Victor Hugo: the humiliation of exile and Adèle’s madness

In this series of articles I’m going through the sad events of Victor Hugo’s life, a dark “behind the scenes” of his shiny career, characterized by the constant siege of pain and misfortune.

The tragic loss of the most beloved daughter, Léopoldine (1843), was overwhelming for both the Hugos who, after years, were finally sharing something again, as much as horrible it was.

(Read about Léopoldine’s tragic destiny in the previous article: Victor Hugo and the Lost Love.)

The last letter that Léopoldine got from her father (25th August 1843) where he tells her about his travel through the Pyrenees, with a small drawing of the landscape, proof that Hugo was also a passionate illustrator.

Madame Adèle Hugo, until that day a prolific portrayer, since that tragic day never painted anymore.
The author of Nôtre-Dame-de-Paris himself, for three years, couldn’t pick up the pen. But writing was the only way he could translate the dark surges of his soul and so, desperately looking for some relief, Victor Hugo went back to his desk.

If God didn’t want to put an end
To the work that he made me begin
If he still wants that I use my hand
He should have left her here with me
Pauca Meae (‘Qualche verso’, 1846)

A year after those wrath-filled verses, a calmer Hugo composed the sweet and heartbreaking lines of Demain, dès l’aube (Tomorrow, at dawn), the most vibrant expression of his grief.

Read the poem in: The grief for a daughter’s loss becomes poetry.”

Between the lovers who comforted the poet’s loneliness, just one will stand by his side until the end: her name was Juliette Drouet (1806-1993) and she was an actress.
This companion of life and misfortune dedicated herself to Victor – her beloved Toto – with a devotion that made her endure way more than human patience should, as we will see.

Juliette Drouet
Juliette Drouet, the true “spouse” of Victor Hugo.

To get a better idea of what I am talking about, we have to remember that Victor Hugo, French literature’s brightest exponent, spent on his dear homeland’s soil quite a small amount of time.
In 1851, the French President, Charles-Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – grandson of the most famous Napoleon – true to his family’s tradition, seized power with a coup.

Victor Hugo, who had initially been one of his most keen supporters, felt betrayed and, believing the freedom of his Country to be in danger, openly opposed him, and was suddenly forced to choose between jail or exile.

Napoleone III di Francia
Charles-Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte who became Emperor of the French with the name of Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870.

With his family – and Juliette in tow! – Hugo lived for a period in Belgium and then he transferred relatives, lover, pen, paper and inkpots to Guernsey Island, a godforsaken piece of land in the Channel.

Victor Hugo Guernesy
Victor Hugo in Guernsey (photo from Priaulx library website).

Hugo would have lived twenty years far from his homeland, another heavy hit on his heart.

It can’t be said that Madame Hugo was happy, indeed.
Juliette, on the other hand, was madly in love and didn’t hesitate one instant to follow her Toto who, for her, had rented a home on the island, not far from the one where his family lived.

Victor himself thought and put together his and Juliette’s bizarre home furniture. He took strange pieces found around antiquaries and merchants, and with the help of local artisans, the two houses became strange mélanges of other times’ memories. As you can see.

Cineserie Hugo
The home furnishings that Hugo created to design his and Juliette’s houses in Guernsey has a personal and eclectic taste, for the moderate modern horror vacui… but at the time, the middle-class houses looked more like private museums than comfortable homes. Some of the furniture has been preserved in the Maison Hugo in Place de Vosges in Paris and, for the more adventurous, the Guernsey house, where the writer lived, is open to the public, with its well-preserved treasure of flashy furniture.


The morally unacceptable double-life that Hugo led in Guernsey, dividing his time between wife and lover – even if loverS would be more correct! -, had a baleful effect on his last daughter’s life, Adéle.
Shunned by the other “decent” women of the island, Adéle was forced to spend her days in solitude, or mostly with her two brothers and her mother.
Such a beautiful woman in her prime, curious, with her pristine artistic sense and thirst for life, couldn’t subside to such a “nunnery” life.

Hugo e le due Adèle
Victor Hugo in the middle, his wife on the right and his melancholic daughter Adéle on the left.

Barely twenty-years-old, Adéle – whose melancholic disposition appeared, and never really left her, after the loss of her older sister Léopoldine – had been taken away from the shining mundane Parisian life. In the capital, the young girl could have found endless distraction, and have her literary, artistic and musical talent – not to mention her beauty – appreciated.
In Guernsey, days were grey, empty and boring.

How to marvel at her need for freedom?
As soon as the occasion raised, the young woman grasped desperately at her only way out: soldier Albert Pinson, with whom she had hopelessly fallen in love and that she had decided to marry… pity that he wasn’t of the same opinion.

With today’s sensibility, the unfolding of the events of Adéle Hugo’s sad life is natural and understandable, but we can’t ignore the importance of the historical and cultural period she lived in.
In the XIX century – and all the centuries before – an unmarried woman was under the tutelage – or rather she was a possession – of her father, and he was due her total and complete submission and obedience.

Adèle Hugo
Adèle Hugo

To follow true love and freedom’s dream, Adéle dared to defy this supreme law and did what her mother – who, ironically, had the same name – never had the guts to do: escape Monsieur Hugo’s cumbersome presence.

When she was 33, after ten years of solitary life, the desperate woman secretly left for Canada after Pinson, following him in the Antilles after that.
It was a heavy blow for her parents.
Madame Hugo stopped writing and died years later without ever seeing the beloved daughter again, blaming her husband above all things for this deprivation.

But the “happy tidings” of the Hugo family, true champions of tragic-romantic destinies, aren’t over yet!

After her escape, Adéle’s story is covered in mystery.
What we know for certain is that, ten years later, Adéle went back to her family – who had gone back to France in the meantime – and that Pison was married to another woman.
Waiting for the poor girl there wasn’t forgiveness, but thirty years in an asylum.

Adéle Hugo, the madwoman, who wanted to write a book about the liberation of women, passed from jail to another for her whole existence.

(I dare you to read the last, melancholic episode: Victor Hugo: from celebration parades to the procession of grieves)