Laberge on Audinet, ed. (2016)

Audinet, Gérard, éditeur. Hauteville House, Victor Hugo décorateur. Éditions Paris Musées et Maisons de Victor Hugo, 2016, pp. 127, ISBN 978-2759603237

This lavish book evokes the fascinating story of the exile of Victor Hugo (1802–85), who lived fifteen consecutive years on the British island of Guernsey (1855–70) before returning for another five (1873–78). The French poet and politician was proud to have purchased a villa, known as Hauteville House, with the royalties from his poems; it was the only time he lived in a home he actually owned. From a practical standpoint, property ownership prevented him from being expelled by the British Government from Guernesey as he had been from the island of Jersey in 1855 after insulting Queen Victoria in a pamphlet against the death penalty. Hugo’s years in exile were perhaps the most productive of his life, resulting in Les Contemplations (1856) and the novels Les Misérables (1862), Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866) and L’Homme qui rit (1869) not to mention his tribute to William Shakespeare (1864). These work were all written, edited, or organised while Victor Hugo was living in Hauteville House.

Edited by Gérard Audinet, the former curator and now director of the Maison de Victor Hugo, Hauteville House reproduces excerpts from Hugo’s correspondence, as well as souvenirs, anecdotes, and family stories compiled by Hugo’s descendents. This new collection should not be confused with an older volume from the same publisher featuring a similar title, Dans l’intimité de Victor Hugo à Hauteville House (edited by Olivier Mériel in 1998), which consisted largely of reproductions of black and white photographs of interiors, with little critical context. Hauteville House, Victor Hugo décorateur contains a critical apparatus dedicated to Victor Hugo’s experience of exile.

The book’s three sections correspond to each of the three floors. While most of the photographs are contemporary, they are interspersed with images from the nineteenth century, which show Victor Hugo inside Hauteville House with family members including his daughter Adèle (114–25). The last pages related to Hauteville House’s third floor reveal the magnificent views of the seemingly infinite English Channel.

One of the most interesting dimensions of this book is the inclusion of recent full-page colour photographs taken by Jean Baptiste Hugo (the poet’s great-great-grandson). The images are beautiful: they depict each of the rooms decorated by the poet himself (hence the subtitle Victor Hugo décorateur), revealing details of the eclectic furniture, artworks, stairways, paintings, and carpets, all in full-size photographs. Victor Hugo’s conception of interior design was open-minded and cross-cultural, including motifs and furniture from around the world. He frequented flea-markets and antique shops, bringing home unusual objects acquired by sailors from faraway countries. He often broke apart antique furniture to fashion new artistic creations. Madame Hugo apparently did not approve and became annoyed by what amounted to endless renovations; she often returned to Paris, London, or Brussels without her husband.

Remarkable among other historical texts and memories quoted in this book are Georges-Victor Hugo’s memories of his grandfather’s endless appetite during family meals: “Il [Victor Hugo] ressemblait alors à un bon ogre, souriant de l’étonnement qu’il voyait dans nos yeux écarquillés” (52). The verses and insightful scriptures written by Victor Hugo himself on the walls and reproduced in this volume are most rewarding: “Où est l’esprit, là est la paix” (36), and elsewhere, about the cherished beaches of France which could almost be seen at the horizon, he wrote: “Ta rive qui nous tente” (36).

All in all, this luxurious volume is less an academic book per se than a richly illustrated coffee table book depicting the everyday life of Victor Hugo, sprinkled with anecdotes from family members who lived with him. An illustrated chronology can be found in the last pages (117–125). The overall quality of the design, editing, and publishing are irreproachable, making this the most appealing generalist book about Victor Hugo on the market today.