12th March 1862

First publication of Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea

Toilers of the Sea was written not only on Guernsey, but about it, too. Victor Hugo was exiled to the Channel Islands after Napoleon III’s coup in the early 1850s, and after a brief stay on Jersey he made Guernsey his home. Toilers of the Sea, or Les Travailleurs de la Mer, was his love letter to the island.

It far from the most memorable work he produced while on exile in Guernsey, which would be Les Miserables, but it has stood the test of time nonetheless. It is the story of Gilliatt, who saves a wrecked boat in the hope of marrying the boat owner’s adopted daughter.

It’s part love story, part adventure and large part tragedy, and was prefaced by an inscription from Hugo about his place of refuge:

I dedicate this book to the rock of hospitality and liberty, to that portion of old Norman ground inhabited by the noble little island nation of the sea, to the island of Guernsey, severe yet kind, my present asylum, perhaps my tomb.

An artist’s prerogative

By the time it was published, Hugo was already a renowned writer. Les Miserables had been published four years before. That book had brought him such fame – and fortune – that he was able to dictate terms on the publication of Toilers of the Sea.

He turned down an offer of £20,000 to publish the book in instalments in a cheap journal called Evenement. That would have been worth around £500,000 today. However, in Hugo’s words, “the question of art is for me above all considerations”. Instead he accepted a few hundred pounds and a promise that the book would be published in just three parts instead.

Toilers of the Sea‘s initial reception was muted, despite it selling well, and there were inevitable comparisons to his masterwork, Les Miserables. Monsieur de Villemessant, the publisher who had offered him £20,000 may have felt fortunate that his offer was declined.

Victor Hugo's own painting of the boat in Toilers of the Sea


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