Hauteville House: Victor Hugo’s romantic refuge

hauteville house
Hauteville House. Credit: Chris George.

A visit to Victor Hugo’s Guernsey home of Hauteville House is like a tour through the literary giant’s imagination, writes Antonia Windsor 

With swathes of red silk damask spread across the walls and ceiling of a first-floor salon, metres of intricate Aubusson tapestry on sofas, walls and the ceiling of a downstairs sitting room, and an imposing oak room with secret inscriptions carved in bespoke furniture, the inside of Hauteville House is like a poem rendered in interior design. 

It’s no surprise to learn that the elaborate interiors of this otherwise unassuming Georgian townhouse in Guernsey’s capital St Peter Port, were conjured by one of the 19th-century’s most creative minds: the French author Victor Hugo. 

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A photo of Hugo in the Look-out at Hauteville House © Andre / Maisons de Victor Hugo / Roger-Viollet

Here, at his sea-view desk, he completed his famous tome Les Misérables and wrote Toilers of the Sea, a novel dedicated to the island.

Hugo’s journey to Guernsey began because of his opposition to the Imperial political regime in France. In 1851, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état marked the end of the Republic and the start of the Second Empire. 

As a staunch and loyal Republican, Hugo was forced into exile, first to Belgium, then to Jersey, and finally to Guernsey in 1855. He purchased Hauteville House in 1856 with the proceeds of his successful book of poems Les Contemplations.

It was the first time he’d ever owned a home and he immediately set to work decorating each room; employing local craftsmen to carve furniture, shipping Chinese tapestries from Paris, creating unusual displays for his crockery and building extensions to harvest the light. He had no idea how long he would have to remain on the island and thought he might possibly die there. 

The Red Drawing Room at Hauteville House. Credit: Chris George photography.

As it turned out, he stayed in the house for 14 years until the proclamation of France’s Third Republic in 1870, when he returned to Paris. The house remained in the family after his death in 1885 until it was gifted to the City of Paris by Hugo’s grandchildren in 1927. By the time occupying German forces arrived on the island at the start of the Second World War, the house had already been turned into a museum, which might explain why it was spared any damage. 

Between 2017 and 2019 the house was restored to its original splendour thanks to donations from the Pinault Collection and the City of Paris. Fabrics and wallpapers were matched and recreated, missing artefacts were returned, and family members’ memories and photographs were used to return the house to an approximation of how it was when Hugo lived there. 

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The Tiled Hallway with the porcelain gifted to Hugo by King Charles X. Credit: Chris George

In describing the Hauteville House in his 1864 book At Victor Hugo’s House, by a Passer-by (Chez Victor Hugo, par un passant), Hugo’s son Charles wrote “Victor Hugo has left his mark in … every detail … Not a single thing has been done that he did not preside over! He directed everything, wanted everything, oversaw everything. It’s a three-storey autograph. If it is ever demolished, you will see sketches of all the building-work and furnishings on the walls”.

The house is a little piece of France on Guernsey soil as it is still owned and managed by the City of Paris. Visits are by prearranged guided tours, which run daily apart from Wednesdays. 

Hauteville House’s downstairs rooms

Hauteville House was far from a solitary writer’s retreat. Hugo’s family accompanied him in exile, and their presence is felt throughout the home. 

Portraits of Hugo, his wife, and their children adorn the walls of the downstairs Billiard Room, which was created to entertain his three children who at the time of his exile were in their 30s. Also notable in this room are Victor Hugo’s own drawings of his travels. 

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The Billiard Room. Credit: Chris George

Adjacent is the Tapestry Room, a sociable space with Ottoman-style seating around the perimeter in which every available piece of wall, ceiling and sofa is covered in Aubusson tapestry, some of it cut up to fit the corners of the room. The focal point is an ornately carved fireplace inscribed with names of writers and thinkers that Hugo found inspiring, including Shakespeare, Molière and Socrates. 

Adjoining the Tapestry Room is the Studio, an extension added by Hugo in which large picture windows frame the expansive rear garden. A secret door in this room leads to a photographic dark room; another addition created to occupy his children – Charles was an early experimenter in photography. 

The dining room has a striking fireplace completely adorned with blue and white Delft tiles creating a large ‘H’ (for Hugo and perhaps also Hauteville) on the chimney breast. Against a wall a throne, dedicated to Hugo’s ancestors, is inscribed with family crests and mottos. If you look up at the window pelmets, you’ll see Hugo was an early adopter of recycling, using old chair backs to decorate the window frame. The dining room also served a philanthropic purpose; starting in 1862, Hugo hosted monthly meals for poor children, putting his humanist values into action.

The Dining Room, with its Delft-tiled walls and double ‘H’ fireplace. Credit: Chris George

Alongside the dining room is a corridor of crockery, with plates displayed along both walls and even along the ceiling. Some of the plates were gifts from King Charles X, showing that Hugo did not mind having evidence of his changing political ideals on display.

The upstairs rooms

The first floor offers a bright contrast to the darker, more sombre ground floor. With the striking Red Room opening onto the Blue Room – both ornate and elaborate salons in Rococo and Baroque style with lacquered furniture, Chinese tapestries and personal items, such as an embroidered sofa by Léopoldine (Hugo’s daughter who died at the age of 19). 

An incense burner in the Blue Room was gifted by Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers. The Winter Garden, the upper room of the extension, features Hugo’s initials on a trellis, and would have been used as a smoking room. 

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The spectacular Oak Gallery was designed to be Hugo’s private apartments, but he hardly ever used it. Credit: Chris George

On the next floor, the symbolic Oak Gallery with its imposing dark oak furniture is reminiscent of a church or a trial and it underscores the profound themes of Hugo’s work and life. The room’s furnishings and inscriptions, including Latin phrases and Hugo’s initials, create a space filled with personal and literary significance. A wall has been removed in the centre of the room and at the base of the two Renaissance-style supporting pillars are the words ‘tristitia’ and ‘laetitia’, (sadness and joy), which are the opposing pillars of any life. 

A huge bed, which was rarely slept on, bears engravings of the titles of some of his poems, along with a small statue, which was given to Hugo after his daughter Léopoldine’s death.

At the top of the house is the Look-Out, Hugo’s writing room with incredible views of 800-year-old Castle Cornet and across to the islands of Herm and Sark. Two folding desks on either side of the room suggest Hugo liked working standing up. Adjacent is a small bedroom where he slept on a fold-down mattress with a small wash basin enclosed in a closet. It’s a humble room compared to the grandeur of the first-floor salons, but this room enabled him to rise early to write each day before social distractions got in the way. 

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The Look-out was an ideal spot for Victor Hugo to write. Credit: Chris George

The house tour lasts about an hour, and you are left with a sense that the extraordinary medley of styles is somehow an external expression of the writer’s inner life. Each room tells a story and as you walk through Hugo’s home, you gain a deeper appreciation for the man behind some of French literature’s greatest works. n

To find out more about Hauteville House and to book a tour, go to visitguernsey.com/experiences/activities/victor-hugo-house-hauteville-house

Read more about the Channel Islands in our Channel Islands special issue, Aug/Sept 2024, available to buy here from 5 July.

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