Here in France, there is a new president elect. But I’ve been wondering, if Victor Hugo was alive, who would he have supported in the election — Sarkozy, Hollande… or exile?
You see, last summer, I was lucky enough to visit the Channel Island of Guernsey, where Hugo, a fierce critic of the Second Empire, spent over 15 years. And, last Sunday — election day in France — I was so chuffed that my article about retracing the writer’s footsteps appeared in the New York Times!
As I wrote in the article, Hugo spent his exile in Guernsey unleashing a prolific outpouring of writing, as well as decorating his home, Hauteville House (photo above). He had an imaginative eye, combing the island’s junk shops for ordinary items, which he repurposed into ornamental elements. But he didn’t decorate alone. By his side was his faithful mistress of fifty years, Juliette Drouet, who had accompanied Hugo to Guernsey (along with his wife, children, and small band of followers).
On the island, Juliette lived in a series of rented rooms and houses. Among her first stops was this pub and boarding house, the Ship & Crown.
I easily found another of her rented residences, Hauteville Fairy, pictured above, a modest building located down the street from Hugo’s home. But another, La Fallue, seemed to have disappeared without a trace.
During my sojourn on the island, it sometimes felt like I was retracing Juliette’s foosteps, as well as Victor Hugo’s. I kept asking about La Fallue, but no one knew anything about it. But then I queried my guide, Gill Girard, and her response sent chills down my spine.
You see, the hotel where I was staying, The Pandora — located a few doors down from Hugo’s Hauteville House — had been created in the 1970s or ’80s from a cluster of old houses, now connected by rambling, wonky hallways into a sprawling hotel slightly reminiscent of Fawlty Towers. Gill told me that La Fallue, Juliette’s home, had been one of the original houses, and, as she described it, I realized it currently formed the part of the hotel where I was staying.
From the window of my room, number 14, I could see a glass conservatory — Hugo’s third-floor office and bedroom, which he called “the lookout” (photo above). According to the Victor Hugo biography by Graham Robb, every morning the writer would signal from his eyrie to Juliette, tying a white handkerchief — a “torchon radieux” — to the railings to indicate he was awake. Is it possible that my room in The Pandora had been part of Juliette’s house?
I can only say that I slept like the dead in that room, unusually well for someone who is a bit of a nervous traveler. Perhaps it was the ghost of Juliette, Victor Hugo, or both, who ensured my rest.