Last week, I finally got around to visiting Victor Hugo's home at No. 6 Place des Vosges. His former second-story apartment is now a free museum (audio guides are 5€) tucked away in one of the corners of this very chic square.
In France, Victor Hugo is considered to be one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, writers the country has ever produced. The lasting influence of both his written works and his politics are such that in the French collective consciousness he is on a par with William Shakespeare's impact on English literature (about whom Hugo actually wrote in 1864). Hugo was a prolific writer, publishing over 55 works during his lifetime (with another 10-20 being published posthumously), although in the Anglophone world he is certainly best known for Notre Dame de Paris, otherwise known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862).
The beautiful architecture of the Place des Vosges.
No. 6 Place des Vosges was where Victor Hugo lived during the earlier part of his adult life, from 1832-1848. He lived, wrote, and raised his family there with his wife, Adele; they had four children that survived past infancy. In 1844, his oldest child, a daughter, drowned in the Seine at the age of 19 not long after her marriage, when a boat overturned and the weight of her heavy, wet skirts dragged her under the water. Hugo was traveling with his mistress at the time, and actually learned of his daughter's death while reading a newspaper in a café. It is said he never got over it.
Museum entrance, located in one corner of the square.
Hugo actually had two residences, both of which are featured on the same web site. His home on the remote island of Guernsey was where he lived (after first living on the isle of Jersey for two years) when he was in exile as a result of his speaking out against Napoleon III, publicly denouncing the Emperor as a traitor to France. (I can well imagine he would have to get out of town after that.) Hugo lived in exile for about 18 years, spending 15 years of that time on Guernsey. Even after Napoleon III was prepared to offer amnesty, Hugo refused to return to France as long as Napoleon was on the throne, because he would not have been free to speak out against the Emperor as a condition of the amnesty.
In the staircase leading up to the second floor apartment/museum.
He finally returned to France in 1870 when Napoleon III was defeated and there was once more a République in France, though he left for Belgium the following year during the Paris Commune. However, he was kicked out of Belgium for offering help to the communards and he spent the next couple of years in Paris and again in Guernsey. Those were difficult years for Hugo, as both his sons died during that time, and at some point his last daughter, Adèle, was committed to a mental institution. In 1872 he wrote his work, L'Année terrible (The Terrible Year). I doubt this title was a complete coincidence.
Hugo was active in politics, although his political beliefs swung from being a royalist in his youth to becoming a staunch supporter of the Republic later on and until his death, and he was also a member of the Académie Française, the auguste organization that regulates the French language, even today.
Victor Hugo's funeral cortège. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Victor Hugo died in 1885. He was given a full state funeral that was attended by more than 2 million people. His body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe before he was enterred in the Pantheon, where he now shares a crypt with Alexandre Dumas (père) and Émile Zola.
Victor Hugo lying in state under the Arc de Triomphe. Source: Wikimedia Commons
A visit to the house on Place des Vosges is divided into three periods in Hugo's life: Before Exile, During Exile, and After Exile. When you enter the apartment, which is on the 2nd floor (3rd floor if you're from North America - but there is an elevator if you can't climb that many stairs), you enter the Antechamber, where there are portraits and furniture from the period during Hugo's early years. The other rooms on display lead one into the next, although as there was only one bedroom (Victor's) and no kitchen shown, I have to assume there were other rooms used by the Hugo family but not included in the tour.
Next is the Red Lounge, with a lovely view over the Place des Vosges and red damask on the walls and ceilings (most of the ceilings in the apartment were covered by fabric and/or tapestries, as were the walls, probably to cover cracks, stains and other imperfections in the plaster underneath). Authors Dumas and Lamartine were friends of Hugo and were frequent visitors here.
The rosette on the right was Victor Hugo's Legion of Honor award; the others belonged to Hugo's great-grandson, Jean Hugo.
The view over the Place des Vosges from the Red Lounge.
The Chinese Lounge is decorated with furnishings brought in from the home of Hugo's mistress, Juliette Drouet, from her (their?) home in Guernsey. It was my favorite room in the house, with the colorful fireplace surround, and all the beautiful Chinese porcelain, dishes and artwork.
The lounge also got my attention for a very interesting piece of furniture: a table designed by Hugo himself (who, among his other gifts, was actually a very talented decorator and furniture designer; a number of the pieces in the apartment were his designs). In 1860 while they were in exile in Guernsey, Adèle Hugo wanted to donate something for an auction to raise funds for poor children on the island, and she asked that four of the age's greatest literary minds give their own inkwells! Hugo then took an existing Louis XIII table and modifed it to showcase the names, inkwells (with pens touched by their own hands) and framed letters from each of the writers: himself, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas (père) and Alphonse de Lamartine. Unfortunately, the table did not sell, so Hugo bought it himself. This was by far one of the most interesting pieces of literary "memorabilia" I've ever seen, and as a writer I felt like I was standing just inches away from genius.
The inkwells, pens and signed letters from (clockwise from lower right): Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Alfonse de Lamartine, and George Sand.
Signed by Victor Hugo
I took so many photos that I decided to continue the blog "tour" with a second post, coming tomorrow. You just can't rush a look at Victor Hugo's life!