Dartmouth Book Award
Ottawa Citizen Literary Award
“Leslie Smith Dow’s Adèle Hugo: La Misérable is the intriguing story of one daughter’s bizarre but ultimately hapless rebellion against the restrictions of her lot. La Misérable succeeds very well as the sympathetic portrait of a woman driven to freakish lenghts in search of freedom.”
— Globe and Mail
“Elegantly written and concise. All good news, it must be said, for history and literature buffs alike.”
— Atlantic Books Today
“Riveting. This book has themes and ideas and is written in plain, crisp sentences. Dow brings a much deeper feminist perspective to her rich and rounded telling of Adèle’s story. It is a book well worth reading”
— Quill and Quire
“Award-winning Ottawa author Leslie Smith Dow writes in a lucid and factual style that is as interesting and as readable as a well-written novel. The story she has pieced together from numerous sources is an astounding one. One of the most impressive features of Dow’s writing is the way in which she is able to present not only Adèle but also the events and people in her life in all their complexity.”
— Canadian Literature
“In this immensely readable book, Dow has captured with clarity and assurance the fustrations of being an upper-class woman in 19th-century French society. Fans of mystery, romance, and history will all enjoy a fast-paced and sympathetic portrait of a talented but troubled young woman.”
— Canadian Book Review Annual
“Leslie Smith Dow has written in a very readable style the story of the fascinating and almost unbelievable life of Adèle Hugo. I highly recommend this book, especially to readers interested in women’s issues and in psychology.”
— The Officers’ Quarterly
“Ce livre est presque le roman d’une vie, mais aussi une histoire qui nous fait voir le grand poète sous une lumière bien différente que celle à laquelle on est habitué.”
— Le Courrier de la Nouvelle Écosse
“A very interesting and highly readable book. Leslie Smith Dow provides a thorough and imaginative interpretation of Adèle Hugo.”
— New Maritimes
“A fascinating story.”
— Nova Scotia Historical Review
Adèle Hugo, Guernsey, 1855-1863 (Musées de la Ville de Paris)
For Kyleakin Stuart Donal, my labour of love; and for Donald, who gave him to me.
A Princess in a Tower
The Quick and the Dead
A Passage to Freedom
Jersey, 1855, and Guernsey, 1855-1863
A Dangerous Liaison
“She of Crazy Love and Folly”
The Sympathy of Strangers
“…More Dead than the Dead”
An Uneasy Death
La Dame Perdue
New York, 2004-2015
Hugo Family Tree
My greatest gratitude goes to my husband, Donald Dow, for supporting me and encouraging me to complete this project.
Thanks are also due to Dr. Barry Jones of the Royal Ottawa Hospital, an expert on schizophrenia, for confirming my suspicions that Adèle more than likely suffered from schizophrenia; to Laura Currie, for her invaluable research into mental illness and other topics; to the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton for a travel and sustaining grant; to the Canadian Authors’ Association for bestowing the Air Canada Award for the most promising Canadian writer under age thirty upon me (and so enabling me to conduct research in Paris); to the staff of the Canadian War Museum, particularly Cameron Pulsifer and Jean Langdon-Ford; to Lois Kernaghan Yorke and the staff of the Public Archives of Nova Scotia; to the staffs of the Ottawa Public Library, the Canadian Currency Museum, the National Gallery, the National Library and the National Archives for their continued assistance; to Master Corporal Derek Egan of the Cambridge Military Library, Halifax; to Warren Alleyne, researcher and writer, Barbados; to Elizabeth Collard, historian, Ottawa; to Bruce Ellis, curator, Citadel Hill Army Museum, Halifax; to Ron MacDonald, Garrison Library, Halifax; to John Dagger, researcher, London, England; to Doug Hendry, researcher, Ottawa and London, England; and to Claire Mcllveen, Ed Head and Dave Morefield, for providing the necessities of life while I undertook research in Halifax.
Grateful acknowledgement is made for permission to quote from: Cameron Pulsifer, The 78th Highlanders in Halifax, vol. 2, The Officers (unpublished report: Parks Canada, 1985) and British Regiments in Halifax (unpublished report: Parks Canada, 1980); Raymond Escholier, Hugo, roi de son siècle (Paris: Ardiaud/Librairie Flammarion, 1970) and Victor Hugo, cet inconnu (Paris: Librairie Pion, 1951); Henri Guillemin, L’Engloutie: Adèle, fille de Victor Hugo, 1830-1915 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1985); André Gide, Anthologie de la poésie française (Paris: Éditions de la Pléiade/Éditions Gallimard, 1949); Arnaud Laster, Victor Hugo (Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1984); Ruth Jordan, George Sand (London: Constable, 1976); Jean de Mutigny, Victor Hugo et le spiritisme (Paris: Fernand Nathan, 1981); Herbert Juin, Victor Hugo, vol. 2 (1844-1870) and vol. 3 (1870-1885) (Paris: Flammarion, 1984); Irving Gottesman, Schizophrenia Genesis: The Origins of Madness (New York: Freeman, 1989); and unpublished materials held by the Public Archives of Nova Scotia.
1802 Birth of Victor Hugo
1803 Birth of Adèle Foucher
1822 Marriage of Adèle Foucher and Victor Hugo
Eugène Hugo goes mad
1823 Birth and death of Leopold Hugo
1824 Birth of Léopoldine Hugo
1826 Birth of Charles Hugo
1828 Birth of François-Victor Hugo
1829 Hugo family lives at 11, rue Notre-Dame des Champs
1830 Hugo family moves to 9, rue Jean-Goujon in the Champs-Elysées
Birth of Adèle Hugo
1837 Death of Eugène Hugo
1843 Death of Léopoldine Hugo Vacquerie
1848 Hugos live in an apartment at 6, Place-Royale, then move to 4, rue d’Isly briefly, finally lodge at 37, rue de la Tour-d’Auvergne
1852 Victor Hugo and family go into exile on Jersey, Channel Islands
Adèle first hears about Albert Pinson
1854 Adèle meets Pinson
1856 Hugo family deported from Jersey; move to Guernsey
1863 Adèle Hugo runs away to Halifax
1866 Adèle follows Pinson to Barbados
1868 Death of Adèle Foucher Hugo
1871 Death of Charles Hugo
1872 Adèle brought back from Barbados and incarcerated at Maison Rivet, Paris
1873 Death of François-Victor Hugo
1887 Death of Victor Hugo
Adèle moved to Château de Suresnes, Paris
1915 Death of Adèle Hugo
I’m creative, sensitive. I believe in mysteries, magic, rainbows, and full moons. I wonder why it’s expected that I be quieted, medicated, whenever it seems I’m stepping out of the boundaries of “reality”.… Music…envelopes me and becomes alive, breathing high and low notes, and I’m floating on the movement.
— a schizophrenia sufferer1
Adèle Hugo was the youngest child of French literary hero Victor Hugo, then the world’s most famous writer. She began her life in the most brilliant company; Europe’s celebrated artists, musicians and writers regularly visited the Hugo home. Adèle knew Paganini, Rossini, Clésinger, Lamartine, Dumas, Balzac and many others. She herself was an accomplished pianist, composer and writer, and her beauty astounded many — Balzac wrote that he had never seen any woman as attractive as the thirteen-year-old Adèle. The young woman who was already at ease sharing her ideas with Europe’s best seemed destined to make a magnificent marriage and lead an equally interesting life.
But somewhere along the line, everything went terribly wrong. The spectre of mental illness, which had ruined the life of her uncle Eugène while enhancing her father’s creativity, reared its ugly head. The quiet, pious Adèle became unhappy and defiant and remained resolutely unmarried despite many proposals from some of Europe’s most eligible bachelors. Tormented by her growing mental instability, Adèle yearned to escape what had become a stifling life. She chafed under the strictures applied to unmarried women and lamented that she could not even go out to buy a newspaper unchaperoned.
In 1863, at the age of thirty-three, Adèle took matters into her own hands. She ran away from home. Her goal was Halifax, where her former lover, an English officer named Albert Andrew Pinson, was garrisoned. When Pinson had proposed marriage to Adèle, she had refused, but later, when she changed her mind, Pinson would have none of it. Pinson’s brutal rejection plunged Adèle into despair. Eventually, she succumbed to what was then termed madness.
In 1866, Pinson’s regiment was transferred to Barbados; Adèle followed. When he and his regiment left in 1869, Adèle, by then hopelessly demented, stayed on, unaware of his departure. She wandered the streets in rags and was finally taken in by a local woman. It was not until 1872 that the mentally and physically broken Adèle was finally brought back to Paris. Her independence had come at the price of her sanity, and, on the advice of doctors, Victor Hugo had his daughter committed to an insane asylum.
The order denying Adèle her liberty was never rescinded, even upon Hugo’s death in 1885. She lived for thirty more years behind asylum walls, albeit in considerable style, until she died in 1915. It was a sad end for the high-spirited, sensitive and intelligent woman.
While Adèle sat cocooned inside her pavilion, wild tales began to spring up about her and her earlier adventures. Even her own experiences could not match the unsubstantiated stories of her past recounted in her father’s obituary in the New York Times. In the article, no fewer than three versions of Adèle’s life were advanced: Adèle was either kidnapped by an English officer or married him against her parents’ wishes; she then travelled to Nova Scotia with her new husband, where he died. Or, Adèle and her husband were posted to India; he beat her, their two children died in infancy, and her husband committed suicide; Adèle made her way to Singapore where she became a vagrant; some sympathetic strangers found her, dirty and in rags, and when she announced she was Victor Hugo’s daughter they saw to it that she was sent home. Or, stated the Times, “As a girl she was kidnapped at Guernsey by an English officer. All Europe was searched for her by her parents, but they obtained no trace of her whereabouts. Several months later a girl found wandering alone in the streets of New York, apparently demented, declared, ‘I am the daughter of Victor Hugo.’ This was the only statement she ever made.” This event allegedly took place years after Adèle’s experiences in India and Singapore.2
Perhaps the only grain of truth the Times journalist managed to uncover was that eccentricity was not unknown in the Hugo family. The newspaper blamed Hugo himself for fostering this trait. He was, the Times claimed, the “enemy of discipline and subordination” and probably spent little time on his children’s moral instruction. “It is unlikely that he did more than urge upon them the importance of liberty and the brotherhood of man, and to trust his wife to keep them away from his literary labours.”3 While it is true that Hugo was a great defender of freedom of speech and collective liberty, his refusal to grant his own daughter even the smallest personal freedoms, and the rigours of his moral instruction to his children while he himself behaved in quite the opposite manner, infuriated Adèle. His inability to recognize in his daughter anything more than a marriageable female — rather than seeing her as a talented musician, composer and writer — contributed to the tragedy her life became.
An article occasioned by Victor Hugo’s death in the Halifax Morning Herald tells a fuller story, one that is somewhat less fanciful because it originated with a Halifax lawyer, Robert Motton, Jr., Q.C. Adèle had retained Motton, who was about her own age, in her never-ending battle to try to force Albert Pinson to marry her. Theirs had been a purely professional relationship; nonetheless, Motton felt it was his duty to protect Adèle’s memory from the inquisitive Halifax Morning Herald reporter who came to his office hoping for an anecdote about the Hugo family, and particularly about the mysterious Hugo daughter.
Motton knew there were several sides to Adèle’s unusual story, and he picked one which he felt would do the least damage to his former client. “I knew Adèle Hugo well,” he said, leaning back in his leather-padded chair. “She told me her story several times. But of course, professional honour requires that I shall not divulge her story.” The reporter saw the tale of Adèle Hugo’s secret life slipping away; he half-rose to leave.
Motton motioned him to sit down again. “I shall be happy to give you an outline of it as she often told it to others — to the lady with whom she boarded in Halifax, and to other friends; a story the accuracy of which I have no reason to doubt.” Sticking his thumbs firmly in his waistcoat, and leaning a little farther back in his comfortable chair, Motton began his tale:
When Victor Hugo was exiled from France, he lived for a while in Brussels. A wealthy English family named Pinsen4 lived there at the same time. The two families became intimate, and the poet’s youngest daughter, Adèle, fell in love with a son of the Pinsens. It became an infatuation. They became engaged. But Hugo was in exile and in poverty and the Pinsens did not favour an alliance of their family wealth with the brains of a Hugo. It seems, however, that the young couple went through a sort of secret marriage, and Pinsen promised in due time to publicly marry Adèle in an English church. In due course he purchased a commission in the army and was gazetted a lieutenant in the sixteenth regiment. The regiment was ordered to Halifax, and he wrote to Adèle telling her of the fact, saying that he would take her to Halifax as his wife and requesting her to meet him in London where they would be publicly married. Victor Hugo and his wife would not listen to any such proposition, and insisted that if Pinsen wanted to marry, he must come to their home and marry as any other man would. But Adèle was madly infatuated with him, and insisted on going to London as he desired. Finally she got her way and her mother accompanied her to the British metropolis. When they arrived they found that Pinsen had left for Halifax with his regiment. It looked very much as if he had deserted Adèle.
Motton was a popular after-dinner speaker and well known for his dexterity in telling tall tales. He continued as the fascinated reporter sat with his mouth agape, pencil scratching feverishly on his notepad:
She was a remarkably handsome woman, tall and well built, with a Roman nose, wavy jet black hair, piercing black eyes, and dark complexion. She wrote a beautiful hand, almost like copperplate, and spent a good deal of time writing — accumulating a large pile of manuscript while here. On one occasion she offered it to me, saying, “Publish it some day; you will startle the world and make a fortune.” I have been sorry many times that I did not accept the manuscript.5
Unbeknownst to the reporter, most of Motton’s tale was untrue.
Adèle and her story were largely forgotten until 1892, when an article in the Athenaeum, a London review, cited the discovery of two thousand pages of Diary of Exile, ascribed to Victor Hugo. That same year, other articles appeared in Scribner’s and Le Figaro discussing the marvellous Diary, which so cleverly traced events and personages of Hugo’s years in exile. Upon closer examination, cracks began to appear in the theory that the journal had been kept by Hugo himself; one theory, advanced in an 1896 article, was that the diary was the rough draft of Mme Hugo’s biography of her husband. It was not until 1952, when René de Messières, cultural counsellor with the French Embassy in New York, gave a talk at Harvard University, titled “The Journal of Exile of Adèle Hugo,” that Adèle’s authorship was recognized.
In 1950, a box of papers was deposited by the Hugo family at the Victor Hugo Museum in Paris; the documents had been found in a drawer of a bureau sold by Julie Foucher Chenay, Mme Hugo’s sister, who was responsible for putting Hauteville-House (the Hugo home in Guernsey) in order following Victor Hugo’s death. These were what remained of Adèle’s papers, including parts of her secret journal. Julie Foucher had evidently thrown away the rest of Adèle’s papers; she had made a draft and a final copy of most of her writing.
Some of Adèle’s journal was acquired by American millionaire J.P. Morgan for the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City sometime between 1896 and 1905. Her manuscripts were said to be among Morgan’s first purchases for the library, acquired from a London dealer. Closer examination revealed that the Pierpont Morgan Library would often be in possession of her final copy while the Victor Hugo Museum would have the draft, and vice versa. From 1926 until his death in 1956, Professor Frederick Hoffherr of Columbia University worked to decipher these journals, which Adèle had written in an idiosyncratic code; he was not allowed to publish his work.
In 1962, the Pierpont Morgan Library acquired from the personal library of Marc Loliée of Paris three sheaves of paper totalling one hundred pages, which had also formed part of Adèle’s journal. These documents had been found between the pages of a sixteenth-century Geneva Bible owned by a chair repairman; he had sold them to the French diplomat Jean Delalande, and M. Delalande in turn eventually sold the papers to M. Loliée.
Lastly, a typewritten transcription of hitherto unknown pages of Adèle’s diary, translated into English, was discovered at the Victor Hugo Museum; the original pages were never found.
In the early 1950s, Professor Frances Vernor Guille began working on the manuscript, rendering its many encoded words and passages into a readable text. Her faithful reconstruction of Adèle’s Journal of Exile was first published in 1968 as Le Journal d’Adèle Hugo, Volume 1.6 Guille began to divulge the hitherto murky details of Adèle’s tragic life. That first volume of Adèle’s diaries covered only 1852; the second, published in 1971, covered 1853; the third, published in 1984, covered 1854. Sadly, Guille’s plans for a fourth volume were cut short by her death, leaving more diaries and other of Adèle’s papers still undeciphered.
Adèle’s journal actually appears to be two works. In the first, she compulsively recorded almost verbatim the daily events and conversations in the Hugo household. Guille’s three books, consisting of these records, have been an invaluable aid to biographers of Victor Hugo, thanks to Adèle’s precise recording of conversations between her father and other socially, politically and artistically prominent people of the time, as well as his views on widely diverse topics. In the second, secret, diary, Adèle confided her innermost thoughts in a kind of code. To further complicate matters, it would appear that Adèle scribbled her thoughts on whatever paper was at hand rather than in a bound journal. Sample pages from these diaries show how, in her precise handwriting, she inverted words to form anagrams and substituted abbreviations and initials for names. In some cases, someone else has corrected her manuscript, rendering it almost illegible, with words scratched out and comments written in the margins. Often, Adèle wrote quite dissimilar entries in her two diaries on the same day — one public, and one private; or she did not date her entries at all, making reconciliation of events and chronology difficult for her posthumous readers.
In 1969, French film director François Truffaut chanced to read Guille’s strange-but-true tale of Adèle, and he instantly saw her story’s potential as a film. Yet it was not until 1975 that he was able to realize his vision. That year, L’Histoire d’Adèle H. (or The Story of Adèle H., as the English version was titled) was released, with Isabelle Adjani in the title role. Although the film focuses mostly on Adèle’s three-year stay in Halifax, it departs from Guille’s painstaking research on numerous points, often sacrificing historical fact in favour of romantic fiction. The departures are unnecessary, for in the life of Adèle Hugo, truth is far stranger than fiction. Henri Guillemin’s L’Engloutie deals with the tragedy of Adèle, and she figures peripherally in numerous biographies and critical treatments of Victor Hugo and his work. Some Canadian and American magazine and newspaper articles, ranging from prosaic to wildly speculative, also attempt to unravel the mystery and madness of Adèle.
The life of Adèle’s lover, Albert Andrew Pinson, remains largely unknown, save for the emotion-charged ramblings of Adèle’s diary and the unflattering opinions of colleagues and journalists. His officer’s service records, which would have provided additional and, perhaps, less biased insight into the man, have not survived. Nor have any of his letters. His motives, like his personality, remain as hidden as his origins. Much of what is contained in these pages regarding Pinson has had to be reconstructed through guesswork and second-hand accounts, placing Pinson in the unhappy position of being unable to defend himself. Adèle Hugo, in effect, rejected a nineteenth-century French value system which excluded women at best and, at worst, rendered them nothing more than the chattel of their fathers and husbands. Despite her great ability to contribute to society, there were few places within that society for her. Although other women of her time did manage to succeed and even triumph over the odds against them, Adèle was in many ways less fortunate than her bold sisters. Although possessed of a superior intellect, she lacked their emotional single-mindedness. Like most people who have been long dominated and suppressed, she ultimately failed to surmount the many obstacles in her path to freedom. And her mental illness and finally her incarceration made effective action impossible. In some ways the story of Adèle Hugo is the story of all women past and present, whom a patriarchal culture has reduced to their base value as brides, wives and mothers. Like all frustrated and oppressed women, Adèle wanted most of all to be free.
1. From: Schizophrenia Genesis: The Origins of Madness by Irving Gottesman. Copyright © 1989 by W.H. Freeman and Company. Reprinted with permission, p.48.
2. Anon., “The Tragedy of Hugo’s Daughter,” New York Times (May 2, 1915), .Sec. V, p.20.
3. “The Tragedy of Hugo’s Daughter,” p.20.
4. The surname of Adèle’s lover is spelled Pinson, Pinsen, and Penson by different writers. Pinson is the preferred spelling, since it is the one used in his own and his relatives’ army records. However, in quotations, the alternate spellings will appear without comment.
5. “A Romantic Story of the visit to Halifax of Adèle, the favorite daughter of Victor Hugo,” Halifax Morning Herald (May 27, 1885), p.3.
6. Frances Vernor Guille, Le Journal d’Adèle Hugo, Vol. 1 (1852) (Paris: Minard, 1968); Vol. 2 (1853) (Paris: Minard, 1971); Vol. 3 (1854) (Paris: Minard, 1984). All translations from these volumes are my own.
“Dédé,” sketched by Adèle Foucher Hugo, 1933 (Musées de la Ville de Paris)
Like alms, child, offer then your prayer
To your father, to your mother, to the fathers of your father.
— Victor Hugo, “La Prière pour tous”1
Mme Adèle Hugo lay gasping on her bed. The curtains had been drawn and, despite the heat, the windows were tightly closed. Periodically, the reverential quiet of the room was punctuated by her groans and by the sounds of shot scraping across the roof tiles overhead.
It was July 28,1830. Outside, the three-day revolution later known as Les Trois Glorieuses was only half over. Shops were closed, streets barricaded and printing plants taken over by gendarmes. From the rooftops, young insurgents pelted police street patrols with garbage; the police and their military reinforcements fired back. Despite the relative isolation of the Hugos’ rented home at 9, rue Jean-Goujon in the Champs-Elysées, the family found itself in the thick of the action. Only two days before, the setting had been bucolic. The Champs-Elysées, full of woods and parkland, was a popular picnic and recreation spot for Parisians. But then the former cow pasture erupted into violence.
Inside the house, a drama of equal concern to the Hugo family was unfolding. For the moment, the family consisted of Mme Hugo; its patriarch, the poet, novelist and playwright Victor Hugo; their six-year-old daughter Léopoldine (called Didine); and their sons, Charles, four (known as Chariot), and François-Victor, two (nicknamed Toto). As a cloud of gunsmoke floated by the windows of Mme Hugo’s room, another member of the Hugo family entered the world with a lusty cry. Named after her twenty-nine-year-old mother, Adèle (Dédé) was the Hugos’ fifth and last child. Their first, Leopold, had lived just three months.
Hugo could not have asked for a more dramatic moment; it was the stuff of his own melodramatic plays. “My wife was in labour while the shot was breaking the slates on our roof,” Hugo wrote excitedly to his friend and fellow poet Alphonse de Lamartine shortly after the event.2 Hugo seemed unable to decide whether his proximity to the conflict or the birth of his daughter was the more noteworthy.
Les Trois Glorieuses broke out in the wake of elections held on June 23 and July 3, which had given a large majority to the opposition party. On July 7, King Charles X suspended freedom of the press, dissolved the Chamber of Deputies and changed the electoral laws. On July 26, the day after the changes became law, Liberal journalists signed a petition of protest. On the night of July 27-28, Republican students and workers declared that insurrection was the only solution. Most Parisians agreed; they hated Charles X.
On Adèle’s birthday, the students and workers and their supporters quickly erected barricades throughout central and eastern Paris. The rebels, with borrowed rifles, attacked the Swiss Guard station, the Palais-Bourbon and City Hall. By the final day of Les Trois Glorieuses, July 29, some two hundred soldiers and eight hundred rebels had been killed. The king, who had not left his palace at Sainte-Cloude, finally agreed to revoke his ordonnances, but it was too late. By the time the uprising ended, Charles X had been deposed and the popular Louis-Philippe installed as the new king of France.3
Mme Hugo had never expected to give birth in the middle of a revolution. The family had only recently moved to the not-yet-fashionable Champs-Elysées district. The change in households, when Mme Hugo was seven months pregnant, was made not by choice but by necessity. The Hugos had been evicted from their apartment at 11, rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs because their beleaguered landlord would no longer put up with the constant comings and goings of friends, foes and family. The Hugos could not disturb the neighbours at their new address; theirs was the only house on the street.
Much of the commotion which their landlord had found so disruptive had come in the wake of the premiere of Hugo’s latest and most scandalous play, Hernani. It was not the content of the play that was so objectionable, but its form. Hernani seemed to embody the upstart Romantic movement’s unconventional and naturalistic philosophy of literature. The play pitted Victor Hugo and his not inconsiderable band of supporters against the staid and inflexible Classicists — better known as the chauve-têtes to their irreverent young detractors. Every time the curtain rose on Hernani there was literally a battle for seats between the two groups — one intending to cheer what it felt was a masterful production, the other to jeer at this travesty.
Soon after the tumult of Adèle’s birth, the Hugos found themselves in the middle of another crisis, this time a personal one. Their marriage was rapidly deteriorating, and the catalyst was Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869). A devotee of the Romantic movement and member of the Académie française, Sainte-Beuve’s output included literary histories such as Port-Royal, Portraits littéraires and Causeries du lundi.
When Hugo was apprised of the love affair between his wife and this close family friend, whom he had perceived until now as a rather stodgy old bachelor (Sainte-Beuve was, in fact, only two years his senior), he had no cause to doubt the news: it had come from Sainte-Beuve himself. The affair had begun innocently enough. Mme Hugo had long enjoyed the company and conversation of the popular Sainte-Beuve, but his gentle attentions soon turned more ardent. Mme Hugo found his concern for her well-being moving and very unlike the mostly sexual attentions of her spouse. What Sainte-Beuve lacked in charisma he more than made up for in genuine tenderness and sincere emotion. Unlike her self-centred husband, Sainte-Beuve was also interested in Mme Hugo’s opinions and intellectual musings; his ability to listen and absorb information was one of his strengths. If the truth be known, the cerebral and highly-educated Sainte-Beuve could write rings around Hugo, who was better at passionate verbosity than at well-reasoned argument. Drama critics later accused Hugo of being too calculating in using the drama of life as mere fodder for his plays.
The affair between Mme Hugo and Sainte-Beuve was at its most intense in 1830 and 1831, and so the whispers began that the critic, not the poet, was the father of the newest addition to the Hugo brood. Indeed, Sainte-Beuve had so successfully insinuated himself into the family that Hugo immediately and innocently chose him as Adèle’s godfather. He later regretted his impetuosity, but Sainte-Beuve couldn’t have been more grateful. When she was baptised on September 19, 1830, in the church of Sainte-Philippe-du-Roule, it was Sainte-Beuve, the man who considered himself Adèle’s spiritual father (if not her biological one) who held her tiny head over the font. Sainte-Beuve would later write that baby Adèle was “pure, and containing nevertheless something of me.”4
Sainte-Beuve would not keep his feelings secret. Tormented by his futile love for Adèle senior, and often astonished at the shabby treatment Hugo meted out to her, Sainte-Beuve finally told his friend of his feelings for his wife. Although their friendship did not break off immediately, it naturally dwindled. Hugo was especially wounded when he received from the critic some of his wife’s ardent letters. “You are the person I have most loved,” she had written to Sainte-Beuve, “and I do not except my children.” She did not mention her husband.
Enraged and hurt, Hugo forced his wife to choose between himself and Sainte-Beuve. She was a pragmatic woman, so she chose Hugo. She undoubtedly was thinking of her children, but perhaps she also reflected on her early, forbidden love for Victor; perhaps she hoped that the episode might somehow precipitate a return to those halcyon days. Sainte-Beuve, for his part, wrote that little Adèle was the bond between him and Mme Hugo, whom Victor no longer permitted him to see. “Through her, I love you still, and all shadow of hate is erased in the memory her presence brings,” he wrote.5 For Hugo, the child symbolized his worst suspicions about his wife.
Hugo had been a tender and ardent courtier of his childhood sweetheart, the beautiful Adèle Foucher, and the fate that had had a hand in bringing them together in the first place may have helped keep them together through thick and thin. Their marriage had been jokingly foretold even before their births by Hugo’s father, Leopold. Leopold Hugo, then an army officer, and Sophie Trébuchet were married, followed into matrimony three weeks later by their good friends Pierre Foucher and Anne-Victoire Asseline (who would later become the parents of Adèle Foucher). At the Foucher’s wedding breakfast, Leopold raised his glass high in a toast to his friend and exclaimed, “It is my wish that you should quickly have a girl. I will have a boy and we will marry them.” Twenty-five years later, the promise came true, but not without a great deal of patience and perseverance on the part of the young lovers.
Victor and Adèle had first met in 1809, at Les Feuillantines, the Paris home of Victor’s mother, Sophie Trébuchet Hugo. Victor was seven years old; his bride-to-be was six.