Victor Hugo’s exile in Guernsey saw him write some his finest and most famous works, including Les Misérables and Toilers of the Sea. While his life in Guernsey is well documented, many don’t know the reasons behind Hugo’s exile in the first place.
While Hugo ascended to fame in his native France for his literary works, he became arguably just as well known for his outspoken political views. Having been elected to the National Assembly as a conservative, he broke from his party and professed his more liberal views on issues such as social injustice, press freedom and the death penalty.
However, when Napoleon III took absolute control of France in 1851 he abolished their democratic system of government. For this, Hugo labelled him a traitor to his country. His remarks rendered him unwelcome in his homeland and he was forced into exile.
He first moved to Brussels in neighbouring Belgium, before deciding to put some more distance between himself and the threats of the new French ruler. He next spent time in Jersey before being expelled for contributing to an anti-royal newspaper, and finally arrived in Guernsey in 1855 where he would remain for the next 15 years.
Despite Napoleon III offering amnesty to Hugo and his fellow political exiles in 1859, the writer stood true to his own principles and refused to return to France, as it would have meant rescinding his criticisms of the government.
Only in 1870 did he finally return to his former home of Paris, when the government fell in the Franco-Prussian War, and even then he frequently returned to his adopted island home of Guernsey.
The island had a profound impact on his life and writing. During his stay, he wrote that “a month’s work here is worth a year in Paris.” The Bailiwick’s striking coastlines had a particular influence on his work, and the famous “Toilers of the Sea” was his love letter to Guernsey.