Today, guest blogger Elizabeth Caulfield Felt, author of Syncopation: A Memoir of Adèle Hugo, introduces us to the fascinating title character and discusses the questions she dealt with in writing her novel.—Kim
Adèle Hugo was the youngest child of French poet, playwright, and politician Victor Hugo. To the French, Victor Hugo is George Washington and Mark Twain and Martin Luther King Jr. all rolled into one. In America, he is known best for his novels Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Outside France, Victor’s daughter Adèle is not known at all. In France, she is known merely as “that crazy daughter” of Victor Hugo.
But was she crazy? In 1872, Adèle was admitted to the Maison de Madame Rivet, an expensive and discreet sanitorium where wealthy Parisians hid their mentally ill relatives. A few months earlier, Adèle had been found in Bridgetown, Barbados, wandering the streets, incoherent, by a woman who realized that she was the daughter of the famous Victor Hugo. Madame Céline Alvarez Baa took in Adèle, cared for her, and helped transport her to Paris, where Adèle was placed in the insane asylum.
In writing Syncopation: A Memoir of Adèle Hugo, I played with the idea that Adèle was not insane. Instead, I saw her as eccentric, rebellious, and completely unsuited for the life forced upon her as a 19th century Frenchwoman. By making this decision, was I thwarting history? Had I left the realm of historical authenticity?
I did my research, reading and re-reading the wonderful biography of Adèle Hugo, cleverly titled La Misérable, written by Leslie Smith Dow. I studied a published version of one of Adèle’s own journals, which allowed me access to the real Adèle’s voice and ideas.
In many ways, Adèle was ahead of her time, and decisions her peers did not understand do not seem so strange to us in the 21st century. But even so, at many points in her life, Adèle Hugo did behave oddly. The magic of being a writer is to look at those times and think, “What would make a sane person behave in such a way?” and then create the event or circumstance that would indeed have a sane person behaving oddly.
One of the things that has puzzled me about Adèle Hugo isn’t her sanity but her beauty. In everything written about her as a girl and young woman, people focus on her beauty. Balzac called her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, like a statue from antiquity. Juliette Drouette described Adèle as both sweet and ravishing. And yet the portraits and photographs that exist of Adèle do not show a lovely woman. Her face is the opposite of attractive, looking pained and unhappy without the softness that might create sympathy.
Have human sensibilities for beauty changed in the past 200 years? Or was Adèle purposefully making herself ugly when someone tried to capture her image? French director Francois Truffaut cast Isabelle Adjani as Adèle Hugo in his 1975 film L’Histoire d’ Adèle H. Imitating Balzac, I would say that Isabelle Adjani is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I held the image of Isabelle in my mind as I created my Adèle.
Syncopation: A Memoir of Adèle Hugo
If you are interested in learning more about my novel Syncopation, please visit my blog at http://elizabethcaulfieldfelt.wordpress.com. If you’ve already decided it is a must-read, please order a copy from Cornerstone Press.
About Elizabeth Caulfield Felt
Elizabeth has a bachelor’s degree in French and English from Indiana University, a master’s in library and information science from Louisiana State University, and a master’s in teaching English from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where she currently teaches on a part-time basis. She is a coauthor of the children’s mystery The Stolen Goldin Violin, in which four, preteen Suzuki musicians have only their week at music camp to find a missing violin. Currently, Elizabeth is working on a historical mystery series which takes place in 1880s London, pairs a Victorian actress and a European aristocrat to solve crimes, and features Oscar Wilde as a recurring minor character.