel Island of Guernsey. (Working naked was Hugo’s little trick for making sure he couldn’t leave the house to avoid writing.)
From up there he could survey Guernsey’s capital of St. Peter Port, the neighboring isle of Sark, and, on a clear day, the coastline of his beloved France. Hugo left his homeland in haste in 1851, shortly after Louis Napoleon, a man Hugo despised, made himself emperor in a coup d’état. He arrived on Guernsey in October of 1855, vowing not to return until liberty did.
Hugo loved this rocky island off the coast of Normandy, and he produced some of his finest poems and novels during his 14 years of self-exile there. He also produced one haunting nonliterary masterpiece, which was the place he lived. Hugo designed Hauteville House from top to bottom, and it is less a residence than a stage set for the grand theater of himself. His son Charles called it a signature on three floors. “I was born to be a decorator,” wrote Hugo with customary immodesty.
This is a particularly good time to go see Hauteville House, along with the whole enchanted isle of Guernsey. The home has been a museum for a long time—Hugo’s descendants gave it to the city of Paris in 1927—but it had been allowed to fall into a sorry state. It has only recently reopened after a year and a half of extensive repair work and renovation.
The façade has been entirely redone, and a deeper foundation dug to stabilize the shaky structure. The ugly concrete added in the 1950s to shore things up has all been removed and replaced by wood and glass. The whole house now shines anew with the bombastic grandeur that Hugo breathed into it.
“The house is a work of art, just like the rest of Hugo’s works, and like a book, everyone can read it his own way,” says Odile Blanchette, the museum’s chief administrator.
There’s nothing subtle about its symbolism, or about the decorative style Hugo favored, or indeed about Hugo, period. Dark wood paneling abounds, carved with medieval figures, Gothic ornaments, and inscriptions from the writer’s own works. All of Hugo’s hobbyhorses are there: the spiritual passage from darkness to light, which streams through the leaded glass; the cult of ancestor worship and genius, not least his own. A massive letter H is spelled out in blue delft faience in the dining room, and you can read Hugo’s motto chiseled into a cabinet: Ego, Hugo.
His obsession with religion, superstition, and death is on display everywhere, cloaked in somber tapestries and crimson velvet, but so are decorative nods to animal rights and opposition to capital punishment—two of Hugo’s pet causes (in general, Hugo’s enlightened politics look pretty appealing from our century). You’d go mad living in the house, but it’s a trip to walk through its former owner’s overstuffed mind.
Hugo’s daily life was hardly all death and velvet. When he finished his morning’s writing, Hugo rounded up family and friends, and maybe his beloved mistress, Juliette Drouet. He had installed her a few houses down and signaled her with handkerchiefs tied to his balcony. It was all aboveboard; in public Hugo’s mistress was “madame, my friend,” and his wife was “madame, the mother of my children.”
Together they drove out to picnic in coves like Moulin Huet Bay, tucked below steep banks spilling over with sloeberry bushes and hydrangeas. (Hugo’s diary records he lost a silver fork there after a summer lunch, and notes the next day that—voilà!—he found it.) The turquoise shallows where boulders wade like friendly giants also drew Auguste Renoir there to paint in 1883. A clever person from the tourist bureau has placed empty picture frames in the exact spots you see on Renoir’s 15 Moulin Huet canvases.
The beaches on Guernsey’s western coast are different altogether but equally beautiful. Hugo tramped up and down these broad, flat stretches of perfect white sand, and even bought a small island where he could walk when the tide was out. In spring it is covered in fragrant wildflowers.
Guernsey remains a bucolic haven of orderly English life, like the Shire from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Narrow lanes are lined with granite walls and clipped box hedges, by ancient law no higher than the lance of a man on horseback. Greenhouses along the roads, angled south to catch the sun, lay out their wares for passersby, who can take what they want and leave a few coins in a box alongside—it’s a local custom known as “hedge veg.” Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Guernsey enjoys its own subtropical microclimate, which explains the palm trees you see everywhere.
I stayed in the regal Old Government House Hotel & Spa, which, like Hauteville House, has a panoramic view over the town of St. Peter Port, its charming harbor, and the smaller islands of Herm and Sark beyond. OGH, as the locals call it, used to be the governor’s residence going back to the 18th century, when it was built, and it retains an aura of bygone colonial grandeur.
Except colonial isn’t the right word for Guernsey’s Englishness. In 1204, King John gave Guernsey the option of independence if it pledged loyalty to the English crown. It agreed and remains a crown dependency that belongs neither to the United Kingdom nor to the EU (which explains how it managed to set itself up as a flourishing tax haven).
OGH played another role during the most salient event in Guernsey’s modern history. It served as Nazi headquarters for the five hard years of Guernsey’s occupation during World War II. This history—visible in the Nazi defensive fortifications scattered everywhere on the island—forms the backdrop of “the book,” which is what locals call The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow. The best-selling book led to the 2018 Netflix movie, which triggered its own tourist boomlet.
For us Hugoliens, as the French call us, “the book” is Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, his lengthy ode to these sea-battered isles. We leave to the Potato Peelers their lesser literary landmarks. We prefer to catch the shuttle boat for the hour-long ride to Sark to see Victor Hugo’s cave, accessible only by sea. This was likely the place where a giant octopus chased his son Charles, who was swimming there. Hugo transformed the event into an epic struggle between man and octopus in Toilers. The whole lovely, tiny island of Sark is well worth exploring too (by bike or horse-drawn carriage, since there are no cars there).
There’s a fine granite statue of Hugo in the Candie Gardens of St. Peter Port, in full view of the sea. It shows the great man in mid-stride, his cloak blown back by the wind, on one of his island hikes. Below it are these words from Toilers: “I dedicate this book to the rock of hospitality and liberty, to this little parcel of old Norman land where the noble little people of the sea live, to the severe and gentle island of Guernsey.” You will not regret following him there. maisonsvictorhugo.paris.fr; open April through September.