Before I start, I’d like to apologise to Gideon Defoe for unashamedly ripping off the titles of his The Pirates! In An Adventure With… books. I recently read The Pirates! In An Adventure With The Romantics and couldn’t resist because it seemed appropriate here.
This morning I went to see the house of Victor Hugo, where he lived while in exile on the island of Guernsey, and where he wrote several of his novels, including at least part of Les Miserables. Given as we were in the town and I’m an active member of the Les Mis fandom, it wouldn’t have seemed right not to visit.
I expected to leave with a sense of his writerly genius, overawed by an atmosphere of peace and inspiration. Instead, I left with a heightened comprehension of just what an odd person Victor Hugo was. I took some pictures while I was there, although one isn’t allowed to use flash, so they’re only from my phone. (My camera hardly works at all in low-light situations.) I thought I’d share some of them with you, along with some thoughts.
Please excuse that I caught one of the other visitors on our tour in the corner. This extraordinarily dark edifice that dominates one wall of a room (a room so incredibly dark that my camera gave up the ghost and I moved to using my phone) was designed and partially created by Hugo himself. The guide explained how many of the pieces are reused from elsewhere — panels from a wooden chest, columns that were originally the legs of chairs or tables.
The room is full tapestries and dark wood like this, making it oppressive and heavy, but the guide explained how it was used in the evening, and the atmosphere would probably have been very different (and even darker, for a start).
On the mantelpiece are carved the names of people who inspired Hugo, and it’s an eclectic combination, ranging from Jesus to Shakespeare and so on. It made me wonder whose names I’d write on my walls if I was decorating in a similar manner — which authors and historical figures would count as having defined my experiences in that sort of way. If you’ve any idea who you’d name, let me know in the comments. I’d be interested to hear.
I mentioned that the rooms were full of tapestries — this guy stood out as looking about 1000% done with everything and everyone, and greatly amused me in the process.
The dining room was an entirely different experience, light where the other was dark. It was tiled all over — apparently most of the tiles came from the Netherlands. The guide explained that Hugo very much viewed the house as one of his works, and so whenever there was something he’d designed, he signed it. Some of them were subtle. This room wasn’t.
Here you can see a hugely prominent letter H made of tiles; there were a couple of other examples of his initials in the same room, too. But there were other interesting things to examine here.
This is one for the Les Mis fandom. In the dining room there were various indicators of Hugo’s values, something which features throughout the house. Exiled for his politics, that didn’t stop him displaying them on everything that stayed still long enough. Well, whatever hadn’t been covered in tapestries, tiles, or carpet. Which was pretty much everything.
This one reads Patria (homeland, or the thing that Enjolras seems to be obsessed with, particularly in fan fic). I had to zoom in quite a long way to get the word clearly enough — it’s right up on the ceiling. As you may be able to see, the tiles gave way to more tapestries which covered the ceiling. He really didn’t go on for simplicity. Oh no. This whole place was massively ornate.
This incredibly odd chair was interesting for any number of reasons, but if I included pictures of all the details (the decoration made from an old iron stand, the coat of arms that Hugo appropriated from an unrelated Hugo family in order to give himself more historical authenticity, the intricate designs all over…) then this post would be far too long. The chain across the front ensured that nobody could sit in it, and an inscription seemed to indicate that it was in memory of those lost, whether ancestors or other departed loved ones.
Having lost his daughter when she was only nineteen, you can see why Hugo would be dwelling on the idea. But there was something very empty chairs and empty tables about this throne-like monument. I can’t imagine how his family would have felt about having this constant reminder of death at all times.
On the subject of omnipresent mortality, I’m going to skip to a room upstairs that Hugo seemed originally to intend to be his bedroom and writing room, but which never became either, because after it was finished he didn’t use it.
As you can see from this picture of the view through to the bed from the study portion of the room, it’s again made of that oppressively dark, carved wood. A lot of it seems to be church-like, with pews (seen on the right of the foreground of the picture) and other reminders of religion. But what you can’t see is that above the bed is a small model of a face in ivory, half a man’s face and half a skull.
Moreover there’s an inscription which reads, if I’m remembering rightly, Sleep, Death, Light. Hugo’s beliefs would have played into that understanding of dying, but it’s impossible to look into this room and not get the impression that he was constantly aware of mortality.
It’s not the greatest picture, but this gives some impression of the view from the bedroom — a table with three empty chairs. Intended for writing? Maybe, but why would he have three armchairs? It looks more like a table at which a judge might sit. This table looks straight down the room at the bed, and with the imagery of death, it gives an impression of judgement day more than anything else. That and the pews suggests a funereal nature to the room.
It must have been extraordinarily expensive to create, and yet apparently Hugo never used the room. Like a lot of the stuff in the house, it was intended to convey an idea rather than to actually be useful, and certainly it does. It’s dark, creepy — much like his paintings. Some of the artwork seems extraordinarily modern, while the carvings and dark wood are Gothic and morbid.
There are many other rooms in the house, including the rooms in which he did actually write, and his bedroom (far simpler than this one), but to provide an overview would take too long. If anyone would like me to go into more detail and talk about more of it, then let me know in the comments and maybe I’ll do another post. I intend to upload a wider range of photos to my Tumblr, so keep an eye out for those.
If you’re ever on Guernsey, I highly recommend going to the house and taking a guided tour around. It’s so far from what I expected, and reveals so much about Hugo as a person: about his artist’s mind and his political values seeping through into everything he ever did. I walked away thinking, “Man, Victor Hugo was odd.” But I also walked away with a new understanding of his attitude to his work and how it influenced everything he did.
It also sheds a bit of light on why he spends so much time describing places in his novels.