Hauteville House: the home ‘Les Misérables’ author Victor Hugo during his exile

Katerina Bulovska
The Drawing Room. Heather Cowper. CC BY 2.0

Victor Hugo was a poet and novelist who was greatly influential in French Romanticism in the 19th century.

He is one of the most iconic French authors of all time, creator of the timeless characters of the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, the lonely hunchbacked Quasimodo, and the peasant Jean Valjean, who was sentenced to 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.

Besides being a literary giant, Hugo was also an influential political figure. But, after becoming “the biggest critic of the new regime” of Napoleon III in 1851, he was sent into exile.

His first stop was Belgium, then the island of Jersey, and in 1855 he finally arrived at St Peter Port, Guernsey. Hugo never referred to the small island in the English Channel as his prison, in fact quite the opposite. He once wrote to his wife “Even in the rain and mist, the arrival at Guernsey is splendid.”

He and his family lived on the island for more than 15 years. Their home was Hauteville House, a large, white villa built in Georgian style, situated at the top of the town.

Hauteville House at Saint Peter Port

Hugo himself decorated and furnished the house with dark oak carvings, mirrors, Chinese lacquer panels, delftware, and mahogany furniture. Today, the house is a museum open to the public.

The writer worked at his desk in the shockingly bright Crystal Room, whose design was inspired by the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park.

The room is in the attic and has magnificent views of the old town and the sea.

Here, Hugo wrote many of his novels, including Les Travailleurs de la Mer, with the inscription “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 lookout in Hauteville House, where Victor Hugo used to write. Rumburak3. CC0

Hugo also slept in the attic, in a simple room next to the Crystal Room. Downstairs, in the dining room, is the author’s most remarkable piece of furniture: the chair of the Hugo family.

The oak-carved chair is inscribed with the name of Victor’s father, Joseph Leopold Sigisbert Hugo, and the date 1534.

An interesting decoration of the room is its walls, covered mostly with blue and white ceramic tiles, a detail which can be seen throughout the house. In the dining room, above the doorway, Hugo chose to write the short phrase: “Exilium vita est” (“Life is an exile”).

The dining room. Heather Cowper. CC BY 2.0

He also added Oriental details to the interior, including a Persian carpet on the stairs.

The most striking and exotic room in the house is the drawing room, decorated with rich damask covering. Hugo and his grandchildren used to spend much of their time here.

The room is luxuriously decorated and even has beadwork embroidered panels from the apartments of Queen Cristina of Sweden.

The Persian carpet on the stairs

Among the impressive furniture is a writing desk that was a birthday present to Madame Hugo from the well-known authors Lamartine, Alexandre Dumas, Georges Sand, and her husband, Victor Hugo.

Hugo designed and decorated the impressive oak gallery for his special guest, the Italian patriot and soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The Drawing Room. Heather Cowper. CC BY 2.0

The small island near the Normandy coast of France was the inspiration for many of his famous works.

While living in Hauteville House he completed many of his masterpieces, such as Les Misérables, William Shakespeare, La Legende des siecles, Les Chansons des rues et des bois, L’Homme qui rit, and Quatre-Vingt-Treize.

Hugo believed he would never go back to France, firmly saying “I will share exile and liberty to the very end.” However, after the fall of the Empire in 1870, he did return to his beloved Paris.

The Oak Gallery. Heather Cowper. CC BY 2.0

Hugo continued to visit Guernsey and Hauteville House, which was the only home he ever possessed until he died in 1885.

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His children inherited the house, and in 1927, Hugo’s granddaughter Jeanne Negreponte and the children of his grandson Georges Hugo granted the house and its gardens to the City of Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Romantic Movement, whose leader was Victor Hugo.