The Weasel: The ghost writer

Related Topics

The most evocative writer's home in the UK is owned by the city of Paris. "No house ever said so much about its owner," declares Graham Robb in his masterly biography of Victor Hugo. "Hauteville House gives one the distinct impression of being swallowed alive by Hugo." During our recent visit to Guernsey, Mrs W and I puffed up the steep street in St Peter Port to the four-storey dwelling of this titan of letters for 14 years from 1855. After we rang on the bell, a doorkeeper brusquely inquired, "French or English?" When this had been sorted out, we had to give our names and were told to present ourselves half an hour later for a tour in English. It was all a bit bureaucratic considering the former owner's disdain for authority. During the wait, we explored the garden, which, like the house itself, is immaculately maintained by its Parisian curators.

In exile from the regime of Napoleon III, Hugo first took up residence in Jersey. His subsequent expulsion from the island ensured a warm welcome in Guernsey. Graham Robb underestimates the "tradition of mild antagonism" between these two dots of granite in the English Channel. Hugo acquired Hauteville House relatively cheaply because, Robb informs us, "Its previous resident, a vicar, had been chased out by a ghost." By contrast, Hugo relished supernatural company and enjoyed bedtime chats with the ghost and a few more spectral chums. Apparently, the supernatural residents also practised a form of Morse Code but we heard no tapping. Robb remarks that, following Hugo's idiosyncratic decoration of the house, the ghosts probably felt more at home there than human beings.

"You're not allowed to sit anywhere and try to avoid using the flash," said our guide Cédric Bail, before adding: "The house is a bit mysterious, very strange and peculiar." After this build-up, the billiard room proved a slight let-down. "A less interesting room," admitted M Bail. " 'ugo did not play billiards." But the darkly gleaming dining room – it is lined with wood from 70 carved seaman's chests purchased by Hugo and illuminated by tiny portholes made from "bull's eyes" cut from wine-bottle bottoms – lived up to expectations. So did a passageway lined with crockery (including the ceiling) and an exotic smoking room decorated with Gobelins tapestries, casually cut up by Hugo and nailed to the walls. Mysteriously, we were not shown the kitchen ("It's nothing special," said our guide), though we occasionally caught a fragrant whiff of cooking, possibly navarin d'agneau, like a fleeting ghost.

The surprises continued on upper stories. Bizarrely, a large, gloomy room contained a long judicial table with magistrates' chairs and a four-poster bed that was never used. A carved legend declares: "Nox Mors Lux" (Night Death Light). "This room is a symbolic place," explained M Bail. "We must pass through judgement and death to reach light and freedom." These are found on the airy top floor where Hugo built a "Crystal Room" to contain his workroom and tiny bedroom. He was scarcely lonely in the latter. Aside from supernatural company, the writer was accompanied by a series of servant girls. Sometimes, the comings and goings were reminiscent of a Feydeau farce. Hugo recorded one visitor "leaving by one door while someone enters by another", though his biographer conjectures that this might be "one of Hugo's oblique allusions to complicated sexual acts".

A line of windows gave Hugo a view of Sark, Jersey and (on clear days) the outline of Brittany. The English Channel, flecked with white horses at the time of our visit, inspired his Guernsey novel The Toilers of the Sea, which culminates in 10 pages describing the hero's fight with an octopus: "Gilliatt... had the impression that he was being swallowed by a host of mouths that were too small for the task." Our guide gave a particularly Gallic summary of our symbolic journey, "We have gone from death to life, from dark to light, from ignorance to knowledge", before departing for lunch with the ghosts.

It is instructive to compare the scrupulous care that the French lavish on their national treasure with the British commemoration of Guernsey's other literary star. Though it is the 150th anniversary of his birth, there was no trace of H W Fowler (1858-1933). He compiled both the Concise and the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, but is best known for his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, an unexpectedly amusing dictionary that has guided readers through the pitfalls of the language for the past 85 years. Fowler wrote this work on Guernsey after moving there in 1903. For much of his time on the island, he lived in a cottage at Rocquaine Bay, near the home of his brother, who was a tomato grower.

Published in 1923, his masterpiece contains several entries that suggest its place of composition. They include "codlin[g]. Spell with the g", "island, isle. The two are etymologically unconnected, the first being native... the second being Latin", "littoral... in ordinary contexts it should never be preferred to coast", "sardine. Pronounce sar'din" and (possibly a tribute to V. Hugo) "octopus. Pl. –uses. The Greek or Latin pl., rarely used, is –podes not –pi".

We shared Fowler's fondness for Rocquaine Bay, where he startled locals by jogging. His biographer Jenny McMorris notes that children found "running for pleasure very odd, as their parents only ran in emergencies". We ate crab sandwiches on the beach where he took his daily swim, but were'nt able to visit his cottage. "Unfortunately," McMorris explains, "[it was] destroyed years ago."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MI Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – £25k-£35k

£25000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Senior Pensions Administrator

£23000 - £26000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery NurseI am currently...

KS2 Teacher

£21000 - £34000 per annum + Excellent rates of pay, CPD, Support : Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Photo issued by Flinders University of an artist's impression of a Microbrachius dicki mating scene  

One look at us Scots is enough to show how it was our fishy ancestors who invented sex

Donald MacInnes
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  

Oscar Pistorius sentence: Judge Masipa might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice

Chris Maume
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album