Victor Hugo in Jersey

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Victor Hugo in Jersey

This article, first published in the 1953 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise, is a report of a talk given to La Société the previous year by Dr A L Carré, head of the French department at Victoria College

A caricature entitled Victor Hugo on Jersey Rock


I should like, first of all, to thank the president, the executive committee and the secretary of the Société Jersiaise for inviting me to speak here today. I am especially grateful that their invitation should have come at the present time, for, as you know, this year marks not only the 150th anniversary of Victor Hugo's birth, but also the centenary of his arrival in Jersey.

It is very unfortunate, I think, that the very mention of Victor Hugo in Jersey usually recalls in people's minds his departure from the Island. This is why I am not going to emphasize this incident - or should I say accident. What I propose to do is to try, in the light of the material available, to evoke a picture of the arrival and the life of Victor Hugo in Jersey.

In order to understand the circumstances which brought Victor Hugo to Jersey, we must go back for a moment to the year I843, a very eventful year in his life. By that time, at the age of 4I, he was universally acknowledged as the leader of the Romantic School and the greatest writer of his time.

His influence on both the French language and French literature was supreme. He had known success after success, and several of his major works had already been published. Les Feuilles d'Automne, Notre-Dame de Paris, and Hernani had shewn that he had an equal genius for poetry, the novel, and the drama.

I said that I843 was a very eventful year for Victor Hugo, because two things happened which affected him very much: his daughter Leopoldine, whom he loved tenderly, and who had recently married Charles Vacquerie, was drowned at the age of 19 with her husband during a boating excursion on the Seine; also, his play Les Burgraves was a complete failure on the stage.

Interest in politics

As a result, we find that for a period of nine years - that is, up to the time of his exile - Victor Hugo writes very little, and does not publish at all. Instead, he takes a growing interest in politics.

In I845, three years before the abdication of Louis-Philippe, he becomes a Peer of France. But this great poet, this idealist, this visionary, fails lamentably as a statesman. He soon becomes known as the "Lyrical Peer", because his speeches in Parliament were well prepared literary pieces which could have been written in verse.

When he had delivered a resounding speech, usually directed against some imaginary foe, he would walk out, for he could not bear contradiction, which left him speechless.

Victor Hugo became a Republican only after the Second Republic was proclaimed (February 1848); and even in December of the same year, when Louis-Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon I, was elected President of the Republic, there was no animosity between Hugo and the Head of the State.

Soon after, however, Hugo, who thought he had an important mission to fulfil in the State, felt that Louis-Napoleon treated him with some contempt. At the same time, he realized that the President was trying to increase his personal power, and he began sincerely to identify the two concepts of Republic and Liberty; and Liberty, for him, was a sort of religion.

This feeling was very much strengthened, of course, when, by the Coup d'Etat of 2 December 1851, Louis-Napoleon virtually became a dictator. This was followed a few days later by a decree of expulsion of 68 Republican deputies, of whom Victor Hugo was one.

But before this decree was issued, Hugo, disguised as a workman, had fled to Brussels with a forged passport. There he wrote Histoire d'un Crime, the crime being, of course, the Coup d'Etat; Napoleon le Petit, in which he vilified the future Napoleon III.

Hugo in Jersey

Belgian concern

The rumours of the impending publication of Napoleon le Petit, alarmed the Belgian Government, which was afraid of complications with the French Government. Hugo was requested to leave Belgium: and this is why he sailed from Antwerp on 1 August 1852, en route for London and Jersey.

The settling of Hugo in Jersey was not, however, the result of a sudden decision. Foreseeing, no doubt, what might happen to him in Belgium, he had, already in the spring, planned to come to Jersey, where his wife and three of his children, who were still in Paris, would join him and his son Charles, who was with him in Brussels. In a letter dated 10 May 1852, Victor Hugo wrote to his wife:

"Tu m'es nécessaire, entends-tu bien. Tu verras comme nous ferons un petit groupe heureux à Jersey."

Two months later, all arrangements were made, and Hugo wrote to Madame Hugo on 25 July:

"Rends-toi directement à Jersey, a Saint Helier, qui est la ville principale. I1 doit y avoir là de bons hotels. Tu t'y installeras et tu nous attendras. Je pense que nous serons à Jersey vendredi ou samedi au plus tard, notre intention étant de bruler Londres. Chre amie, la semaine ne s'écoulera pas sans que nous nous revoyions et que nous soyons reunis. Ma chère petite Dédé, que j'aurai du bonheur à t'embrasser."

The last sentence is meant very probably for his second daughter whose Christian name was, like Madame Hugo's, Adele.

Hugo's painting of Grosnez Castle

Delay in London

There must have been some delay, for the whole family did not meet until the following week. Hugo had left Antwerp on Sunday 1 August at 3 pm. The next day, he wrote from London to his wife who had now reached Jersey:

"Attends-nous à Jersey jeudi ou vendredi. J'éspère que tu es là passablement et qu'avant peu tu y seras tout à fait bien. Charles se fait homme dans tout ceci il va trés virilement en avant. Si Auguste est avec vous à Jersey, ce sera une grande joie pour moi de l'embrasser. J'ai écrit à Victor d'y être le 5 et j'y compte. Nous serons alors tout 1'ancien groupe heureux."

Charles, and Victor, or Francois-Victor, were the two sons of Victor Hugo. As for Auguste, he was Auguste Vacquerie, brother-in-law of Leopoldine, Hugo's daughter who had drowned in 1843. Auguste lived with the Hugos and was treated as a member of the family.

So, on Thursday 5 August 1852, Victor Hugo landed in Jersey. On the quay, waiting for him, was a group of political exiles of various nationalities, to whom he said:

"Citoyens, je vous remercie de votre fraternelle bienvenue. Je la rapproche avec attendrissement de l'adieu de nos amis de Belgique. J'ai quitté la France sur le quai d'Anvers, je la retrouve sur la jetée de Saint Helier."

And he added these touching words :

"Nous avons sur la tête le mêernme ciel et le même exil. Ce que vous pleurez, je le pleure; ce que vous regrettez, je le regrette; ce que vous espérez, je l'attends. Etant pareils par le sort, comment ne serions-nous pas frères par l'esprit? La larme que nous avons dans les yeux s'appelle France, le rayon que nous avons dans la pensée s'appelle Republique. Aimons-nous! Souffrir ensemble, c'est déja s'aimer. L'adversité, en percant nos coeurs du même glaive, les a traversés du même amour."

Victor Hugo's first impression of Jersey was very good. Ten days after his arrival, he wrote to a friend in Brussels:

"Nous voici dans un ravissant pays; tout y est beau ou charmant. On passe d'un bois à un groupe de rochers, d'un jardin à un écueil, d'une prairie à la mer. Les habitants aiment les Proscrits. De la côte on voit la France."

Hugo and his family spent the first few days of their stay at La Pomme d'Or and began to look for a furnished house. They soon found the house which has become since the hotel called Maison Victor Hugo. At that time, the house stood by itself, as is shewn by contemporary pictures. It was very simply furnished. The room which was Hugo's is small and could contain only a small bed and a small table. As today, a sloping garden separated the house from the beach.

In the letter just quoted, which was addressed to a M Luthereau, Victor Hugo also wrote:

"Je m'installe demain dans une jolie petite maison que j'ai louée au bord de la mer. Mon adresse sera desormais: St Luke's, 3 Marine Terrace. Du reste, il n'y a pas besoin d'adresse. Toutes les lettres adressées simplement à Jersey me parviennent."

House or cabin?

A nice little house, Victor Hugo had said: and here we are confronted with an arduous little problem; for on that same day, 15 August, Hugo wrote to another friend in Brussels, a M Van Hasselt:

" Je m'installe demain dans une petite niche au bord de la mer que les journaux de l'Ile qualifient ainsi: 'Une superbe maison sur la greve d'Azette'. C'est une cabane".

How could Hugo, on the same day, describe the same house, as une jolie petite maison and une cabane? I do not know the answer, but I shall make two suggestions: the first, that the two friends of Victor Hugo were so different in their tastes that what could be a nice little house for M Luthereau was only a hovel for M Van Hasselt; and the second, that Victor Hugo wrote the first letter in the morning, went to see his new house in the afternoon, and wrote the second letter in the evening.

How was Hugo going to spend his time in Jersey? His main occupation is work. He rises at six o’clock in the morning and writes until midday, thus leaving the afternoon free for walks and the evening for recreation.

During the first year of his stay, he writes the series of poems which make up Les Chatiments, thus called because the Imperial regime of Napoleon III is the punishment brought about by the seizure of power by Napoleon I who, half a century before, in 1799, had also been guilty of a Coup d'Etat. On 5 March 1853, Hugo writes to a friend:

" J'ai passé mon hiver a faire des vers sombres. Cela sera intitulé Les Chatiments. Vous devinez ce que c'est. Napoleon le Petit etant en prose, n'est que la moitié de la tache. Ce miserable n'etait cuit que d' un cote, je le retourne sur le gril"

Dr Carré then read from two of the poems contained in Les Chatiments. There is in the first a reference to Jersey and the Rocher des Proscrits; and in the second, a reference to the presence in Jersey of exiles of different nationalities: Germans, Italians, and Poles.

Hugo's 1855 painting of Marine Terrace, where he lived with his family

Speech writer

Apart from writing verse, Hugo also wrote a number of speeches. Every funeral, in the colony of Exiles, every anniversary of the Polish Revolution of 20 November 1830, every anniversary of the Proclamation of the French Second Republic on 28 February 1848, makes the subject of a speech in which Napoleon III is represented as a criminal.

Victor Hugo's two sons and Auguste Vacquerie also spent a good deal of their time writing. In particular, Francois-Victor translated Shakespeare and wrote La Normandie Inconnue, by which he means the Channel Islands.

So much, then, for the work. As for leisure, it was spent in a variety of ways. The Hugos entertained little. It has been suggested that the English reserve intimidated them, but what is more certain is that Hugo did not speak English, and that he had no intention of learning it. He used to say:

"Quand l'Angleterre voudra causer avec moi, elle apprendra rna langue."


As they were six in the family, they were quite happy to keep themselves to themselves. They were fond of photography, which was still a recent art. In a letter to a Belgian friend, dated the 11 May 1853, Hugo wrote:

"Je vous envoie mon portrait et le portrait de Charles fait par mon autre fils Victor. La porte qui est derrière nous, c'est la petite porte de notre petite maison. Vous avez, dans ces trois pouces cartes, la cabane et le proscrit."

In the afternoons, Hugo frequently went for long walks with his two sons and Auguste Vacquerie. They also went bathing in the summer; and it can be assumed that Victor Hugo took an interest in his garden, for in a letter of May 1854, addressed to a young friend who had just been married in Brussels, he wrote this:

"Vous voila heureux, cher doux poëte; et quoiqu'il pleuve et vente sur ma tête, quoique la brume ait collé du papier gris sur le ciel et sur la mer, quoique je ne voie dans mon jardin, envahi par la basse-cour voisine, que des oies et pas un oiseau, quoique ces horribles oies soient en train en ce moment meme de deterrer et de manger pour sept shellings de haricots que j'ai fait semer la semaine passée, au milieu de toutes ces laideurs et de tous ces desastres, je sens votre bonheur qui me rechaufle et qui me sourit de la-bas, et j'en ai le coeur plein de joie."

On Sunday mornings, some friends among the exiles used to come and play billiards. In order not to shock the passers-by, the shutters were closed, but the "cannons" were still heard; that is why it has been said that Victor Hugo in Jersey was respected six days in the week.

A Victor Hugo painting of a Jersey breakwater

Turning tables

Another recreation consisted in turning tables. During a visit paid to the Hugo family in September 1853, Madame de Girardin, a contemporary writer, had taught them this charming pastime; and in a letter sent to her 18 months later, Hugo wrote this:

"Les Tables nous disent en effet des choses surprenantes. Nous vivons dans un horizon mysterieux qui change la perspective de l'exil, et nous pensons a vous, a qui nous devons cette fenetre ouverte.
”Les Tables nous commandent le silence et le secret. Vous ne trouverez donc dans Les Contemplations rien qui vienne des Tables, a deux details pres, tres importants, il est vrai, pour lesquels j' ai demande permission (je souligne) et que j'indiquerai par une note."

I can find no trace of the note in question but I have found, in the last portion of Les Contemplations, the portion which was written in Jersey from 1853 to 1855, many a reference to this Island. The poem entitled Ce que c'est que la Mort is written au dolmen de la Tour Blanche, jours des Morts, novembre 1854.

Another is written at midnight, at the dolmen of Faldouet, in March 1855. One written in Grouville the following month is so lovely. Finally, there is one which was written on Grève d'Azette in July 1855, and which is very interesting, because it shows that Victor Hugo could be carried away by his habit of looking for contrasts. The contrast, this time, is between good and evil; Hugo, bitten by a crab which he was holding, throws it back into the sea in order, he claims, to render good for evil.


And now I come to the departure of Victor Hugo, which I shall relate only briefly; the trouble began when, after the Franco-British victory in the Crimea, Napoleon III paid a visit to Queen Victoria in London.

Some time later, the Queen returned the Emperor's visit. On this occasion, a French exile in London, Felix Pyat, addressed to the Queen a very rude letter which was reproduced in the exiles' newspaper in Jersey, L'Homme.

As a result, the editor, the owner and the seller of L' Homme were expelled. Victor Hugo then protested violently against this expulsion in a Declaration signed by himself and 35 other exiles. In consequence, on Saturday 27 October 1855, at 10 am, the Connetable of St Clement called at Marine Terrace with two officers of the parish. He asked to see Victor Hugo, to whom he said:

"Je suis le Connetable de Saint Clement, M Victor Hugo. Je suis chargé par son Excellence le Gouverneur de Jersey de vous dire qu'en vertu d'une decision de la Couronne, vous ne pouvez plus sejourner dans cette Ile, et que vous aurez la quitter d'ici au 2 novembre prochain. Le motif de cette mesure prise a votre egard est votre signature au bas de la Declaration affichee dans les rues de Saint-Helier, et publiée dans le journal L'Homme":

A discussion on the motives of the expulsion followed, during which Hugo remained relatively calm. Four days later, on 31 October, Victor Hugo embarked for Guernsey. His son Francois-Victor, who accompanied him, describes the scene in his own work La Normandie Inconnue. He writes:

"C'etait le 31 octobre 1855. Il etait six heures du matin. Malgré une petite pluie fine et penétrante, mon père voulut suivre à pied le chemin qui mène de Marine Terrace au port Victoria ou nous devions embarquer. Ce chemin est charmant, en effet; il evite la ville, ce qui est deja un avantage; et puis, il longe le bord de la mer en traversant un hameau de pecheurs appele Ie Havre-des-Pas, et va se perdre sous les arbres le long d'une colline escarpee. En outre, ce chemin etait pour nous peuple de souvenirs qui nous appelaient a lui. Mon pere le choisit donc a la fois par gout et par reconnaissance; et moi, j'accompagnai mon pere, m'appuyant d'un cote sur son bras complaisant, et portant de l'autre une petite valise qui devait pourvoir aux premieres necessites du voyage. Ma mere, rna soeur, mon frere et l'ami infatigable que j'appelle aussi mon frère, devaient nous rejoindre deux jours apres. Apres trois ans de residence, nous quittions Jersey, et nous la quittions pour toujours."

And he writes a little further:

"Le steamer chauffait, et nous apercevions au-dessus de lui dans le ciel la colonne de fumée qui allait nous guider vers une autre terre promise. Des amis que la pluie n'avait pas effrayés nous attendaient sur la jetée. Les uns etaient des camarades d'exil, des frères d'armes et d'idée dont Ie sac de voyage est toujours fait; ils nous dirent A bientot! Les autres etaient des habitants du pays que nous quittions; c'etaient des coeurs simples qui nons avaient connus pendant nos trois années de residence et qui nous avaient aimés. Ils s'etaient attachés a nous, comme si l'on devait s'attacher a ce qui passe. Ils s'etaient figuré que nous resterions tonjours avec eux, et qu'a défaut de la grande France, la petite Jersey serait notre patrie."
Despite his enforced departure for Guernsey, Hugo felt no bitterness towards Jersey

On arriving in Guernsey, Victor Hugo wrote to his wife:

"Chere arnie, nous voila debarqués, non sans secousse. La mer était grosse, le vent rude, la pluie froide, le brouillard noir. Jersey n'est plus meme un nuage, Jersey n'est rien, l'horizon est vide. Il me semble que j'ai une suspension d'etre; quand vous serez ici tous, la vie reprendra. La reception a été bonne; foule sur le quai; silence, mais sympathie; toutes les tetes se sont decouvertes quand j'ai passé.
”Je t'ecris avec une vue admirable sous les yeux. Meme dans la pluie et le brouillard, l'arrivee a Guernesey est splendide. Victor etait dans l'eblouissement, C'est le vieux port normand a peine anglaise. II parait que les autorités locales auraient dit qu'on nous laisserait tranquilles ici, tant que nous ne donnerions pas de secousses. On nous regarde comme des voleurs; mais les seaux d'eau n' eteignent pas les cratères".

If the crater was not put out, it at least cooled down considerably. In Guernsey, Victor Hugo bought Hauteville House, which he furnished with great taste. He spent 15 years there and was happy enough to come back for ten months without any compulsion two years after his return to France in 1870.

No bitterness

Must we conclude that Victor Hugo felt any bitterness against the Island from which he had been driven away? No, for in 1860, five years after his expulsion, when a subscription was opened in Jersey to support Garibaldi and his campaign for the liberation of Italy, the organisers, who wanted an orator to arouse enthusiasm for this great cause, sent for Victor Hugo in Guernsey.

He came readily and delivered a stirring speech before an immense crowd. The speech was followed by a banquet and the banquet ended with a toast to Victor Hugo, who replied as follows:

"La meilleure maniere de vous remercier, c'est de vous dire que j'aime Jersey. C'est au coeur d'un peuple que je parle, et les nations sont comme les femmes: elles ne se lassent pas de s'entendre dire: Je vous aime. Ce que j'aime dans Jersey, je vais vous le dire, j'en aime tout. J'aime ce climat ou l'hiver et l'ete s'amortissent, ces fleurs qui ont toujours l'air d'etre en avril, ces arbres qui sont normands, ces roches qui sont bretonnes, ce ciel qui me rappelle la France, cette mer qui me rappelle Paris. J' aime cette population qui travaille et qui lutte, tous ces braves hommes dont la physionomie se compose de la liberté anglaise et de la grace francaise, qui est aussi une liberte. J'ai trouve a Jersey la paix, le repos, un apaisernent sévère et profond dans cette douce nature de vos campagnes, dans ce salut affectueux de vos laboureurs, dans ces vallées, dans ces solitudes, dans ces nuits qui, sur la mer, semblent plus largement étoilees, dans cet ocean eternellement ému, qui semble palpiter directement sous l'haleine de Dieu. Aucun de mes compagnons de proscription ne me dementira, nous avons tous souffert en quittant Jersey. Nous y avions tous des racines. Des fibres de notre coeur étaient entres dans votre sol et y tenaient. L'arrachement a été douloureux. Nous aimions tous Jersey."

And now may I conclude, ladies and gentlemen, with just a few more lines, which Victor Hugo wrote in Actes et Paroles, at the age of 73, several years after his return to France:

"L'archipel de la Manche est attrayant; il n'a pas de peine à ressembler à la patrie, étant la France. Jersey et Guernesey sont des morceaux de la Gaule, cassée au huitieme siecle par la mer. Jersey a eu plus de coquetterie que Guernesey; elle y a gagné d' etre plus jolie et moins belle. A Jersey, la foret s'est faite jardin; à Guernesey le rocher est teste colosse. Plus de grace ici, plus de majeste la. A Jersey on est en Normandie, à Guernesey on est en Bretagne. Un bouquet grand comme la ville de Londres, c'est Jersey. Tout y est parfum, rayon, sourire."
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