Victor Hugo’s ‘work of art’ on Guernsey to get revamp

When Victor Hugo, writer of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was exiled from France he spent 15 years in Hauteville House, Guernsey, where he wrote Les Misérables. It is now a Hugo museum but needs renovation and, Mark Hayes says, funds

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World-renowned for Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo is lesser known for another artwork, his house on Guernsey that he transformed into a “poem in several rooms”.

Exiled from France following Louis Nap­ol­eon Bona­parte’s coup d’état in 1851, then expelled from Bel­gium in 1852 and Jersey in 1855, Hugo moved to French-speaking Guern­sey, where he acquired Hauteville House in 1856.

Many of his most famous works were written here over the following 15 years but the house itself, with its stunning layout and eclectic décor, designed by Hugo himself, is also regarded as a work of art in its own right.

Despite regular maintenance, the St Peter Port house suffers from the severe weather on Les Iles Anglo-Normandes or Channel Islands and now the city of Paris, owner of Hauteville since the 1920s, is asking for donations to help fund renovations.

Work is due to start this month and it will take €2m and two years of work to return it to its original glory.

The plan is to provide protection for the whole building against wind and water, and to restore the lavish interiors that Hugo designed, with a special focus on three of the most emblematic rooms of the house: the Crystal Room (or look-out), the conservatory and the ‘Salon rouge’.

The house has five floors, is topped with a belvedere and overlooks the old town of St Peter Port and Havelet Bay.

Hugo’s writing study, the Crystal Room, is at the top of the house and has panoramic views out to sea.

“Entirely furnished and decorated by the poet, the house and its contents reflect Hugo’s creative genius during his time in exile,” says the Maisons de Victor Hugo website.

“The house which, in the words of [son] Charles Hugo, is an ‘autograph on three floors and a poem in several rooms’, is a work of art in its own right, immersing visitors in a unique atmosphere.

“Victor Hugo gave a symbolic dimension to his house with references to his writing, philosophy and his vision of the world contained throughout.”

The cost of the renovation is high because it is on an island and because of the complexity of the work. It is hoped to raise €100,000 via donations to pay for the interior renovations.

Of this, €35,000 would be used to renovate the Crystal Room, where Hugo wrote his masterpieces.

With €70,000 they could do the conservatory and €100,000, could mean also renovating the ‘Salon rouge’, a vibrant reception room. Visit or email for details.

Apart from The Hunchback, Hugo began, finished or published the majority of his notable works in Haute­ville, in particular Les Misérables (1862), La Légende des siècles 2 (1877), William Shakes­peare (1864), Les Chan­sons des rues et des bois (1865), Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866), L’Homme qui rit (1869), and Quatrevingt-Treize (1874).

He expressed his love of the island at the front of Les Travailleurs de la mer: “I dedicate this book to the rock of hospitality, to this corner of old Norman land where resides the noble little people of the sea, to the Island of Guernsey, severe and yet gentle...”.

The book gave a new word to French as he used the Guern­sey word for squid, pieuvre, which took over from poulpe.

In Hugo’s time many people spoke a Norman dialect but French was the official language and used for place and street names. In 1948 English took over but French is still used in administration.

When Hugo returned to France in 1870, he remained attached to Guernsey and to Hauteville House, and returned regularly until he died. It remained in his family until 1927, when his heirs donated it to the city of Paris.

Today, Paris Musées maintain it as one of the capital’s 14 museums. Open from April to October, it is a key island tourist attraction, with over 20,000 visitors a year.