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This spring Guernsey will be commemorating the life and work of one our most famous former residents, French author Victor Hugo, whose novel Toilers of the Sea was published 150 years ago.
Hugo arrived in Guernsey in October 1855, having been exiled from France due to his public opposition to the Second Empire of Napoleon III, and the island became his home for the next fifteen years. During this time he wrote Les Misérables, one of his most famous works, and Les Travailleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea), which is both set on and dedicated to the island.
Toilers of the Sea is the story of a young fisherman named Gilliatt, and his efforts to retrieve the engine of a wrecked steamship in order to win the hand in marriage of the ship-owners niece, Deruchette.
Gilliatt is a loner and social outcast, having arrived on Guernsey as a child with his mother, who raised him in a house that many locals believed to be haunted. When his mother dies Gilliatt continues to live in the haunted house and gains a reputation as a skilled fisherman and sailor. Many islanders believe him to have supernatural powers.
Gilliatt falls in love with a young lady named Deruchette, the niece and ward of a local shipowner named Mess Lethierry, after she writes his name in the snow as he walked back from church behind her one Christmas but he cannot bring himself to approach her or her uncle. Mess Lethierry loses his fortune when his business partner, a man named Rantaine, cheats him. To recoup his losses he builds the Durande, the first steamship on Guernsey, to provide a passenger and cargo service to France. Unbeknownst to him, the captain of his ship, Sieur Clubin, is a dishonest man with a plan to make himself rich. Sieur Clubin tracks down Rantaine and retrieves his master’s money, however in order to keep it he must fake his death and makes plans to wreck the Durande on the Hanois reef, off the west coast of Guernsey before fleeing to Spain with a group of smugglers. In thick fog Clubin wrecks his ship upon Les Douvres reef instead, halfway between Guernsey and France, and is dragged to his death by an octopus. Lethierry is desperate to retrieve the engine of his ship, and Deruchette declares that she will marry whoever can save the engine of the Durande. Gilliatt immediately takes up the challenge despite taunts from his neighbours, and endures all manner of hardships in his, ultimately successful, efforts to retrieve the engine which includes discovering the skeleton of Clubin (and the money) and battling the octopus that killed him. Gilliatt eventually returns the engine to Lethierry, however he declines the hand of his beloved Deruchette because he witnessed her accepting an offer of marriage from the newly arrived priest, Ebenezer Caudry. He selflessly helps to arrange their hurried wedding and then, as they sail away together on the ship Cashmere, Gilliatt sits and watches the ship disappear from a rock in the sea known as the Gild Holm'Ur chair and drowns as the rising tide engulfs him.
From 2nd April – 10th April the Victor Hugo in Guernsey Festival will celebrate Hugo’s relationship with Guernsey, and will include a one-day seminar featuring four of the World’s leading authorities on Hugo as well as a number of exhibitions, performances and guided walks.
Whether or not your visit to Guernsey coincides with the festival, or you choose to attend any of the planned events or exhibitions, there is no doubt that simply sitting back with a good book is one of the true pleasures of a holiday. Furthermore, reading a book set in the place that you’re visiting can greatly enhance your experience of a location as well as increasing your enjoyment of the book itself. Should you wish to experience Guernsey’s beautiful coastal scenery with Hugo’s scenes still fresh in your memory, then you can download the Toilers of the Sea ebook (in various formats for different devices) free of charge, here.