by Jeffrey Jullich

In 1852, fleeing from a warrant for his arrest and the political revenge of Prince Louis Napoleon (whose presidency he had supported), Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables, went into exile on the sea-beaten island of Jersey.

His family's half of the house at No. 3 Marine Terrace, fully furnished but without linen, and rented from a friend of the painter J.M.W. Turner, was soon filled with Madame Hugo and their adult children: daughter Adèle, and sons Charles and Francois-Victor, a translator of Shakespeare; and chambermaid Fanny, servants Marie and Julie, and Catherine the cook who was dismissed for stealing.

(Briefly, they were joined by the Vaudeville actress Anais Lievenne --- a lover of Alexandre Dumas' who resembled his Dame aux Camélias. Francois-Victor had been borrowing money to support Anais in Paris at 500 francs a month, a third of the rent for their half of No. 3 Marine Terrace. She suffered from fainting fits and suicide attempts.)

Hugo described No. 3 Marine Terrace as "a hut", "a shed", "a heavy white cube shaped like a tomb the smallness of the windows aggravated the crepuscular sadness of the house."

Table-tapping and ouija boards were the rage. On September 11th, 1853, into the intellectual sterility of Jersey, the visiting Mme. de Girardin, author of Lady Tartuffe and Happiness scares me (La Joie fait peur), introduced the Hugos to a small circular table on top of a large square one.

One tap for A, two for B, three for C, etc. --- "Each letter would have taken, on average, about five seconds to tap out, and it could take two hours just to compose a short paragraph" (Stephens, p. 34) --- the table terrified everyone present: what they took to be the spirit of the drowned Léopoldine Hugo. Over 100 seances were recorded in a notebook. The spirit guests included Dante, Racine, Mohammed, Hannibal, the Lion of Androcles, etc., and the Shakespeare and Aeschylus here translated; but, gradually, the literary immortals gave way to fragmented characters such as Cedj, a headless man, patricides, druidesses, and others.

A baker's boy walking near St. Luke's church on Marine Terrace saw a motionless white figure in flames. Hugo began hearing strange tappings in the walls; his manuscripts moved about. Charles and Francois-Victor returning home late saw the windows emblazoned as if with candelabra and a roaring fireplace. By table-tapping, a 3 a.m. meeting was arranged with the White Lady the barber had seen. Front door bells were heard ringing at night when no one was there. Hugo soon was composing verse outdoors at night near the island's indigenous cromlechs, menhirs, and dolmens.

Finally, a friend, Jule Allix, went mad during a séance: he sat on the Hugos' blue sofa without moving for four hours, and was later found prone trying to magnetize his watch to stop at midnight.

By process of elimination, it can be reconstructed who the medium of the most eloquent Jersey Phantoms must have been, capable of table-tapping ex tempore 1 ­ 26 = A ­ Z perfect rhymed alexandrines: Charles Hugo. When he was not at the table, the séance was a shambles of alphabet soup.

A certain Oedipal poignance informs the scenario: son of the great poet and author, brother of the translator of Shakespeare, Charles Hugo's only known poetry was transcribed under dozens of others' names, names of the deceased or the never fully living, written by visitors from the beyond.


[Source: Stevens, Philip, Victor Hugo in Jersey (Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore & Co., Ltd.,1983)]


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