As much as I love Victor Hugo’s turns of phrase, as amused as I am by his excesses, and as indebted as I am to him for teaching me how to think about social justice issues, I have to admit he had some mistaken notions. One of them being that he was a good interior decorator.
The proof: Hugo’s home on Guernsey, an island Victor Hugo himself hailed as “my probable tomb.”
Guernsey was Victor Hugo’s home for over twenty years, following Napoleon III’s coup d’etat and Hugo’s unofficial but highly encouraged exile. After trying out Belgium and England, Hugo decided the Channel Islands were the way to go, and waited out Napoleon III’s reign in Hauteville House.
Victor Hugo was a committed Romantic in all things, and this informed many aspects of his life… among them his decorating decisions. He structured the three main floors of his house as Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. His wife and daughter got to live in Hell, while his sons at least got to stay in Purgatory. He reserved Heaven for himself. He did, however, let his neighbors take a peek into Heaven by adding onto his floor a “look-out” made entirely of glass. (NB: My tour guide told me that the neighbors had to “look out” at sunrise, when Hugo liked to take his bath in full view of the public. Neighbor and longer-term mistress Juliette Drouet wrote to Hugo, “What a privation it will be for me […] when I can no longer watch you in the mornings, walking about your house!” I don’t think anyone else shared her opinion.)
Hugo and other second-wave French Romantics were fond of challenging the perspectives of their audiences, defying good taste, and overturning the traditional. Hugo had a lot to say and he said it however he could: in novels, in poems, in plays, and later in regrettable sketches.
What’s going on here? Who knows, but Victor Hugo carved his initials into it, which implies a characteristically misplaced pride in his terrible choices.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about Hauteville House is that Hugo considered his home to be another artistic project. It is both a wordless novel and Victor Hugo’s monument to himself. One does not often get the chance to wander through the mind of one’s favorite author.
This may be a good thing.
As Hauteville House proves, Victor Hugo’s mind was a place of infinite symbolism and upended convention. For example, where would you think to put your plates? The cupboard? Too dull and traditional for Victor Hugo! He rethought his storage solutions by affixing plates to the ceiling:
But a lot of things ended up on the ceiling. Like carpets.
Victor Hugo won’t be limited by the traditional notion of “ceiling.”
One’s gaze must always been turned towards heaven, I guess, so that one’s mind may be more easily occupied with the progressive elevation of man. Given how obsessed Hugo was with medievalism and cathedrals, it is not unsurprising that he spent a lot of time looking upwards. The only surprising thing then becomes the lack of stained glass windows.
I, too, spent a lot of time gazing upward in horrified amazement, thinking to myself, “Why was Victor Hugo staring upward so often? Was it really just all symbolism?” and arriving at very unpleasant mental images. (True fact: during his funeral, most of the brothels in Paris closed down, because all the prostitutes were in mourning for their best client.)
Many people make pilgrimages because they deify the people who once set foot there and seek to better understand the idols of their idle hours. I must confess to having rather a contrary nature that delights not in perfections, but in flaws. I prefer to befriend people through mutual bouts of complaining. I’m suspicious if something is too good. I glory in the bizarre, and seize upon the ridiculous. Les Misérables fell into my life during that strange teenage stage where one seeks desperately for something — anything — to grow around, like ivy around a pillar. The novel’s flaws were as self-evident as the value of its statements; it was a safe work to cling to. Hugo’s heavy authorial presence, his strange interests shoehorned into the middle of an action scene, his authorial tics, his sometimes uncomfortable views (especially the ones I mentally categorized as “Nineteenth-Century Male Author Issues”) made me start to think I knew Hugo — or, at least, the authorial outline of him.
Les Misérables has lingered with me, even out of those teenaged years. Hugo’s Paris is the default background to my idle fancies. And it was his writing that made me study abroad in Paris. There is a hard, joyful clarity in going to sites that have privately obsessed you and finding there the reification of your daydreams. The shapes and outlines I was wont to move about in my head, to play with in the safety of my own thoughts, gained weight, size and shape. I could point to the streets of Paris and have other people see why I loved these ideas as much as I did (and still do). I was dazzled by the colored lights dappling the stone floors of Notre Dame, and privately relieved and publically amused by the Musée des égouts.
I expected Hauteville House to give me the same play of light and shadow.
I was still blinded by the wallpaper.
What I love most about this room (aside from the fact that you are uncomfortably aware that you are standing in hell), is that Hugo put a carpet over his floor wallpaper. You know, so it wouldn’t get scuffed. That Victor Hugo, always thinking up solutions to problems you never even knew existed.
He even reused this explosion of wallpaper idea in the stairwell using the same fabric for the walls, the ceiling, and the drapes! It suggests that you are trapped in a bourgeois purgatory from which there is no escape.
How kind he was, to vary the carpet on the floor.
Very often, when someone’s ideas have taken residence in your own brain, you want to know and know intimately the mind that created those ideas in the first place. Hauteville House convinced me that it is sometimes necessary to distance oneself from the deep inner workings of the minds of famous people.
Not convinced? Take a look at Victor Hugo’s dining room, which features unhappy porcelain saints staring down at you above Latin mottos* (note the ceiling carpet):
I have to admit, the interior decor did make me realize the differences between my own anxieties and concerns and Victor Hugo’s.
Before walking into Victor Hugo’s sitting room, I never once worried, “What would I do if twenty Orientalist Romantic poets showed up, looking for a place to compose extempore sonnets while passing around an opium pipe?”
Fortunately, Victor Hugo had a solution for that exact problem:
This looks like something Lord Byron would have chosen to die on.
Hugo also made his Romantic guests feel right at home by carving, “Darkness, Light, Death” at the base of the headboard in the guest bedroom, and affixing a small white skull to the top. They’d sleep knowing this might very well be their death bed.
I’m feeling so cozy in the warm embrace of the grave, aren’t you?
Though I didn’t get a good picture of it (fittingly, the light was too bright), Victor Hugo spent most of his time in the glass-paneled look-out on the top of the house. Each time I pick up Les Misérables now, I think of Hugo carefully putting down finished pages on his couch, the sea breeze drying the ink of each new chapter, and the sunlight dancing across every word.
I also think of the maidservants’ bedrooms right next to the lookout, and Juliette Drouet down the street.
Part of any pilgrimage is not only coming to worship, whether sincerely or ironically, but coming to recognize your idol as a person above all: flawed, problematic, probably bizarre, but ultimately capable of great works of art that reach out across centuries, take your hand and guide you towards a better understanding of the world. Though Hauteville House is now a museum, it still overwhelms you with the force of Victor Hugo’s personality.
It is also nice to know one of your literary idols was not only terrible at something, but terrible in the most flamboyant way possible. Embrace even your artistic failures, the ghost of Victor Hugo tells me.** He certainly did:
Yeah. Take that in. And then feel better about your living room. Even if you never write a novel that gets turned into a Broadway musical and an Oscar-bait movie, your living room will never look this horrifying.
* “Life is exile.” Also suggested: “Sum non sequor,” or “Je suis mais je ne suis pas,” “I am but I do not follow.” The best puns require fluency in two languages!
** via table-tapping, of course.
All photographs taken by the author.