Eighteen of our members proceeded to Paris on the 20th March, a large group travelling together on the plane from Guernsey, others making their own way. Our number included the current Bailiff and a former Bailiff, Sir De Vic Carey. This being somewhat unusual, it was felt by Sir Richard that a collective noun was in order and he suggested a folie of Bailiffs … We were very sorry to be without Gregory Stevens Cox, who was unable to join us at the last minute.
There was a great sense of camaraderie from the start, and we all remained in excellent humour throughout, due in no small part to Roy Bisson’s organisational skills; we were where we were meant to be on time, every time, and absolutely full of the delicious food Roy had arranged for us. We were relaxed and free to concentrate on what really mattered: Victor Hugo!
Our first evening in Paris was balmy and still. We had been invited to attend a reception at the Maison de Victor Hugo in the Place des Vosges at the invitation of Gérard Audinet, the Director of the Victor Hugo Museums and a great friend of the Society. The relatively small apartment where Hugo and his family lived from 1832-1848, in the delightful square known at that time as the Place Royale, but now as the Place des Vosges, has been recently completely refurbished: decorated to Hugo’s taste under Gérard’s auspices, it has been filled with precious objects, many of which will be instantly recognisable to any Hugo fan.
Gérard gave us a warm welcome, and we were delighted to meet there the team from the Maison Victor Hugo, all just as charming and helpful as their counterparts at Hauteville House. Other important Hugolian figures had come to greet us, too, including Jean-Marc Hovasse, the eminent biographer of Hugo who will be remembered from the time he spent in Guernsey during the Festival, and [****who else?] The delicous wine and exquisite canapés we were offered here boded well for the gastronomical side of our visit!
Gérard played a key part in the organisation of the trip, suggesting the itinerary and venues, and providing us with key contacts. His help was invaluable and we are most grateful to him, all the more so since although the next day he was to launch his crowd-funding scheme for the renovations at Hauteville House, he still chose to devote his time to us. Roy presented him with some items of Guernsey interest provided by Gregory Stevens Cox for the collection at the museum, and after a short but heartfelt speech of thanks the Chairman, Dinah Bott, on behalf of the Society, gave him a complete set of the Guernsey Post Office’s stamps issued for the Hugo Festival in 2016.
From there we went on to the lively restaurant Bowfinger, accompanied by Jean-Marc Hovasse and [****?]. It was agreed (at least on my table!) that the crème brûlee was divine!
The next morning, the weather was good, as it was throughout the trip. We all met for the breakfast Roy had organised for us at the Café Hugo on the corner of the Place des Vosges. The square is arcaded on all four sides and full of expensive art galleries. It was a short walk from there to the Maison de Victor Hugo at no 6. Its formidable wooden front door was opened early just for us. Here we were treated to a fascinating tour by Gérard Audinet himself, weaving our way through awestruck French school parties.
The final room on the tour was a reconstruction of the famous bedchamber in which Hugo died, with his four-poster bed, deep red silk wall covering, and flickering candles contributing to a suitably sombre effect. In this room is the desk at which he stood to write. Another highlight was the panelled decoration from Hauteville II, known to Guernsey residents as ‘Friends.’ The carved wooden chinoiserie was designed, painted and made by Victor Hugo himself with the Guernsey carpenter Tom Gore, for Juliette Drouet’s house, and left by Juliette to her nephew. He removed it so that the house could be sold, and eventually gave it to the Hugo museum.
We proceeded up to the custom-built library. Here researcher Michèle Bertaux, an expert on Hugo’s correspondence, showed us some of the many letters in the collection, and read out to us beautifully a couple of missives to him from Juliette Drouet, giving us transcriptions to take away. The Librarian, Marie-Laurence Marco, allowed us to handle some of the books in the collection, including Hugo’s own schoolbooks, such as a Latin primer and history textbooks, and other items of great rarity.
After a good lunch we proceeded to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where we were met by the Chief Curator of the Modern and Contemporary manuscript collection, Guillaume Fau. He had chosen to bring out for us the original manuscripts of Les Travailleurs de la mer and Les Misérables, both bound here in Guernsey by Henry Turner, and the original drawings that Hugo created specifically to accompany the text in his manuscript, and which he had Turner bind in later, but which have been since removed from the manuscript by the curators for preservation. Guillaume was most generous with his time and in the access which he allowed us; we were able to examine the material very closely. The whole experience was quite thrilling and likely unrepeatable, at least in the near future. Hugo deliberately donated his manuscripts during his lifetime to the ‘Library of the United States of Europe,’ which would be, of course, in Paris; this action led other authors to do likewise and formed the basis of the modern manuscript collection at the National Library of France.
Our meal that night consisted for most of us, at least, of an enormous dish of chicken stew à la Henri IV at the Poule-au-Pot in Les Halles.
Tuesday dawned as clement as the other days; a very good breakfast was taken next to the Sorbonne at the charming L’Escritoire, from where we stepped out to the Sénat, housed in the Palais du Luxembourg. Security was tight, as was only to be expected at the French equivalent of the House of Lords. Our visit to the Sénat was hosted by the Librarian, Mme Béatrice Desbouchages, who had very kindly agreed to be our guide. Béatrice began her career as a lawyer, and is now a member of a civil service career development programme that sees its members move positions every seven years; she won an internal competition to become Librarian at the Sénat. Thanks to her we were given special access to the magnificent Library and the stack, known as L’Annexe.
The interior of the Sénat, decorated in Second Empire style, gives the impression of being completely covered with gold and mirrors. The rooms are huge and to English eyes, extraordinarily ornate, with hints of Waddesdon Manor or Blenheim Palace. Everywhere the ‘N’ of Hugo’s nemesis, Napoleon III, is visible on the walls. Napoleon I’s throne takes pride of place in the Salle des Conférences, which is one of the grandest rooms decorated under the Second Empire. 11 metres high and 57 metres long, this opulent superabundance of gold leaf and glittering lights was commissioned by Napoleon III himself. The Bailiff informed us he was taking notes for the redecoration of his office. We were then given privileged access to the Library, a magnificent vaulted room which dates from 1836. The decoration by Délacroix includes a cupola 7 metres in diameter with a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Béatrice brought out a ledger from the strong-room with a speech once given by Hugo in it; it looked very much as though he had written and annotated it himself (we were experts now we had seen the other manuscripts!). At the far end of the Library a bust of Hugo takes pride of place. We moved on to the Chamber, designed very much like a theatre; we sat in the red velvet tub chairs, each apparently assigned to a particular senator. Some of us could not resist sitting in Hugo’s own chair, marked out by a plaque, and situated not surprisingly to the far left of the House. Beatrice explained to us the machinery of voting. We were also given special access to L’Annexe, the stack containing thousands of books, with its barrelled ceiling resplendent with paintings by Jacob Jordaens, representing the 12 signs of the zodiac. Made by him for his own house in Anvers 1641, they were installed in the East Gallery of the Sénat in 1802. From 1750 this great room housed Paris’s first public art gallery, the Musée du Luxembourg. In 1818 it was devoted to living artists, and hosted the annual Salon until 1884, when the museum was moved to another site in the complex. It is now probably the grandest Library stack in the world and was exceptionally impressive. A final treat was a visit to the quite beautiful, and in comparison rather restrained, ‘Salle du Livre d’Or,’ the only remaining 17th-century room in the Palace, created for Marie de Médicis.
We are very grateful indeed to Béatrice, who gave up her time to guide us on this very special tour.
After lunch the more hardy amongst us climbed the towers of Notre Dame, accompanied by a very competent guide who related what we were observing to Hugo’s novel. We stood in one of the bell-towers, next to the huge 17th-century great bell, called Emmanuel, weighing over 13 tonnes; it is the second largest bell in France. Before it was motorised, it took eight men to ring it. Of course, even this ancient bell post-dates the period of the novel, but it was evocative nevertheless. The weather was bright and clear, and the view from the top of the towers, for those who managed the 452 steps, was well worth it!
We followed this with a visit to the nearby Conciergerie, medieval palace and later prison, which gained notoriety in the Revolution; it was the last place of detention of Marie Antoinette and in its gloomy though modern museum one can see items of her clothing and other personal possessions. The reconstructions of cells used during the Terror, including the one where the victim’s hair was shorn before execution, was thoroughly depressing. The prison is mentioned in Les Misérables, and those of us who had been hoping to see the cells in which Charles Hugo, his brother François-Victor, Auguste Vacquerie and Paul Meurice were imprisoned just before Hugo’s exile were to be disappointed, as there is no trace of them left.
That evening we crowned the trip with a wonderful night at Le Procope restaurant, a favourite rendez-vous of men (and women) of letters since the Enlightenment. We had a private room and and a quite delicious meal. We and our French guests were very happy indeed to salute Roy Bisson for the marvellous job he had made of the organisation of this most memorable trip.