A Folio Society limited edition

The Toilers of the Sea

Victor Hugo

Introduced by Graham Robb
Illustrated by Victor Hugo

The third of Hugo’s great novels, published for the first time with all his original illustrations.

Limited to 1,250 copies

Published price: US$ 345.00


The Toilers of the Sea

The first edition of Victor Hugo’s magnificent adventure story to include all of his original illustrations placed as he wished. Beautifully reproduced, they are further illuminated in a newly commissioned foreword by the renowned art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon. This is the finest and most faithful edition of The Toilers of the Sea, celebrating Hugo’s brilliance as both author and artist.

‘When I opened this book it literally took my breath away - the sheer beauty of the paper, the print and presentation of the printed page, the cover and its box and the astonishing illustrations by Victor Hugo. It is indeed a rare opportunity to be able to view these illustrations by the literary master’
Penelope Oerlemans, Folio member

Production Details

The Toilers of the Sea book
  • Illustrated by Victor Hugo
  • Introduction by Graham Robb
  • Foreword by Andrew Graham-Dixon
  • Translated from the French by James Hogarth
  • Limited to 1,250 hand-numbered copies
  • Quarter-bound in Indian Goatskin, with cloth printed sides and gold blocking on the spine
  • Printed on Veltique Ivory
  • 528 pages
  • 36 colour illustrations by Victor Hugo
  • Book size: 9½" x 7¼"

  • Postage
  • UK – £7.5
  • ROW – £30
  • US – $40
  • CA – $45
  • AU – $60

An elemental adventure of mythic power

‘Religion, society, nature: such are the three struggles in which man is engaged … In Notre-Dame de Paris the author denounced the first of these; in Les Misérables he drew attention to the second; in this book he points to the third.’ Victor Hugo wrote this preface to The Toilers of the Sea in 1866. He was living in Hauteville House on Guernsey, where he was an exile for 15 years. The novel, set on the island and the waters around it, was a huge success in both Britain and France; five French editions were published in three months and eight English editions in the first six years.

Written entirely on Guernsey, The Toilers of the Sea encompasses ‘the self-destructive nature of love, the civilising mission of the lone hero, and his metaphysical fear of the void’, writes Hugo biographer Graham Robb. Hugo captures the islanders’ ambivalent relationship with nature, mocking their beliefs in capricious spirits, water-loving devils and saints who perch on rocks. But he was also intoxicated by the untamable power of the sea, and it intensified his meditations on ‘the mysterious difficulty of life’.

'Hugo’s great story of the sea is only now being recognised as an important moment in the history of the novel'
Graham Robb

The Toilers of the Sea is a many-layered spiritual allegory, but it is also a gripping adventure that tells of smugglers, murderous villains, a lovesick hero and a perilous mission undertaken to win the hand of a beautiful girl. On another level it is a sharply observed portrait of a people and a place, both effortlessly aphoristic (‘Melancholy is the enjoyment of being sad’, ‘The dream world is the aquarium of the night’) and wonderfully descriptive. At its heart is the extraordinary account of Gilliatt’s epic struggle to rescue the Durande, a shipwrecked steamer lodged between the two pinnacles of a reef. Hugo relates in gripping detail the astonishing salvage operation itself and Gilliatt’s phenomenal endurance of ‘every kind of distress’ while struggling against ‘a tragic torturer’s rack’. Gilliatt is almost devoured by a monstrous octopus: ‘held by 250 suckers, in a mingling of anguish and disgust’. He discovers the ‘sinister… jewellry’ of a sea-worn skeleton in the octopus’s lair, eventually discovering its spine-chilling identity. He overcomes isolation, fever, hunger and toil before encountering yet another cruel obstacle, all the while moving towards the final, devastating twist in the story.

A masterpiece of art and literature

Hugo meant for his illustrations and his words to be inseparable, but until now no edition of the novel has included the original images in their entirety, and today they are even stored in a separate location to the text in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. Their relationship to the novel is curious; they are not really visualisations of the story but ‘amount instead to another version of it’, as Andrew Graham-Dixon writes in his foreword. Even more intriguing is Graham-Dixon’s suggestion that they are Hugo’s way of expressing ‘what he was unwilling or unable to express in words’.

Hugo dedicated The Toilers of the Sea to ‘my present asylum, my future tomb’, describing Guernsey as ‘austere and yet gentle’. Estranged from his homeland, he was profoundly compelled by the ineffable forces that had shaped the island and continued to define its character and people. In many of his paintings, the sea and its attendant elements are all-presiding, dwarfing the image of man so much that scarcely a ship emerges as a distinctive form, still less the figure of Gilliatt. These images are dramatic, turbulent, vortex-like, picturing an environment in which notions of progress, heroism and love are rendered frighteningly irrelevant. Seeing them, it is no surprise that Hugo toyed with the title of The Abyss for the novel. Among the few characters depicted are Mess Lethierry and Déruchette, who appears in a guise at once coquettish and menacing. Graham-Dixon’s foreword is a fascinating discussion of Hugo’s ‘violent eccentricities’, his techniques and the stylistic relation of the paintings to Turner, Constable and others. Viewed as stand-alone images they are remarkable; seen in their rightful place alongside the text, they shed an enthralling light on the novel and on Hugo’s innermost fascinations and fears.

Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885)

Victor Hugo on the Rock of the Exiles c.1853
(© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski)

Hugo did no less than participate in the formation of modern France. His remarkable life spanned two monarchies, two republics, two revolutions and two empires. As a statesman and a writer, he embodied liberal ideas and gave voice to the downtrodden, achieving the rare quality of being both a patriot and a humanist. In stature, he ‘was to France what Queen Victoria was to England’, writes Hugo’s biographer Graham Robb. The French newspaper Le Figaro declared his funeral ‘the death knell of a century that is ending’. His coffin lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and was buried in the Panthéon, surrounded by the heroes of the republic.

Rebel, prophetic visionary and grandfather of French letters, Victor Hugo’s cultural status dwarfs that of any other French writer. He tirelessly reinvented his own image, championing opposing ideologies, and was both revered and ridiculed by people at every echelon of society. Posthumously he has been viewed as, among other things, an opportunist, a hero, a sage and a madman. His vast literary output includes seven novels, eighteen volumes of poetry and three million words of history, philosophy, travel writing and coded diaries.

Hugo was born in Besançon in 1802 to a general in Napoleon’s army and a royalist mother. It is little wonder that his parents separated – and that the adult Hugo was changeable in his loyalties. His unsettled childhood included witnessing the carnage of the Peninsular War, an experience that influenced his lifelong horror of violence, and in particular his opposition to the death penalty. Between 1815 and 1818, he attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, and began writing verse tragedies and poetry. At 20 he married Adèle Foucher, the daughter of an officer at the ministry of war, and published his first poetry collection, Odes et poésies diverse. Such were its royalist sentiments that it earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII.

'Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots'
Victor Hugo

After the publication of his first novel, Han d’Islande, in 1823, Hugo befriended a group of young Romantic writers and began to experiment poetically with Romantic images and themes. In 1830 came Hernani, a play so controversial in its criticism of classical ideals and Bourgeois hypocrisy that its premiere inspired fighting among the audience. The ‘Battle of Hernani’ was considered a triumph of the Romantics over the Classicists. Soon after, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame brought Hugo wider fame, with its evocation of gothic Paris and its themes of loyalty, love and fate.

In 1841, Hugo was elected to the Académie française; in 1845 the Citizen King, Louis-Philippe, made him a Peer of France. When Louis Napoleon became the first President of the French Republic, Hugo was at first optimistic, but a dramatic change of heart was to come.

During the late 1840s, Hugo’s political allegiances shifted to the extreme left in response to Louis Napoleon’s oppressive policies. Gone was Hugo the monarchist; in his place came Hugo the champion of socialist ideals. In these years, drawing and painting became his creative focus. He produced around 4,000 works, often experimental in style; his son Charles wrote about his father finishing his landscapes ‘with a light shower of black coffee’. His techniques anticipated Surrealism and Abstract Impressionism, and it is said that he tried to access his unconscious mind by using his left hand or looking away from the page. Though Hugo kept his art largely private, it was admired by great artists such as Van Gogh and Delacroix, the latter of whom wrote that Hugo would have become a celebrated painter had he not pursued a literary career.

'Hugo was always the voice of his nation’s bad conscience'
Graham Robb

In 1851, Hugo’s fierce opposition to Louis Napoleon saw him banished from France. He fled initially to Brussels, aided by Juliette Drouet, the most enduring of his several mistresses, before settling in Guernsey via Jersey. To leave Paris, ‘the native city of my mind’, must have been an enormous wrench, but Hugo’s creativity was far from impaired. During his 15 years on Guernsey he wrote three volumes of poetry and two of his finest novels: Les Misérables and The Toilers of the Sea, all the while denouncing the king in controversial pamphlets.

Jean Baptiste Hugo, an artist like his great great-grandfather, with our edition of The Toilers of the Sea

Though granted amnesty in 1859, Hugo chose to remain on Guernsey until 1870, when the Napoleonic dynasty was overthrown and the Third Republic he had campaigned for was established. Disembarking from his train at the Gare du Nord, he was greeted by a cheering crowd and paraded in an open carriage through streets lined with jubilant supporters. He was appointed to the National Assembly and the Senate. Although he suffered the deaths of his wife, mistress and two sons, and his daughter Adèle’s descent into madness, he remained active in politics and published a final novel, Ninety-Three, in 1874. His 79th birthday prompted the largest parade in French history. Soon after the street on which he lived was renamed Avenue Victor Hugo.


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Review by poerlemans on 27th Aug 2014

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"When I opened this book it literally took my breath away - the sheer beauty of the paper, the print and presentation of the printed page, the cover and its box and the astonishing illustrations by Vic..." [read more]

Review by AliceF10 on 15th Jul 2014

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 4/5

"I must confess that, for some unknown reason, this book has slipped by me unread. Indeed I cannot remember whether my father had this title in his possession, so I look forward to reading it. I must a..." [read more]

Review by rbalkris on 16th May 2014

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"A fantastic and very moderately priced limited edition produced using very high quality paper and printing standards. The illustrations by the author himself are a joy to behold."

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