Victor Hugo in Guernsey Society Weekend

Each year the Victor Hugo in Guernsey Society holds a weekend devoted to Victor Hugo, at which visiting academics from France, the UK and the USA deliver papers on a given theme. This year, on the weekend of 28-30 June, the theme was ‘Victor Hugo and the Ocean’. Victor Hugo Centre members were also present during the weekend, and our chairman, Larry Malcic, gave a short speech at the Friday evening reception on the progress so far made on the Centre project.

Eight presentations in all were given starting, on the Friday evening, with Professor Bradley Stephens (pictured above) of the University of Bristol, who used Hugo’s depiction of the sea in Les Travailleurs de la mer (The Toilers of the Sea) to explore the physical cycles of creation and destruction in nature.

On the Saturday morning the first presentation came from Professor Fiona Cox over Zoom from the University of Exeter on ‘Ocean imagery in Les Misérables. Ocean imagery pervades the book and is used to offer insights into the existential angst experienced by so many of the characters in this epic novel which Hugo completed in Guernsey. We then had a talk from Gérard Audinet, director of the Maisons de Victor Hugo, in which he spoke about Hugo’s drawings of the sea.

Following Gérard’s talk, we were treated to an exposition on the letters of Juliette Drouet to Victor Hugo, his mistress for fifty years, who described Guernsey as ‘this Eden of the sea’ (as opposed to Jersey which she described as ‘this charming but rainy country’). Juliette’s fascination with the ocean, which she admired as much as she feared, grew at the same time as that of Hugo, which she echoed in her letters. The morning session ended with Ken Tough of the Society reading Professor Gérard Pouchain’s talk, who was unavoidably detained in France due to French election duties. Gérard’s talk focussed on the Sercquiais word for octopus - pieuvre – which Hugo used in The Toilers of the Sea and through which the word was introduced into the French language.

After lunch Lisa VanDamme, who runs the VanDamme Academy in California where Hugo’s works, particularly his novels Ninety-Three and Les Misérables, are integral to the curriculum, talked of scenes from Ninety-Three and the guidance, insight and inspiration that they offer young readers. Lisa was followed by Edouard Launet, president of the ‘Rencontre Victor Hugo and Co’ from Granville, who related sea trips he had made in his twenty-foot sailing boat to places described in Hugo’s novels, particularly The Toilers of the Sea, The Man who Laughs and NInety-Three.

The final paper of the day was given by Professor Florence Naugrette of the Sorbonne University in Paris whose talk was entitled ‘Shipwrecks and drowning in Victor Hugo’s work.’ Even before actually meeting bereaved families of sailors in the Channel Islands, the fate of those lost at sea had already featured in Hugo’s poetry e.g. Oceano nox. The novels written in Guernsey take this theme, at the same time both literary and existential, even further: in Les Misérables someone escapes by pretending to drown; the plot of The Toilers of the Sea tells of man’s struggle against the ocean; in The Man Who Laughs, divine punishment falls on the childcatchers, all trace of whom is lost with their boat, and the destiny of the hero is transformed when a message in a bottle, consigned to the sea in hopes of saving their souls, is finally found. In her talk Professor Naugrette discussed what poetic and romantic effects Hugo derived from these motifs and what were their ethical significance.  

In the evening a dinner was held at which the diners were entertained by a recitation of letter excerpts between Victor Hugo and his mistress Juliette Drouet.