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


FREE Guernsey history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Guernsey's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want. We'll also keep you up to date with our latest book releases and early-bird discounts.


Other events that occured in March

Debut of Guernsey-set comedy This is Jinsy 1st
Channel 4 broadcasts Sark-based Mr Pye 2nd
First ever broadcast of Puffin’s Pla(i)ce 3rd
Dead man appointed to run Guernsey Airport 4th
Guernsey’s entire police force is arrested 5th
Isle of Guernsey delivered to its new owners 6th
Guernsey players set darts record
Guernsey heads call for an end to the Eleven-plus 7th
Guernsey’s first governor, Edmund Weston, is appointed 8th
Occupying forces mount a desperate raid on Granville 9th
Guernsey emergency services prepare for a disaster 10th
Birth of Baron James de Saumarez 11th
First publication of Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea 12th
Building work starts on Guernsey Airport 13th
Guernsey’s island-wide police force is established 14th
Guernsey exchange student goes missing in Virginia 15th
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is published 16th
BBC Radio Guernsey takes to the air
Guernsey clears up after heaviest snow in years 17th
Torrey Canyon spills oil on Guernsey’s beaches 18th
Guernsey issues banknotes featuring famous locals 19th
Guernsey guidebook pioneer Henry Inglis dies 20th
Soldiers staged a mutiny at Fort George 21st
Alderney arrest sparks a “riot” 22nd
Guernsey nurse Elizabeth Lincoln elected to the States 23rd
Famed printer Thomas de la Rue born 24th
Guernsey votes for equal age of consent 25th
Guernsey to UK telephone connection inaugurated 26th
Condor Liberation enters service 27th
Guernsey Post Office is established 28th
Enemy at the Door comes to the end of its run 29th
Guernsey adopts Sterling currency 30th
Guernsey and France tackle the Amoco Cadiz oil spill 31st