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Hugo in Sark: Notes from a small(er) island

Features | Published:

When Victor Hugo wrote Toilers of the Sea, his homage to Guernsey, key parts of the visual inspiration for the novel came from his experiences in Sark – a fact that could be more widely known, says an island resident...

Photographs and words by Mark Windsor

WHEN Sark resident Kaye Char discovered that Victor Hugo found much of the visual inspiration for Toilers of the Sea and other works during visits to Sark, she embarked on a mission to make it more widely known.

‘Knowing Hugo was enraptured by Sark and inspired by its wild cliffs and seas could make the island an even more attractive proposition for visitors, since these experiences were formative to some of his most important works,’ she said.

To find out more, Kaye got in touch with the Victor Hugo in Guernsey Society.

The society was founded in 2016 by Gregory Stevens-Cox and Roy Bisson to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Toilers of the Sea. It actively promotes the study of Hugo and his work in the context of Guernsey and the other islands. It has produced a French/English Victor Hugo Guide to Guernsey, and a French/English map of Victor Hugo walks in Guernsey. Each of these publications references Hugo’s affection for and interest in Sark.

The society put Kaye in touch with Professor Gerard Pouchain, the foremost authority on Hugo in the Channel Islands and Normandy, who assisted with the production of the publications.

I had the opportunity to go to Sark to meet them both, to hear the background to Hugo’s Sark story and to photograph in Hugo’s footsteps.

Kaye enlisted the kind help of another Sark resident, Kirsty Grant, to help as translator.

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Kaye Char and Gerard Pouchain.

The evidence for Hugo in Sark

Hugo’s vivid imagination defied ordinary boundaries of time and place and it is clear that he took his inspiration from wherever and whatever elements he chose.

‘Sark was inspirational in formulating key parts of the imagery for Toilers of the Sea – and for much of the poetry in Les Chansons des Rues et des Bois,’ says Professor Pouchain.

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It is in the various correspondences between Hugo and Juliet Drouet, his son Charles and with notable literary figures of the day (such as Algeron Swinburne, who wrote a Ballad to Sark) that we find the evidence of Sark’s importance to Hugo and its stimulus to his creative output, says Professor Pouchain. This is confirmed in some of his previously unpublished notebooks.

‘From these, we know for a fact that Hugo visited Sark in May/June 1859 to write preparatory notes for the novel ‘‘Gilliat’’ – later to be called Toilers of the Sea.’

There is plenty (if sketchy) evidence to show that Hugo went to Sark at other times.

But even before he came to live in Guernsey, Hugo had a mystical regard for the smaller island, as his correspondence from Jersey with Belgian poet Van Helsten attests. Hugo described Sark’s dramatic features to Van Helsten and declared that, had he been a millionaire, he would buy Sark as a present for Mme Helsten.

One of the most iconic motifs in the Toilers of the Sea novel is the H formed by the wreck of the ship Durande wedged between the two pillars of Les Roches Douvres on which the ship had foundered. This was inspired by Les Autelets – the dramatic stacks that stand guard on Sark’s west coast, pictured here.

The famous scene in the novel where the hero Gilliat, in his bid to salvage the ship, has to battle with an octopus, was inspired by an incident in Sark. When swimming with his son Charles in a cave, he watched in frightened awe as Charles was chased by its resident octopus.

Les Autelets.

Getting Hugo out to the public

Professor Pouchain continues to research Hugo and is helping Kaye piece together evidence of the poet’s Sark experiences. He regularly brings groups over from France to Guernsey to tour Hauteville House, Hugo’s home, as well as give them guided tours of Hugo’s island haunts – places the poet took such pleasure in visiting.

Professor Pouchain’s small group tours currently include an overnight trip to Sark – facilitated by the French visitors having already come through Guernsey’s immigration control.

Publicising Hugo’s Sark epiphany in France wouldn’t hurt, says Professor Pouchain, ‘although it goes without saying that most French people know more about Victor Hugo than the average Brit. Hero of the Republic and giant of 19th century French literature, Victor Hugo is to them a national icon. And Hugo enthusiasts are certainly aware that he was at his most creative and prolific when living in exile in Guernsey.’

From Sark’s point of view, Professor Pouchain thinks the real question centres on bringing Hugo enthusiasts directly from France – for this raises the thorny issue of customs and excise.

At the moment it would be easier for Sark to capitalise on Hugo’s presence in the island by publicising the fact more to British and foreign tourists, cashing in on the increased awareness that has come with the global success of the musical Les Miserables, based on his famous novel.

Sark’s tree lined roadways and the green cathedrals of Dixcart Valley are among the places that inspired Hugo’s Les Chansons des Rues et des Bois.

If it is able to, it could follow in the footsteps of the Victor Hugo in Guernsey Society, producing pamphlets, maps and books on Hugo in Sark, and organise conferences and events in the island to celebrate Hugo’s presence there. But these options have cost and other implications for an island community with a narrow infrastructure, a small marketing budget and local politics to consider.

Sark needs more visitors, but how many can it handle? In attempting to make a decent livelihood during its short tourist season it walks a fine line as it simultaneously tries to maintain the island’s unique character and identity.

Sark’s current dilemmas are also Alderney’s and Guernsey’s. The three are bound together as a Bailiwick, and in a rapidly changing world, face increasingly intractable transport and logistical problems caused by economies of scale.

These impact heavily on their respective livelihoods and the identities with which island livelihoods are so intimately bound.

The problem is a paradoxical one – island communities that want to remain insular and unique, yet be better connected to the outside world. Depending on the outside world while simultaneously rejecting many of its advances.

Under the onslaught of modernity, the Channel Islands’ traditional rural/maritime aspects and natural languages continue to diminish. But in their attempt to charm visitors, each island continues to play on its heritage – a unique amalgam of Norman, Breton and British influences – as if it were unchanging.

Victor Hugo is history but his exile in the islands is a great modern selling point. The Channel Islands’ most famous resident and tourist is definitely a modern-day attraction in Guernsey – and could be for Sark.

This spiritual poet’s appreciation of the two islands helps bind their history to their insular character and mysteries… possibly taking them in a new direction.

The rugged and dramatic coast of Sark.

Hugo in the Channel Islands: The author in exile

AT POLITICAL odds with Louis Napoleon, who had made himself Emperor of France, Victor Hugo, a Republican, lived in exile in Guernsey from 1855 to 1870, and for the three previous years in Jersey.

Though Hugo’s stay in Jersey was relatively short, it was important in fomenting what became a lifelong interest in Spiritism. This merged seamlessly with Hugo’s outsized Romantic sensibility, expressing itself in his phantasmagorical writings and visibly in his drawings and artworks.

Hugo was thrown out of Jersey in 1855, during the reign of Queen Victoria, for showing solidarity with Republican/anti-Royalist views expressed in a local newspaper article – at which point Guernsey became a more attractive proposition to this leader of the Romantic literary movement.

Hugo came to value Guernsey as a bastion of independence and free speech. He revelled in its wild cliffs and seascapes, and in the tranquillity of its verdant sheltered valleys and rural landscapes, with its cottage gardens and vegetable allotments in all their humble beauty.

Hugo’s sketches of the Gouliot headland and La Coupee.

The island was a home from home, an amalgam of Brittany and Normandy – ‘like little pieces of them thrown together into the sea’.

Hugo was forever grateful to the island for the sanctuary and creative space it provided. It was in Guernsey that he wrote many political pamphlets and essays, which were secretly distributed in France. He also produced much of his most famous literary output, including the poetry works Les Chatiments, Les Contemplations (which alone paid for the only property he ever owned – Hauteville House in St Peter Port), Les Chansons des Rues et des Bois (which was very much inspired by Sark), and Legends des Siecles.

Hugo also completed much of the manuscript for Les Miserables, his great work on social injustice, upon which much of his modern-day celebrity (outside of France) rests.

Hauteville House, a work of art in itself, stands as a monument to Hugo’s creative, multi-talented genius.

It provided him with a refuge and a vantage point from which to take in the splendour of the maritime environment and weather. From his eyrie overlooking Sark, the other islands and, in the distance, his beloved France, the exiled Hugo had much to stimulate him and consider.

But all that was essential in Guernsey was manifest in Sark. Sark too had its gentle side, but in its fissures, caves, haunted chasms and precipitous cliffs, it was the very stuff of Hugo – drama in abundance.

The Gouliot Caves.

Gerard Pouchain

Professor Pouchain, a native of Normandy, is a historian and author.

A Commander of the Academy, a Knight of the National Order of Merit and a Knight of the Legion of Honour, Professor Pouchain has made a lifetime study of Hugo’s travels in Normandy and the Channel Islands. He is the biographer of Juliet Drouet, Hugo’s mistress and lover.

I asked Professor Pouchain what drew him to Hugo’s work.

‘It was Hugo’s humanism which attracted me. He was campaigning for women’s suffrage long before they won the right to vote. He was a Republican who actively campaigned against capital punishment. And he had a vision of a united Europe.

‘Hugo was a genius with a broad range: he was not only a great poet and writer, he was an artist, dramatist, philosopher, and humanitarian politician.’

Kaye Char

Kaye Char has been a Sark resident for 15 years. She is the keeper at Sark’s Museum. She is particularly interested in the spiritual aspects of Victor Hugo’s life and work.

Kirsty Grant

Kirsty Grant is a retired research scientist who has lived and worked in France. She wasn’t born in Sark but she and her brother spent much of their childhood summers there, where their parents had a house. Kirsty’s mother was founder of La Societe Serquiaise. As a scientist, she is sceptical of Hugo’s Spiritism.

Helen Hubert

By Helen Hubert
Sub editor

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